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Anyone who attended Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ March 6 State of the District address learned that the mayor has at least one die-hard supporter in D.C. To most of the pro-Williams crowd, the speech was a flat mishmash of programmatic details. But whenever the mayor reached his version of a rhetorical flourish, a cry boomed from the stands at the Ballou Senior High School gymnasium:
No one except longtime Ward 4 politico Norm Neverson gets that excited about this mayor.
Neverson is the closest thing to a bona fide crony in the Williams circle. Of course, like most allies in the new D.C. politics, he doesn’t exactly go way back with the mayor. Neverson joined the Williams team early in the 1998 mayoral campaign and was eventually named coordinator for Ward 4. “We had nothing in Ward 4,” says campaign Budget Director Jim Wareck. “He stepped up; he gave us names and streetwalkers.” The ward delivered handily for Williams.
Ever since, Neverson has taken his “To-ny” cheer on the road, to community meetings, to last November’s “Neighborhood Action” summit, and to countless other PR events. With each bellow, Neverson’s stock value rises at Williams HQ. Last year, the administration paid Neverson $7,500 from private sources to do promotion work related to the summit, according to mayoral spokesperson Peggy Armstrong.
And this year, Williams has tapped Neverson to consolidate his community political base by heading a slate of pro-Williams candidates—known as the “Action Democrats”—on the May 2 ballot for the Democratic State Committee (DSC), the official local organ of the Democratic Party.
Just who runs the city’s Democratic bureaucracy is pretty much irrelevant to nearly everyone in D.C. But the Williams people have turned the campaign—including Neverson’s bid to oust Williams detractor Paula Nickens from her spot as chair of the mayor’s own party—into a demonstration of their reformist regime’s political muscle. “Norm is the odds-on favorite to be the next head of the Democratic Party in the District,” predicts pro-Williams DSC member Phil Pannell.
Before he gets too excited about his prospects, though, Neverson should consider that the history of the DSC, at its most basic level, has been a struggle to gather a quorum. This month, for example, Nickens failed to call an official meeting, leaving three or four DSC members wandering around the customary meeting room at the Democratic National Committee HQ on South Capitol Street.
And when the DSC does meet, its members spend most of their time fighting about parliamentary matters. Instead of mapping strategies for fundraising and fashioning statehood platforms, committee members never seem to get beyond the following proclamations: “Excuse me, I have the floor,” “Madam Chair, a point of order please!” and “Madam Chair, I call the question.” The committee’s obsessive bickering has prevented it from doing the sort of things that would make it a force in D.C. politics—like turning out voters for good Democrats and roughing up statehood opponents in Congress.
At least some of the blame for the institution’s futility rests with Williams’ predecessor. In his early years atop the D.C. government, Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. meddled in the DSC, usually with the goal of adding new titles to the resumes of his allies. By his last term, however, Hizzoner treated the DSC with the same indifference and neglect he showed the Department of Public Works. By that time, he had learned that the easiest way to inspire loyalty was to dish city contracts out to the right people. It’s no coincidence that Barry declined to seek a fifth term after the D.C. financial control board stripped him of most contracting authority.
Barry-style contracting indulgences no doubt tempt Williams, but neither the control board nor a vigilant D.C. Council will allow them to go unchecked. Bereft of old-fashioned political tools, the mayor has gone multi-pronged—pressing the flesh at hundreds of public events, currying favor with civic associations, and even working the DSC. Which is where a good buddy like Neverson comes in handy.
“We’re trying to build support for our slate,” said Williams after a recent press briefing. That statement represents an evolution of sorts for the mayor, whose aides last year steadfastly maintained their indifference to the piddly politics of the city’s Democratic party. “I suppose we should be grateful that the mayor hasn’t advocated abolishing the state committee and replacing it with an appointed board,” quips D.C. Shadow Sen. Paul Strauss.
Williams even acknowledges that stacking the DSC with allies might enable him to shame the nasty councilmembers who have so frequently pummeled him with impunity. “I just want to have good relations [with the council],” says the mayor. “And if they are hammering me, I want to say, ‘Yeah, we’re going to come after you.’ And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.”
He’s starting to get it: Political activity of any sort is healthy, especially when it’s channeled toward the sleepy DSC.
If you watched Neverson maneuver through a gathering of D.C. pols, you’d want him on your slate, too. With his bushy ‘do, fine suits, and sleek profile, Neverson looks like a big-time pro-wrestling promoter. A master of the political grip-and-grin, he can serve up a validating backslap, wink, or hug to just about anyone he passes. “Norm works the room and then sits back and watches the room work him,” says Pannell.
Too bad for Neverson that glad-handing alone won’t construct political coalitions. Thus far, the Action Democrats’ slate-building has proceeded just like any other Williams political initiative—terribly. Putting together a winning ticket requires strategy, forethought, and a slab of shoe leather to gather nominating petitions for your candidates. On the last score, at least, Neverson & Co. have fallen flat.
A flurry of petition challenges headed by Nickens and her “Dems 2000” slate recently knocked nine of Williams’ 36 Action Democrats off the ballot for the May contests. A total of 44 DSC slots are in contention.
“A lot of people were trying to pick them off as they were going to the bathroom,” says Williams, in one of his most baffling utterances since taking office. His aides, meanwhile, regard Nickens’ political hardball as a most discourteous form of political engagement. “Most mayors and governors, once they win office, get to pick the party leaders,” sniffs an administration source.
