City Paper is not for tourists
The crowd has been waiting at Covenant House in Southeast D.C. for a half-hour before any of the mayoral candidates arrive for a debate on youth issues. The summer campaign for the Democratic mayoral nomination, which ends at the polls on Sept. 15, has taken its toll on the contenders.
Two-term Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous is a case in point. He walks into the forum in a gray pinstripe suit, clutching a Styrofoam cup and looking more subdued than usual. His fatigue is visible. His entourage of placard-holders and cheerleaders is nowhere in sight. Just a few operatives work the crowd, passing out brochures and bumper stickers. The candidate shakes a few hands and then wearily heads to the long table to join his opponents in what has become an endless diaspora of forums in search of votes or a precious soundbite on the evening news.
As rote as the whole excercise has become, the mike animates Chavous: As soon as he starts talking, he’s nonstop smiles and promises. Working his show, the way he has dozens of days and nights since the beginning of the campaign, he connects to the inner-city crowd in nothing flat.
“I used to play basketball when I was in high school. I still do play with some of the young men in my ward. Sometimes they ask me questions when there are breaks in the game: ‘What is it like being a councilmember?’
“I think it’s important we talk directly to the young people,” he continues. “You have to get involved so you can help take back our community. So you can let people know you’re a force to be reckoned with.”
The crowd bursts into applause. The fact that he can still take it to the hoop distinguishes him fully from the other men at the table. On the court or on the dais, Chavous can still jump and look mighty fine doing it. Just as importantly, he knows which moves to trot out where.
One recent Monday, an elderly woman called WMMJ-FM to talk about the mayor’s race. She described Chavous as “Denzel-fine” and pledged undying devotion in her heart and at the polls. Chavous responded the next day, calling the station asking for “Grandma.” He plugged his platform and stroked a few women’s egos. Nobody doubts Chavous’ touch when the game is in progress.
But although he’s an expert at the art of campaigning spouting, smiling, touching, flirting Chavous is all tease and chase. Once he’s captured the prize, he loses interest. His enthusiasm wanes. He disappoints.
Those who know him best have seen it before.
“We expected Kevin to give us a fair and honest job. We thought he would be a better councilman,” says Sam Bost, president of the Far Northeast Council. “We had high hopes.”
Those hopes went unfulfilled after his first election to represent Ward 7. By all accounts save his own, Chavous spent most of his energy at his law office, in court, or some place other than his council office. He missed dozens of votes and failed to convert his bills into law. His short attention span repeatedly sent staffers packing. Among his colleagues on the council, Chavous had a reputation for wearing a groove in the path of least resistance.
Last year, Chavous’ Ward 7 constituents were so frustrated by his performance that they attempted unsuccessfully to recall him. The draft-Tony-Williams-for-mayor movement originated two blocks from his home, which he shares with his wife Beverly and two sons. And the candidate failed to win the endorsement of the Democratic leadership in Ward 8, which political pundits had declared Chavous country. It was yet another slap in the face for a young politician who four years ago had been anointed the One to Watch. He still may look like a prince, but his path to the throne is blocked by a growing awareness that he has no taste for the hard tasks of true leadership.
When Chavous sashayed into District politics, he was a 36-year-old lawyer with notches on his briefcase. He had helped slay a big utility company; his reputation as a people’s champion had tilted him toward a political career.
In the late 1980s, PEPCO had decided it wanted to build two new generators on Benning Road NE. When residents of the nearby River Terrace neighborhood got wind of the proposal, they launched a series of protests. They were concerned that emissions would further pollute a community already suffering from its proximity to the Anacostia Freeway and the city’s incinerator. They enlisted Chavous’ support and legal assistance. The fight became a cause celebre, with Jesse Jackson and Greenpeace headlining demonstrations on Earth Day.
By October 1990, PEPCO had scrapped its plans, citing alternatives in Maryland. Chavous said the company had succumbed to the “will of the people,” and boasted, “David can beat Goliath.”
If Chavous’ boasts sounded more political than practical, it’s because he had already seen his future clearly. Ward 7 Councilmember H.R. Crawford had promised not to run for a fourth term and to tap PEPCO’s nemesis as his heir. But Crawford reneged on the deal and vowed to hit the campaign trail yet again. Coming off the PEPCO victory, Chavous knew he was hot and couldn’t afford to wait four more years. So he decided to buck the man who had acted as his mentor.
