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This past March, members of the D.C. Emergency Transitional Education Board of Trustees—a body created by the control board in 1996—faced one of the more controversial decisions of their nearly four-year tenure. At issue was whether to convert Paul Junior High School into a charter school or keep it part of the traditional school system. As always, the trustees sided with D.C. Public Schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, who opposed the charter crusade by Northwest D.C. parents and argued that the school should remain a neighborhood institution open to all.
Control board Chair Alice Rivlin thought otherwise; she overruled the trustees and handed Paul Junior High to the charter folks.
At that point, the trustees had a few options. They could have picketed in front of the control board office, demanded a reversal of the decision, or just shut up and soldiered on. Instead, nearly all of the appointed members bagged the whole thing: They resigned. Oh, and they sent a whiny letter to the Washington Post’s Close to Home page. So much for our last stab at appointed school government.
Three months later, the city’s political establishment wants you, the voters of the District of Columbia, to indulge it in another experiment with unelected rule. Next Tuesday, June 27, the polls will open for a referendum on restructuring the city’s elected board of education, whose failings brought about the installation of the appointed trustees board in the first place. The scheme under consideration in the referendum would replace the 11-member elected board with a nine-member panel consisting of five popularly elected members and four appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the D.C. Council.
Backing for the “hybrid” panel comes from a familiar alliance: Mayor Anthony A. Williams, deep-pocketed businessmen representing the Federal City Council and its activist wing, D.C. Agenda, and a smattering of D.C. councilmembers.
Initiative opponents, though, have few titles and little power. In addition to the democracy stalwarts who can’t abide a rollback of citizens’ right to choose their own leaders, the campaign includes schools activists who see the proposal’s half-elected, half-appointed makeup as something guaranteed to further fracture responsibility for D.C.’s ailing schools. And some opponents just want to give Williams—whose campaign for a yes vote has been marred by financial and ethical irregularities—a well-deserved bloody lip.
“We’ve had to do a real grass-roots effort,” says referendum opponent Phil Pannell, who has stooped to propagandizing against the initiative on his telephone answering machine. “Call my home phone—that’s the type of tactics we have to employ.”
Along with Pannell’s message machine, referendum detractors have a few thousand dollars, some posters, and a lot of faith in democracy. In most municipal power clashes, those assets will buy you single-digit polling results and a whole bunch of second-guessing on Election Night. This time, though, referendum opponents have a slight chance. That’s because they are attacking the worst municipal notion since group homes for the mentally retarded.
And if you have any doubts as to why a hybrid board is a dog, just listen to the city’s premier politicos try to justify it:
* Williams: “We’re not going to get to our final destination…unless we take some risk.” (Could we have another platitude, Mr. Mayor?)
* D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton: “I have spent 10 years fighting home rule battles in this city. I wouldn’t support anything that violates democratic principles.” (Ah, the old resume trick.)
* (A tearful) D.C. Council Chairman Linda Cropp: “Children are our most precious, most precious beings….I call on the citizens of the District of Columbia to put children first.” (Cropp’s boldest statement since she stood up for Mom and apple pie.)
* Council Education Committee Chair Kevin Chavous: “If you vote yes, you’re going to get defined roles and responsibilities for board members.” (Oooh, a wonky turn from the charismatic Chavous.)
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There’s a sentiment lingering within the rhetoric that none of the measure’s proponents in officialdom have the guts to enunciate: “We no longer trust D.C. voters to elect competent people to the school board.” The closest anyone comes to this admission is Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson, who has said that the measure will give the council and the mayor a greater stake in the schools and enable them to appoint people with specific expertise to the board.
Well, D.C. has maxed out on government of the experts, by the experts, and for the ignorant masses. Recall, if you will, that Rivlin is an expert, she who anointed crony Valerie Holt to set back the District’s financial systems a few more years. Disgraced former Chief Management Officer Camille Cates Barnett was an expert; she did for D.C. agencies what Holt did for finance. Do-nothing former Inspector General Angela Avant was an expert. Gen. Julius Becton, whom the experts at the control board brought in to save the schools, was an expert.
Wanna seat those aces on the new school board?
