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LL’s favorite Harry Thomas moment came at the 1995 annual turkey giveaway on the councilmember’s Ward 5 home turf. While Thomas was dishing out turkeys and saying “God bless you” to their recipients, he was approached by a community activist from his ward. Thomas shook the man’s hand and slapped him on the back. “How you doin’?” asked the councilmember, who died of cardiac arrest last Saturday.
In the course of conversation, the man happened to mention that he was pondering a run for Thomas’ council post. The councilmember nodded and began to shake with laughter before blurting out, “Well, before you go out lookin’ for supporters, you’d better zip up your fly.” Stunned, the man abruptly turned from the crowd and covered his exposed flank.
Harry Thomas had a line for everyone—for the ankle-biting activist, for the parents of a murder victim, for the needy beneficiaries of his turkey and toy handouts, and for the hearing room full of municipal workers worried about their job security. Before each audience, Thomas performed what he knew best: personal politics.
From his political style came every wonder and every pitfall of his 12 years in office. The ideal foil for an inept bureaucracy, Thomas served essentially as an elected constituent services advocate for Ward 5ers. He devoted as many as three staffers to track down resident complaints. He prowled the streets daily in his black Thunderbird, often reporting potholes and illegal dumping before the neighbors did.
But when the councilmember left the personal and treaded on the cold fields of policy, budget, and law, he lost his street map. Unable to grasp zoning rules and commercial law, Thomas whiffed in his six-year fight against Ward 5’s notorious trash-transfer stations—a failure that the councilmember himself blamed for his narrow defeat last September by Vincent Orange. Unwilling to consider the layoff of a single municipal employee, Thomas promoted the budgets that gave us the control board and our junk bond rating. In the process, he perpetuated the very culture of bureaucratic impunity that he specialized in cutting through on behalf of his constituents.
Unlike his council allies and the District liberals who applauded generous social spending, the Richmond native’s tax-and-spend leanings grew not from a bleeding heart but from 37 years in the federal bureaucracy, in which he ascended from a janitor to a public relations aide. If he could live the American dream on a government paycheck, Thomas reasoned, why couldn’t everyone else?
With assists from Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. and council colleagues Dave Clarke and Hilda H.M. Mason, Thomas lent D.C. politics the feel of a civic sitcom, where the lovable cast went through the same hi-jinks week after week. Once, he cold-cocked a staff member who behaved badly at a Christmas gathering; he delighted in alleging that regulators at the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs were “on the take”; and he was spotted repeatedly in the tenebrous hives of Ward 5 late at night, shouting at trash-transfer entrepreneurs.
Thomas died at a time when councilmembers are dumping his personal style for the professional politics of oversight and accountability—a trend that keeps councilmembers closer to their desks at One Judiciary Square and farther from their constituents. Elected officials nowadays rely on the media and civic events to make an impression on voters.
Thomas, by contrast, relied on his car and the endless amounts of time he had for his job. So when mourners gather for Thomas’ funeral on Thursday, they’ll all have their own favorite Harry Thomas moments.
WHOSE HOME RULE?
Beyond the ritual temper tantrum known as her “wild woman” routine, Eleanor Holmes Norton has patented one other innovation during her five terms as D.C.’s congressional delegate: Norton’s “one-strike” rule amounts to a vow never to render judgment on any policy passed down by the city’s elected officials. Once something becomes District law, the delegate sees it solely as a matter of home rule and dedicates herself to protecting it on the Hill.
So if Mayor Anthony A. Williams and the D.C. Council agreed to require all D.C. government workers to wear bow ties, the logic goes, Norton would put aside all personal sartorial considerations and spend all summer trying to defend the law from congressional predators in the annual District budget review.
The system works, most of the time. Ordinarily, Norton doesn’t need to check with Williams, D.C. Council Chairman Linda Cropp, et al. to divine the will of One Judiciary Square. The mayor and the council, for example, mouth the same outrage on most headliner squabbles in this year’s appropriations package, like the needle-exchange prohibition and voting rights for D.C. citizens.
But for other issues—things where the city government isn’t pulling together to beat back some affront to local democracy—Norton needs to hire her own I-Team to figure out where to stand. From budget issues to planning policy, a reformist mayor and a newly energized D.C. Council are often still bickering long after Norton needs a “unified” position to present on the Hill.
“Issue by issue,” says Norton, “there have been some differences between the executive and the council that do put me in a real dilemma.”
Like most problems that ail D.C., Norton’s dilemma arises from the city’s status as a political orphan. Since Congress is free to mess with District affairs, local politicians have to fashion a presto consensus on all the interventionist measures proposed each year. Elsewhere, political duels that linger on past a particular vote are a sign of robust democracy; in D.C., they undercut the defense of home rule.
No issue illuminates that dynamic quite like the ongoing fuss over the real estate sale provisions in the D.C. budget conference report hammered out last week by the House and Senate. Under current law, the D.C. Council has the authority to place city-owned properties on the surplus rolls—a bureaucratic prelude to offering them for sale on the market. But language inserted into the House bill by D.C. appropriations subcommittee Chair Ernest Istook would strip the D.C. Council of its property stewardship, handing that power to the mayor. Istook made the change after reading about mishandled city property in the papers.
Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson—the council’s self-appointed brake on Williams’ usurpation of legislative powers—complained to Norton that the tinkering upended the city’s home rule prerogatives. The Istook amendments, argued Patterson, circumvented the work of her committee on government operations, which was reviewing the statutes. “I told her to see the mayor and come up with a unified position,” says Norton.
So Patterson did. The result was a letter from Williams asking Istook to scale back the language. Patterson, though, thought the mayor’s letter was too vague and didn’t properly address Istook’s end run around the council.
Again, Norton advised her friends downtown to hash it out.
Patterson sent her complaints to the Williams people again. The result was letter No. 2 from Williams to Istook, which advised him to better address the council’s concerns. “He said,
‘[The position in the first letter] was my personal position, but we should have a position that respects home rule,’” says Norton of the letter. “Apparently, Kathy beat up on the mayor enough so that he said, ‘I guess all of this should be done by [consensus].’”
Patterson wouldn’t quite admit to carrying out her own wild woman routine at One Judiciary Square. “I know there was confusion as to what the mayor’s perspective on this was,” says the councilmember. That’s a polite way of saying the mayor really did want Istook to unilaterally disempower his council rivals but knew it would be political suicide to say so.
It didn’t much matter. Congress steamed ahead with its D.C. budget plan. The final position, as outlined in Williams’ second letter, never made it into the conference report—which contains the original Istook language that started the fracas. “What we may have learned is that next year people will be on their guard to make sure they’re together,” says Norton.
Unless, well, they have irreconcilable differences. Take the Hill’s plans to cap fees paid by D.C.’s public school system to lawyers for special education children. Both Williams and the D.C. financial control board favor the caps. When Norton’s office called Cropp, says the rep, she was told that the council was neutral on the matter. So Norton told her colleagues on the Hill to cap away.
It wasn’t that simple. Special ed lawyer Beth Goodman says the delegate was uninformed. “She really needs to be taken to task over this,” says Goodman. Goodman cites letters from three Education Committee members—Patterson, Sharon Ambrose (Ward 6), and Phil Mendelson (At Large)—opposing the caps. Language in the council budget says the same thing.
“The general sentiment in the council is that this cap is unfair,” says Mendelson.
If so, says Norton, negotiate a compromise with the mayor—and then tell her what you’ve come up with. It may be asking the impossible, but Norton is sticking with it. “Leave me to the complications of the Congress, and don’t pull me into the District’s internal affairs,” says the delegate. “If we don’t have a unified position, Congress will do things its own way.”
* If you work for Mayor Williams, there are a few things you absolutely don’t want to do: One, wince when the mayor’s mother, Virginia Williams, sings. Two, tell legal aide Max Brown to “get over it” in a staff meeting. And three, dis the Hillcrest Civic Association, the stronghold of Williams supporters who last year started the draft-Williams movement.
Although LL has yet to document violations of the first two maxims, Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs Director Lloyd Jordan and aide James Aldridge last Saturday messed with the third. Jordan turned down an invitation to speak at the Hillcresters’ monthly confab at the Lutheran Church of the Holy Comforter in Ward 7 and vowed to send Aldridge in his stead. Aldridge never showed. “People were already disappointed that Lloyd Jordan himself didn’t see fit to accept, so we were really disappointed when no one came,” says association President Pastor Franklin Senger.
* August is generally a slow, easy time for civil servants everywhere, but members of the city’s Historic Preservation Review Board will be feeling the heat like never before. Anchoring the board’s agenda this month is an item that could change forever how District citizens refer to themselves.
In deciding how to name a new historic district north of Massachusetts Avenue NW, the board faces two almost irreconcilable alternatives: One is to call it the Western Shaw/Blagden Alley Historic District. And the other is to call it the…Blagden Alley/Western Shaw Historic District.
Sure, the decision appears trivial on its face. But anyone schooled in the city’s obsession with naming neighborhoods knows better. “It’s a traditional D.C. black-v.-white issue,” says an HPRB member. “The black neighborhood is lining up on the Shaw side, and the white neighborhood is lining up for Blagden Alley.”
The racial median sprouted at a recent community meeting with staffers at the city’s historic preservation office. Leslie Miles, a white member of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2F, lobbied to scrap the Shaw designation altogether, pointing out that the name derives not from the ‘hood’s 19th-century roots but from an urban renewal district carved out in 1966. “Nobody in this part of the neighborhood calls this place Shaw,” protested Miles. “Some people say Blagden Alley, some people say Old City, some people say Logan Circle, or even Convention Center.”
She left out a recent moniker rapidly gaining popularity: “MCI Heights.”
Rather than adopting a Vietnam-era designation, argued Miles, the city should go with something more historic, like, for example, “Northern Liberties,” to commemorate the expanse’s erstwhile status as a roaming ground for hogs and cows.
Black neighbors—including area ANC commissioners Norma Davis and Rodney Foxworth—were no more ready to accept that proposal than to install milking machines in the O Street Market. Steve Raiche, head of the Historic Preservation Division at the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, sided with them, ruling in favor of “Shaw” and against Miles. “Blagden Alley” is automatically part of the designation because it gained historic district status in the ’80s. Now the board must figure out which goes first.
“We can live with Shaw/Blagden Alley, but not Blagden Alley/Shaw,” says Doris Brooks, a Shaw ANC commissioner who is African-American. “When people move into Shaw, we always say, ‘Welcome to Shaw.’ Shaw comes first.” CP
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