Get our free newsletter
Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham has made a couple of rookie mistakes since taking office in January 1999. Last year, as neighbors battled over competing redevelopment schemes in Columbia Heights, Graham made enemies on both sides via his efforts to stay neutral. And this spring, the Democrat helped ignite a social cataclysm in the same neighborhood when he championed city inspections of run-down apartment buildings—something that may hasten the gentrification of a community rich with immigrants and working-class families.
Away from the high-profile skirmishes, however, Graham has spent the past 16 months fashioning a piece of political handicraft that could serve as a prototype for urban politicians everywhere. Through a cozy relationship with Mayor Anthony A. Williams and a sharp understanding of his ward’s demographic trends, Graham has positioned himself as the city’s premier white-guy defender of D.C. Latinos, who account for 23 percent of his Ward 1 constituents.
To be sure, Graham doesn’t resort to the cheesy campaign-trail Spanish of George W. Bush, who has rolled up Latino votes in Texas via stump-speech exhortations to the effect of: “Me gustan los mexicanos.”
Instead, Graham has turned to a more traditional way of wooing immigrant supporters: patronage. While Ward 1’s attention focused on hot spots like the endangered Tivoli Theater, Graham has turned a network of old allies and the city’s long-ignored Office on Latino Affairs (OLA) into a juggernaut that—if all goes according to plan—should deliver Latino political loyalty to Graham.
The vehicle for Graham’s machinations is the Latino Community Development Commission, which oversees OLA and is ultimately responsible for the funds that it disburses. Officially, Williams appoints the commission’s board members. But according to sources close to the mayor’s office, Graham has come to wield great influence over whom Williams appoints. Over the last year, he has helped stack the currently nine-member commission with allies whose ties to him run nearly as strong as to D.C. Latinos.
Those allies share an important bond with Graham: Whitman-Walker, the privately run AIDS and social services provider that Graham ran for 15 years before being elected to the council in 1998. Jay Haddock Ortiz, who was appointed last year as the chair of the Latino commission, is a Whitman-Walker board member; Diego Uriburo, another commission member appointed by Williams, is a former employee of the clinic. Board member Candace Katter runs a social-service group called Identity, which is a Whitman-Walker partner.
“I’d like to think I was involved in their appointments,” says Graham in a rare display of political modesty.
Chalk one up for political multitasking. By having his allies placed on the commission, Graham gains some control over an office whose future accomplishments could help him in upcoming campaigns. An activist-minded OLA would bring city hall into contact with a group that receives only episodic attention—like when Mount Pleasant erupted into riots in 1991. Graham could take the credit for that attention.
And in the meantime, Graham can help maintain—if not boost—the amount of city dollars that flow through OLA to Whitman-Walker. Last year, OLA shelled out $58,250 to the clinic for Latino outreach.
Graham detractors contend that his concern for Whitman-Walker overrides all other considerations. “Jim Graham wants someone in [OLA] who will give money to Whitman-Walker,” says D.C. Latino activist Alex Compagnet. “Beyond that, he doesn’t want him to do anything.”
Surely, Graham would sooner hike up his pants a few more inches than blithely accept de-funding Whitman-Walker. But it’s hard to believe that he has any intention of neglecting OLA and its oversight commission. “The commission was moribund under the [Mayor-for-Life Marion S.] Barry [Jr.] administration,” says Graham. “It hadn’t even met.” Resuscitating the office may be good politics, but Graham says it’s also the right thing to do.
Under Barry, OLA attracted about as much attention as any other cause that generated no demonstrable political payoff for the boss. Hizzoner concluded that Latinos didn’t make it to the polls on Election Day—and treated their mayoral advocate accordingly. In his last term, Barry never even appointed a permanent director, and allowed OLA to languish under $250,000 annual budgets, according to outgoing OLA Acting Director Tomas Bialet. As it turns out, that was just enough funding to keep office staffers on the clock telling reporters that they had no budget to actually do anything.
