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Since signing on in May as a municipal bonds consultant for the New York-based investment banking firm M.R. Beal & Co., Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. has no doubt had to get acquainted with the lonely reality of the corporate drone. Reporters aren’t always following you around, you have no civic goodies to offer, and pundits aren’t hanging on your every move.
Hunger for the old sort of attention last week apparently inspired Hizzoner—or a pal who can hardly be discouraged by anything the former mayor has said since—to plant gossip about a Barry return to electoral politics as a candidate for one of the two at-large D.C. Council seats open next year. At last Thursday’s memorial service for former Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas, the “Barry at large” rumors were moving faster than the hand fans used by sweaty mourners to cool their faces.
Barry reportedly had first dropped hints about his plans during informal chitchat at the previous night’s wake for the former councilmember. He was asked about an at-large run during his Sunday appearance on a public-access cable talk show hosted by Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union leader Ron Richardson. According to Richardson, Barry estimated the chances of his running for the council at “2 to 5 percent.”
In other words, just enough to keep the media interested.
The rumors bear all the hallmarks of a classic Barry PR ploy. They come during the slowest news time of the year, when both Congress and the council are on break and guys like LL are scraping for news. They generate just enough buzz to keep Hizzoner’s name on the list of active D.C. politicos. And they’re almost impossible to trace. The former mayor couldn’t be reached for comment, and LL’s calls to the various Barry confidants identified by the rumor mill as being in the know either were not returned or were answered with vague attributions to other sources.
One Barry-watcher, for example, said that Bill Hasson, a former president of the Ward 4 Democrats, had learned of Hizzoner’s plans straight from the source. “I just heard it secondhand, actually,” says Hasson, who first picked up the rumor at Thomas’ wake. “It was actually dark that evening. I just heard people saying, ‘Did you hear? Did you hear?’”
At this rate, Hizzoner could reprise the media tease that he staged in 1997-1998, when every public appearance seemed a warm-up for the 1998 mayor’s race. His candidatelike demeanor and prospects for a fifth term filled all the awkward silences among city politicos for months. In May 1998, Barry ended the speculation, delivering his “I’ve been a good mayor” speech.
Barry has yet to make his “I’ve been a good councilmember” speech, but the door is still open. And the council is a familiar stopover for Hizzoner, who was elected to the first home rule council and earned a Ward 8 seat in 1992, following his prison term for cocaine possession.
At the very least, the speed with which the latest Barry rumors spread is evidence that the District still hasn’t kicked its addiction to the former mayor. With a technocratic successor promising to turn the city government into a proving ground for the national best and brightest, Barry—who represented almost everything good and wretched about hometown D.C.’s home rule era—is the subject of considerable nostalgia. And LL’s colleagues in the media all know that no one moves copy like the former mayor.
If a Barry candidacy doesn’t take the city by storm, it’ll at least fire up the politicos already gearing up for the race, like current At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil and 1998 fourth-place finisher Bill Rice. “For the record, I have no comment,” says Rice. “I’m still weighing my options.” Yeah, and so is Hizzoner.
Last Thursday’s funeral service for Thomas put Mayor Anthony A. Williams in a lose-lose predicament. Skipping the event was not an option, for no self-respecting mayor can excuse himself from the civic memorial of such a beloved figure. Speaking on Thomas’ passing, on the other hand, promised to place the mayor’s shallow roots in D.C. political history front and center before thousands of die-hard politicos and community types.
And so it did. While his three mayoral predecessors entered the church greeting old friends and hugging the councilmember’s survivors, Williams moved quickly to his assigned seat as if he were embarking on a TWA flight to St. Louis. And his emotional seismograph didn’t move much higher once he started speaking. With scant personal experience to draw on, Williams sprinkled his brief remarks with platitudes about dying and the councilmember’s legacy: “We also know the road ahead is not so dark, because Harry helped light the way. After all, he taught us the essential lessons of life: Be humble, love your neighbors, and do right by people,” said the mayor.
Williams’ only original thought came in the form of a proposal—to name a government building after the three-term councilmember. He didn’t specify which building, but he did specify the proper bureaucratic procedure for deciding. “I will work with the council, work with the community, work with the Thomas family…to get this done,” he said.
The mayor’s comments came off as particularly lame in the wake of those of his immediate predecessor. Whereas Williams was stiff and impersonal, Barry was relaxed and folksy. “Harry’s gonna be all right,” said Barry repeatedly, to the delight of the crowd.
It’s common knowledge that schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman is an outsider unschooled in the ways of the District, but she seems intent on driving the point home. Since the inception of home rule in 1974, city leaders have striven to guide government contracts to District-based businesses owned and operated by minorities, the better to counteract the decades of cronyism practiced by the racist Dixiecrats who had ruled the city for decades.
This year, Ackerman apparently decided to tilt the preferences in favor of suburban businesses.
After all, four of the five law firms hired by the school system in the spring to handle special education litigation are based in Maryland or Virginia. None have been certified as minority businesses, according to a control board document. The sole D.C. contractor is the downtown firm Hogan & Hartson. “If you’re going to hire five or six law firms, the vast majority should be locally based,” says Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous, who chairs the Education Committee.
