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In the past decade, D.C. residents compiled Christmas lists so weighty that Santa’s sleigh would have crashed on take-off had these gifts been on board.
Those lengthy wish lists included permanent retirement for Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. with no return clause; new political leaders with the wisdom and courage to tackle the city’s deep-seated problems and the culture creating them; bureaucrats who understood that public service meant more than just showing up to collect their weekly paychecks; schools that actually taught children to read, add, and subtract; streets that didn’t flatten tires and destroy suspensions with potholes large enough to hide mattresses; alleys clean of trash and corners free of drug dealers.
And every Yuletide morning, citizens in the nation’s capital awoke to discover that the Grinch had once again stolen their Christmas. Nothing and no one seemed capable of turning the city from its path of self-destruction or loosening Barry’s grip on the government.
But D.C. residents will awake this Christmas morning with plenty in their stockings to warrant rejoicing. This city has undergone a revolution so staggering and pervasive during 1998 that even another Barry spiritual rejuvenation couldn’t knock it off course.
As LL prepares to hand out another round of our annual Loose Talk Awards (LTAs) to honor those whose loose lips, revealing behavior, and unguarded moments over the past 12 months have greatly edified us all about the District’s body politic, let us recount the revolution that has occurred:
Hizzoner is leaving for good Jan. 2, after dominating government and political life in this city for nearly three decades. This time, even Barry sees his prospects for another political comeback about as dim as the Washington Mystics’ chances of winning a WNBA title this year.
Barry’s long-awaited permanent departure leaves the thousands of Mayor-for-Life loyalists still entrenched within the bureaucracy no incentive to undermine incoming Mayor Anthony Williams. Those loyalists’ resistance to former Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon at the start of this decade successfully killed prospects for change then. However, if these recalcitrant bureaucrats try to resist the savvier and more politically skillful Williams, they likely will be joining Barry in the search for a new career.
“We need to command respect, not just demand it,” Williams said repeatedly on the campaign trail. The pitch resonated loudly with an electorate eager to get services instead of more excuses.
Williams is solely responsible for the renewed optimism that Barry’s exodus this time will be everlasting. Last May, the witty technocrat and self-anointed nerd seized control of the revolution already underway and, with his outsider campaign for mayor, transformed it into a political crusade that promises to change the political landscape of this city forever.
Williams helped foment the revolution in his 33-month stint as D.C.’s first chief financial officer. During his tenure, Williams served as the main architect for budget plans that returned the District to financial well-being well ahead of schedule and piled up surpluses in the treasury. He restored order to the badly mismanaged Office of Tax and Revenue. District taxpayers this year got their D.C. refunds weeks before the federal checks arrived in their mailboxes.
Before Williams arrived, that feat seemed about as impossible as finding a courteous D.C. bureaucrat or getting the police to answer 911 calls promptly.
Once he jumped into the political arena in June, Williams moved with equal dispatch. He ignited a grass-roots campaign, and out-hustled and outspent four better-known D.C. Council veterans who had launched their campaigns months earlier. But Williams, who had attended some 150 community meetings during his tenure as CFO, read the city’s political mood much better than his more seasoned rivals, even though he had lived in the District less than three years. And he quickly detected the prevailing sentiment that eluded his rivals and would be their downfall: Voters blamed the D.C. Council for the government’s financial collapse and lack of performance almost as much as they faulted Barry.
Despite being painted by his rivals as a heartless bean counter who had just arrived in D.C. and should never be forgiven for actually firing 165 city employees, Williams dispatched his more established opponents like a knight slaying dragons. His upstart victory dealt such a blow to the city’s political psyche that the current establishment may never recover. LL certainly hopes not, since this group has been in need of a Jack Kevorkian for some time to rid us of their misery.
Williams also ushered in a new standard for political success in the District: It’s not enough to just keep a seat warm and blame Congress and everyone else for the District’s failures. Politicians now will be counted on to take decisive action while in office. Such a standard was dismissed as political heresy before Williams arrived on the scene.
The revolution that swept Williams into the city’s top political office on his first try also hit the council like Hurricane Mitch ravaging Central America.
Seven of the 11 councilmembers who faced the voters this year suffered rejections, including the four who ran for mayor. Councilmembers may now have finally gotten the message that they have to be more than spineless place-holders if they expect to move up the political ladder.
Williams’ landslide victory Nov. 3 struck At-Large Republican Councilmember Carol Schwartz particularly hard. Schwartz had grown fond of being the welcomed alternative to Barry and the city’s discredited political leadership. She deeply resented losing that role to Williams, who lumped her in with her lackluster council colleagues. She nearly resigned her council seat just days after being trounced by the mayor-to-be.
