We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
There was a moment during Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr.’s farewell speech on Saturday afternoon when it appeared that Hizzoner might never relinquish control of the District government. After several minutes of waxing nostalgic to an unresponsive audience, Barry burst forth with a few inspirational words about unifying the city. The crowd voiced its approval, and Barry stood smiling at the podium. It looked like a perfect time to step down, hand the Seal of the District of Columbia to successor Anthony Williams, and fade into private life for the second time in 27 years.
But in the spirit of Chilean strongman Augusto Pinochet, Barry held on, waiting out the ovation and continuing his retrospective.
That was just what Williams supporters had feared. After all, Barry had held the reins of city government in his grip for 16 of the last 20 years. He had built a massive bureaucracy that served not the public, but him. Despite efforts to whittle that bloated government down to an affordable size, he still had hundreds of loyal bureaucrats situated throughout the bureaucracy ready to follow him.
And he was, and still is, mayor for life a title new Mayor Williams won’t take from him any time soon.
Would Barry, at the last minute, snatch the seal, leap from the inaugural stage, and flee with his band of Kool-Aiders to set up a rival government somewhere in Southeast?
That scenario seemed to LL like a fitting finale to the amazing Barry saga we have chronicled in this column for the past 15-and-a-half years. And so it must have appeared to the Williams camp as well otherwise, why would they have seated uniformed officers from all four branches of the military at the head table during last weekend’s inaugural prayer breakfast?
“One thing we must do is make sure that this mayor is sworn in on time,” prayer breakfast organizer extraordinaire Joe Yeldell implored the speakers and some 1,700 guests crammed into the Wardman Park Marriott’s Grand Ballroom for the event.
Yeldell’s role in the Williams breakfast spiced up the event with an ample dash of irony. Yeldell got sacked by Barry as the city’s employment services director in the spring of 1996 after First Lady Cora Masters Lady MacBarry reportedly became irate over the lifelong bureaucrat’s handling of a prayer breakfast for her husband.
Lady MacBarry had wanted that prayer breakfast to herald Hizzoner’s jubilant return to health and to the city following an abrupt and still unexplained sojourn to Maryland and St. Louis for supposed “spiritual rejuvenation.” But Yeldell allowed it to turn into a somber, meagerly attended affair.
None of that appeared to matter to Mayor-Elect Williams, who rushed in Yeldell last month to salvage an event that wasn’t gathering critical mass. After all, what do a bunch of Ivy League grads know about call and response?
Yeldell responded by producing a sold-out kickoff to the inaugural festivities. And no one could ever accuse him of not being inclusive: Ministers from practically every denomination represented on 16th Street NW blessed the incoming administration. Only Union Temple Baptist Church’s Willie Wilson who spoke for a mere 15 seconds complied with his time allotment.
When Williams’ turn to speak finally arrived near the end of the three-hour event, which ran an hour overtime, the mayor-in-waiting also seemed anxious to fast-forward to the swearing-in ceremony downtown, particularly the part where Barry would pass him the seal in a ceremony to cinch the transfer of power. Williams told Hizzoner not to be offended if he suddenly bolted for the nearest exit.
“Nothing personal, but I want to get down to the swearing-in,” the new mayor said to the old one. “I’m sure you understand.”
Before going, though, Williams thanked Barry, with more than a hint of sarcasm, for appointing him the city’s first chief financial officer (CFO) in the fall of 1995. Barry has been claiming full credit for the former CFO’s meteoric rise as the District’s new savior.
“I went out and found him,” Hizzoner said with a straight face during his final weekly news briefing Dec. 30 with reporters. “If I hadn’t, he wouldn’t be mayor today, not in Washington.”
Hizzoner conveniently neglected to remind reporters that he had thought he was getting a patsy when he plucked Williams from obscurity at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in October 1995 to become CFO. Barry certainly wasn’t counting on launching the career of a formidable rival who would bring down the curtain on the Barry era eight years before term limits would have forced him from office.
The era of mismanagement, tardiness, cronyism, malfeasance, carousing, womanizing, finger-pointing, race-baiting, credit-taking, and redemption came to a dignified end at 12:19 P.M. in the atrium of the Ronald Reagan International Trade Center, when Barry briefly fondled the seal and then let Williams take it from his grasp without incident. Just as Lady MacBarry wiped away tears at the passing of power, LL also got misty-eyed and reached for our handkerchief, although probably not for the same reason.
