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Discussion around the Shaw/Logan Circle table at Saturday’s “Neighborhood Action” summit was amiable and constructive until the topic of economic development surfaced. Shaw resident Ibrahim Mumin seized the opportunity to lash out at fellow participant Thomas Smith for attempting to block construction of the new Washington convention center.
“Why would you try to stop the project instead of recognizing the priority of getting locals involved in the construction?” asked Mumin.
“Well, at least I didn’t get paid off,” responded Smith.
Mumin: “I didn’t get paid off. You’re a chump.”
After a brief lull, Smith ended the dialogue with these conciliatory words: “I’ll stomp a mud hole on your ass.” (Now that’s what LL calls neighborhood action.)
With that exchange, Thomas and Mumin stomped on three of the summit’s hallowed “ground rules”—namely, “State your views without attacking others personally,” “Treat everyone with courtesy & respect,” and—this is LL’s favorite—”Be future thinking (not past bound or blame seeking).”
By all accounts, the angry Shawites were about the only past-bound blame-seekers among the nearly 3,000 D.C.ers who mustered for Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ coming-out party. The rest showed up for more wholesome reasons, like exchanging views on the District’s civic priorities; kibitzing with D.C. councilmembers, agency directors, and even Suspect-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr.; and gnoshing on the free food. Thursday night’s kickoff, for starters, featured juicy sides of beef along with three varieties of pasta, fruits and vegetables; and Saturday’s breakfast consisted of croissants, poundcakes, and danishes.
Whatever the sweeteners, the crowd handed the Williams administration its first home run, an event that banished the bruises the mayor sustained earlier this year after delivering a spotty budget proposal to the D.C. Council. With a docket full of input on public policy from regular D.C. citizens—not just the loudmouths on every local reporter’s speed-dial—the mayor next March will deliver a spending blueprint that councilmembers may attack at their own political peril.
But never mind the practicalities of neighborhood improvement. The real plus for Williams is the event’s political impact: He’s now put in face time with—and has the chance to deliver on promises to—the 3,000 community-busybody types who showed up. If you’re, say, a new mayor without deep ties to a local community or a local political party, that’s a hell of a Rolodex.
“Thousands of people…have all come together to unite the city and work for neighborhoods,” said Williams in his opening remarks at the Washington Convention Center, “and work on the relationship between the city and its government.”
Or, at least, the PR between the city and its government. After all, it’s hard to attribute any policy-making value to an event that designates neighborhood stabilization—that is, crime fighting—and investing in children as the city’s top priorities, in a hierarchy LL could have identified without the handheld transmitters summit organizers used to poll participants. Williams, nonetheless, elevated the truism to the status of a revelation when he read the response of a summit group to the crowd: “Listen to this,” he said: “‘The state of the schools and crime are the top two reasons why people leave the city, and until these are solved, the city will not prosper.’”
Even as it regurgitated platitudes, though, Neighborhood Action accomplished an unlikely political coup, proving that a PR event can have a hard, substantive core. In today’s D.C., there are just a couple of places where the races and classes are forced to mix—jury duty, for instance, or the Department of Motor Vehicles line.
So the Williams people made history when they randomly scattered the event’s attendees at 241 tables for the plenary part of the program. (Later, the attendees broke out by neighborhood.) LL sat at Table 167 and heard how nonpoliticians speak of their priorities. For example, all year long, LL had listened to Williams speak about after-school programs: “As I have always said, this administration is committed to funding after-school programs for District children,” he says.
Now here’s 14-year-old Cherika Chapman on the same subject: “I don’t have anything to do,” said the student at Hine Junior High School. “I think we should have something to do.”
After six hours of policy talk, though, participants left the conference speaking a lot like their mayor. “It was an excellent forum,” said Shaw resident Priscilla Francis. “The response demonstrated the mayor’s commitment to changing and also to [citizens’] having input in the process. He’ll have to come back and be held accountable for implementing” the priorities.
The mayor himself acknowledged as much, noting that the conference was a “beginning, not an end.”
Even if the civic bonhomie generated by Neighborhood Action doesn’t last, the list of participants will. Ever since Williams announced the program in October, his minions have been distributing bumper stickers and promo lit at every civic event from the 17th Street High-Heel Race to mayoral press conferences. In so doing, they have lassoed a few thousand of the District’s most politically motivated citizens—and logged all their names into a database.
The party line on the registration list, of course, is logistical. “The most important thing about the list is to have a table number for the registrants,” says Abdusalam Omer, the mayor’s chief of staff. When asked if the list might come in handy down the road, Omer replied, “We just never thought about that, really.”
Not even Williams is that much of a nonpolitician.
News4 (WRC-TV) personality Debbi Jarvis didn’t have to do much prep work before MCing Mayor Williams’ Neighborhood Action kickoff last Thursday night. Jarvis received the script for her comments directly from Williams spokesperson Peggy Armstrong. “Being a professional journalist, she made it her own,” says Armstrong.
Judge for yourself how much editing went on:
“In his inaugural address, Mayor Williams talked about coming down from the stands and onto the field,” said Jarvis in introducing the evening’s main event. “Well, Mr. Mayor, the team is on the field. That’s why we’re here, suited up and ready to put some points on the board.”
So much for the “professional journalist” thing. Jarvis might as well have slapped a bow tie on her black pantsuit and hopped aboard the black Lincoln Navigator that ferries Williams and his inner circle around town.
