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The breakfast crowd at Georgia Brown’s restaurant this past Wednesday looked like an alumni gathering for the administrations of Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr.

Longtime Barry pol Vernon Hawkins, deposed as the city’s director of human services by the financial control board in 1996, served as MC for the gathering. Union Temple Baptist Church’s the Rev. Willie Wilson, Hizzoner’s personal minister, greeted the 30 or so breakfastgoers. Imani Temple founder Archbishop George Stallings Jr., who twice failed to ride Barry’s coattails to a D.C. Council seat, defended Barry’s controversial goal of keeping a black majority on the council, even if that means opposing white Democrats.

At the back of the room sat longtime Barry faithful Anita Bonds, who helped select the jury that all but exonerated Hizzoner eight years ago for smoking crack at a downtown hotel while federal law enforcement officers were filming. Other notables included former city auditor Otis Troupe, former Barry press secretary Florence Tate, and Barry fundraiser Mike Hodge, who incurred fines from the city’s Office of Campaign Finance four years ago for allegedly running an independent political action committee that was really an arm of the Barry campaign.

In addition to fawning over Barry, the notables came together to prop up the man regarded as his heir apparent, Umoja Party founder Mark Thompson, a candidate for one of the two at-large council seats up for grabs on the Nov. 3 ballot.

And Barry, who last week finally endorsed Phil Mendelson, the white Ward 3 activist who won the Sept. 15 Democratic primary over eight black contenders, sat in the midst of the breakfast crowd, tacitly endorsing Thompson’s designation as his political heir. After all, several participants noted, Thompson practices the same kind of in-your-face, activist politics that launched Barry’s long political career nearly four decades ago.

By supporting both Mendelson and Thompson, the mayor is hedging his bets—to avoid the embarrassing truth that his endorsements mean nothing. And in the coming weeks, he may spread the wealth even further, tapping Statehood At-Large Councilmember Hilda Mason as a reward for her loyalty over the years. Mason, Mendelson, and Thompson are among seven contenders for two at-large council seats on the ballot.

“He’s supporting Mendelson, but he won’t lift a finger to help him,” observed a longtime Barry ally. “He’s clearly supporting Mark by being here and lending his moral encouragement. And he’ll probably give a hundred dollars to Hilda, maybe two.

“But he is not focused on this right now,” this observer adds. “He has no stake in this, other than keeping his black base intact.”

The fundraiser breakfast had the feel of an event designed to resurrect Thompson politically after his conviction this past summer for domestic violence and failing to pay child support. It demonstrated that he has been forgiven by his elders, who are ready to groom him for a political future that is much farther off than next month’s council elections.

“Mark Thompson has atoned for what he has done,” the Rev. Imagene Stewart, who runs a shelter for battered women, told the crowd. “He has started a group for men, and all you women who are jumping on men, you should join it.”

Few political observers expect Thompson to challenge Mendelson or incumbent GOP At-Large Councilmember David Catania for the council seats. At least he’ll know that he’s in the good graces of the old guard.

“This feeds his ego and gives him a chance to grow up. He has to grow up,” observed on participant.

NONE OF THE ABOVE

Audience members at last week’s forum for at-large D.C. board of education candidates rolled their eyes, hissed at the contenders, and openly fretted about putting the future of the city’s 71,626 public school students back in the hands of elected school board members. The financial control board stripped the elected school board of most of its powers two years ago and installed an emergency board of trustees as part of a crash program to upgrade public education in the nation’s capital.

Control board Chair Alice Rivlin has signaled her intention to restore power to the elected school board by June 2000—at the latest—as a way to end a lawsuit brought by board members arising from the November 1996 coup. That prospect scared the 60 or so residents at the Oct. 8 forum, who appeared ready to rush from All Souls Unitarian Church on 16th Street NW to control board headquarters chanting, “Two more years.”

“2000 is way too soon to give the power back to this bunch,” former D.C. Recorder of Deeds Harold Bardonille declared, after sitting through the two-hour forum, the first at-large forum in this year’s school board elections. “They are not ready. This is pretty sad.”

The seven contenders (Ernest Brooks, the eighth candidate on the Nov. 3 ballot, missed the forum because of a death in the family) appalled onlookers with their ignorance on education issues, their lack of experience with city schools, and their hostility toward current Superintendent Arlene Ackerman.

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Confrontational school activists George Pope and Mary E. Cox, in particular, seemed ready to fire Ackerman on the spot, primarily, as Pope told the crowd, because she was hired by the congressionally imposed control board and not by board members elected by D.C. residents. With that sort of statesmanship, Pope and Cox are sure bets to continue the bitter infighting that paralyzed the 11-member board as the city’s schools plunged into crisis this decade.