Sure, experts have an upside. They know a lot and have long resumes. They dress well and carry themselves regally. They have cell phones, pagers, and Palm Pilots. But they also have little stake in D.C. affairs. That’s why they will resign en masse when one issue goes the wrong way.
“Since these people have such expertise,” says referendum opponent and Ward 8 Councilmember Sandy Allen, “why couldn’t they run and be elected?” Because that requires trudging through the summer heat for petition signatures, subjecting yourself to ad hominem attacks in candidate forums, and groveling for campaign money from people you don’t know. Like it or not, that gantlet spits out people who may be a touch petty, who may use the school board for political purposes, and who may be all too ready to fight with their peers.
Those very real tendencies burden elected school government with distasteful baggage—something LL won’t join some referendum opponents in ignoring. In its 30-year history, the D.C. Board of Education has resembled the U.S. Congress for its addiction to perks, the Israeli Knesset for its factionalism, and the British House of Lords for its irrelevance. Dropping four appointed members into the mix, however, will further poison its deliberations. If the goal is to reduce infighting, why introduce another fault line—elected vs. appointed—among members? And if the idea is to bring clearer lines of accountability, why give the mayor and the council just enough appointees to form a minority?
The answer to those questions, of course, is that the politicos at One Judiciary Square didn’t have the stomach to offer voters the real choice between an elected and an appointed school board. Instead, they gave us this hybrid—a mix, ultimately, between political cowardice and opportunism.
“Cowardice” and “opportunism,” of course, are words LL hoped never to throw at Williams. But as the mayor pushes for a yes vote, LL can think of no politician less deserving of victory. Voters awarded Williams a 66 percent blowout in 1998 largely for his reputation as a man of integrity. That reputation has been jolted over the past 18 months, but this campaign may have finally put it to rest. By using city employees to advance his political goals and by stinking up his initiative drive with sleazy money from the same favor-seekers who have always bought up city pols, Williams has shown himself to be just another hack: pushing bad ideas with bad reasoning and bad money.
GET A JOB
In deciding whether to take a shot at an at-large seat on the D.C. Council this year, Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. must make a few key calculations:
* Whether incumbent At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil’s strong endorsement from the Williams camp makes him a shoo-in in the Sept. 12 Democratic primary,
* Whether anyone aside from Ward 1 hyperactivist Lawrence Guyot will stand alongside Hizzoner at the podium when he announces his candidacy,
* Whether the mayor-for-life can endure the boredom of private citizenship any longer.
Anonymity and home life simply don’t suit the four-term mayor. In one of the final dramas of his reign, Barry in the spring of 1998 carried on a tortured public debate with himself over whether he’d seek a fifth term. The press recorded every twist—an obsession that pleased a mayor whose rule had effectively ended with the installation of the control board in the summer of 1995. In May 1998, Hizzoner finally called it quits in a highly publicized address that made one point clear: Spotlight fatigue wasn’t pushing him out of office.
For a guy used to 30-member security details and weekly press briefings, a faceless job in the private sector must have been nothing short of traumatic. In May 1999, Barry signed on as a consultant with the New York-based investment banking firm M.R. Beal & Co. There was no press conference, no backslapping photo-op, just a vague job description.
Barry’s primary role in the firm, according to sources close to the ex-mayor, is to drum up bond and investment-banking business in other cities. “He goes to conferences and talks to city managers and mayors about the services of M.R. Beal,” says a former Barry insider. And on his road trips to pitch the firm’s portfolio, Hizzoner leaves his own baggage—bloated budgets, cronyism, surly bureaucrats—at home. “In spite of his little difficulties,” says the Barry associate, “he is still highly regarded for the things he did in Washington in his first two terms. He knows finance, and people are willing to listen to him.”
Getting more concrete intelligence on Barry’s work with M.R. Beal is a lot like trying to get a straight answer out of former Barry press secretary Raymone Bain. “This is something I don’t want to participate in,” said CEO Bernard Beal when asked about his consultant’s performance. “I appreciate your interest in him.”
Barry doesn’t appear to share that sentiment. “I don’t want to discuss it,” he said before barking that he had to “go into a meeting.” (That’s what investment bankers do, after all.)