But regardless of how party leaders get chosen elsewhere, the mayor’s political machine here in D.C. is short a few pistons. “It was all kind of rushed,” says an anonymous DSC candidate in reference to the petition campaign. Planning for the slate, notes the candidate, started too late, and a coordinated petition-gathering effort didn’t take shape before the submission deadline. “That was the level of disorganization,” says the source. Neverson didn’t return LL’s calls for comment.
Disarray, nonetheless, may not be enough to stop Williams from converting his still-buoyant approval ratings into a friendly DSC. In the meantime, a campaign full of fits and starts hasn’t kept Williams partisans from engaging in all manner of small-time mudslinging this spring—the documented instances of which are far too petty to recount here. No matter who wins, remnants of the hard feelings generated by the rivalry will resurface when the new members take their seats later this year. “Once you really have two big camps like this, it’s almost like a war,” says DSC member and neutral candidate Eugene Dewitt Kinlow. “No matter who wins, a lot of people will make it really hard on the next chair.”
Given the DSC’s do-nothing past, LL doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with that.
* Councilmembers are applauding the demeanor that Mayor Williams exhibited in their meeting with him last Wednesday morning. “He didn’t put his head in his hands, tug at his ears, and do all those things he does,” says a councilmember who requested anonymity. The councilmembers themselves, on the other hand, were a bit less collegial. David Catania (At Large) and Charlene Drew Jarvis (Ward 4) exploded in argument over whether to consider the potential reaction of the Republican Congress as the council debated scaling back the 1999 tax-cut plan.
The discrepancy in conduct might have something to do with the fact that the mayor knew someone was watching. Unlike some councilmembers, Williams was aware that the silent observer in the far corner of the room was Peter Perl, a feature writer for the Washington Post Magazine. Councilmembers had not been duly introduced, and many had no idea who he was—or that he might have been able to splash details of their meeting right into print.
A day later, Williams notified them in writing that Perl had agreed to place the meeting “entirely off the record and he will not report any part of our discussion. I sincerely hope this incident has done nothing to breach the trust between the Council and my Office.”
Forgive the mayor’s folks for not telling their council colleagues sooner about the reporter in their midst. Perl is now embarking on his third month of reporting on Williams, and he blends seamlessly with the other suits in the mayoral entourage—by LL’s acute government-official-profiling system, the mustachioed Perl cuts the figure of, say, a special assistant to the mayor for the environment and urban renewal. “The truth is, we’ve gotten kind of used to Peter being around,” says mayoral spokesperson Armstrong, who took the blame for the misunderstanding.
* A classic consensus politician, At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz will do virtually anything to craft compromises with her 12 colleagues on the D.C. Council. Although the councilmember did stick her head out to oppose the controversial nomination of the Rev. Willie Wilson to the board of the University of the District of Columbia, she has an apparent constitutional aversion to holding the bag for reckless council actions.
That disposition was on display Tuesday, April 4, at a breakfast for councilmembers at One Judiciary Square. After the breakfast caterer deserted the omelet stand, Schwartz volunteered to staff the skillet for her colleagues. As she was cracking some eggs for Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, a nearby napkin caught fire. “We thought the sprinklers were going to go off,” says a councilmember in attendance.
The blaze was quickly extinguished, and Schwartz’s colleagues chided her for her blunder. But Schwartz reacted as if she were speaking from the dais. “I never touched that thing,” she later told LL. “It was 3-and-a-half to 4 feet from me.”
* It’s time to add the leadership of the venerable Smithsonian Institution to the list of locals who complain that officials at D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) HQ don’t return their calls. In March 1998, the Smithsonian offered to pay $820,000 for the Nichols Avenue School, at the intersection of Howard Road and Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in Southeast, according to Gerald Cooke, the school system’s real estate director. Talk about a win-win-win situation: The Smithsonian was signing up to brighten one of the city’s grimmer streets, to plunk a windfall into city coffers, and to use the space to sponsor the very programs the city needs most—after-school activities, summer camps, and exhibit space for local arts organizations. “They would have served as an anchor,” says Pannell, who runs the Anacostia Coordinating Council. “That block is a supreme example of urban blight.”
Sharon Reinckens, associate director of the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture, says that negotiations with the school system proceeded well until October 1998. “After that,” says Reinckens, “we simply didn’t hear from them.” The silence from the administration of Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, says Reinckens, persisted until February of this year, when the Smithsonian bagged the whole thing. “The non-action by DCPS coupled with the lack of immediate funding opportunities for the project has resulted in the discontinuance” of the museum’s bid, wrote Reinckens in a March 3 letter to Pannell’s group.
The communication gap doesn’t appear to worry Cooke. “DCPS is ready to proceed with consummation of transaction,” he says, adding that he thought the Smithsonian was undergoing a leadership change. “We have not pushed them to move quickly.” Reinckens says she wasn’t aware of Cooke’s stance.
Maybe the control board was onto something last month when it transferred authority over surplus school properties from Ackerman to the mayor’s office.
* Democrat-turned-Republican Vickey Wilcher admits that her recent defection to the party of Schwartz, Catania, and Abraham Lincoln was 50 percent because of career considerations and 50 percent because of political convictions.
LL might suggest a revision of that breakdown, given the results of his recent Wilcher poll. Under questioning from LL’s polling team, the veteran D.C. political operative, who was named executive director of the District’s GOP last week, said she is pro-choice, opposes the death penalty, supports statehood for D.C., thinks “gay rights are an absolute,” and advocates “careful” deployment of tax cuts—all positions that situate her to the left of Republicans as well as many Democrats in this town.
So where’s the Republican value system? “Well, I believe we ought to have a strong defense,” says Wilcher. CP
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