Lady MacBarry, no doubt, was succumbing to nostalgia. LL was moved to tears by the realization that we would pen no more columns about late-night escapades, grainy hotel videos, taxpayer-subsidized junkets to autocratic African nations, outrageous musings from the mayor’s mouth, or staff meetings where the city’s top political leader embarrassed his aides with graphic tales about the joys of colonic irrigation treatments at Catskill hideaways. Remember those humor-filled exploits from the cocaine-addled ’80s?
The appeal of columnist for life seemed to slip away last weekend.
What would we have to look forward to except balanced budgets, courteous D.C. employees, city agencies that actually deliver services, the disappearance of potholes large enough to hide mattresses, well-lighted streets, and trash-free neighborhoods? Instead of colonics, the new mayor will be boring his staff with stats on how many driver’s license renewal notices got sent out on time in a particular week.
Such stuff doth not make for good journalism, at least not the kind LL has practiced here since July 1983.
Just compare the old and the new:
In his third inauguration, in January 1987, Barry required four days and nearly 50 events to deify himself as the Supreme Being of D.C. Politics. Williams took power last weekend by staging only four events to inaugurate himself as the District’s Supreme Bean Counter.
Praise for Williams never approached deification during this year’s inaugural. But Metropolitan Baptist Church Pastor H. Beecher Hicks, who delivered the keynote address at the prayer breakfast, did liken the new mayor to Moses leading the District out of the desert. “Mr. Mayor Moses, the ultimate expression of your work is not in the palace with the pharaohs,” Hicks told Williams. “It is in the pasture with the sheep.”
“Your assignment is with the common people,” he preached, sounding a theme echoed by other speakers throughout the day.
Besides the traditional prayer breakfast and the noontime swearing-in ceremony, Williams hosted an overcrowded reception at the mayor’s suite in nondescript One Judiciary Square and was the toast of a sparsely attended evening gala in the International Trade Center, where everyone, including the new mayor, avoided uttering the name of Ronald Wilson Reagan, which appears prominently on the monstrous edifice. After all, the former president is one of those mean-spirited Republicans D.C. pols always blame for their own shortcomings.
The Williams inaugural lacked the lavishness of Barry’s coronations, the exhilaration of Sharon Pratt Dixon’s emergence eight years ago (she subsequently changed her last named to Kelly), or the joyous defiance of Barry’s stunning comeback from prison and political disgrace four years ago. The crowd that mustered for Williams’ inaugural address was subdued and rose to its feet only a couple of times. Perhaps city residents have learned not to get too excited at moments like these twice before in the ’90s, they have ushered in a “new direction” only to see their hopes dashed, their elected leaders fail yet again, and the city continue on its downward spiral.
This time, however, the change seems permanent. Barry’s forced exile he was persuaded to forgo a fifth term in May for fear that a hostile Congress would strip D.C. of its last remnants of self-government appears irreversible. And voters replaced three senior D.C. councilmembers who together had 59 years of lackluster service on their records with promising, energetic newcomers. The changes engineered by voters in 1998 run much deeper than just a change in the occupant of the mayor’s office.
Even the elements seemed to be on Williams’ side. During the prayer breakfast, LL asked celestial hosts to dump 10 inches of snow on the city that evening to test the new mayor’s mettle. Williams wouldn’t have been able to flee the city, as Barry did following his 1987 inaugural, refusing to return from sunny Southern California while his hapless administration failed to grapple with heavy snow.
The bow-tied mayor would have been forced to take the wheel of a snow plow and demonstrate how his take-charge approach differed from his predecessor’s. But the vaunted winter ice storm turned into a springlike rain, followed by a balmy, sunny day, and city streets had more salt than snow.
Williams was spared his first big test.
If Barry did indeed have plans to abscond with the seal, perhaps he decided to bag them when he recognized only a few faces among the 600-plus onlookers gathered to witness his exit into history. What Hizzoner saw was the sea change wrought by Williams’ candidacy: a surge of interest in city politics from folks who felt ignored by the Barry administration.
The political landscape has changed dramatically since Barry’s 1994 comeback a reality that the outgoing mayor had to confront repeatedly on inauguration day.
