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It took Tuesday’s D.C. Council vote on contraceptive coverage in insurance plans to lay bare the autocratic bent of Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.), who chairs the House’s D.C. appropriations subcommittee. For nearly two years, the conservative congressman has defied tradition by fashioning a decent working relationship with his District government colleagues. But an Istook tirade on Wednesday morning made it clear that Washingtonians should not confuse his courtesy toward city officials with respect for local democracy.
Istook’s predecessors have typically chosen more momentous issues to showcase their hostility to D.C. self-government. For Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), it was the District’s lack of a death penalty. For Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.), it was the District’s campaign to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes. For former Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R-N.C.), it was, well, the mere existence of Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr.
Istook, meanwhile, is taking his stand over insurance requirements. Like many folks in town, the congressman started the day reading accounts of the council’s action on the contraceptive fight. After a three-hour-plus debate, the city’s legislature voted unanimously to require all local employers to cover the cost of contraceptives in insurance plans. The action also rejected an amendment that would have exempted religious institutions from the requirement—a loophole pushed furiously by the local Catholic Church.
In lobbying for the exemption during the lead-up to the vote, however, the church had run into a marble crypt in the person of Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham. Graham led the council charge against any dilution of the birth-control requirement, arguing that all District women deserved contraceptive coverage even if, say, they worked for a Catholic-owned-hospital bureaucracy. And he leaned on his experience locking horns with church biases against things such as condoms during his 15 years as executive director of the AIDS-fighting Whitman-Walker Clinic. During the debate, Graham inveighed against “surrendering decisions on public health matters to the church. I’ve spent years fighting church dogma.”
Istook interpreted those comments as justification for Congress’ two-century dominion over the nation’s capital. “The D.C. Council in the eyes of Congress and the nation damaged itself immensely yesterday, when it permitted a legitimate issue to become a forum for bashing religion,” he said at Wednesday’s subcommittee hearing on the city’s fiscal 2001 budget. “This was really a chapter that will linger in the memory of a lot of people for a great period of time,” continued the lawmaker, who accused the council of practicing “bigotry.”
Fair enough. Everyone has an opinion on Rome, especially a GOP stalwart endeavoring to banish his party’s anti-Catholic stigma.
Too bad Istook didn’t show as much concern for the party’s stigma as an opponent of D.C. political autonomy. The rhetoric that popped up during the contraceptive debate, Istook argued, was symptomatic of a city that “attracts political activists and special interests” who hijack the political system. Istook apparently doesn’t encounter those types in the halls of Congress.
On a roll, Istook fashioned a new interpretation of the Federalist Papers, conjecturing that the Founding Fathers established a federal protectorate in D.C. for the sole purpose of shielding the city from those activists and special interests. The corruption of D.C. politics, said the Oklahoman, is a “great concern that has been renewed by what happened at the D.C. Council yesterday.” Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.) endorsed Istook’s ramblings and upped the ante by proposing to overturn the council vote. “We ought to weigh options for correcting” the action, said Tiahrt.
Ah, yes: “correcting” misguided District initiatives and curing its vulnerability to “special interests.” Offensive remarks from the Hill are nothing new, but the colonial phraseology is always fascinating.
On this landmark day in the political humiliation of D.C., though, the remarks of our own elected officials were every bit as outrageous.
Presented with a chance to stick up for his constituents, D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams tore into a prolonged statement titled “From Management Reform to Performance Management.” After 10 minutes of digression on that gripping journey, Williams obliquely addressed Istook’s affront: “This is the capital of the United States, and as a symbol of democracy and the marketplace of ideas, it can be chaotic, but that’s part of democracy,” said the mayor.
Limp as that proclamation may sound, it may, in fact, mark progress for a mayor who has shown almost no passion for self-government.
Council Chairman Linda Cropp, meanwhile, showed again that she’ll apologize her way out of any bind—even when the civic pride of the entire city is on the line. Instead of making a bold stand for D.C.’s popular institutions, Cropp offered up her colleague, Graham, for sacrifice. “This was one minute or two minutes [of testimony] by one member of the council,” said Cropp, who reminded Istook that even the reputation of Congress occasionally hangs on “one member” who goes overboard. Absent from Cropp’s statement was any mention that Graham had been elected by D.C. voters in part for his expertise on public health or that he had staked out a principled stand on the matter. “It was not the majority of the council that took that position,” she said, referring specifically to the quotes that had set Istook off.
Memo to Cropp: When you go to the Hill, you’re speaking for the majority and the minority. And if Congressmen like Tiahrt use your apology as an excuse to overturn the council vote, they will indeed be overturning the majority.
During a break in proceedings before Cropp’s statement, LL asked the normally conciliatory chairman if it was time to take a more combative approach. “[Istook] has our budget before his committee,” replied Cropp.
