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In his first year atop the D.C. government, Mayor Anthony A. Williams forged a reputation as a 10-thumbed politico. Among Williams’ bigger blind spots was a seeming inability to lobby for his initiatives before the D.C. Council. This year, perhaps determined to get a head start on his New Year’s resolution to shape up, the mayor rang up a select group of councilmembers on Dec. 31. “I thought he was going to invite me to the White House,” says one call recipient, Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans.
Actually, Williams was calling about something every bit as sexy: a plan to scrap the city’s elected school board and replace it with an appointed panel that would answer to the mayor.
In pressing his agenda with Evans and other councilmembers, Williams used every argument at his disposal—like how an appointed board would clarify accountability for the schools and free D.C.’s reputation from the petty, water-pitcher-throwing image of the elected board. And, according to Evans, the mayor didn’t omit another key selling point: King supported his plan.
That’s not Ron King, the Ward 6 advisory neighborhood commissioner, nor Aurelia Corbett King, the Democratic activist, nor even Larry King, the former head of the city’s personnel office. No, it’s Colbert I. King of the Washington Post’s editorial page, a man who periodically beams his views on D.C. politics to 800,000 readers in the local body politic.
On Capitol Hill and at One Judiciary Square, King is the gold standard of D.C. politics. Since the advent of the Williams administration—which, unlike its predecessor, cares deeply about what the Post editorial page writes—he’s become the city’s market-maker. Just as the “What Would Jesus Do?” dictum guides some young Bob Jones University types, anticipating King’s opinions appears to be one of the mayor’s governing principles. It’s a wonder he hasn’t ditched his bow tie for a “WWCD” button.
With just a few lines on the editorial page, King can send an otherwise quiescent pol into full crisis mode. Last spring, for example, King blasted Ward 8 Councilmember Sandy Allen for tinkering with the District’s Medicaid budget. “The cost of Sandy Allen’s parade of power is staggering,” read the May 15 editorial. A few days later, Allen summoned just about every ally she had to a rally at D.C. General Hospital. Although she and her friends took turns ripping King, their desperation only served to underscore one point: The damage had already been done.
King authors most of the paper’s editorials on the District and leads the Op-Ed page each Saturday with a column on city issues. The beat springs naturally from his bio: District native, graduate of D.C. public schools, and keen observer of the changes that have overcome D.C. in his lifetime. A former executive with Riggs National Bank, King arrived at the Post in August 1990. Since he began editorializing about D.C., he’s helped improve the reputation of a page long stigmatized by its repeated endorsements of Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr.
In January, the Post rewarded King for his local opining with a promotion to deputy editorial page editor. If nothing else, the move affirmed the paper’s commitment to D.C., a jurisdiction that holds one-ninth of the paper’s regional readership yet routinely dominates Metro coverage.
The editorialist’s local roots may account for his on-target analysis of the D.C. political era that ended on Jan. 2, 1999. Few instances of mismanagement, tomfoolery, and general civic depravity on the part of Barry and the underachieving D.C. Council of yore escaped harsh treatment on the Post’s opinion page. “I’ve always looked to Colby King as someone who can be depended on and who has no ax to grind,” says Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose.
Whether or not he’s carrying an ax, however, King is having trouble chopping his way through the city’s new political order. To judge from his dispatches, the sitting council—easily the hardest-working group in the body’s brief history—has yet to deliver a dime’s worth of services to constituents, whereas Williams and control board Chair Alice Rivlin are brilliantly reforming a broken city.
“The mayor has his own PR company,” says Council Chairman Linda Cropp, in reference to King & Co. “And it’s been that way from the time [Williams] first started.”
Cropp’s sweeping characterization, to be sure, omits a handful of skeptical columns King has published on topics like Williams’ undisclosed election-year earnings of over $40,000 from city contractors, his neglect of the University of the District of Columbia (UDC), and his tin-eared political mannerisms. And, of course, King poked fun at Williams’ telephonic apology to D.C. residents for subpar snow-removal services—a hanging curveball for all local editorialists.
“The mayor is bouncing from one semi-disaster to another semi-disaster,” says King, who scoffs at allegations that he pulls punches for Williams.
Nonetheless, politicos like Cropp and Evans still dwell on the propensity of the Post’s opinion-mongers to produce pro-Williams essays that appear just when the mayor seems to need them. Take Jan. 5, for example: After word leaked that Williams would propose a school board takeover, a Post editorial enthusiastically endorsed his proposal.
The Post also sent in polemical reinforcements for the Williams troops during fights over the Rev. Willie Wilson’s nomination to the UDC board, a mayoral plan to restructure the government’s middle-management ranks, and a new scheme to extend health coverage to the city’s 80,000 uninsured residents. Finding corresponding editorials on behalf of council initiatives could tie up a resourceful newspaper archivist for hours.
Yet the council’s allegations of a King-Williams partnership rely even more on the sort of editorials that don’t appear in the newspaper of record. Imagine what fun Post editorialists could have had with the already infamous March 15 hearing about the mayor’s budget plan. At that session, councilmembers stymied Williams aides with piercing questions about projected revenues and expenditures for fiscal year 2001. When it was all over, the legislators had identified more than $200 million for which the 11th floor had no answers. Although the mayor was in Paris at the time of the session, he later termed it a “disaster.”
