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The D.C. Council last week reviewed a resolution deploring the proposed construction of a prison at Oxon Cove, the slice of undeveloped Ward 8 territory coveted by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). The resolution notes that the site “represents an opportunity for the preservation of waterfront green space for the local community” and acknowledges the “widespread public concern and opposition” to its use as prison grounds.
The resolution looked like the logical handiwork of Ward 8 Councilmember Sandy Allen. After all, Allen last October had declared her opposition to the prison. Two weeks ago, she joined her constituents in a march protesting the project.
Allen, however, treated the document as if it proposed granting a District Cablevision morning show to the Greaseman. Even though it addressed the hottest topic in her ward, she declined to support the resolution, which entered the council record courtesy of cosponsors At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson and Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous.
Allenwho did not return numerous calls from LLapparently decided that if she wasn’t going to lead or follow, she might as well get out of the way.
Allen’s inaction didn’t rate a headline in last week’s dailies or a mention on the nightly news. And when the council gets around to considering the resolutionprobably in its April 6 legislative meetingother agenda items will undoubtedly overshadow it. This bit of council politicking, in fact, will have to wait at least a year before it debuts as a big issuein the 2000 Ward 8 council campaign.
And when it does, it will be used as a cudgel against the incumbent, whose wishy-washy style has already cost her support in the ward. In January, for example, Allen endorsed upstart Arthur Jackson in his bid to be the Ward 8 representative to D.C.’s Democratic State Committee. Jackson lost by over 70 votes to Eugene Dewitt Kinlow, a staunch prison opponent.
“It seems that everyone I talk to says, ‘She’s so weak,’” says Kinlow, who has criticized Allen for failing to act on the resolution. Of course, Kinlow has every motivation to portray his council rep as a lame duck: He is one of several activists poised to challenge her at the polls next year.
Like the rest of the Ward 8 field, Kinlow may have to school himself on just one issuethe prisonin preparation for candidate forums. The controversy encompasses all the key issues that have troubled the ward throughout the centurynamely, economic development, criminal justice, and the ward’s relation to the rest of the city.
Allen can only hope that no one asks her to account for her handling of the issue.
In the summer of 1997, Allen convened a task force of Ward 8 activists purportedly to research local opinion on the proposal and the impact of privately operated prisons on urban neighborhoods. The task force began by holding hearings in the ward but wound up jetting around the countryoften at CCA’s expenseto evaluate facilities. “Nine out of 10” private facilities, recalls task force chair Linda Moody, enhanced the communities surrounding them.
(Moody, of course, was given some other reasons for offering a rosy assessment: Her subsequent campaign for an at-large seat on the D.C. Council received $500 from CCA board member Joe Johnson and from the law firm of CCA lobbyist John Ray.)
In March of last year, Allen joined 11 fellow councilmembers who signed a letter to the
Federal Bureau of Prisons calling for a new prison to be built in D.C. At the time, it was assumed that the potential site was Oxon Cove.
Despite her signature on the letter and the sanguine report of the task force she herself convened, Allen was still wavering late last summer. In September, she told a Washington City Paper reporter that she was still on the fence and would remain there until she had finished surveying her constituents. “The community makes that decision,” she said, announcing that she’d wait for the ward’s advisory neighborhood commissions (ANCs) to decide and noting that she had sent a letter to the Zoning Commission reminding its members that the D.C. Code requires that “great weight” be given to the ANCs.
Allen finally came out against the proposed prison last fallaround the time she realized that in pulling against the ANCs’ “great weight” she might be dragged to the bottom of the polling tally in 2000. And crediting the ANCs for the decision proved useful in providing Allen political cover for her decision to turn down CCA. “The writing was on the wall,” says a fellow councilmember. “There were so few people supporting the prison that she had to find a way to oppose it.”
Curiously, however, Allen to date has yet to reveal any personal convictions underlying her ANC-inspired position. On the radio and in newspapers she says she’s selflessly doing the neighborhood’s biddingperiod. “I met with my ANC commissioners, and their reaction was they did not want a facility in Ward 8,” Allen told the Washington Post on Oct. 8, without elaborating on the prison’s drawbacks. “I can only follow the lead of my community. I work for them.” That exhortation doesn’t quite measure up to that of Henry V urging his troops into the breach near Agincourt.
Allen’s prison punt has deprived her constituents of something they deserve from their councilmember: leadership to show the way to something better than a prison. Are there better economic development prospects for the property? Is she skeptical that the benefits promised by CCAjobs, contracts for locals, truck-driving classeswill ever materialize? In falling back on the ANCs, Allen has dodged those questions.
The councilmember’s handling of the Mendelson-Chavous resolution lends credence to the notion that she holds separate private and public positions on the prison project. “It sends mixed signals to the community,” says Moody. “I really don’t know where she stands.” Nor do CCA’s lobbyists, who in the 1996 campaign cycle contributed $2,000 to the woman who nowofficiallyopposes their prison.
Allen should have learned from former colleague Harry Thomas that holding contradictory stands on a ward’s dominant issue plows a straight path to political retirement. In public appearances last year, Thomas preached a hard line against the trash-transfer-station operators who had terrorized his ward for five years. On the council dais, however, the Ward 5 councilmember advocated exemptions for operators who had supported him. “I think it was the trash-transfer stations that got me,” Thomas told LL last year after his primary defeat to Vincent Orange.