Armed with a slogan, “Chavous for Change,” he could be seen at 6 o’clock in the morning shaking hands at bus stops. “We’re in the grips of stagnation,” he said. “Politics in this ward have been based on politics of division between the haves and the have-nots, Northeast and Southeast. We want our ward back. There has been a great loss for some time.”
By the end of the campaign, he had knocked on nearly every door of the expansive ward, which is bounded by Naylor Road, Eastern Avenue, Southern Avenue, and the Anacostia River an impressive feat.
For those who would listen, Chavous touted his support for linkages requiring developers to fund construction of low-income housing in residential neighborhoods in exchange for zoning concessions downtown. Chavous wanted reasonable tax assessments for homeowners and tax credits for businesses in designated enterprise zones. He promised to open a constituents’ office and a satellite campus of the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) in the ward. He backed the creation of all-male and all-female schools, and advocated for parent-student-teacher forums, community policing, and tougher criminal-sentencing legislation. It was a nice package of issues as presented by the silky, increasingly confident Chavous.
In a field of four candidates, Chavous squeaked by in the primary with 41 percent of the vote to Crawford’s 37 percent. The margin of victory came as a result of his showing in Precinct 110, which includes black upper-middle-class neighborhoods such as Hillcrest, Fort Davis, and Dupont Terrace. There, he won 685 votes to Crawford’s 502. Chavous had upended Crawford’s legacy by sheer force of will, energy, and, as the vanquished politico added, “light skin and pretty eyes.”
When he took his spot on the council, he was surrounded by lofty expectations and goodwill. Chavous was reasonable, calm, and deferential to council veterans. As the chairman of the newly created Committee on Self-Determination, Chavous won friends in the statehood movement for his efforts to get expanded home rule for the District. He joined a protest near Capitol Hill and was even arrested with several other elected officials, including then-Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon.
“He took a committee that was dormant and took it on the road, had hearings in every ward of the city,” remembers Richard Hebert, former chairman of the Citizens for New Columbia. “He alone among all members of the city council was there for us. Kevin was the only one who stood up.”
The self-determination gig was perfect for the neophyte councilmember: plenty of opportunity to grandstand, yet little opportunity for action. There were no laws that needed to be changed at the local level. The fight was largely rhetorical, and the enemy was an easy target Congress. Nor was the debate a contentious one within the city. Who among the D.C.’s political leaders would oppose statehood or further independence for the city?
Chavous joined hands with the council’s “Young Turks,” a faction of fiscal conservatives consisting of colleagues Harold Brazil, Jack Evans, Bill Lightfoot, Kathy Patterson, and Linda Cropp. (Chavous now revisionistically frames himself as the first Turk: “When I got in, I was the one who said to my fellow junior colleagues, ‘We need to hold the line on this tax increase,’” he boasts.)
Far from being the visionary of the council’s reform movement, Chavous merely had the good sense to hop aboard the train that had already started rolling with the arrival of council chair John Wilson. Chavous was content to let others do the leading.
The Kevin Chavous that voters see on the 1998 mayoral campaign trail is the same guy Ward 7 voters saw in 1992 a polished, razor-sharp advocate for embattled residents. The larger the audience, the more ferocious he becomes.
“I want to get this city on the right track. We need to recognize its strength,” says Chavous to a crowd of more than 200 at a June forum at the Holy Comforter Lutheran Church in Ward 7, or “my back yard,” as the candidate calls it. “Its strength is in its neighborhoods. We need to build from the bottom up not the top down.” He has packed the place with his supporters, even busing in a dozen or so.
“We need someone who can build coalitions. Someone who can help lead. The future of this city lies in all our hands,” he asserts. He says the mayor has great influence over the schools and pledges to make sure that all agencies affecting children work together. Aware that the candidacy of former Chief Financial Officer Anthony Williams is taking off, he goes to some lengths to tag Williams with creating a $62 million deficit in the District of Columbia Public Schools’ (DCPS) fiscal 1998 budget. He implies that his other Democratic opponents won’t stand up for the “least of us.”
He assails the D.C. financial control board: “The control board is not the bosses. You are the bosses. You have the power.”
With every rhetorical thrust, a sea of red Chavous signs rises toward the rafters, accompanied by a roar that has some in the audience plugging their ears.
