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Few things matter in D.C. politics as much as race. Whether we like it or not, race often dictates the outcomes of votes on everything from school reform to D.C. Council contests to the allocation of the city’s $5 billion budget. That’s why everyone in the local political sceneelected officials, citizens, and journalistsshould exercise particular caution when it comes to this critical issue.
LL last week failed his readers in this most fundamental of missions. In an item about Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ influence in this fall’s elections, LL misstated the race of school board president candidate Peggy Cooper Cafritz. LL said she is white; she is, in fact, African-American. Any mistake of this ilk on the printed page is regrettable. In this case, however, it is doubly so, because the subject is a highly visible public figure who founded the Duke Ellington School for the Performing Arts and is familiar to nearly all those who monitor the D.C. political scene. Except for LL, of course.
Justifiably outraged readersnearly 50 of thempounded LL on voice mail and via other media as well. LL responded with personal apologies to all those who left phone numbers. Just for good measure, however, LL hereby apologizes to all those who faithfully turn to this page for the latest take on politics. A special apology is reserved for Cafritz herself, who is mounting a run for public office and shouldn’t have to deal with columnists who can’t get their facts straight.
SAVED BY THE BELL
Ward 5 resident Patricia Elam learned in the summer of 1998 that being a parent in the D.C. public schools guarantees no particular courtesy or deference from the folks in the schools’ central administration. Elam and several other parents at that time were struggling to save the Bethune-Woodson African-Centered School from extinction after failing to find suitable quarters for its expanding student population. The parents claimed that then-Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and her strong-willed deputy, Elois Brooks, had bounced Bethune-Woodson from one faulty facility to the next and appeared indifferent to the school’s survival.
Just before the start of the 1998 school year, Brooks offered to meet with the parents but specified just who could attend the session. When Brooks arrived at the meeting, recalls Elam, the lineup didn’t meet her specificationsso she turned on her heel and left. “‘I am out of here,’” Elam recalls Brooks saying. “If she was there more than five minutes or seven minutes, I’d be amazed.” The Bethune-Woodson School never reopened.
On Sept. 8, Brooks will leave the school systema parting that will close the curtain on the regime of Ackerman, who left her post July 17 to run San Francisco’s schools. Although Ackerman set school policy during her two-year tenure, it was Brooks who implemented that policy. It was Brooks who took the flak from disgruntled parents at community meetings. It was Brooks who returned the flak with a snarling mien that cleared an egress for her when the meetings were over.
And it is Brooks whose absence will make the new regime of Superintendent Paul Vance look like a model of cordiality and openness if he uses one simple device: smile.
“I didn’t get a warm sense from her,” says Audrienne Womack, who has six children in the school system and formerly taught at Langdon Elementary School. “I didn’t think she was very sympathetic to parents.”
That’s perhaps the mildest remark that LL has heard about Brooks.
The Brooks prototypea tough, brash deputy administrator who scares peoplecomes right out of Management 101 for poorly performing organizations. Allegedly reformist Mayor Williams, for example, started his administration with “pit bull” aide Max Brown, who kept the mayor’s allies in line before leaving for a job in the private sector. And Police Chief Charles Ramsey has his deputy, Terrance Gainer, a no-nonsense type whose get-in-line policies have drawn howls from the department’s laborites.
“Any time Ackerman was negotiating with the parents, especially if it was messy or ugly, it was Elois wielding the machete,” says schools activist Susan Gushue.
When Brooks wasn’t using her machete to decapitate pesky parents groups, she did manage to hack away at some of the bureaucratic underbrush choking the school system. For example, she shredded the backlog of students awaiting special education evaluations, ending a long-running management crisis that had prevented such kids from getting the attention they needed. And Brooks spearheaded the schools’ twice-yearly administration of Stanford 9 achievement testsa benchmark on which students have recently shown progress.
“She moved ahead with [the Stanford 9], for better or worse, and she started to be able to document progress across the city,” says Board of Education member Tonya Vidal Kinlow, who commends Brooks for her “aggressive” approach to school reform.
In her quest to improve test scores, Brooks also created a summer-school program virtually from scratch. “To go from nothing to a program of 25,000 kids is quite impressive,” says Mary Levy, a schools expert with Parents United for the D.C. Public Schools.
Most administrators with that kind of reform record would cultivate a mass following in a city like D.C. Brooks, however, pursued educational improvement with such unmitigated nastiness that her mass following would volunteer to help move her out of her downtown offices if she agreed to leave a few days early. “The trouble was,” says Levy, “that her record was offset by such demoralization.”
Although most parents say Brooks communicated her contempt for them just fine via her body language and tone of voice, documentary evidence of her sentiments also exists. Last year, for example, Brooks announced a new school system policy on volunteer and parent involvement in the classroom. Any parent or volunteer, said Brooks, would have to pay $25 for an FBI background check to lend any unpaid assistance. “You can imagine how many parents in the D.C. public schools are going to pay $25 just so they can help out in some way,” says Levy. The $25 fee is still on the school board’s books but has never been enforced.