In a year or so, Allen will learn that her position on the prison is every bit as dangerous as Thomas’ opposition to trash-transfer stations. “All we need to do is find us seven or eight advisory neighborhood commissioners to say, ‘Sandy, we need it,’” says prison proponent Rahim Jenkins, a two-time candidate for Allen’s seat. “Then she’ll have to switch.”
Anyone who has dabbled in D.C. politics knows that the candor of Ward 8 activist Phil Pannell spares no one. Unlike the legions of observers who parse their words carefully and take refuge in off-the-record exchanges, Pannell welcomes attribution for all of his comments, even when he wishes he hadn’t uttered them.
So few were surprised to see a pithy Pannell quote in an item on the David Howard controversy in the Jan. 29 edition of this subtle, clever column. At issue was Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ acceptance of Howard’s resignation after he uttered the word “niggardly” in a meeting with an African-American colleague. “Tony’s reaction is one of a gutless wonder,” said Pannell.
In the international dust-up that followed the resignation, pundits and opinion makers would say the same thing, although not quite as bluntly as Pannell. If they had, perhaps they would be barred from contact with Williamsthe very treatment Pannell claims his remark earned him.
Several weeks after his comment hit the streets, says Pannell, he was dropped from the administration’s inner circle of ward advisers. “If you look at the inaugural program, I am listed as one of Tony’s ward coordinators for Ward 8,” he says. “And when they had a big meeting with all the ward coordinators, I wasn’t invited.”
The dis from One Judiciary Square has Pannell convinced that the city has elected a ’90s version of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. “It’s clear to me that the mayor would rather have followers who are more obsequious than objective, more sycophantic than supportive,” says Pannell, who worries that the mayor will soon be surrounded by a platoon of groupthinkers.
LL, meanwhile, is convinced of something else: Williams’ treatment of those who cross him gives the lie to the campaign-trail image of Williams the nonpolitician. Throwing over Pannell may not make for good strategy in winning over the poorest, most alienated corner of D.C., but busting disloyalty is one quality that separates vote-counting political operators from bean-counting financial officers.
Ward 8 war horse JePhunneh Lawrence, another of Williams’ ward coordinators, learned this lesson just weeks into Williams’ term. Before the new mayor even had a chance to clear his desk of his predecessor’s brow mops, Lawrence was running around town hammering him for ignoring Ward 8 in his staffing choices. “How come we don’t recognize any of these people?” Lawrence implored the mayor at a Jan. 9 appearance in Hillcrest.
Lawrence never turned down an opportunity to air his feelings about Williams’ cabinet in the press. In the Feb. 13 edition of the Washington Post, for example, Lawrence spoke against the appointment of Vincent Spaulding and Lamont Mitchell as mayoral aides for public works and east-of-the-river economic development, respectively. Lawrence’s quote slighted the administration on several levels: “We’re talking about policy-level positions. The general strategy seems to be, you put a few people in minor positions and then come back with an appointment of a white person to a major office.”
No, actually, the administration’s general strategy is to sever ties with people like Lawrence. Last week, Deputy Chief of Staff for External Affairs Henry Sumner “Sandy” McCall told Lawrence that he had been “disinvited” to meetings of Williams’ ward coordinators. “We’ve had a problem with Mr. Lawrence as far as his public statements are concerned,” says Williams spokesperson Peggy Armstrong. “Sandy apparently did make it fairly clear that the mayor expects them to be honest and forthright with him, but he does [also] expect a public show of support, and if you don’t do that, you become a persona non grata.”
Allow LL to suggest how Lawrence could have rephrased his Post quote to meet the administration’s standard: “We in Ward 8 and the citizens of the District enthusiastically cheer these appointments. Bravo, bravo!”
The mayor’s censorship would be forgivable if he were disciplining folks who had affirmed their loyalty by taking jobs in his administration. However, Lawrence and Pannell are unpaid agents of the administration, activists who believe their work on the mayor’s behalf entitles them to airing their gripes. In a March 3 letter to the mayor, Lawrence wrote, “I would remind you that I have been there since the establishment and structuring of the initial Draft Tony Williams Committee; and, I have been with you every step of the way since then.”
And Lawrence says he wouldn’t have had to go public with his views if Williams had fulfilled his promise to consult with ward coordinators before making key appointments. “The point is that [the ward] certainly should be consulted before [the mayor] appoint[s] people to purportedly represent the interests of Ward 8,” says Lawrence. “That’s the minimum that should have occurred. He broke face with us; we didn’t break face with him.”
Williams doesn’t have to worry about seeing such treasonous words attached to the name of the sole remaining Ward 8 coordinator, Dion JordanJordan works for the mayor full time, just down the hall in the Office of the Public Advocate.
If Jordan’s not overcome by fear of being gagged himself, he’s no doubt telling Williams about the lingering resentment in the Ward 8 political class over Williams’ cabinet appointments. Activists throughout the ward are particularly perturbed by the perception that the appointment of Mitchell, proprietor of the Imani Cafe in Anacostia, is somehow a concession to Ward 8. “People can’t count,” says activist Sandra Seegars. “He lives in 7, and his restaurant is in 6, and this is 8.”
“Oops, I better shut up,” continues Seegars, “because I’m applying for a position on the Taxicab Commission.”CP
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