Jarvis’ boosterism at a partisan event marks the most obscene instance of media-government collusion in recent memory. And it also marks a coup of sorts for the mayor’s PR operation—which reportedly sold the same line to News4 that it beamed to the public. “I got the impression that it was a community, grass-roots neighborhood program,” says Jarvis. “There was no mention of his political agenda or this being part of his campaign or anything like that.”
News Director Bob Long, who approved Jarvis’ appearance at the ceremony, later realized he’d been had. “This is a town that uses people very skillfully for a variety of things,” says Long, who called the appearance a “mistake that won’t happen again on my watch.”
That may require some doing: Earlier this month, reporter James Adams led ceremonies for the groundbreaking of Cora Masters Lady MacBarry’s controversial Southeast Tennis and Learning Center.
Jarvis might have averted her mistake if she had gotten the script more than two hours before showtime. “I mean, I read it, but I didn’t really read it,” recalls Jarvis. Perhaps if she had read it, Jarvis would have skipped the lines about how “Neighborhood Action will shift resources back to the neighborhoods” and “empower citizens” in setting their governing agenda. And she undoubtedly would have found some new pronouns for her address. “To tell you the truth,” says Jarvis, “I hesitated about the team part, but I was kind of already in talking mode, and it was finally dawning on me that perhaps I shouldn’t have said ‘we.’”
Here’s how she could have rephrased it: “Well, Mr. Mayor, sources say the team is on the field…”
Fudges like that, however, wouldn’t have placated News4 city hall reporter Tom Sherwood, who stormed into Long’s office upon learning of the collusion. “My view is that journalists should not endorse government products, and that ought to be obvious to a journalist,” says Sherwood.
Williams’ flacks had snagged Jarvis thanks to the ongoing competition among local TV channels to look like the ultimate champion of the community. Jarvis is a big part of her station’s efforts to buddy up to the TV-watching public: She says she MCs two to four events per week. And although her performance at the podium lends any event a professional gloss, she could exercise a bit more judgment in offering herself to political causes. Last year, for example, Jarvis agreed to preside over the groundbreaking ceremony for the new convention center, a politically charged project shepherded by her mother-in-law, Ward 4 D.C. Councilmember Charlene Drew Jarvis.
The appearance was eventually nixed by News4 management. Then-Channel 7 anchor Paul Berry wound up doing the honors.
Debbi Jarvis attributes her political ignorance to her community affairs beat and says that people incorrectly assume that Councilmember Jarvis coaches her on political themes. “When we’re together, she’s my mom-in-law, and we talk about what we’re going to make for Thanksgiving,” says Jarvis.
Perhaps they can set aside a few minutes this Thursday to talk shop.
* Those who feared that Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose’s struggles with multiple sclerosis would take the edge off of her oversight can now breathe easy. At a council hearing last Wednesday on the city’s utility cut crisis, Ambrose called Department of Public Works (DPW) road construction chief Parney Jenkins “useless.” In a tense dialogue with DPW Director Vanessa Dale Burns, Ambrose complained that Jenkins failed to return her constituents’ phone calls and to coordinate the slashing of D.C.’s thoroughfares.
Burns says Ambrose’s roundhouse has inspired no personnel changes at DPW: “I would not characterize anyone as useless, because everyone has value, and everyone gets used.”
* Next thing you know, At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil will be suspending habeas corpus during hearings of his Judiciary Committee. Last week, after all, the third-term councilmember abridged the free-speech guarantees of his colleague, Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, who had shown up for a markup of Brazil’s Sex Offender Registration Act. Brazil informed Graham that, because Graham was not a member of the Judiciary Committee, he would not be allowed to speak during the markup.
Graham then left the dais and headed straight for the office of Chairman Linda Cropp, where he dug up the council rule that allows all members to speak at proceedings of all committees. Brandishing the rule, Graham returned to the markup, where Brazil grudgingly agreed to let him sneak in a few words.
The bad blood between Graham and Brazil has nothing to do with council procedure and everything to do with politics. In recent weeks, Graham has tried to keep Brazil’s legislation from covering misdemeanor offenses. Although Brazil insists that he was ready to compromise to accommodate that agenda, he says that Graham has pushed for changes “that are not legitimately within his zone of concern.”
“The bottom line,” says an unnamed councilmember, “is that Harold wants to ram this legislation through the committee, and he wants to ram it through the council.”
* With less than a year to go before the next race, political upstarts in Ward 7 are trying to undermine their D.C. Council rep, Kevin Chavous. On Nov. 13, the Ward 7 Democrats passed a resolution dissing Chavous’ pending bill to restructure the elected school board. The group proved scarcely able to rise above petty resentment against Chavous: “We felt that prior to his going public, he should have had meetings with [advisory neighborhood commissions] and civic associations and others throughout the ward,” sniffs Ward 7 Democrats Chair Roscoe Grant.
Perhaps Grant & Co. think they shouldn’t have to trek downtown to voice their views. On Oct. 16, Chavous held a public hearing on the legislation, open not only to Ward 7 Dems but also Ward 2 Republicans and, for that matter, Ward 9 LaRouchites. “My political opposition is vocal but de minimis,” says Chavous, adding that he “crushed [his opposition]” in all east-of-the-river precincts in last year’s mayoral race. “A lot of these folks want to be where I am.” CP
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