And the rhetoric coming out of Brooks’ office forced parents to question whether the administration really believed in its slogan: “Children First.” In one of the bellwether school controversies of 1999, Brooks sided with the Metropolitan Baptist Church in its campaign to continue using the Garrison Elementary School ball field near Logan Circle as its designated parking lot. Even though the church members had turned the recreation area into a dust bowl useless to kids, Brooks thwarted efforts by Garrison parents to take back the field. She sounded like a spokesperson for the churchnot for childrenwhen she told the Washington Post the following: “For some of these children, the mentoring and tutoring and interaction with members of the church is more important than going out to kick a ball on that field.”
Later that year, Parents United held an awards ceremony at which the parents and children who had fought for the field were honored. As the honorees approached the podium, the crowd burst into applause. Brooks sat in front, expressionless.
Bumptious as she is, Brooks no doubt cares little that few D.C. residents will lament her departure from the D.C. public schools. The mistake that she made is assuming that all the folks who opposed her reform plans were entrenched ne’er-do-wells with a stake in the status quo. Certainly some of them were, but Brooks never bothered to make any distinctions. And that’s why so many are willing to trash her as she heads out the door.
“I can’t remember a meeting at which she was civil,” says parent Phil Blair. “I formally deny the rumor that we bought her a case of Alpo as a going-away present. Some of us have dogs we love.”
NORTON’S STRATEGIC PLAN
During the Democratic National Convention two weeks ago, D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton played the role of persnickety hall monitor for the delegation of District Dems who had made the trip to Los Angeles. Norton continuously badgered delegates to “stay in uniform”to wear the “Taxation Without Representation” T-shirts ginned up to remind the country of our orphaned political status. At one point, Norton even scolded Mayor Williams for wearing conventional, nonmessage clothing. “I asked him, ‘Where’s your uniform?’” recalls Norton. “And he did get into uniform.”
Norton herself, however, looked a touch hypocritical when she appeared on the podium on the closing night of the convention with presidential nominee Al Gore. There she was, smiling, waving to a national audience, wearing a plain old dress like any duly empowered elected official from, say, Iowa or Maine. And the reason for bagging the T-shirt sounds pretty weak coming from the city’s most principled politician: “When I was called on the phone and they said, ‘The vice president would like you on the podium,’ I had no staff person with me,” says Norton, who entrusted her assistants with lugging around the T-shirt. “I just didn’t have it with me.”
The delegate’s about-face on the T-shirt dress code helped convince fellow D.C.ers that Norton is leaving behind the provincial politics of the city and moving on to national prominence. “She’s gone,” says a councilmember who requested anonymity. “She’s going to get a cabinet appointment.”
It’s not hard to diagram the reasoning behind that projection. Norton’s juice with Gore flows through her own relationship with the presidential hopeful and through Gore campaign manager Donna Brazile, the delegate’s longtime congressional aide. And should Gore prevail in this nip-and-tuck campaign, he will be politically indebted to Norton. In Los Angeles, for example, Norton set up the soft landing of vice presidential nominee Joe Lieberman with the party’s black caucus. In addition to introducing Lieberman in his address to the group, Norton held one-on-one conversations with caucus members on Lieberman’s bona fides. “They didn’t know Joe Lieberman from Joe Blow. Nobody knew who in the hell he was,” says Norton.
Norton insists that she’s not planning to redeem her yeoman work on behalf of the Gore-Lieberman ticket for a position in the White House or a federal agency. “I’m not interested in any old cabinet post,” says the delegate.
Instead, says Norton, she’s scheming to parlay her clout into “virtual independence” for D.C. That means voting representation for city residents in Congress and an end to congressional oversight of the D.C. budget. And Norton says she can bring it about with a Democratic majority in either the House or the Senate.
But what about a cabinet post in which she’d be able to advance the District’s interests? “That would be important to look at, obviously,” says Norton. “But it’s hard for me to think what post it is [where] I could help the District more.”
•Although incumbent Ward 8 Councilmember Sandy Allen has hardly put together a juggernaut campaign this summer, her three challengers appear to have conceded the contest to her. How else can LL explain the absence of hopefuls Dion Jordan, Sandra Seegars, and Winifred Freeman from last Friday night’s annual Red and White Ball? According to event organizer Philip Pannell, the event sold tickets to 500 people, many of whom were Ward 8 voters and all of whom were potential campaign donors, muckety-mucks, and whatnot.
Jordan stayed away because he “had a prior engagement the next day and I didn’t want to be worn out.” Seegars says she had heard that Allen was scheduled to receive the Outstanding Ward 8 Democrat of the Year Award and wanted no part of that action. “I wasn’t going to sit through that,” says the candidate.
But Freeman’s alibi suggests that she may be the most unfit of the crowd for the gamesmanship of public office. Get this: Freeman maintains that an “Allen supporter” schemed to offer her a ride to the shindig and then never showed up, leaving her stranded at home. By the time she caught on to the machinations of the Allen campaign, Freeman says, “it was too late to come.” When asked about the alleged scheme, Allen replied, “I have to laugh.” CP
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