The contracts commission the firms to help the school system rebuff overtures by parents to obtain funds to educate children with special needs. The contracts range between $35,000 and $210,000, with lawyer’s fees of up to $263 per hour. Meanwhile, Congress is preparing to cap fees for lawyers representing children against DCPS at $50 per hour.
Andrew Nussbaum, a named partner with one of the contractors, Upper Marlboro-based Knight, Manzi, Nussbaum & La Placa, defends his firm’s accession to the schools’ inner circle. “You’re dealing with a very particularized set of statutory and regulatory provisions in special ed,” says Nussbaum, noting that the firm does similar work for the school systems of Montgomery, Prince George’s, and Frederick Counties.
Other firms on the list have similar client portfolios, which prompted school system critics to argue that Ackerman didn’t look very hard for contractors within city limits. “They just used Montgomery’s list,” says a D.C. lawyer who handles special ed cases.
The only list that the school system used was written by the control board, says schools spokesperson Devonya Smith. “The request for proposals came from the control board,” says Smith. “They would know better [why suburban firms are so well represented].”
Ron Drake, a D.C. lawyer who litigates special ed cases on behalf of children, says whoever orchestrated the schools’ contracting screwed up. “How can a firm in Baltimore, Maryland, know what a child in Southeast D.C. needs?” asks Drake.
* In times like these, many issues could unite D.C. shadow statehood Sens. Paul Strauss and Florence Pendleton. For starters, the two might join hands to denounce the home-rule-violating riders attached by Congress to this year’s appropriations package. Or they could organize a vigil to await the pending federal court decision on the District’s voting rights lawsuits.
Or they could bag the statehood imperatives and just bicker about office space.
In a July 27 letter to Mayor Williams, Pendleton slammed Strauss for taking “all of the open area” in the space allotted to the shadow statehood delegation on the 10th floor of One Judiciary Square. Strauss denies the charge, insisting that he keeps his seven staffers in his jurisdiction. “We each have a designated portion of the space,” says Strauss, who notes that he has sunk some TLC into his digs. “I fixed it up nicer than it was.”
The notion that only aesthetics separate their office space unhinges Pendleton. “That is a blatant lie, but anyway, let’s let it lay,” says Pendleton, who refuses to let it lay. “I don’t need this back-and-forth kind of junk. I never cared for that kind of behavior….If you talk to him, if you go down there, you’ll see he has all the space.”
* In addition to fulfilling his normal duties as columnist and roving political commentator, LL this week will be submitting a $12.90 expense reimbursement form to the elected school board. LL incurred the expenses last Friday afternoon, when the board called a press conference at its North Capitol Street headquarters to announce the third and “final” resolution of its three-week-long leadership squabble.
Now, everyone knows that the school board was too inept to run the $600 million-plus school system that was wrested from it by the control board in 1996. Yet the school board proved last Friday that orchestrating a simple press conference is also beyond its administrative aptitude.
The event was to begin at 4:15 p.m., at which time LL, WRC-TV reporter Tom Sherwood, and Common Denominator correspondent Rebecca Charry were waiting patiently in the assigned room. After a half-hour, the three stormed the board’s offices in search of an explanation for the delay. Sen. Strauss, who doubles as the counsel for once and future school board President Wilma Harvey, said that his client was on her way by taxi and that the board would announce its agreement only after she completed some discussions with her colleagues and signed some papers.
The final agreement came down around 6 p.m.—nearly two hours after the news conference was scheduled. “We could have sat there for another hour,” says Sherwood, “and they would have putzed around there.”
Breakdown for LL’s expenses: $5.00, cab ride to school board; $1.10, Metrorail trip back to office; $6.80 in billable time at $6.80 per hour.
* One of the maxims of good government is that political activism—no matter what form it takes—advances democracy and a strong community. Of course, every maxim has its exceptions, and LL believes he happened upon one last Tuesday night at the South Capitol Street headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.
The scene couldn’t have been grimmer—a drab, featureless conference room in one of the city’s more desolate nooks. And the stakes couldn’t have been lower: A six-member panel of the city’s Democratic State Committee (DSC) was considering who should occupy the vaunted “recording secretary” position in the Ward 2 Democrats’ organization.
Longtime Democratic organizer Andy Litsky appeared to have won the position at the Ward 2 Dems’ June 19 leadership elections by a four-vote margin over Logan Circle advisory neighborhood commissioner Leslie Miles. Eight votes, however, went uncounted because they had been handed in before the candidates had completed their two-minute stump speeches—an apparent violation of the rules governing the leadership convention.
With the support of Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, Miles complained that the rules were vague, haphazardly implemented, and in conflict with the inclusive ideals of the Democratic party. She appealed to the DSC to count the eight votes.
The appeal subjected LL and 30-odd Ward 2 hyperactivists to nearly three hours of civic torture unknown in these parts since the days of Dave Clarke. In its fact-finding quest, a DSC hearing panel entertained marathon testimony on all aspects of the contest, including the following topics: whether Robert’s Rules of Order permits votes by acclamation before large audiences; the difference between “voting” and “elections”; and the wording of a flier distributed to Ward 2 voters before the convention. When the discussion touched on the strategic roles of the “sign-in table” and the “registration table,” respectively, LL decided to tuck away his notepad.
The panel is supposed to write up its findings by September, when the DSC will rule on the eight ballots. CP
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