True to their campaign pledges, Graham and Williams have raised the office’s budget to nearly $1 million. And thanks to the freeing up of D.C.’s rainy-day fund, Williams is proposing an additional $1.5 million for OLA next year, according to budget documents. Add in another $557,000 in federal grants that OLA has distributed to various Latino-oriented nonprofits, and you have an agency whose budget tops $3 million.
At this rate, Williams won’t ever have to answer questions about why he’s not Latino enough.
But OLA’s recent history proves that good ethnic-group politics and efficient government aren’t always compatible. In fiscal year 2000, for example, the administration padded OLA’s budget by routing $500,000 in funds from the Addiction Prevention and Recovery Administration through OLA. The office has sprinkled $391,350 of those funds among seven social-service providers. The rest of the money pays for administration and consulting fees.
For the sake of the District’s underserved Latinos, let’s hope those dollars pay for an upgrade in OLA output. The mayor’s recently released budget book can’t even come up with a good reason to keep the office around: “During FY 2000, the agency kept the Latino community informed on current issues.”
Isn’t that Univision’s mission, too?
In defense of OLA’s budgetary allotment, Bialet noted that the office has become a sort of public-sector Berlitz. “We do translation and interpretation services,” he says. “We are working very highly in that area to help the different offices in the District to provide that service for clients who came to request information or to translate them in their hearings.”
Adding some clarity to OLA’s mission now falls to Rosario Gutierrez, whose appointment as OLA director became official on Monday. Gutierrez will benefit from an ample budget, a supportive mayor, and a history of incredibly low expectations. “It’s understandable that not much is happening at this point,” says Saul Solorzano of the Central American Resource Center, “because they haven’t had a director.”
Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Valerie Holt’s May 5 resignation had all the trappings of a boilerplate governmental farewell. The disgraced public servant—who blew her deadline for completing the city’s annual budget audit by three months—touted her numerous accomplishments during her nearly one year in office. She then announced that she would quickly transition to a “strategic planning” position in the federal government. Although Holt declined to name the agency, everyone knew the score: Control board Chair Alice “Parachutes ‘R’ Us” Rivlin had set up her protegee with a post at the U.S. Department of Labor.
And Rivlin did so, it turns out, at D.C. taxpayers’ expense. Three separate city hall sources confirm that the control board has agreed to “detail” Holt and her $122,200 salary to the Labor Department. While Holt works for the feds, the sources say, the District will pick up the tab. A Labor Department spokesperson confirmed that Holt would be working for the department, but referred questions about her compensation package back to the control board.
“If it’s true, it’s an outrage, an absolute outrage,” says Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, an outspoken Holt critic and chair of the D.C. Council’s Committee on Finance and Revenue. “When is this madness going to stop?”
Evans shows remarkable restraint. Check out the sequence of events and prepare for bile: Holt screws up the city’s financial audit, but tells no one in city government until a few days before its Feb. 1 deadline; Holt sets new March 15 deadline, misses it; Holt messes around for six more weeks and finally wraps up audit; Holt resigns, giving city impression that she’ll be off the payroll as of May 19.
Details on Holt’s detail to federal oblivion, however, are scarce. For starters, Rivlin didn’t respond to LL’s calls for comment. “I gave her the message, but she didn’t show any sort of reaction,” reported Rivlin’s assistant at the Brookings Institution. And according to CFO spokesperson Dionne Williams, Holt is out of town. But a District government source reports that the plan is to make Holt a control board staffer, and then detail her to the Labor Department—while D.C. continues to pick up her paycheck.
Under the U.S. Intergovernmental Personnel Act, local governments negotiate with their federal partners on which entity pays for any given detailee. But here’s the catch: “Whoever’s going to benefit the most picks up the costs,” says Tony Ryan of the federal Office of Personnel Management.
Maybe it’s worth paying $122,200 a year to not have Holt bungle another budget cycle. On the other hand, there’s a way D.C. could have done that for free: Instead of allowing the CFO a face-saving exit, the control board could simply have fired her.
