Last July, then-mayoral candidate Anthony A. Williams was in no position to turn down potential supporters. He had jumped into the race only a month earlier and had stumbled through his first few campaign appearances. Rival contenders Jack Evans, Harold Brazil, and Kevin Chavous were hammering the former chief financial officer (CFO) for his unfamiliarity with the District, selling out to Congress, and other political felonies.
Against that backdrop, the Washington Interfaith Network (WIN), a multidenominational church alliance dedicated to “holding elected officials accountable,” approached Williams with a mass following and an agenda. WIN was looking for commitments on crime reduction, education, homeownership, jobs, and democracy. Williams endorsed the WIN position on each item.
Most of those positions were no-brainers for any mayoral hopeful. On democracy, for instance, WIN asked candidates to “pledge to be accountable to D.C. residents…and restore home rule for the District in two years.”
The centerpiece of the WIN agenda, however, posed something of an ethical brainbuster for office-seeking pols. The goal was worthy enoughinvest $30 million in after-school and youth programs citywidebut the plan contained a special-pleading provision: $3 million earmarked for the expansion of WIN’s own after-school programs. The organization now operates two such programs and plans to open an additional eight over the next three years.
Any shrewd political adviser would have told Williams to push aside wonkish concerns about campaign-trail contracting once it became clear what WIN was offering in return: “We laid on the table 20,000 signatures of people saying, ‘This is what we want,’ and we got the candidates’ attention,” says WIN political strategy team member David Argo.
Argo no doubt recognized a few numbers in the mayor’s fiscal year 2000 budget, which proposes a brand-new “youth collaborative” for after-school activities. The funding level? Thirty-three million dollars. D.C. councilmembers are calling it a political payoffa suspicion strengthened by reports that although WIN isn’t even mentioned in the budget proposal, Williams has reportedly had conversations with councilmembers in which he volunteered to arrange meetings with the organization about the proposal.
In his appearances around the city on behalf of his budget plan, Williams spins the collaborative not as a reward to WIN but as an initiative stemming from his childhood vulnerability. “I was a foster child,” Williams told a small crowd on March 31 at Ward 1’s Walker Memorial Baptist Church. “We’re proposing a whole range of activities for children outside of school. We want money and action to get to our children.”
The money will have to go through the D.C. Council first. Although none of the 13 councilmembers oppose after-school programs, many say the dollar-for-dollar correspondence between Williams’ campaign promise and his budget proposal reveals an attempt to reward WINas does the circuitous routing he advocates for the money’s disbursement. “I believe in competitive contracts,” says At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz, who argues that the Williams after-school proposal lacks the details of a bona fide budget proposal. “Committing that kind of money without specific goals is irresponsible.”
Far from the resentful snipings of a jilted mayoral candidate, Schwartz’s position represents an inchoate council consensus that may well leave the collaborative in the same dumpster as dozens of other political promises. If so, the council will prolong Williams’ already agonizing experience with the consensus politics of a big-city budget. In the past three weeks, Williams has been blasted for purported offenses like taking on local institutions such as the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) and D.C. General Hospital without so much as consulting old-timers. It’s a tactic that has left political sharks searching for blood.
Featured prominently in the administration’s “Key Budget Issues” booklet, the half-baked explanation of the collaborative plan cries out for a red pen. It does none of the work that a spending plan is designed to donamely, identify priorities, divvy up disbursements, and specify contracting procedures. While the proposal does advocate sinking $33 million in a lump sum into the new “Children and Youth Investment Fund,” it would allow the fund’s managers to spend as they wish, free of interference from the council. WIN will not have direct control over funding, but you can bet they will have a very comfy seat at the table.
“[Priorities] could include funds for community collaboratives, after-school learning centers, community-customized out-of-school programs, and other new approaches…” [LL’s emphasis] reads the proposal.
That sort of language has councilmembers practicing their remonstrations for the April 13 hearing on the proposal. “All of this tells you that they don’t know what they’re going to do,” says Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose. Like several of her colleagues, Ambrose keeps stumbling over the administration’s machinations to sever the $33 million from line-item council oversight.
And according to the administration’s draft, the collaborative would live in a contracting world all its own: “Funding will be disbursed through performance-based contracts or agreements, and performance of organizations receiving funding will be monitored through specific outcome measures” [LL’s emphasis].
Call it the WIN-win proposition.
WIN’s Argo argues that the collaborative’s unique funding structure comports with its unique mission. “We favor an entity that has an independent stream of funding,” he says, “so the funding is not affected by political budget battles and so that it puts children first.” And WIN a close second.
Before councilmembers assent to gifting the collaborative with $33 million, they’ll want to know more about how the new entity would make funding decisions. Under Williams’ plan, all such authority would rest with the “Children and Youth Investment Trust Corp.,” an entity whose membership and procedures the administration currently doesn’t specify. It does, however, endeavor to list possible members of the collaborative’s oversight council, who might include “parents,” “youth,” and a “World Bank Representative,” presumably to assist in preparation for after-school seminars on exchange-rate stabilization.
“This is a nutso presentation,” says Ambrose.
Since Williams served as CFO for three budget cycles, it’s tempting to say he should have known better than to introduce such an incomplete proposal. But scant budget preparation appears as much a hallmark of his mayoralty as nonstop wonk-speak and Anacostia boosterism. As LL wrote in a previous column, administration officials were still researching the title to UDC’s campus three days after proposing to sell it. And last week, Williams and health-care aide Paul Offner made little headway in selling their Medicaid expansion proposal to a skeptical and confused council.
