Certain D.C. voters who attended the election for the Ward 4 Democrats organization last June came away with some frightening impressions. “I was harassed for more than one-half hour by an individual who was supposed to be verifying that voters were properly registered,” wrote Ward 4 resident Betty Jean Roberts in a complaint to the D.C. Democratic State Committee, the official organ of the local Democratic party. “He was wearing dark glasses and was acting like he couldn’t see.”

Similarly, voter Tomica Crouch groused about voter intimidation perpetrated by a man “wearing shades” who “appeared to be denying a number of people the opportunity to vote.”

At a meeting last Wednesday night, state committee officials ID’d the “man in shades” as Bob Artisst, the legendary Ward 5 politico who has spent more time around ballot boxes than Strom Thurmond. Artisst’s taste in eyewear and alleged strong arm in the voter registration line have made him a bit player in a piddly state committee skirmish over the validity of the Ward 4 election.

Artisst’s latest turn on the news cycle’s dim periphery would be amusing but for what it says about the still paralyzed state of local politics a year into their alleged post-Barry incarnation. The new mayor may be starting to reshape the bureaucracy, yet the institutions of politics are as calcified as ever. A self-confident party organ with competent leadership would have disposed of the Ward 4 matter in a few weeks and moved onto the bread and butter of party politics, like fundraising and platform constructing. Those imperatives, however, have never been a priority for the District’s Democratic hierarchy.

After four months of preoccupation with the dispute—along with a similar quarrel in Ward 2—the committee appears intent on kicking it like a piece of tumbleweed into the next millennium. And while some party stalwarts justify any delay in the name of constitutional voting rights, the real issue at hand is the resistance of committee leadership to the cresting influence of Democrats loyal to Mayor Anthony A. Williams.

“This is a great embarrassment for the Democrats of this city,” says Williams ally Bud Lane, chair of the Ward 2 Democrats, of the election brouhaha.

Well, that may be overstating the case a touch, given the committee’s history. For years, it chalked up a victory every time it certified a quorum to conduct business. Stymied by low turnouts and personal bickering, the committee would spend months trying to pass resolutions on pretty straightforward issues, like whether the control board is undemocratic and just how annoying it is when Congress meddles in D.C. affairs.

So, although the latest fracas is hardly new, the committee’s handling of the Ward 4 affair also doesn’t reflect much progress. The bare facts of the matter, to LL’s eternal astonishment, are undisputed: At the June 22 election, pro-Williams candidate Norman Neverson beat nonaligned opponent Ronnie Edwards by 44 votes (270-226) in the contest for the Ward 4 Democrats’ president. Races for the other six seats were decided by margins ranging from 11 to 58 votes.

At that point, the consensus ruptured. Although 506 voters registered for the election, officials received 541 ballots, raising the prospect of 35 illegitimate votes. And that’s not counting how many voters may have been deterred by the Ray-Ban contingent: Several complainants argued that Artisst had denied them a ballot by mistakenly insisting that their names weren’t on the voter rolls.

Finally, the most damaging charges of all allege…democracy. Edwards, for example, hammered Neverson for “patrolling the [election] floor,” “disseminating campaign literature,” and “campaigning and making speeches.” De Tocqueville would be appalled.

The complaints of Edwards and eight others prompted State Committee Chair Paula Nickens—who resents the influence of Williams boosters like Neverson—to commission an investigation of the election by a party subcommittee. At the Oct. 20 state committee meeting, the subcommittee recommended voiding the election and holding a new one.

Committee members laughed at Nickens’ jihad, approving a motion by Ward 8’s Phil Pannell to validate all candidates who had won by more than the 35 votes. Neverson took his seat.

In doing so, Neverson joined a wave of ward chairs who have pledged fealty to Williams. In addition to Neverson in Ward 4, Lane in Ward 2, and Pannell in Ward 8, the mayor’s people can count on sympathetic ears in Wards 6 and 7. The party chair, however, remains in the anti-Williams camp.

Nickens and her shrinking band of followers have spent much of 1999 trying to insulate the state committee from the control of the city’s top elected Democrat. Earlier this year, Nickens went public with her grievances after a private meeting with Williams aide Max Brown, who had allegedly unveiled the administration’s plot to take over the state committee’s appendages. “He felt that he should control all of the ward organizations because the mayor is the highest-ranking Democrat,” Nickens told LL in June.

Nickens and the nonaligned members of the committee could fight the Williams juggernaut by organizing voters, raising funds, and otherwise strengthening their base. Instead, in the wake of l’affaire Artisst, they’re opting for a cheaper route—which means appealing Neverson’s victory to the Democratic National Committee. Such a move, which Nickens has called a “certainty,” would round out a trend in contemporary D.C. governance: The reforms that have swept through the city’s bureaucracy have by and large missed many of its political institutions, like the advisory neighborhood commissions, the elected school board, and the state committee.

“Here the DNC is busy trying to elect Gore and regain the majority in the House and Senate, and the District is appealing a ward election,” says Pannell.

