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Over the past seven years, Democratic congressional candidates have learned a critical lesson about campaign finance: When funds get scarce, call in First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. After a couple of joint appearances and a financial appeal from America’s most unflappable wife, the checks start getting filled out, the dollars start flowing, and the campaign accelerates.

Hillary’s rainmaking prowess has not been lost on her former D.C. counterpart, Cora Masters Barry. In September 1998, the then-local first lady invited the national first lady to a fundraising kickoff for her celebrated Southeast Tennis and Learning Center, a $5 million complex that will feature indoor tennis courts flanked by computers and other academic facilities at Mississippi Avenue and 4th Street SE. “I’ve come here to celebrate this particular center and this experience,” said Clinton.

Say no more. True to her magical form, Hillary’s presence helped the center speed toward its funding goals and a September 1999 groundbreaking ceremony.

In this case, though, most of the donors are taxpayers. On the day of the celebration, Barry boasted that her project had already amassed $1.8 million in contributions—a tally that loses its sex appeal when you consider its components: $1 million in grants from the city’s Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) and $100,000 in public funds from the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission. That leaves $400,000 in “in-kind” contributions from local businesses such as Bell Atlantic and Washington Gas, plus only about $300,000 in cash raised by Barry’s Recreation Wish List of Washington, D.C., the charity group in charge of the center.

Nearly a year later, only one of those numbers appears ready to budge. Mayor Anthony A. Williams has directed his minions to find more community development funds for the center—a transparent political move given that Williams’ weak east-of-the-river showing in last year’s Democratic primary suggests he could use some more reflected magic from Mrs. Barry, who endorsed him in that race. “They may be doubling their commitment to the center,” says Jennifer Coken, a spokesperson for the Wish List.

Interim City Administrator Norman Dong won’t confirm whether the city will ante up $2 million, but he isn’t eager to put a ceiling on contributions from the city treasury, either. “We’re looking in the capital budget to see if there are funds available,” says Dong. (LL’s early line: There are.) “The mayor has come out publicly in support of this facility. The goal is to make sure the center comes on line when we said it would come on line.”

That goal conflicts, however, with another Williams administration ambition: ending cronyism and nepotism in D.C. government. Cora Barry’s dream of an enormous publicly funded tennis complex is getting no greater scrutiny from Williams’ good-government line judges than it did from the administration of her husband, Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr.

Last year, DHCD put most nonprofits applying for community development grants through the municipal version of the college admissions process. Applicants had to document a need for their program, cite all existing funding sources, compile extensive plans, and so on. “You had to have a lot of your ducks in a row,” says Chris Smith, a board member of the Building Bridges Across the River group.

Somehow, Cora Barry got around all those requirements. In helping her, Williams’ people would be funding a project with threadbare documentation—not exactly the style for which the former chief financial officer was elected. LL first requested the tennis center’s grant application from DHCD, which passed him along to Dong’s office. Dong, in turn, said that he had never seen the documents and passed LL along to a subordinate, who recommended checking back with DHCD. In addition to one day bringing tennis to underserved populations, Cora Barry’s project is spreading nostalgia for Marion Barry’s management style.

Mrs. Barry didn’t return calls from LL on the project.

If DHCD had required her to compete for grants, the former first lady would have been aced on every point. The department, on average, required applicants to have raised approximately $3 for every dollar of DHCD funds committed. With her featherweight piggy bank, Barry had just a little less than 70 cents for each of the million dollars pledged last year by DHCD, a figure that drops to a pathetic 35 cents if Williams shells out another mil. The going was no tougher at the Sports Commission, which used photocopies of the center’s brochure as the basis for its $100,000 pledge.

If those deals are still available, LL hereby proposes a new roof-deck Jacuzzi and Education Center on the 1400 block of Q Street NW. Access free to all who possess keys to LL’s front door.

Contrast Barry’s deal with the $10 million performing arts and recreation center Smith’s group wants to build. To qualify for its $1 million in DHCD funds, Building Bridges Across the River showed commitments totaling $2.5 million. “We had to specify the size of the project, the market to be served, and what type of programs that we would have operating,” says Smith.

That sort of programmatic nitpicking may be soporific, but it forces groups like Building Bridges to refine their vision with every fundraising pitch. While the Wish List’s Coken says there are 28,000 kids in Ward 8 who need places to play, the group hasn’t grappled with how many youngsters would actually use the courts or how many adults would pay for time there. (LL, for one, would love to bring his vicious topspin serve and overwhelming net play to the venue—but only if court availability and prices are competitive with those of D.C.’s two existing tennis centers.) Performing that kind of due diligence is the difference between a popular community resource and an idle boondoggle.

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And once the Wish List plumbs the local tennis market, it can turn its focus to the center’s academic curriculum. “I don’t believe there has really been any discussion as to how the center would actually operate,” says Ken Johnson, who represents the center’s site on the local advisory neighborhood commission.

OUT-OF-CONTROL BOARD

Something about the city’s 1999 tax cut has turned it into a synonym for dirty dealing. First, Mayor Williams in a May press conference dismissed as “grotesque” the D.C. Council’s plan to cut the top rate from 9.5 percent to 6.5 percent over several years. Councilmembers protested that Williams had nodded his assent to the plan a day earlier, only to air his real feelings before the public.