His “critics” in the Post’s ivory tower were much gentler, though. In its March 17 opinion piece “Can D.C. Do More With Less?,” the Post seemed confused as to whose credibility was in doubt. “Council members,” read the editorial, “should scrub the mayor’s savings estimates as vigorously as they explore the soundness of the spending initiatives he proposes on education, economic development and health and human services. The two need to balance.” A sound scrubbing, of course, was exactly what they’d just done. But that part never got mentioned.
Perhaps it’s that sort of treatment that mayoral Chief of Staff Abdusalam Omer has in mind when he calls King “a great man. I have always looked forward to reading his Saturday columns.”
Luckily for the editorial board, city hall reporter Vanessa Williams on the same day penned a wonderful, comprehensive account of “disarray” within the mayor’s budget team, the tasteless sense of humor exhibited by mayoral staffers, and the energetic skepticism of the council overseers. Even those officially opinionless newsies to the north of King’s editorial firewall couldn’t resist inserting some edge into their reporting.
Unlike the editorial board, the Post’s news reporters haven’t missed the real story in D.C. politics over the past year and a half: The city’s 13-member legislature is force-feeding reformist policies to an administration elected to enact them and a control board appointed to do the same.
Look how swiftly the council swung into action on Chief Financial Officer Valerie Holt’s poor handling of the city’s annual audit. One day after learning that Holt would miss the Feb. 1 deadline for the fiscal year 1999 numbers, Cropp convened a special hearing at which she and her colleagues wrung the ugly, long-winded truth out of Holt, Inspector General Charles Maddox, and other finance officials. Three weeks later, when it became apparent that Holt would miss her next deadline, the council repeated the drill and then pressed the control board for the CFO’s ouster.
Time for an editorial praising the council? Nah—better to write a puff piece on the control board instead. A March 13 editorial endorsed Rivlin’s decision to stand by Holt in spite of all the missteps that the council had documented. “Rivlin believes there should be no rush to dump Ms. Holt. We agree,” read the piece.
In defending Rivlin against council politicking, the Post was at least confining its critiques to policy matters. In recent months, however, King has expressed his disdain for the council via cheap shots that demean the work of an oversight body. On Dec. 11, he wrote a column written as a letter—”Dear Mr. Mayor”—to Williams, who had been in a nasty fight with the council over funding options for worker bonuses. In the piece, King advised his political protege that “Council members are only doing what comes naturally, which is to make themselves look good at someone else’s expense.” Although the letter criticized the mayor, it ended like a Vince Lombardi exhortation: “Now strap on your helmet, hitch up your jock strap and get back out there, Mr. Mayor. You’ve got work to do.”
And two weeks ago, King wrote a column bashing Rep. Ernest Istook for micromanaging charter schools in the District, a practice that has put Istook at odds with D.C. Public Schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman. LL is at a loss to explain how the council fits into that story line, but King found a way, noting that Ackerman’s struggles would likely “please no end her chief D.C. council fault-finders Kathy Patterson, David Catania and Sharon Ambrose.” Aren’t councilmembers paid to find fault?
“Councilmembers want respect and crave respect,” says King. “The question is: Have they earned it?” King says a few councilmembers work hard—he cites Catania, but he also argues that some are “just hot dogs.”
No one has felt King’s enduring wrath quite as much as Evans, who along with Catania sponsored $300 million in tax cuts that King—and, for a time, Williams—opposed. “Colby King and the Washington Post have become cheerleaders for the mayor,” complains Evans. “It’s a dangerous position for the Fourth Estate, because when you begin to tell them over and over that [Williams] can do no wrong, they start to believe it. The council itself has become remarkably better, and the Post has continued to treat it with disdain.”
Before he finishes drafting his State of the District Address for 2001, Mayor Williams should consider hiring a fact-checker. This year’s version, delivered on March 6, was replete with grand policy promises as well as an inventory of municipal progress achieved under his leadership.
One boast, in particular, caught LL’s attention. Since he took office, Williams bragged from the podium at Ballou Senior High School, the Department of Parks and Recreation had opened “26 computer learning centers where seniors, adults and young people can surf the Net and find out how cool computer geeks really are.”
That remark was enough to resurrect the rec-room junkie in LL, whose personal fiscal year 2000 budget is straining under the cost of Internet access. LL grabbed the list of wired-up recreation centers and prepared to avail himself of this brand-new municipal service. Before going on location, though, LL heeded LL’s Mom’s fail-safe consumer law: Always call ahead.
Of the 15-odd alleged Internet rec sites where a D.C. employee actually answered the phone, not a single one was ready to offer the public Web access the mayor had advertised. Although a few rec directors mentioned plans to eventually get online, only one—at the Upshur Recreation Center—could provide a timetable (30 days). Another respondent seemed to have missed the mayor’s proclamation altogether. “No, I don’t think we’re going to do that one,” said the employee who answered at the Turkey Thicket Recreation Center when asked about the hookup. A telephone-answering staffer at King-Greenleaf wasn’t much more helpful: “I’m sorry, this is the rec room,” she said.
Mayoral spokesperson Peggy Armstrong referred the questions on the rec tech gap to Robert Newman, who runs the department. Newman, in turn, punted the blame on over to the private sector. “Everything the city can do has been done,” he says. “The problem has been waiting on Bell Atlantic to do the new phone lines.” CP
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