Even Statehood Party activist Gail Dixon, considered by some education leaders as the one ray of hope in the dismal at-large field, displayed resentment toward Ackerman, as well as an inclination to micromanage the 146 city schools.

The board’s propensity for judging the superintendent’s every move and getting involved in such day-to-day matters as the appointment of school principals hamstrung former superintendents and pushed them out the door.

Only newcomers Daryl Ross and Gerry Counihan showed an appreciation for the board’s role in fashioning budgets for the school system, setting policy, and making sure Ackerman meets her policy goals. Dictating the superintendent’s day-to-day decisions isn’t part of that portfolio—a political reality that other candidates have apparently not yet mastered.

Counihan, a U.S. Capitol tour guide who is a product of special education, came across as the candidate least likely to damage the school system. He received the second-highest rating on score cards developed by forum organizer Vanessa Dixon and handed out to forum-goers.

Gail Dixon got the highest marks, even though she forsook specific ideas to spout the usual clichés about “representing you, the citizens.”

But her 62 percent grading on knowledge of education issues, prior experience with schools, commitment to the job she is seeking, and ability to collaborate and compromise looked like a D.C. student’s test score.

She passed, but just barely.

Pope and naive newcomer Harold Hunter got the lowest marks from the audience.

Perennial D.C. Council and school board candidate Bob Artisst complained about being asked to sign a card created by Vanessa Dixon pledging commitment not to seek higher office during his school board term. Current and past school board members have shown a greater commitment to building their political careers than to rebuilding the city’s deplorable public education system.

And Artisst, who ran unsuccessfully for the city’s first elected school board in 1968, has been on the ballot more than any other would-be pol, vying five times for the council without success. Despite his obvious discomfort, Artisst signed the card.

Only Pope and Hunter, who said he wouldn’t sign because it was not binding, refused to take the pledge.

Retiring at-large school board member Jay Silberman, whose seat is the prize in this year’s at-large contest, blames the control board for the absence of stellar candidates to succeed him. Silberman claims he and other board members urged former control board chairman Andrew Brimmer to begin returning power to the elected school board last winter as a way to entice better candidates to run for the five seats on the Nov. 3 ballot.

But control board officials tell a different story.

They say Brimmer agreed to the request from Silberman & Co. early this year, but then the elected school board sent in its lawyers to negotiate the fine print of the deal. As it turned out, the board wanted its long-lost power, plus all the perks that accompanied it: city-owned cars for board members to drive, additional staffers, parking privileges, and so on. Negotiations ended there.

Brimmer must have thought he’d been caught in a time capsule. During a 1996 meeting between control board and school board members, held shortly before the control board decided to strip the school board of its powers, Brimmer was appalled when Silberman and his colleagues opened the discussion by complaining about their lost perks and reduced wages. Only after Brimmer insisted did the school board members turn their attention to the city’s education crisis.

With role models like these, the current crop of school board candidates may be the best that D.C. residents can hope to get.

POLITICAL POTPOURRI

Reports of dissension within the ranks of Democratic mayoral nominee Anthony Williams’ hard-charging campaign surfaced last week when fired campaign workers Lisa Shaw and Jo Patterson sued the campaign for nearly $7,000 in lost wages and compensation. Shaw, campaign coordinator for Ward 5, and Patterson, the campaign’s community outreach liaison, contend in separate filings in D.C. Superior Court Smalls Claims Division that their dismissals were unjustified and unwarranted.

“I brought the vote within 900 votes of him taking Ward 5 on almost no resources,” says Shaw, former executive director of the D.C. Democratic State Committee. “I was with a campaign that did not operate fairly.”

Williams narrowly lost Ward 5 to rival Kevin Chavous in the Sept. 15 Democratic primary.

Williams’ campaign officials claim their candidate lost ground in Ward 5 after Shaw was put in charge of the ward for the final two weeks of the campaign. Campaign officials also claim they never saw any results from Patterson’s grass-roots organizing efforts.

As for the money claimed by Shaw and Patterson, campaign spokesperson Peggy Armstrong says, “We believe we’ve paid them what we have agreed to. The campaign has told them that if we owe them money, we’ll be happy to pay it, but we need documentation. They have not yet provided it.”

Shaw’s break with Williams goes beyond a dispute over money. She now warns voters against a candidate whom only two weeks ago she urged them to support.

“At this point, I’m very afraid for the city, and I’m very afraid for what he will do to my alma mater [the University of the District of Columbia],” Shaw told LL this week.CP

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