When Helen Boone handed mayoral contender Anthony Williams a handmade teddy bear during the opening of the campaign’s Ward 8 headquarters last August, the gesture left the candidate momentarily speechless.
“Look, Mother!” Williams then said, his eyes misting over, as he displayed the teddy bear, complete with bow tie, to Virginia Williams, seated behind him.
The unexpected gift, as the candidate would explain later, had brought back the vivid memory of his first day with Virginia Williams and her family, after being adopted at the age of 3. Young Tony got into a fight with his stepsister and threw her teddy bear into the next yard, where it was destroyed by the neighbor’s dog.
Williams’ barnstorming across D.C. this year was an opportunity for the candidate to re-connect with his African-American roots. After spending much of his life among whites at Ivy League schools, at the top levels of municipal governments in Boston, New Haven, and St. Louis, and as the chief financial officer at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Williams was attempting to convince black voters in the District that he hadn’t forgotten his own beginnings.
“He was being accepted by people he hadn’t had an opportunity to be around for a while,” says a Williams campaign worker who regularly accompanied the candidate. “You could just tell that those were some of his best times in the campaign.”
Soon after Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. first captured the mayor’s office 20 years ago, he departed for Africa with a slew of aides on a journey to retrace his roots. That journey cost the city’s taxpayers a bundle, a detail overlooked by the Washington Post in its fawning daily travelogue chronicling Barry’s junket.
Williams has done the same soul-searching exercise with much less pomp and expense. Travel costs to Anacostia are much less than to Angola, and a cross-town outing doesn’t attract nearly as many hangers-on.
As part of the search for his heritage, Williams adopted the big-tent approach to big-city politics, wooing east-of-the-river communities neglected by Barry. The results floored the conventional-wisdom mongers of D.C. politics: The newcomer won half of the votes cast in a Democratic primary against veteran D.C. councilmembers and captured every city precinct in the general election on Nov. 3. Williams brought rabid Ward 3 Barry-haters and die-hard Ward 8 Barry loyalists together under one umbrella.
Williams’ spokesperson Peggy Armstrong says the new mayor is committed to keeping the city united as he transforms his political crusade into a government. But the mayor-elect admits it will be impossible to keep everyone happy once he starts making decisions involving competing interests.
For instance, Cora Masters Lady MacBarry reportedly detests campaign treasurer Marie Drissel, who has lodged numerous complaints against her husband alleging ethical and campaign-law violations. Drissel, architect of Williams’ mayoral draft, may have a tough time staying in the tent she helped erect. The mayor-elect’s inner circle left Drissel out of his original transition team lineup but inserted her last weekend amid complaints from campaign die-hards. “There’s a real feeling of bitterness in terms of a number of people who were with Tony from the beginning,” notes Ward 8 campaign coordinator Phil Pannell. “It’s like no one needs them or wants them.”
Hizzoner, for that matter, could be the first exile from the Williams coalition. To cement his following among Barryites, Williams looked the other way last summer when the mayor re-appointed himself to the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission. Barry, however, didn’t stop there. He filled four other vacancies with his own appointees, depriving the new mayor of an appointment to the commission until Jan. 1, 2000.
After LL disclosed Barry’s political maneuver two weeks ago, prompting a blistering editorial in the Washington Post, Williams apparently had a change of heart. He asked the council to reconsider Barry’s appointments, which were approved Oct. 22 when the deadline for council rejection expired.
“I wouldn’t be in this predicament if the mayor-elect had not changed his mind,” an obviously displeased Ward 4 Councilmember Charlene Drew Jarvis told LL last weekend. Jarvis said she had allowed the appointments to go through because Williams told her he didn’t object to themeven though they allow the outgoing mayor a toehold in the next government.
Barry’s seat on the commission will permit him to continue lobbying for one of his pet projects: bringing the 2012 summer Olympics to the Baltimore-Washington area. His role, promoters contend, could doom the combined effort by the two cities.
Jarvis says she hopes to resolve the issue by convincing Barry to give up his seat on the commission to Williams. That sounds like a mismatch: a fading councilmember telling the city’s most resourceful, stubborn politician to take a hike.
If Barry doesn’t obey, the big tent may come crashing to the ground under its first political storm.
The D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission has launched a PR counter-offensive against LL over depictions of the panel as a deep honey pot with coveted perks for its members. James Dalrymple, the commission’s executive director, argues in a recent letter that its budget “totals closer to $7.5 million rather than the $10 million figure” LL cited in a recent column. According to the records of the D.C. Council’s Economic Development Committee, which oversees the Sports Commission, the panel has “in excess of $10 million” in its accounts but is authorized to spend only $8.7 million in the current fiscal year. Dalrymple and his commission cohorts would have to do more contortions than an Olympic gymnast to dismiss those numbers.