Schwartz must have breathed in too much of the foul air in the council’s former location in the dilapidated Wilson Building, now under renovation, because she actually believed she could derail the Williams bandwagon. Her plea, “In your heart, you know it’s my turn,” certainly didn’t rise to the level of lofty campaign rhetoric.
Only fear of being criticized for saddling city taxpayers with a $350,000 special election to fill the vacancy prevented the fiscally prudent Schwartz from quitting in the middle of her current council term.
Nearly one-fourth of the 13-member council will turn over in January, thanks to the wisdom of the voters. Three over-the-hill councilmembers, Ward 1’s Frank Smith Jr., Ward 5’s Harry Thomas Sr., and frail At-Large Statehood Councilmember Hilda Mason, were given the boot and are being replaced by energetic, hardworking newcomers Jim Graham, Vincent Orange, and Phil Mendelson, respectively.
The earthquake of 1998 also hit lower rungs of D.C. politics and governmentwhich happens to be where the bulk of this year’s Loose Talk Award winners reside.
Nearly half of D.C.’s elected school boardfive of its 11 membersalso will be replaced next month. Four members wisely decided not to face the voters in November. If they had, they might have suffered the same fate as Ward 4 school board member Sandra Butler-Truesdale, who was ordered by the voters to hit the road after two terms.
The school board, unlike the council, still doesn’t seem to have gotten the message that performance matters more than a padded résumé. School board members devoted much of their time and energy this year to whining about disrespect for the city’s first elected body and pursuing their lawsuit against the D.C. financial control board for stripping them of their powers two years ago.
The U.S. Court of Appeals sided with the school board, in part, in early January. The court ruled that the control board had acted illegally in appointing an emergency board of trustees to supplant the city’s elected school board. But the court didn’t order reinstatement of powers to the elected board.
Negotiations between the control board and school board members for the return of those powers stalled earlier this year when board members focused on restoring salary cuts and other perks, instead of dealing with the city’s educational crisis.
For their continued pettiness and hubris, all 11 current school board members earned LTAs this year.
The hierarchy over the District’s troubled public school system also underwent upheaval during 1998. The top two officials, superintendent Julius Becton and chief deputy Charles Williams, signaled full retreat early in the year and fled for safer groundearning nice, shiny LTAs in the process. Becton, a retired Army general, was succeeded last spring by the school system’s academic officer, Arlene Ackerman, who, unlike her predecessor, at least acknowledges that parents exist and should have a voice in school policies.
Williams, also a retired general, became the first to hoist the white flag when he resigned in February after auditors discovered that school roof repairs he had ordered had cost at least $7.8 million more than necessary. Despite the exorbitant cost, those repairs still didn’t get completed in time to prevent a three-week delay of the start of the ’97-’98 school year.
At last report, Inspector General E. Barrett Prettyman was still trying to track down where much of the money went.
During his turbulent 17-month tenure as the control board-imposed overlord of the D.C. schools, Becton, like a true Pentagon grad, felt he should be accountable to no one, especially not pesky D.C. school parents. His arrogance and penchant for operating behind closed doors quickly alienated school activists and city leaders.
But Becton viewed himself as the unassailable savior of the District’s school system, and he even harbored delusions of martyrdom. He and Williams secretly negotiated with Washington Gas to begin boiler replacements and repairs last winter, in defiance of Judge Kaye K. Christian’s order that such work had to be approved by her beforehand. The school chief calculated that once the obstinate judge got wind of the move, she would overreact and toss him in jail for contempt, and his martyrdom would be assured.
Becton concocted his cockamamie plan to pressure Parents United into dropping its lawsuit, thereby removing Judge Christian’s power over the school system. However, the control board got wind of this scheme and quickly nixed it before word got back to the judge.
Becton’s support within the control board evaporated altogether with last January’s revelations that the school chief had secretly awarded $70,000 in “signing bonuses” to Williams, Ackerman, and a third aide when they were hired. The school system also mistakenly paid $41,713 to cover taxes on the bonuses. The salaries were the highest ever paid by the D.C. school system.
Faced with mounting criticism of his actions and policies, Becton abruptly quit in April. Few mourned his passing.
The winds of change also rocked the control board’s appointed emergency school board of trustees, toppling Chairmanand LTA winnerBruce MacLaury in May. MacLaury’s tenure was marred by last year’s fight to close 13 schools and by constant feuding with Don Reeves, the elected board’s lone representative on the appointed body.
