Do you know D.C.?
Get our free newsletter to stay in the know about local D.C.
On June 5, the Ward 6 Democrats convened at Capitol Hill’s Northeast Branch Public Library to elect officers for the coming term. Like most other ward Democratic cells, the Ward 6ers were voting to recycle the same slate of officers from the previous term, with one exception: Ronald King, a supporter of Mayor Anthony A. Williams, was leaving his position as one of the group’s three vice chairs.
The opening hadn’t escaped the notice of the ward’s ubiquitous overlord, Councilmember Sharon Ambrose, who had asked Capitol Hill resident Kathleen Donner to run for King’s spot on the slate. Donner won the position unchallenged. “We were pleased that Kathleen accepted our invitation to run,” says Ambrose.
Big deal, right? Ground-level politicking takes place every day in the District, and the election of a vice chair to the Ward 6 Dems is hardly newsworthy. Except, perhaps, for one caveat: The Williams people had stayed on the bench. While Ambrose tended to her political base, the mayor’s advisers were absent. Maybe they were elsewhere, delivering sermons about short-term initiatives, or perhaps attending a seminar on “public-private partnerships.”
“I can tell you that the mayor didn’t meddle at all in the Ward 6 elections,” says David Meadows, who chairs the group.
This time, the mayor’s distaste for community politics cost him nothing. Donner, after all, is a faithful Williamsite and a fervid partisan of former mayoral Deputy Chief of Staff Henry Sumner “Sandy” McCall. However, the administration’s approach to this month’s Democratic cell elections underscores how little Williams’ political strategy has evolved since last year’s campaign. Confident that his proclamations on service delivery will keep his base glued together, Williams has shied away from the ruthless coalition-building that preoccupies famous big-city mayors.
At heart, Williams hasn’t decided whether he wants to be a city politician or not. Unlike his politically adept predecessor, the former chief financial officer—who is always willing to monologue on “front-end debt-loading”—has seemed uninterested in such jargon-free nostrums as “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” Six months into his term, there is still no discernible pro-Williams faction on the D.C. Council. And, although Williams has meddled here and there in the ward Democratic committees, his aides insist the policy from downtown is neutrality.
The Olympian pose is fine so long as things are going well. But if the mayor’s fortunes took a turn for the worse—if, say, a growing campaign-finance scandal and a series of high-handed mayoral blunders were to make residents lose faith that those vaunted services were indeed improving—some old-fashioned neighborhood loyalists might well come in handy.
Perhaps the mayor should have made a stop in Chicago on his pre-inaugural city tour. Legendary Windy City boss Richard Daley may not have been a reformist poster boy, but he also didn’t get bounced out of office after one lousy term.
Of course, the one instance of mayoral politicking at the grass-roots level makes LL wonder whether Williams’ involvement would really help him, after all. The closest he has come to smash-mouth community politics is in Ward 2, where Councilmember Jack Evans is struggling to keep his allies at the table. And even there, his people are denying that Williams is involved.
The contested turf is the vice chairmanship of the committee, a post that longtime Evans supporter Linda Greenan and Williams devotee Myrna Fawcett will contest this Saturday. That’s about the only point that the competing parties agree on. The rest of the story has been shanghaied by the Ward 2 political gossip mill. One rumor has Evans offering to support the Williams administration’s controversial nominee for chief financial officer, Valerie Holt, in exchange for the mayor’s endorsement of Greenan. Both sides reacted incredulously when queried about the rumor.
Evans is fighting for the same thing Williams stands to lose: credibility, bragging rights, and, yes, the symbolism that one of his beat all comers in the ‘hood. The Williams people, however, still say they’re not prepared to fight for any of those distinctions. “This is something we’re not involved in,” says Williams adviser Max Brown, who added that any clashes at the community level reflect broader changes under way in the city.
But D.C. Democratic State Committee Chair Paula Nickens says Brown sounded a more interventionist platform in a May meeting. “He felt that he should control all of the ward organizations because the mayor is the highest-ranking Democrat,” says Nickens.
In reality, unacknowledged meddling brings the mayor the worst of both worlds. Brown pisses off people like Nickens, but when Williams’ pals win—the committees in Wards 2 and 6 both happen to be friendly to the mayor no matter who’s on top—they don’t feel indebted to Williams. The mayor’s pledge of neutrality in the ward races reflects a novice’s reluctance to use the power at his disposal. It’s the same impulse that kept him from lobbying against the tax cut authored by Evans and At-Large Councilmember David Catania and from playing hardball in pursuit of his health-care agenda.
To be sure, Williams is only heeding some of his supporters in limiting his involvement in the ward contests to a few strategic strikes. “We asked the mayor from the very beginning not to interfere with grass-roots organizations,” says Bud Lane, a Williams supporter vying for the chair of the Ward 2 organization. Like Nickens, Lane argues that the committees need to develop their own political identities.
That’s a laudable goal, but the mayor will help both himself and the Democratic party by tweaking the grass roots a bit. Like most underperforming political institutions, the District’s Democratic Party could use an injection of competition. And there’s no one more suited to that task than Williams himself.
Mayoral nonintervention notwithstanding, signs of competition in the hinterland are already percolating. Nickens, for example, is campaigning on behalf of the non-Williams candidate—Ronnie Edwards, who remained neutral in last year’s Democratic primary—in the upcoming vote for chair of the Ward 4 Dems. “He has helped his party raise money and served the party well,” says Nickens, who claims that a pro-Williams candidate, Norm Neverson, has already tried and failed to lead the Ward 4 cell.