After the hearing, LL asked Cropp why she had hung Graham out to dry. “I never mentioned his name,” she responded. Now that’s leadership.
THE DEATH PENALTY
When Mayor Williams this summer hatched his scheme to move D.C.’s Department of Motor Vehicles to Georgia Avenue, he talked about sending 250 city workers and scads of deep-pocketed motorists to a struggling neighborhood. Neighbors applauded. And back when Barry built the Reeves Center city office building at 14th and U Streets in 1986, the neighborhood reaction was much the same.
Now Graham is cooking up a plan to send the D.C. morgue to Sherman Avenue, near Howard University. This time, neighbors aren’t envisioning the civilizing impact of a noontime lunch crowd.
They’re envisioning dead people. And maybe toe tags.
“A morgue? That’s where people determine…whether someone who died is your friend. And if they find out that it is, they run out of there yelling and screaming,” says Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Sinclair Skinner, whose district encompasses the proposed relocation site.
Skinner would certainly prefer to reroute the bereaved to the doorstep of his councilmember, Graham, whom he blames for the proposal. By Skinner’s account, Graham recently advised him and other community types to keep the relocation plan under wraps for a few weeks—a request Skinner promptly disregarded. “They wanted to wait until they got everything in order,” says
The councilmember disavows any conspiracy to sneak the morgue into the neighborhood under the cover of darkness. “This is an extremely tentative situation,” says Graham, who pledges that any proposal will undergo a comprehensive community vetting. At the moment, he adds, “the elements of the transaction are not in place for even the purpose of proposing it.”
D.C. Chief Medical Examiner Jonathan Arden calls the Sherman Avenue perch a “very viable” proposal for his office, which he says has outgrown its 25-year-old facility on the campus of D.C. General Hospital. A forensic scientist by training, Arden sounds like a mayoral flack on the topic of the Ward 1 site. He dreams of a state-of-the-art scientific center alongside his office. “And should the plan come to fruition, we could have a public health lab in the same facility. We could have potentially 300 employees there,” he says.
The scenario doesn’t end there. Arden says he is working on a “number of ways to interact with Howard University.”
That argument isn’t likely to help the morgue’s cause. Ask Columbia Heights and LeDroit Park leaders what they think about Howard and it becomes clear that few of them are eager to do anything—let alone live next to a morgue—to help the university. “The Howard students are into drugs, into sex, and into liquor, and running drugs. They have sex buck-naked on Banneker Field,” says M.A. Doll Fitzgerald, a local advisory neighborhood commissioner.
* Longtime Ward 4 politico Norm Neverson was elected chair of the Democratic State Committee last month in large part for his devotion to Mayor Williams. As political junkies learned long ago, Neverson is the guy who shows up at events and yells, “To-ny!” in support of his patron at One Judiciary Square.
As Williams’ premier community politician, Neverson was a logical choice to lend his stentorian voice to the mayor’s citywide campaign to turn out the “yes” vote in the June 27 school-reform referendum. Neverson did indeed offer to spearhead the mayor’s campaign—for a price.
Neverson last month requested a $50,000 contract to lead the “yes” campaign throughout the city, according to two administration sources and one referendum proponent close to the mayor’s initiative. After the mayor’s folks rejected the request, the sources say, Neverson barely lifted a finger for the cause. “I mobilized forums across the city,” says Neverson, referring to the events at which the proposal was debated. Neverson received $7,500 in privately donated funds last fall to promote the mayor’s Neighborhood Action initiative.
Neverson terms allegations that he tried to profit from the referendum “ludicrous.” He says he never proposed to perform consultant services for the campaign. But he says that he has “talked with scores of people subsequent to the referendum and shared with them the need to do diversity training across the city.”
“In American democracy and this political process,” Williams told LL, “people are always asking for stuff—you just got to weigh it all.”
Whatever his relationship with the mayor, Neverson’s mixing of contracts and politics reflects a new reality in D.C. With the control board scrutinizing all meaningful city business, Williams couldn’t use the city treasury as a slush fund for cronies even if he wanted to. That situation leaves guys like Neverson seeking payoff for political favors out of funds contributed to mayoral causes by local companies. Neighborhood Action, for starters, ran on a $40,000 contribution from PEPCO, and the referendum campaign was stoked by more than $100,000 in donations from Virginia techies.
Perhaps there are a few bucks left over for some diversity training.
* Raymond Avrutis may never get elected to office in the District of Columbia, but the Ward 2 resident can at least say he doesn’t roll over for special interests. At Monday’s endorsement meeting of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, Avrutis and other Ward 2 council candidates were asked what they’d do for D.C. gays and lesbians, the club’s constituency. Avrutis responded by proclaiming that there are “two reasons people become gay.”
“One is poor fathering,” said Avrutis, who harped on the need to “teach people how to be parents.” He never specified the second reason. CP
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