Before Barry spoke at the breakfast, Walter Washington, the District’s first mayor, delivered a history lesson to former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), seated at the head table as one of Williams’ transition co-chairs. Washington talked about the era of “Gov. Boss Shepherd,” who paved the District’s streets but was stripped of power by Congress because of public-works corruption. He talked of his experiences with segregated schools and lunch counters, his handling of the 1968 riots, the granting of home rule, and the difficulties he faced as the city’s first elected mayor. But when he came to 1978, and the rise of Barry, Washington jumped ahead to the present.
“I’m not going to get into that mess this morning,” he said of his successors, Barry and Kelly. “I jumped a little history, but I meant to.”
Barry, normally the master of the bon mot, could mange only a weak retort against his 1978 mayoral rival. “If you had been that articulate and that colorful [in 1978], you would have beat me,” Hizzoner chided the man he successfully characterized as a “stumbler and bumbler” who too easily kowtowed to Congress.
During his humor-laden ramble to the prayer-breakfast crowd, Washington, who had backed Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous in the Democratic mayoral primary, called on those willing to get down in the trenches with the new mayor to raise their hands. Turning to Williams, Washington noted, “Tony, this is what you have out here. There may be a flake or two out here, but I know them, and I’m going to point them out to you.”
The differences in rhetoric between the passing era and the new one could not have been more striking. Barry constantly invoked images of the civil rights movement and reminisced about the successful 1971 fight to unseat Rep. John “Johnny Mack” McMillan, the autocratic chairman of the House District of Columbia Committee. In other words, the same pitch he’s been making to city voters for two decades. Then, seeking a more contemporary touchstone, Hizzoner conjured up the images of such Republican villains as Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R-N.C.), who stripped Barry of much of his power during the last Congress.
But inaugural-goers seemed much more inspired by Williams’ pedestrian back-to-basics message.
“We need to fill the potholes. We need to sweep the streets,” Williams declared in his inaugural address. “No offense to the rats, but we need to exterminate the rats, wash away the graffiti, repair the road signs, and collect the garbage.”
No lofty rhetoric there. The fact that such simple promises can inspire an entire city attests to the dramatic failure of Barry to govern, and to Williams’ perception that getting the phones answered courteously and promptly will be more appreciated than grander promises that cannot be kept.
Mayor Williams came into office last weekend sounding the clear warning that D.C. employees had better shape up or they would soon find themselves in the unemployment queue. Unlike the myriad other D.C. pols who have mouthed such rhetoric including former Mayor Kelly, who could not deliver on her 1990 campaign pledge to fire 2,000 managers Williams has a track record behind him: He abruptly fired 165 nonperformers during his days as CFO.
But before the new mayor fires anyone, he must find new jobs for more than a dozen senior members of the Barry administration he’d probably like to be rid of. Since these officials are civil servants instead of career political appointees, Williams can remove them from their current jobs, but he can’t evict them from the D.C. government altogether. Instead, he must find them slots in his administration that offer comparable pay and duties.
The list includes such holdovers as Lucille Knowles, Barry’s director of boards and commissions, communications chief Linda Wharton Boyd, planning director Jill Dennis, Chief of Staff Jeanette Michael, recreations chief Betty Jo Gaines, and policy director Rodney Palmer.
Yes, the same Rodney Palmer whom Williams tried to fire in January 1996 during his first serious clash with Barry after being named CFO. Palmer served as Barry’s budget director at the time, and Williams wanted Palmer’s head for having cooked the mayor’s budget numbers provided to the CFO.
Barry, who Williams suspected was behind the phony budget projections, saved Palmer by moving him over to the mayor’s Office of Planning, out of Williams’ reach.
“We’ve got to find jobs for these people and put them in the bureaucracy so they can screw you up until the day they die,” said a disbelieving Williams transition official. “These people need to go.”
But they may outlast the new mayor.
Williams’ inauguration prompted a rare public appearance by former Mayor Kelly, the Boo Radley of D.C. politics, who seems to be in self-imposed exile in her hometown, avoiding the shame of her failed mayoral term. Kelly emerged last Saturday to sit in the audience with former Mayor Walter Washington and witness the District’s fourth mayor under home rule taking the oath of office.
The swearing-in also brought Jesse Jackson back to the city he had moved to more than eight years ago with plans of running for mayor. Barry stared Jackson down and forced him to abandon his plans for the 1990 mayoral race, and Jackson eventually moved back to Chicago.