“How do we hold their feet to the fire if we are beholden to them?” asks Nickens.
Paul Strauss absorbs his share of indignities as D.C.’s nonvoting shadow senator. He has to raise money to pay his own salary and hire staff. He can’t sit on the Senate floor and shoot the breeze with his “colleagues.” And he makes the papers only when the powerlessness of his position comes into full, comical relief.
According to Capitol Hill sources, Strauss may soon lose the prize perk of his elected office: D.C. tags proclaiming him “U.S. Senator.” The tags reportedly confused an officer of the Capitol Police who monitors the parking lots around the Capitol building. The police then raised the confusion with the Senate Rules Committee’s administration, according to an informed source. Now inquiries about the legitimacy of Strauss’ license plates are washing up at One Judiciary Square.
Last week, Adam Maier, a D.C. Council staffer who oversees the city’s Department of Motor Vehicles, defended Strauss’ tags in a call with a Senate official last week. “It’s a courtesy that every state extends to its elected officials,” says Maier.
Strauss concedes that the contradiction—a senator in the District—sometimes catches security types off guard. “Once in a while, someone will say, ‘What? Wait a minute. Let me call it in,’” says the elected official. “But I have no complaints about the parking situation.” Strauss says Senate Security usually lets him park along the West Drive and boasts of a “good working relationship” with the Senate’s sergeant-at-arms.
And as for the prospect of having his tags repo’d, Strauss has already been through that. A while back, someone stole his front license plate—a setback that Strauss apparently accepts as the price of fame. “It’s probably hanging on some fraternity wall,” says the shadow senator.
Earlier this spring, the Williams folks published a glossy pamphlet titled An Introduction to East of the River, which documents officialdom’s fantasies for the renaissance of beleaguered neighborhoods like Anacostia and Congress Heights. The pamphlet outlines detailed specs for a new, suburban-looking “urban town center” in Congress Heights, an arts and entertainment cluster around the Anacostia Metro stop, and a spruced-up Skyland Shopping Center.
The proposals arose from a task force staffed by east-of-the-river Councilmembers Sandy Allen, Kevin Chavous, and Ambrose, plus all kinds of community activists and consultants. Judging from the “credits” page, however, the opus appears less than an exercise in teamwork: It lists only Mayor Williams, chief economic development aide Doug Patton, and east-of-the-river revitalization chief Lamont Mitchell.
Around those three names lies a sea of white begging for someone to fill it with the names of east-of-the-river types. According to an inside source, a previous draft of the booklet did precisely that. The book the mayor presented at a Las Vegas convention, however, had a short line of credit.
Mayoral spokesperson Peggy Armstrong says blame for the credit mis-taking goes to expediency. “We rushed that booklet into print for the Las Vegas convention,” says Armstrong, referring to the retail confab that Williams attended in late May. “And we are now trying to figure out what is the right credits page.”
Armstrong scoffs at the notion that the administration is dissing Allen, Chavous, and Ambrose, who just happen to figure among its most strident critics. “It has nothing to do with that,” says Armstrong, who pledges that a new version of the booklet will be out soon.
At least one councilmember, however, isn’t urging a lot of edits. “Frankly, I am not disappointed at not being included on the credits page,” says Ambrose, who says she’s not pleased with the task force’s recommendations.
In the heady days of his mayoral honeymoon, Mayor Williams delighted in talking up his new “partnership” with the federal government. In the same sentence, the mayor invariably referred to “D.C. Sparkle,” a multi-million-dollar National Park Service program to clean up the city’s shabby federal parks. “This is right up the road we are traveling,” said Williams in January, “and we welcome the support and cooperation of the National Park Service.”
One problem: Congress doesn’t.
Interior Department budget gatekeepers Ralph Regula (R-Ohio) and Norman Dicks (D-Wash.) have teamed up to deny the $4 million in Park Service funds set aside for D.C. Sparkle. In doing so, the pair used a well-traveled canard in District oversight—namely, that the city was getting an excessive share of federal funds by virtue of its proximity to the feds. In a statement to LL, Regula protested that the $4 million set aside for D.C. was “not fair…especially when the national parks in the District of Columbia have received significant funding” from Congress.
That’s a compelling argument, if you have the numbers to back it up. But, according to Assistant Secretary of the Interior John Berry, the city’s $4 million allotment would be drawn from a special $63 million pool of funds available for parks maintenance nationwide. “That’s just 6 percent of the total,” notes Berry, who adds, “The reality is that we have a lot of national parks in the nation’s capital.”
And a lot of those national parks are neglected, says D.C. congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. “The Park Service has not invested in them for more than 50 years,” says Norton. “Take, for example, Meridian Hill Park. The only way in which that park has been rescued is by the residents.”
Although Regula and Dicks have already swatted the $4 million, Norton doesn’t regard this as a settled issue by any means. “We are working with two members who have always been pro-District,” says the delegate. “I want to deal with this member to member.” For the uninitiated, that’s Norton’s euphemism for “like a wild woman.” CP
Got a tip for Loose Lips? Call (202) 332-2100, ext. 302, 24 hours a day. And visit Loose Lips on the Web at www.washingtoncitypaper.com.