If Williams’ poor preparation sends the collaborative into the tank, the rookie mayor will be killing an initiative that eclipses even UDC and health care for the poor in symbolic importance to his administration. On Inauguration Day, Williams made kids the cornerstone of his government by issuing an appeal to “save our children” in his address at the Reagan Building. And in recent budget barnstorming stops, the mayor has articulated how after-school care and activities jibe with his reigning priority. “Sometimes we wonder why a good school with good teachers isn’t producing good test scores,” said Williams last week in Ward 1. “And the reason is that the children are not getting the nurturing, structure, and affection that they need outside of school.”
Unless Williams refines the after-school proposal fast, those children won’t get much more of that good stuff in fiscal year 2000. “If you can’t get 200 police officers on the street next year,” asks Schwartz, referring to Williams’ rationale for slightly underfunding the Metropolitan Police Department’s recruitment efforts, “how could you possibly spend this kind of money [on a new kids’ program] in one fiscal year?”
When pressed by LL on that very issue, Williams sounded familiar with councilmembers’ objections. “I understand they need more detail, and we are committed to working with the constituencies to get that information to the council,” said the mayor. (Williams’ press office failed to reply to LL’s request to discuss the proposal at length.)
While the council will have no shortage of reasons to kill the youth collaborative, it won’t be able to tag Williams with the style of cronyism practiced by his predecessor, Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. This mayor may have flirted with ethical impropriety by earmarking $3 million in city funds for a specified entity before he was elected, but at least the money’s recipient appears qualified for the task at hand. “We were pleased when WIN started focusing on after-school activities,” says Mary Levy of Parents United, a D.C. public schools watchdog group. “They are a reputable organization.”
In cozying up to WIN, however, Williams did evince mastery of a classic Barry lesson: Just win, baby, and deal with the fallout later. For her part, Schwartz chose the high road: “I said no, and you know how that hurt me? They have thousands of people in their churches.”
D.C. taxicab activist Nathan Price refuses to ditch his grudge against former Taxicab Commission Chair Novell Sullivan. In his three-year tenure on the commission, Sullivan angered Price by pushing through several consumer-friendly regulations, like an air-conditioning requirement, a vintage rule consigning rented cabs over 6 years old to the curb, and even a hack dress code. Price, chair of D.C. Professional Taxicab Drivers Inc., organized hack protests against the rules and even backed a recall effort against Sullivan’s sponsor, Mayor Barry.
In January, Mayor Williams removed Sullivan from his post, demoting the former taxicab driver from a public servant earning more than $80,000 per year to the ranks of the jobless. Now Price is haranguing his former nemesis for accepting unemployment benefits.
“He has a hack license,” says Price. “All he has to do is renew it. He had been driving a cab since about 1980…because he couldn’t do anything else.”
Sullivan spins it differently. “I have a professional background in transportation,” he says, noting that he taught a taxi driver’s class at UDC for several years. Unemployment insurance, he says, is a legitimate way of bridging a career transition. “It’s there to sustain you while you look,” says the former cabbie king.
Price, on the other hand, calls it a drain on the city’s resources. “This is nothing but a hustle,” says Price. And it fits a pattern, he says, pointing out that Sullivan championed the six-year vintage rule even though Price claims he drove fares around town in a 1979 Chrysler well into the ’90s and lobbied for the dress code even though he “dressed with sandals, socks, and shirts without collars.”
“When you make improvements, you make enemies,” says Sullivan. “To respond to what he has to sayit’s not worth my time.” Even though he has quite a lot of it these days.
Last year, Ward 5 council candidate Vincent Orange defeated incumbent Harry Thomas in a photo-finish race. Orange, however, long ago had designs on Linda Cropp’s chairman seat but never got in the game: In his 1993 quest for the post vacated by the late John Wilson, Orange faced a challenge that knocked 589 signatures off his nominating petitions. The addresses on those entries didn’t match records at the Board of Elections and Ethics, and Orange never appeared on the ballot.
Orange is determined that no future candidate should endure a similar fate. Last month, he introduced legislation to eliminate the requirement that all petition addresses match board addresses. Instead, the city would require only that a petition signer in a ward election live in the ward and likewise for citywide elections.
“There would be a rebuttable presumption that the signature is valid,” says Orange, noting that occasionally voters move across the street and get removed from nominating petitions. “If someone comes along and challenges you on that basis, it doesn’t make sense to penalize the potential candidate.”
Although the bill is titled “The District of Columbia Elections Code of 1955 Nominating Petitions Signature Amendment Act of 1999,” it might well be dubbed “The Sandra Seegars Containment Act of 1999,” after the indefatigable Ward 8 elections watchdog.
In 1996, Seegars, using longstanding petitioning rules, disqualified three votersKaren Jones Herbert, Walter Masters, and Tyrone Parkerin the Ward 8 council race between Eydie Whittington and Sandy Allen. She also got Whittington convicted on forgery charges.
If Orange’s law passes, says Seegars, “people won’t bother to challenge petitions. It’ll be too hard.” Once you remove the requirement that petition entries match voter registration rolls, challenges will require too much guesswork.
“Now I can’t throw people off the rolls and get them locked up and get them on probation,” says Seegars.CP