The civil rights publicity machine elbowed his way into a front-row seat on the inaugural stage last weekend, even though he had not originally been invited. Perhaps Jackson wanted to get a close-up view of what might have happened had he not lost his nerve at the start of this decade. He is reportedly still miffed that he didn’t get a full-fledged White House ceremony, worthy of a high-ranking ambassador, when President Bill Clinton appointed him special envoy to Africa in 1997.
Williams achieved a first last weekend by combining his swearing-in ceremony with the usually separate ceremony for newly elected and re-elected councilmembers. The council, in the past, has conducted its own ceremony to symbolize its role as an equal branch of government with the mayor, even though most councilmembers complain that they lack the powers of the city’s chief executive.
Last Saturday, Williams had the 13 councilmembers seated behind him in a display of the “unified government” he hopes to maintain during his first term. Some councilmembers clearly seemed uncomfortable serving as stage props for the new mayor and pledged vigorous oversight of the new administration. Council Chair Linda Cropp vowed that she and her colleagues would be “productive partners and vigilant monitors” of the new mayor.
At-Large Republican Councilmember David Catania and Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose sounded the most defiant tones of the day. Some found Catania downright strident as he issued a warning to the special interests that profited during the Barry years.
“This city, and its broken government, has not served us well,” Catania declared in his inaugural address. “It has permitted some, perhaps some of you in this group, to gain unfair advantage at the expense of the people of this city.”
“Those days are over!” he vowed to a roaring crowd.
Ambrose, sworn in to a full four-year term, quoted Aristotle and then threw down the gauntlet for the Federal City Council and other business groups as she praised citizen activists for preserving the city’s beauty and protecting Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s design for the nation’s capital. “We refuse to purchase economic development for our city at the cost of environmental justice,” Ambrose declared.
Even mild-mannered Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson seemed unusually feisty. She had chosen D.C. Superior Court Judge Kaye Christian to administer the oath of office for her second term. Christian gained notoriety and achieved unpopularity in many circles for her unbending control over school repairs, which forced delays in the opening of city schools for the 1996 and 1997 school years. But Patterson last weekend praised Christian as “the one grown-up in all of Washington who really put children first.”
Faced with this avowedly much more aggressive council, Williams may have an easier time getting rid of protected bureaucrats than in steering his pet programs and policies through the city’s legislative body.
At-Large GOP Councilmember Carol Schwartz may have stumbled on a new political weapon weeping. Turning on the waterworks helped to resolve her dispute with Ward 6 Councilmember Ambrose over who would become the next chair of the council’s Public Works Committee. When the council met behind closed doors Christmas Eve to settle this potentially divisive internal battle, Schwartz returned to her mayoral campaign theme, “It’s my turn.” This time, however, she shed a few tears along with her plea.
“When it comes to my turn, you change the rules,” a teary-eyed Schwartz told her council colleagues, according to four members present. Had she openly wept more during the fall campaign, Schwartz might be sitting in the mayor’s office today.
The council was discussing restricting committee chairmanships to the panel’s Democratic majority. But after Schwartz’s performance, council Chair Cropp declared the matter settled in the veteran Republican lawmaker’s favor, and no one dissented.
It was obvious to everyone in the room that Ambrose lacked the votes to wrest the chairmanship from Schwartz. Cropp, criticized for her indecisive leadership during the last council session, flexed some political muscle and got Ward 8 Councilmember Sandy Allen to switch her support to Schwartz, despite an earlier pledge by Allen to back Ambrose. Cropp, in the past, has sought to break up the Health and Human Services Committee, which Allen chairs. But Allen’s turf appears safe from partitioning since she changed sides to join forces with Cropp and Schwartz.
Ambrose, who ended up with the chairmanship of the council’s Consumer and Regulatory Affairs Committee, seemed satisfied with the outcome. Cropp tossed her a bone by also giving Ambrose’s committee jurisdiction over environmental issues, which previously belonged solely to the Public Works committee.
Practically every week since July 8, 1983, this space has been filled with the reporting, humor, and musings of the mysterious and ubiquitous Loose Lips, the writer formerly known as Ken Cummins. On that date, in the era of Lord MacBarry’s second term, this column was born.
In the beginning, Loose Lips, like most Washington journalists, had a fixation with the national scene, offering up the usual mix of national politics, celebrity spotting, and occasional potshots at the cave dwellers running “the Other City Paper,” also known as the Washington Post.