Disputing LL’s contention that a commission seat “guarantees” seats at sporting events around the region, Dalrymple claims that the body does not own a box at MCI Center, nor does it get use of free tickets to Wizards and Redskins games. All that is true. But since commission members are unpaid appointees, they can accept the invites showered upon them to watch the games from the boxes of lobbyists, law firms, and corporate execs.
CITY COUNCIL SHUFFLE
The D.C. Council’s Judiciary Committee used to be considered the plum panel for aspiring lawmakers, the choice bone to be fought over by the District’s special interests. Trial lawyers biannually pushed one of their own to take the Judiciary Committee reins and stand guard against attempts by the city’s medical community to enact tort reform and limit medical malpractice awards.
Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, currently the chair of the Judiciary Committee, and his predecessor, former At-Large Independent Councilmember Bill Lightfoot, hailed from two of the city’s top law firms. Two years ago, Evans and At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil waged a fierce battle for the panel’s top post.
Evans saw in the panel’s chairmanship the perfect vehicle to drive his mayoral bid. The J Committee, after all, promises high visibility on the city’s No. 1 issue: public safety. Evans elbowed the more-senior Brazil aside, even though Brazil is a member of Lightfoot’s law firm, the city’s premier corps of personal-injury litigants.
As Evans discovered, though, the committee chairmanship offers far more opportunities for embarrassment and failure than for the sort of civic leadership that builds careers. Accordingly, the Judiciary Committee plum this year has turned into the rotten apple at the bottom of the barrel in the post-election council sweepstakes. Evans is giving it up, and Cropp can’t find another senior council Democrat to fill it.
That leaves the council’s lone two RepublicansAt-Large Councilmembers David Catania and Carol Schwartzcompeting for the prize. Letting two Republicans scrap over a choice council committee post at one time would have been as unthinkable as giving House Speaker Newt Gingrich an honorary seat on the city’s 13-member legislative body.
When Schwartz served as the lone Republican on the council in the mid-1980s, the council’s Democratic majority shrank the number of committees rather than let her have a chairmanship. With one-third of the council seats turning over in the last year, council leaders have no choice this time.
Denying the Judiciary Committee chairmanship to Schwartz or Catania would require council Chair Linda Cropp to make the unprecedented move of choosing one of the three incoming freshmen Democratic councilmembers elected only two weeks ago to chair the panel. Cropp doesn’t even know yet whether newly elected At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson, Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, and Ward 5 Councilmember Vincent Orange can write coherent legislation, let alone lead a major council committee.
Schwartz has more seniority that Cataniawho has been on the council for only 11 monthsand can take the Judiciary Committee reins if she wants them. But most council watchers predict that Catania would be more effective in the Judiciary Committee chairman’s seat.
“I think David Catania would be excellent at Judiciary, and I hope it falls to him,” says a senior Democratic councilmember. “But Carol would have to stay with what she’s doing now.”
That means Schwartz would have to content herself with another two years at the helm of the council’s regional affairs committee, the consolation prize of council chairmanships created at the beginning of this decade when there weren’t enough committee leadership posts to go around for council Democrats.
Evans is also giving up his five-year stint as the city’s representative on the Metro Board, and some councilmembers hope Schwartz will grab that assignment and let the youthful Catania take Judiciary.
Evans will take the reins of the powerful finance panel, which will oversee tax reforms in the next council session. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, Evans has coveted the Finance and Revenue Committee since he joined the council in 1991. The chairmanship opened up when the panel’s current leader, Ward 1 Councilmember Frank Smith, lost his re-election bid to Graham Sept. 15.
Judiciary Committee chair heir apparent Brazil recently told a gathering of the Ward 1 Council community group that he intends to keep the chair of the Consumer and Regulatory Affairs Committee for the next two years. Brazil calculates that his current assignment will prove more helpful in rehabilitating himself politically, after this year’s disastrous mayoral run, to win council re-election in 2000.
The Consumer and Regulatory Affairs Committee deals with the bread-and-butter issues affecting most D.C. residents, like liquor licenses, business and environmental regulations, and rent control.
Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose, on the council since May 1997, is bypassing the Judiciary Committee to take the chairmanship of the Public Works Committee. Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas, the current Public Works chair, lost his re-election bid to Orange in the September Democratic primary. Ambrose wants to play a major role in reforming the department responsible for picking up the trash, sweeping streets, and towing away abandoned autos.
Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous, a trial attorney, is also giving up the chance to take over the Judiciary Committee in favor of his current perch atop the council’s education committee, even though the city’s education activists snubbed him in this year’s mayoral campaign for his lack of leadership in the city’s school crisis.
Likewise, Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson is staying put at the Government Operations Committee; Ward 4 Councilmember Charlene Drew Jarvis will hold onto the chair of the Economic Development Committee she has controlled since the early 1980s; and Ward 8 Councilmember Sandy Allen will keep the chair of the human services panel.
In a year when 7 of the 11 councilmembers running for office suffered stunning defeats, perhaps the city’s legislators are getting the message that voters expect them to produce something other than the collapse of municipal government.CP
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