DEATH BY FIRING SQUAD

Last week, a federal jury awarded $98 million in damages to Terry Butera, whose son, Eric Butera, was killed in an aborted undercover operation to generate leads for the Metropolitan Police Department on the infamous July 1997 Starbucks slayings. On Dec. 4, 1997, officials from the department’s homicide unit sent Eric Butera into a Southwest row house to pull off an undercover drug buy. The young man had told the police that in previous transactions at the house, he had overheard some scuttlebutt about the killings. After an aborted purchase attempt, Butera was robbed of $80 in marked police money and beaten to death.

Following the trial, an entire city wondered how the police could have been so dumb. One clue: Everyone who could have saved them from blundering had just been fired.

Two months before the Butera killing, then-Police Chief Larry D. Soulsby sacked 17 homicide supervisors for their complicity in the unit’s drooping closure rate, which stood at 42 percent, well below the national standard of 65 percent. Soulsby hailed the move as a painful but necessary measure for a reformist chief. “I do not enjoy having to do this,” he told the Washington Post after the Sept. 17 firings. “But we felt compelled to make changes, and I do so with a heavy heart.” Soulsby’s overseers, control board member Stephen Harlan and consultants with Booz-Allen Hamilton Inc., applauded the step.

Ex-Homicide Cmdr. Lou Hennessy, however, says the shake-up ousted all the officers equipped to prevent bungled operations like the Butera tragedy. “It’s like firing all your brain surgeons, then hiring a team of general surgeons to handle all your brain surgery,” says Hennessy. Many of the purged detectives, says Hennessy, worked under his command in 1994, when Homicide turned in a respectable 55 percent closure tally. Soulsby, of course, later transferred Hennessy from Homicide after a dispute over a high-profile murder case.

Peter Grenier, the D.C. attorney who represented Terry Butera in the civil case, argues that the officers assigned to the operation never should have been trusted with an informant’s life. Lead officer Lt. Brian McAllister, says Grenier, was unaware of the electronic devices that can be used to signal distress to the informant’s supporting officers.

The fired homicide detectives, however, would have had Butera wired with the latest transmitters, according to Hennessy. “The dead man’s blood is on Soulsby’s hands,” says one of the sacked detectives. “I want to know why he wasn’t named in the lawsuit.”

POLITICAL POTPOURRI

* The city of Rockville is gaining nationwide fame among city planners for the progressive statute it passed earlier this month outlawing “big-box” stores like Costco, Circuit City, and Target. In announcing the ban on retail outlets of 60,000 square feet or more, Mayor Rose Krasnow deplored the stores’ architectural depravity, along with the traffic congestion that they kick up.

Like all assaults on private enterprise, Krasnow’s measure will face its share of challenges. “We’re exploring what our options are now, and those include legal options,” says Richard Reiman, a Bethesda businessman who is part of a development team seeking to place a Costco in Rockville.

Instead of placing all their hopes on their flimsy little big-box moratorium, the Rockvillians should consider emulating the D.C. model, a multilayered approach to big-box obstruction that would take years of litigation—and perhaps a few miracles—to undo. Here are just a few of the steps D.C. has taken in establishing itself as the real pioneer on big-box prohibition:

1. Place trash-transfer stations in all areas where land is plentiful and cheap enough to accommodate big-box outlets.

2. Encourage elected officials to constantly change their positions on business taxes, zoning laws, and historic preservation.

3. Release rats and other vermin in permit offices and extend lunch and coffee breaks for all clerks.

4. Dispatch at least 50 advisory neighborhood commissioners to harass potential big-box investors.

5. Make all applicants wait a minimum of two years to demolish existing structures.

6. Send copies of The Hechinger Story to all big-box HQs.

“Maybe we could work a trade, like in rotisserie baseball,” says outgoing Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development Doug Patton, who would offer Rockville advice on commercial discouragement in return for the hamlet’s unwanted commercial development. “Frankly, I’d like to have one or two big boxes in the District.”

* Attendees at last week’s Southeastern University 120th Anniversary Gala could have been excused for mistaking the event for a Fortune 500 commemoration. More than 500 corporate types poured into a Woodley Park Marriott banquet room to lend a hand to Southeastern President Charlene Drew Jarvis, who advances their local legislative agenda in her capacity as Ward 4 councilmember and chair of the D.C. Council’s Economic Development Committee. Gala host Terence Golden, CEO of Host Marriott Corp., captured Jarvis’ magic best in his brief speech: “Not much runs without money,” he said.

Southeastern officials didn’t specify just how much cash the gala brought in for the school’s endowment. But by LL’s estimation, the only failure of the night was the silent auction, which was plagued by several entries of dubious fundraising quality. For instance, a copy of the book A Very Civil War: The Swiss Sonderbund War of 1847 generated not a single pledge. Nor did a set of tickets to board the vaunted Tourmobile. Nostalgia for the ’80s, however, made the school $25 richer; a bidder shelled out for a picture of Eddie Murphy signed with a personal note: “Thing’s are changing.”

As it turns out, the market valued lunch with Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans at only $10 more than the aged photo of a washed-up comedian. “That’s embarrassing,” says Evans, who claims he’ll have to shell out $150 for the outing. If LL—who ordinarily treats guests to a microwave-heated Mama Celeste pizza—had known Evans had such upscale lunch tastes, he might have bid himself.CP

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