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Longtime politica Hilda H.M. Mason is in danger of losing her second title in as many years. In last fall’s elections, the octogenarian Mason lost the D.C. Council seat that she had held for two decades. Now, Mason faces a challenger for her self-proclaimed status as “grandmother to the world.”
The heiress apparent to D.C.’s grandmatronly throne does all the things Mason did, like attend tons of meetings and talk passionately about children, without a trace of the former councilmember’s political temper. That’s because, unlike Mason, the new grandmother doesn’t have a portfolio beyond smiling and waving.
And, as the city’s entire political class learned months ago, she sings, too. Without invitation, without provocation, just for the hell of it, 72-year-old Virginia Williams, mom of Mama’s Boy Mayor Anthony A. Williams, interrupts her musings about life, children, politics, and her adopted son with arias from Aida, religious tunes, and soul anthems.
Virginia Williams’ multimedia show made a stop last Wednesday at the Smithsonian Institution’s S. Dillon Ripley International Center, an event that can only be described as a grandmotherly coming-out party. Before a crowd of more than 100 culture vultures, Mayor Williams interviewed his mother on topics ranging from her love of music to her African-American consciousness. If nothing else, the interviewee’s performance redeemed the administration’s decision to use her as a freelance agent for mayoral PR.
The task of introducing the Williamses fell to control board member and Smithsonian honcho Constance Newman, who said of the mother-son pair, “The oak never falls far from the tree.” Aside from botching a cliche, Newman buried the contrast between the two: Whereas Williams has struggled for his entire year and a half in electoral politics to make an emotional connection with D.C.ers, his mother can pull it off in a minute and a half.
“Your mission has been to make the world a better place,” said mother to son in the Smithsonian interview, “and if I have done anything to help you with that mission, I feel blessed.”
As if that gush didn’t move the audience enough, Virginia Williams followed with a song, and then with more sappy stuff: “I want every woman to know the personal satisfaction of seeing their children grow up,” she said. At that, LL reached for his stash of Kleenex tissues, the better to assist his neighbors with the emotional spillover.
As openly as Virginia Williams discusses motherhood and as readily as she breaks into opera-mom mode, she recounts the story of her foster motherhood. When asked by the mayor what had drawn her from the East Coast to Southern California, Virginia responded that her westward journey had been somewhat painful—it started when her parents forced her to attend nursing school in Chicago—but ended well. “Every move I made was bringing me to you,” she said. LL contemplated dashing to the gift shop for a tissue refill, but remained riveted to his seat.
She explained how she had first caught sight of her eventual adopted son on a poster at the L.A. post office where she worked. The poster stayed up as young Anthony bounced around the foster-care bureaucracy. The child’s troubles in finding a family prompted a rumor that he was retarded, an outrage that his mother postulates may have had something to do with his reticence. “You didn’t talk much,” said Mom at the Smithsonian event. “But you came in there, letting us know you were home.”
The first mother graces audiences with tales like that—punctuated, of course, by various ditties—at “several” public appearances each day, according to mayoral spokesperson Peggy Armstrong. “Certain people in the community say that they see the mother more than her son,” says Phil Pannell, the newly elected head of the Ward 8 Democrats. Maybe that has something to do with the fact that the first mother showed up at the longtime political activist’s birthday party two weeks back, while her mayoral son stiffed.
But Pannell’s impression jibes with the feedback to One Judiciary Square, as well: “Our scheduling people have found that she’s one of the best surrogates for the mayor, who simply can’t make it to every event,” says Armstrong.
The younger Williams’ message apparently doesn’t make it to those events, either. The mayor may say his administration is about substance over PR, but his mother’s appearances are 100 percent advertising: Administration sources say that before she hits the community circuit, the mayor’s mother does no conferring with her son’s handlers and that she simply speaks her mind when asked about public policy matters. “It’s sometimes very difficult to distinguish whether she’s representing the mayor or whether she’s there because she wants to be there,” says Pannell. Rather than communicating a calculated mayoral agenda to D.C., she convinces the city that…the mayor has a sweet mama.
A better guess is that Virginia Williams is living out a dream she failed to fulfill in L.A., where she lost in a campaign for city council. In that campaign, she did pretty much what she’s doing now—and with about as much input from her son.
Drafting his mother into the kitchen cabinet might feel a bit awkward to the mayor, who has confessed that he spent much of his youth trying to distance himself from this “powerful, magnetic” maternal force. “I could almost say now that your life is one big show,” said the mayor last week to his mom. “And growing up under your tutelage, I remember having trouble figuring out where the show ends.”
To borrow Newman’s phrasing, the oak in this case has fallen about a continent’s distance from the tree.
Last Saturday morning, LL disposed of a discarded Schlitz Malt Liquor can and a Styrofoam cup sitting by the curb in front of his house. As the items found their way into his green municipal trash can, LL could only wonder, “Who dunnit?”