Then, Capitol Hill lawmakers like Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) threatened to derail D.C. college tuition funding over objections to the compromise tax-cut plan ironed out by the council, the mayor, and the D.C. financial control board. The underhanded tinkering didn’t end there. In recent weeks, the control board—donning the mantle of fiscal responsibility—has dissed all other partners to the compromise and pulled Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.), chair of the House D.C. appropriations subcommittee, into a battle between the city’s two home-rule-violating titans.

Here’s the skinny: Just when the council thought it had made the final tweak in the tortured tax-cut plan, it received an edict from control board Chair Alice Rivlin imposing some last-minute adjustments. Rivlin’s body doinked an automatic mechanism deepening the income tax reduction in prosperous times and added measures to stop the reductions altogether in fallow years—thus strengthening existing “circuit breakers” in the legislation. The council complied with Rivlin’s requests, passing them in a June 22 legislative meeting.

“It’s as if you’re in a game and somebody else is holding all the cards,” says Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, who introduced the original legislation along with At-Large Councilmember David Catania. Evans’ tax-cutting buddies on the council felt equally angry at Rivlin for revisiting their compromise.

Instead of going to the media, however, they went to Congress—the one body that can overrule Rivlin. Catania and fellow Republican At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz complained about the revisions to Istook in a July 12 meeting and wondered aloud about remedies.

When three Republicans get together on tax cuts, there’s usually little to argue about. Istook was every bit as scandalized as the local GOPers and came up with a deal: If the council expressed its opposition to the amendments that it itself had passed, Istook would keep them out of the final package. At one point, the congressman even proposed codifying the tax cuts, minus the circuit breakers, in federal code—an option that would have prevented city officials from ever tinkering with them.

The whole notion zapped the home rule antennae of D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. “I was able to negotiate a way out of the federalization issue,” says Norton.

It is unclear whether Istook wanted a letter from a majority of councilmembers or just a few phone calls before overriding Rivlin. “He was looking to take the temperature of the council,” says Istook Chief of Staff John Albaugh.

The reading: 103 Fahrenheit. According to Catania, seven councilmembers in a July 13 meeting—Evans, Catania, Schwartz, Kathy Patterson (Ward 3), Vincent Orange (Ward 5) Sharon Ambrose (Ward 6), and Sandy Allen (Ward 8)—favored dumping the control board’s mandate.

But Council Chairman Linda Cropp—ever the conciliator—overruled the majority and asked Istook to bag the anti-Rivlin plot. Perhaps the battle-weary chair, whose colleagues had waged a very public battle with Williams, saw the virtue of not dragging the once lightweight legislature into a two-front war.

At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson cited D.C.’s political third rail as his reason for balking: “Members of the council have to be careful not to set themselves up for criticism for going to the Hill to get around the control board and the mayor.”

The clash landed Istook in a hospitable zone where his zeal for unmitigated tax-slashing happened to coincide with the city’s home rule imperatives—and allowed the Oklahoman to play the accidental home-ruler. “The idea was to protect the wishes of the elected officials of the District against the control board,” Albaugh says.

Evans and Catania appreciate the support from their Hill soul mate. “He has been the most responsive congressman in that position that I have dealt with,” says Evans.

And even though the council waved off Istook’s attack on the control board, you won’t find it retreating to Coolfont with Rivlin & Co. anytime soon. “I resent the fact that just because the authority has been around for a number of years it is [considered] a legitimate arm of government. It’s not—it’s an agent of Congress,” says Catania. “I will know now that a deal isn’t a deal.”

POLITICAL POTPOURRI

* Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous should consider pounding his gavel harder. Or perhaps yelling a bit louder, or threatening to spank representatives of the D.C. public schools with a ruler. Anything to notify the Washington Post that he is chair of the council’s Education Committee.

When Chavous first took the reins of the committee from Hilda Mason in 1997, Ward 3’s Patterson routinely eclipsed him in headlines on school closings and the meanderings of then-schools czar Gen. Julius Becton. Sure, Chavous garnered a mention here and there—usually in connection with his failure to hold timely hearings on pressing school matters.

These days, Chavous is holding timely hearings on pressing school matters. He issues press releases on the hearings and grills schools officials at them. It’s all part of his plan to cast himself as a more engaged councilmember in light of last year’s mayoral race, in which opponents pasted him for shoddy oversight and poor attendance at legislative meetings.

Too bad the paper of record hasn’t bought into the image remake.

The Post rewarded Chavous for holding last Wednesday’s hearing on surplus schools with a nice big photo…of Ambrose. The lead quote also went to Ambrose, who hammered the control board for failing to move the properties quickly. “This is really stupid, and neighborhoods are being destroyed,” Ambrose said. After detailing Ambrose’s objections, the story quoted Chavous as decrying the “minefield of problems” in surplus properties.

Back in February, Catania earned an item in the Post’s District Politics column for “steal[ing] the show” from Chavous at a committee hearing on special education. “This makes me madder than hell,” Catania said after hearing testimony from a child who had been wronged by the city’s special education program. Catania, by the way, isn’t even a member of Chavous’ committee.

In such circumstances, LL & Associates Political Consultancy Services LLP would normally advise the councilmember to adopt a harsher tone toward government officials—the rhetorical tactic that earned Patterson and Catania so many press points. But Chavous already tried that at an April 15 hearing on Mayor Williams’ controversial plans for the University of the District of Columbia, when he said this to mayoral aide Abdusalam Omer: “The reason I’m interrupting you is because I don’t want you to look as though you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

The Post didn’t pick that one up.

Because of an editing error, last week’s column incorrectly reported that Lloyd Jordan maintains a home in Ladue, Mo. He maintains only a forwarding telephone number there. CP

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