For much of the column’s first decade, LL held a day job covering Congress and the White House for Florida newspapers, which mandated the columnist’s anonymity and provided fertile ground for material. During those early years, when the Washington City Paper often numbered no more than 20 pages weekly, LL pondered such weighty national affairs as President Reagan’s penis (complete with illustration) and its significance to the Contras fighting in Central America. In January 1986, we revealed Reagan’s practice of consulting astrologers before meetings with visiting heads of state to make sure their signs were compatible, two years before dismissed Reagan White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan included the tidbit in his 1988 kiss-and-tell book.
Local politics began to creep into the column during 1984 and 1985. Barry, after all, was gaining national notoriety and celebrity status with his prominent role in Jesse Jackson’s historic 1984 presidential campaign, and also thanks to his late-night exploits with strippers and cocaine at the long-gone This Is It strip joint on sleazy 14th Street NW. The folks over at the Other City Paper hadn’t yet caught onand still haven’t to the fact that the half-million D.C. dwellers who consider the District to be home first and the nation’s capital second hunger for news of local political goings-on.
But LL was getting the message to shed our obsession with the national nerds.
In May 1985, LL reported on Mayor Barry’s crackdown on information flowing from the D.C. government, a move intended to protect the mayor’s image. District employees secretly told LL they were convinced they would be forced to submit to lie detector tests if they were suspected of being the source of critical information on Hizzoner. That column sparked a lot of feedback, convincing LL to go local.
In February 1986, LL bestowed upon Barry the title “Mayor for Life” in recognition of his own transformation of the nation’s capital into his personal fiefdom. That title has appeared in front of the first reference to Barry in every column since and has become part of the public domain, shamelessly pilfered by hordes of national journalists.
For the past 12 years, LL has concentrated on providing extensive coverage of council, school board, and mayoral contestsand even an occasional advisory neighborhood commission racefrom start to finish, not just in the two weeks prior to the election that most local media devote to D.C. politics.
During 1986, we introduced readers to future Councilmember Phil Mendelson, who at the time was leading a neighborhood battle to restrict the size of the development project at 4000 Wisconsin Avenue NW to save part of Glover-Archbold Park from being paved over. It took the methodical Mendelson 12 years, but he finally made it to the D.C. Council in the 1998 election.
Although Barry was always the richest source of material for LL, the District was replete with colorful characters to spice up the column in the rare moments when Hizzoner was behaving himself. Sex entrepreneur Dennis Sobin put forth a slate of D.C. Council candidates in 1986, which LL dubbed the Sexcrats, who enlivened candidate forums and debates.
Longtime political figures like former Ward 6 Councilmember Nadine Winter also provided plenty of fodder for LL. We couldn’t make up such juicy Winter statements as “I am not stupid. I own my own home.” Or “My constituents tell me they want to be able to do two things in life: win the lottery and sue somebody.” Winter used that justification in the fall of 1984 to vote to overturn the city’s no-fault auto insurance law.
Barry, of course, dominated the column throughout 1990 with his Vista Hotel sting arrest, his “bitch set me up” defense, and his successful manipulation of a jury, which cleared him of all felonies despite his having been videotaped buying and smoking crack. Barry, the record holder in LL’s annual Loose Talk Awards, continuously blamed his problems on friends who had betrayed him and the public trust. But, as LL noted in December 1989 of our colonics-loving mayor, with friends like these, who needs enemas?
When Barry left politics briefly at the end of 1990 for his prison sabbatical, many predicted the end of LL. But Hizzoner’s hapless successor, Mayor Kelly, provided plenty of miscues and missteps to fill the column and pave the way for Barry’s stunning 1994 comeback. That fall, LL created the MacBarry series to chronicle the Shakespearean aspect of Barry’s rise and fall, and rise and fall again.
Mayor Williams will also provide column material as he grapples with a stubborn bureaucracy and a city that relishes seeing newcomers and outsiders fail. But it’s time for LL to resume being Ken Cummins. This column we created will continue, but, after this week, it will be penned by former City Paper Senior Editor Erik Wemple.
The devotion of our readers kept LL at this task when we probably should have passed the mantle long ago. As Neil Young put it: “It’s better to burn out than it is to rust.”
I’m going before the rust starts.
Goodbye, and thank you for your devotion, which made possible the past 15-and-a-half rewarding years.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