Hizzoner has also wrung some work out of the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the Nashville-based outfit that in recent years has sought to build a private prison in Ward 8. Barry lobbied in favor of the project but failed to save it from a thumbs-down vote by the D.C. Zoning Commission. Eugene Dewitt Kinlow, who led the fight against the prison, says CCA remains committed to building the facility in D.C. and is relying on Barry for advice. “I don’t see him, but I hear from people that he’s still pushing for it,” says Kinlow.
The prison advocacy work is about as close as Barry has come to getting an office job: He maintains a desk at the National Corrections and Rehabilitation Corp., a CCA contractor located on Connecticut Avenue. “He comes in now and then,” says a source close to the company. “Usually closer to the afternoon.”
In other words, this is one bored washed-up politician. With a wide-open daily schedule, Barry is free to exploit his ex-mayorhood for everything it’s worth. Just last week, he was beaming from the podium at the roast for WAMU political analyst Mark Plotkin; last month, he was partying with local politicos at the National Democratic Club; the month before that, he was speaking at an event hosted by the Washington City Paper; last November, he sauntered into Williams’ Neighborhood Action summit, an event packed with 3,000 admirers/detractors/onlookers.
By LL’s estimation, the only ceremonial event that Barry has declined to grace was a January 2000 edition of WAMU’s D.C. Politics Hour With Mark Plotkin featuring all the other former
mayors and Williams. Plotkin reports that Barry was in San Francisco attending Mayor Willie Brown’s second inauguration and conducting some business. “He said he had to make some money,” says Plotkin.
Isn’t that why we have the D.C. payroll?
* Escalating ticket prices have long been a complaint of moviegoers in the District and other large cities. In the coming weeks, though, the folks at One Judiciary Square will confront a novel form of box-office inflation: Shopping mall titan Herb Miller, chair of Western Development Corp., is seeking help from the District for “additional costs” in his $200 million-plus Gallery Place development in Chinatown, a colossus featuring 21 movie screens along with 173 apartments and three levels of retail outlets. Miller declined to specify just how much additional financing he needs. However, last December, he secured $46 million in tax-increment-financing commitments from the city and needs $8 million more, according to informed sources.
That would add up to a $2.6 million per screen cost.
Miller insists that tax-increment financing isn’t a sop to voracious developers. The mechanism, he notes, uses the heightened sales-tax revenues from projects like Gallery Place to service bond financing. “It’s a win-win situation. The city doesn’t take risks,” says Miller, whose project won’t move forward until he resolves this and other matters with the District. “We want a great town, and we need the heart of the city beating.”
Sure, but not with life support from city hall, say land-use activists—who point out that Gallery Place isn’t exactly the kind of desolate urban wasteland that typically gets government help. “This is hot property, and why he should be getting [tax-increment financing] funds for it is beyond me,” says Capitol Hill zoning activist Dick Wolf.
* News flash: Leaders of the D.C. Republican Party are feeling irrelevant.
Yes, the party that claims 7.4 percent of D.C. voters last week complained out loud because GOP big shots Bob Dole and Jack Kemp had shown up to fete Williams at his Thursday fundraiser. This act of partisan betrayal, say local GOP execs Julie Finley and Betsy Werronen, will further hamper their efforts to lodge a Republican in the mayor’s office come 2002. And the locals want answers: In a June 16 letter to Kemp and Dole, Finley and Werronen posed a number of piercing questions raised by the Dole-Kemp party crossover in local politics.
“As the leaders of the Republican Party in the District of Columbia, our phones have been ringing off the hook,” wrote Finley and Werronen on June 16. “Here’s a small sampling of what we have heard” (to save Dole and Kemp an administrative hassle unsuited to big-time rainmakers, LL will answer the callers’ questions for them):
* “Do these guys know there is a Republican Party in D.C.?” (They’ve heard rumors.)
* “Where were they when we needed them against Marion Barry?” (Um, running for president.)
* “Should we just throw in the towel and have one party rule in D.C.?” (Perhaps a merger with the Statehood Green Party would be a more pragmatic way to go.)
* “Do they realize they have built a war chest [that will be used against] a Republican opponent in 2002?” (Yes, they do. But like the Republican businessmen who also lined up for Williams, these GOP elders know which side their bread is buttered on.) CP
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