MacLaury worked well with Bectonwhich led to his downfall. With Becton gone, Ackerman wanted his loyalists removed to shore up her position as the new superintendent. The control board obliged.
The city’s congressionally imposed band of overseers was not spared from 1998’s upheavalsor this year’s LTAs. Four of the five members appointed to the first control board in 1995 did not survive past their first terms, which ended last summer. That board drew fire from Congress for moving too slowly to enact management reforms, overhaul schools, and fix the broken Metropolitan Police Department. Only Vice Chairman Constance Newman was held over from the original board.
Former Chairman Andrew Brimmer particularly wanted a second term. But the autocratic Brimmer, who strove mightily to keep the board’s internal disagreements from public view, engineered a remarkable feat during his tenure that barred his re-appointment: Brimmer united the District’s elected hierarchyfrom D.C. congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton to Mayor Barry to councilmembers on down to the lowest rung of advisory neighborhood commissionsin opposition to his re-appointment.
Newman avoided the same fate by keeping the city’s elected leaders informed of control board politics and policies, usually behind the back of Brimmer.
Federal Reserve Vice Chair Alice Rivlin, Brimmer’s successor, prefers to bring the city’s elected leaders into control board considerations so that local government can be restored during her three-year term as control board chair.
This year also witnessed a change in the leadership at the police department and the U.S. attorney’s office. New Police Chief Charles Ramsey has made an impressive beginning since being appointed in March. He has moved quickly to gain control of the department’s 3,600 officers and to make the community policing concept finally work after a decade of rhetoric by the four former occupants of the chief’s office.
Ramsey earns an LTA nonetheless because he still must convince public safety activists that he will do more than just talk the talk. During Dec. 4 outings by an Orange Hats citizens patrol group in the neighborhood north of H Street NEwhere District police made a show of force in the spring of 1997drug dealers taunted residents and openly smoked marijuana and crack in front of the group. The dealers acted brazenly despite the presence of a uniformed police officer escorting the Orange Hats.
Across Capitol Hill, drug dealers set up shop at 15th and D Streets SE that same night. They used overturned garbage cans as their office chairs, according to area residents. The residents say the dealers peddled their wares into the early morning hours without interference from police officers.
“The drug dealers are having a heyday,” notes Capitol Hill public safety activist Sally Byington. “They mock you as you walk by.”
New U.S. Attorney Wilma Lewis, hand-picked by Norton in January in a search characterized by some in the legal community as “No men need apply,” also merits an LTA. She has yet to demonstrate whether she will focus on quality-of-life crimes in the District or simply go after headline-grabbing cases. In one of her first acts after being sworn in last summer, Lewis in August ordered the arrest without bail of Korean-American liquor store owner Chang Pak after Pak knocked an African-American teen unconscious with a baseball bat during a robbery. The teen, who allegedly had pulled a gun on Pak in an earlier robbery, was allowed to go free pending trial.
The incident stirred racially charged animosities between the city’s African-American and Korean-American communities.
And even amidst the positive changes in the council and the mayor’s office, there are LTAs to be had. Williams even gets an LTA, for bungling the controversy over Barry’s attempt to re-appoint himself and four others to the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission for four more years. The move threatened to deprive the mayor-elect of an appointment to the commission during his first year in office.
When Williams first learned of Barry’s plan to carve out a base in District government during the next mayoral administration by holding onto his sports commission seat, the mayoral contender blinked. At the time, he was in the midst of erecting his “big tent” to bring Barry supporters into his campaign, and apparently he didn’t want to run the risk of alienating Hizzoner for fear the tent would come crashing to the ground.
After winning the Sept. 15 Democratic primary with 50 percent of the vote in a crowded field, Williams suddenly decided he wanted those appointments to the sports commission, which oversees an $8.75 million budget for the current year and has millions more stashed in its bank accounts. After resisting for several days, Barry finally relented and gave up his seat on the coveted panel, which will play a role in the city’s bid for the 2012 summer Olympic Games, as well as efforts to bring major league baseball back to D.C.
Although he failed to dominate local politics in 1998 the way he has in years past, Hizzoner managed to display enough of his old antics during his final year in office to secure yet another LTA for his crowded mantel. The power play on the sports commission merely cinched this year’s award.
Early in the year, Barry contemplated another outrageous maneuver when he sought to hire as his new city administrator a black man passed over by the control board when it named Camille Cates Barnett, a white woman from Texas, to become the city’s first chief management officer. The hiring of Barnett to handle duties that had previously belonged to a city administrator answerable only to Barry had sparked protests from some local activists, who criticized the control board for picking a white woman to oversee a predominantly black city and its government.