No, good-natured LL wasn’t embarking on a manhunt for the environmentally irresponsible. He just wanted to know which category the litterer fell into: Was it one of those nasty “habitual litterbugs” or a less offensive “intermittent litterbug”? One thing’s for sure, though: The culprit wasn’t an “uninvolved non-litterer,” much less a civically virtuous “involved unlitterer.”
The new litterers’ lexicon springs not from LL’s excessive leisure time, nor from some wonky conference of tree huggers. Rather, it’s laid out on a city flier distributed by Vince Spaulding, Mayor Williams’ appointee to head the District’s “Clean City” initiative.
Spaulding says the categories pretty much speak for themselves. “The habitual litterbugs—I call them the ‘heathens,’” says Spaulding, adding that he falls “on the other side” of the curve. Well, then, would he qualify as an involved unlitterer or a “concerned non-litterer?” “That’s a good question,” concedes Spaulding, who later IDs himself as an involved unlitterer—that is, an activist who participates in neighborhood cleanups and the like. Concerned non-litterers lack the civic motivation of your average involved unlitterer.
Those elite categories, of course, differ from the broadest grouping, the dreaded “uninvolved non-litterers,” people who, according to Spaulding, “live in gated communities where trash is not an issue but fully expect their neighborhood to be clean.” Just call them Germantowners.
It doesn’t take Deborah Tannen to tell you that when regular citizens start throwing around terms like “involved unlitterer,” the middle managers will have completed their coup d’etat. But Spaulding sees it as something more than bureaucratic lingo run amok: “The chart puts littering into some kind of context. It helps to be able to recognize the fact that folks litter in different ways.”
And don’t get the impression that Spaulding has spent all of his eight-month tenure distinguishing habitual litterers from uninvolved non-litterers. Clean City has distributed around 30,000 rat-proof garbage cans in the city’s densely populated neighborhoods, orchestrated alley cleanings, and ridden herd on the recycling program—all meaningful measures that nicely complement the litterer chart.
Next up, Spaulding will release an evaluation of the cleanliness of all D.C. neighborhoods. Word on the street is that the results fit neatly into a bell curve. On the far left is the “semi-passive grimy neighborhood….”
* Last week, the Adams Morgan advisory neighborhood commission (ANC) voted 6-3 in favor of a three-year liquor license moratorium in the bustling bar zone. Andy Miscuk, a commissioner on the losing end of the decision, decried the majority as pandering in anticipation of next fall’s elections for the first ANC of the 21st century. “Commissioners, who once determined to oppose the moratorium and said it was a bad idea, [voted] for it due to such reasons as keeping re-election opportunities alive,” reads an Oct. 8 Miscuk press release on the matter. “Stunning indeed—less than halfway through our term commissioners are worried about re-election and going down in flames on a vote based on personal principles.”
Truth be told, Miscuk’s colleagues could well preserve their re-election opportunities by basing their votes on coin flips. After all, just one of the nine commissioners faced an opponent in last year’s elections. Five of the commissioners, including Miscuk, ran unopposed, and in the remaining three “contests,” there was no candidate at all on the ballot.
With that kind of electoral competition, the Adams Morgan ANC could pass a moratorium on Ethiopian cuisine with impunity. “It would be nice to see more people take an interest in the ANC,” says Miscuk. “The way the meeting went—that’s why they don’t.”
* The Parents United advocacy group risked a rift with the D.C. Public Schools administration last Thursday night, when it handed a special award to parents and students of Garrison Elementary School for reclaiming green space in their school’s back yard. The reclamation campaign has pitted the school’s stalwarts against Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, Deputy Superintendent Elois Brooks, and the Metropolitan Baptist Church, all of whom want to keep allowing the field to be used as a parking lot on Sunday for the church’s parishioners.
Despite a recent settlement that should remove Metropolitan cars from the field by next year, school system brass still haven’t gotten over the slight to their Baptist friends. As Parents United official Delabian Rice-Thurston handed the award to the Garrison folks, the entire audience at the Sumner School lecture hall erupted with applause—save for Brooks, who couldn’t produce a single clap for the cause.
* In January, James Hudson, finance chair for Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous’ 1998 mayoral run, promised to eliminate the failed candidate’s $155,000 campaign debt with “one fundraiser.” In the nine months since, according to campaign finance officials, the campaign has raised $40,000. Rah-rah pledges like Hudson’s, of course, are de rigueur for any political operation, but the Chavous people will really stretch credulity with any further predictions on winnowing the remaining $115,000 deficit.
One of the problems is a trademark of most things Chavous: disarray.
In keeping with the poorly organized nature of his campaign, Chavous has mishandled filings on his campaign debt. After overshooting an Office of Campaign Finance filing deadline last winter, the former candidate requested a 60-day extension on his July 31 deadline this summer. And then he missed the new one by a few days, too.
Time may also help Chavous retain the tag of political debtor. With less than a year before the 2000 Democratic primaries, aggressive candidates like Bill Rice and Harold Brazil are already draining the finite pool of campaign cash in the District. One other suitor ought to be joining them soon: Chavous, who may face activist Greg Rhett and Covenant House Director Vince Gray in the Ward 7 race. CP
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