But if the city is going to keep paying her salary, shouldn’t we at least get the full benefit of her half-assed management skills? How about a dispatch to the mayor’s citywide call center, where she could reduce hold times? Or an assignment to check emissions down at Half Street SW, another famously understaffed outpost?
Kickoff Classics: Last Saturday, three D.C. Council incumbents—Charlene Drew Jarvis (Ward 4), Sandy Allen (Ward 8), and Evans—announced their 2000 re-election bids.
* Mayor Williams, that political animal, skipped the day of backslapping to join his wife and mother-in-law for Mother’s Day festivities in St. Louis. Nearly his entire cabinet—Chief of Staff Abdusalam Omer, Health Department Director Ivan C.A. Walks, Deputy Mayor for Operations Norman Dong, and Department of Public Works (DPW) Director Vanessa Dale Burns—turned out for the Jarvis event on a patch of Georgia Avenue asphalt. Allen also attracted a good mayoral staff showing, but the Williams heavy-hitters boycotted Evans, who has served in recent weeks as spokesperson for the council’s opposition to the mayor’s spendthrift budget proposals. “I don’t have an answer for it,” says Evans.
* A seasoned five-term councilmember, Jarvis never mentioned the name of her upstart challenger, Adrian Fenty. Yet the veteran politica couldn’t conceal her obsession with rebutting the central plank in Fenty’s platform—namely, that Jarvis promotes downtown development projects while delivering very little for Georgia Avenue and other bleak strips in Ward 4. “This is the year of recovery for the District of Columbia,” said Jarvis during her kickoff speech. “There’s so much going on not only downtown but also in the neighborhoods. We have partners not only downtown but in the neighborhoods.”
* Grist for good-government conspiracy theorists in D.C.:
11:15 a.m.: DPW Director Burns joins crowd at Jarvis campaign kickoff on Georgia Avenue.
11:30 a.m.: LL drives up Georgia Avenue to check on political activity at campaign HQ of Fenty, Jarvis’ opponent.
11:35 a.m.: LL encounters DPW employee tearing down Fenty’s green-and-white campaign signs along Georgia Avenue. Fenty rushes to stop DPW official from reducing his exposure.
11:45 p.m.: DPW official assures Fenty that he was mistaken and vows that the sign purge was an equal-opportunity affair, showing Fenty the confiscated billboards of Johnny Allem, a candidate in the May 2 primary elections. LL didn’t notice any other flyers on Georgia Avenue that morning.
“We apologized to the campaign and provided to the campaign the posters that had been taken down,” says DPW spokesperson Linda Grant.
Fine, but what would have happened if Fenty hadn’t caught the misguided DPW drone? “We still would have apologized,” says Grant.
* Memo to campaign staff of At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil: Make your boss script out every last word of his speeches at political events—starting with “Hello, folks, my name is Harold Brazil.”
Any other approach will result in the extemporaneous oratorical disasters that Brazil foisted on crowds across the city last Saturday. At the noontime kickoff event for Allen, Brazil had a twinkle in his eye when he took the mike from event hostess Joyce Scott. Then he said this:
“I kind of wish I wasn’t a married man, ’cause I’d grab Joyce and get on outta here. Man, is she looking good!” exclaimed the councilmember.
When Brazil tried to pontificate on a topic of concern to the Ward 8 audience at Allen Chapel AME Church—health care—he coined a perfect non sequitur. “Health and health insurance go together,” intoned Brazil. “The two of them spell trouble.”
The fun continued at a similar event on Saturday afternoon for Ward 2 Councilmember Evans, whom Brazil endorsed for three reasons: “He’s a good councilmember, he has a beautiful wife, and…his family and my family know each other,” said Brazil. Well how about that! CP
Got a tip for Loose Lips? Call (202) 332-2100, Ext. 302, 24 hours a day. And visit Loose Lips on the Web at www.washingtoncitypaper.com.