The mayor sought to fan those flames by hiring control board reject Floyd Johnson and offering the former Richmond, Calif., city manager the same five-year contract the control board gave Barnett, at a salary equivalent to her $155,000 annual paycheck. Although Johnson told LL in February he had been offered the job, the control board and Norton conspired to end Barry’s game before he could make Johnson a pawn in his chess match against his overlords.
Barry’s six-month-long farewell tour since announcing his retirement in mid-May, including the October gala at the MCI Center, which may have been illegally financed with taxpayer funds, also figured in Hizzoner’s award.
Barnett, the city’s first CMO, who took office last January amid demonstrations against her unbearable whiteness of being, quickly disarmed her detractors with personal charm and public relations skill. Since then, however, she has racked up her first LTA by proving more adept at the PR aspects of her job than at instilling management reforms in the nine agencies Congress put under her command when it created the office last year.
Barnett has yet to implement significant reforms despite building a staff that over the summer numbered more than three dozen. She and the new mayor don’t see eye-to-eye on the slow pace of her reform efforts, and the CMO could become the city’s most endangered official when Williams takes office next month.
Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous’ perplexing performance during this year’s heated Democratic mayoral primary also earned a 1998 LTA. Chavous fully expected that if he kept telling voters, “I’m going to be your next mayor,” it would happen automatically.
After all, he hailed from east of the Anacostia River and could legitimately lay claim to Barry’s political base among public housing tenants and the city’s poor and disaffected voters. He also appealed to guilt-ridden Ward 3 white liberals who believe that this city must be governed by an African-American. Chavous had the looks and the professional career outside of politics as a successful attorney that could attract voters from across the political spectrum.
And, unlike Williams and other rivals, Chavous could maintain eye contact indefinitely without seeming to blink. Voters caught in the candidate’s eye-locks appeared to be praying for an interruption to break the contact and give them the chance to flee to the bathroom, snare a drink of water, or simply rest after the interminable stare-down.
All Chavous lacked was a council record, especially in the education committee he chaired, and the desire to campaign nonstop for the city’s top office. Chavous expected to win merely by showing up and mugging for the cameras. If his expectations had been met, Chavous would have been Sharon Pratt Kelly II, incapable of governing effectively or finding competent people to staff his administration. His council experience clearly attests to his ineptitude, despite his good looks. Thank goodness voters didn’t rank attractiveness above performance in this year’s mayoral race.
Defeated Ward 1 Councilmember Smith gets an LTA for not recognizing that his time had passed, especially since Barry wouldn’t be on the ticket to pull him through. Smith still figured he could eke out another term from the publicity of the unveiling of the Civil War Memorial at 12th and U Streets NW to honor African-American soldiers who fought for the Union. But that ceremony, though delayed numerous times, occurred in mid-July, too early to benefit his Sept. 15 re-election chances.
His other campaign strategy, to coax Fresh Fields or another prominent grocer into the development scheduled for 13th and V Streets NW, also fell apart when Fresh Fields execs got enticed by Dupont Circle residents to consider a site near 15th and P Streets NW.
Fresh Fields execs, meanwhile, get their LTA for panicking when they found themselves caught in a bitter community fight between Dupont Circle and Cardozo-Shaw residents over a downtown site. But everyone seems to have calmed down since the election, and an announcement of Fresh Fields’ move to P Street seems imminent. Smith has now landed employment with the U.S. Park Service to continue work on his Civil War Memorial.
Defeated Ward 5 Councilmember Thomas also earned an LTAbut the award goes for his driving habits and his stinginess, not for his politics. Thomas refused to pay a $336 damage assessment after he struck Department of Public Works (DPW) employee Katina Robinson’s car in a Wendy’s parking lot last July and kept on going. The septuagenarian councilmember claimed he didn’t recall hitting Robinson’s car and figured she was trying to cheat him out of money.
After her bosses at DPW intervenedThomas, after all, chaired the council committee with oversight over their agency and might return the favor during budget timethe councilmember delivered a $300 check to Robinson’s office. DPW director Cell Bernardino and deputy Art Lawson made up the difference out of their own pockets.
But Thomas’ check bounced, and Robinson took him to court in September when he refused to issue a new one. She got a judgment against the councilmember, but still had to garnishee his wages to get her money.
Perhaps Thomas was auditioning for the part of Scrooge in his church’s upcoming Christmas pageant. CP
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