The bluster and confidence he displays at the forum, sponsored by the League of 8,000, are not merited by his stint on the council. If Chavous were to stick to his record, he would have little to say. “Had he been a good councilmember for Ward 7, we would not be having this conversation,” says Hillcrest activist Paul Savage. “But we are not about to promote a guy who has not done a good job. We are not about the Peter Principle, which is promote a person to the highest level of incompetence.”
In his six years on the council, Chavous hasn’t demonstrated the fortitude to shepherd legislation from concept to law. Residents complain that he’s been inconsistent, promising to vote in favor of a bill only to be absent or to rescind his support usually for reasons of political expediency. And on more than one occasion, he has chosen glibness over governance, acting as an acolyte of the school of black politics that praises symbolism over substance.
“There were so many things we needed done that he didn’t get done for us,” says Charles Cotten, former treasurer of Chavous’ 1996 council campaign committee and chairman of the Ward 7 Democrats.
One of the more important items among those things was Chavous’ legislation to create “enterprise development strips” along commercial corridors in his ward. The bill, which drew citywide media attention, would have added six sites in Ward 7 to the city’s Economic Development Zone law, which offers incentives to businesses that locate in economically underdeveloped areas.
No one argued that the proposed sites didn’t need an upgrade. Two areas had become open-air drug markets, and another was a shoddy strip of businesses offering nothing to the middle-class residents around it. Nearly every councilmember, including Wilson, co-sponsored the measure. Only Ward 2’s Evans and Ward 4’s Charlene Drew Jarvis were not listed among the proposal’s supporters. The bill got a quick ride to the Committee of the Whole a sure sign that it was destined for passage.
Then it died. There was no public hearing. And there are no minutes from any committee meeting to suggest it was even discussed. It became nothing more than a grand symbol, an effort to which Chavous could point as evidence of his vision for his ward.
Chavous blames David Clarke, who took over as council chair after the suicide of Wilson: “[He] said once you start designating strips everyone will want to have one. I told him that was the idea. But I couldn’t get him to hold a hearing.”
A council staffer who requested anonymity and is familiar with the legislation says only that “the best laid plans go awry when people are asleep at the switch.”
Chavous again trotted out his patented MO spout outrage, then drop the ball after the shooting death in September 1993 of Launice Smith, a 4-year-old who had been watching a game of football with her mother when they were caught in the crossfire of what appeared to be a gang-related rampage. The episode grabbed national attention, and for months afterward the local media converged on Fort Dupont Dwellings, a decrepit public housing complex in Ward 7.
For a man who had ridden into office on a public-safety platform, the shooting was a prime opportunity to advance his agenda. Instead, Chavous did what every unresourceful politico before him had done: He blasted conditions whenever a microphone or reporter’s notebook was waved before him. He wrote the president, asking him to convene a White House Conference on Violence. And then he resorted to political boilerplate, appointing a 20-member Public Safety Task Force led by former Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) Chief Isaac Fulwood, who now serves as his mayoral campaign chairman, and then-Fire Chief Ray Alford.
Copies of the task force’s report were forwarded to then-Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly and MPD Chief Fred Thomas. When asked recently what had become of the recommendations, MPD spokesman Joe Gentile said he didn’t remember the department receiving any such report. Ditto for the council: None of the recommendations made it into legislation or even to the council’s Committee on the Judiciary.
“There were some interesting things in that report, although it wasn’t the best. But the specific legislative recommendations were never acted on,” says one source who served on the task force. “In the final analysis, in Kevin Chavous, people got somebody that despite all his growling is nothing more than a paper tiger.”
“A lot of the recommendations didn’t call for legislation,” says Chavous in defense of his initiative. “It was things like increase of visible police presence, which we had been hammering on. The other thing was cleaning up public housing, which I did. I was the one instrumental in getting Fort Dupont razed.”
For the record, Fort Dupont Dwellings was on the public-housing demolition list long before Chavous took office.
Another set of recommendations went the same way as the police report. Chavous’ appointed 24-member Public Works Task Force, co-chaired by Vincent Spaulding and Ramona M. Justice, issued its 56-page document in November 1994. The group recommended more effective street cleaning, including the institution of alternate-side parking; re-instatement of the Clean It or Lien It program, with stricter fines; distribution of a schedule for bulk trash pickup; and more shared responsibility for abandoned vehicles between the Department of Public Works and the MPD.
What happened to those proposals? “Nothing,” says Spaulding. “The only feedback I got was that the report had been forwarded to the mayor,” he adds.
Chavous has a ready defense for all the grief he takes from Ward 7 critics: He suggests that they want a clone of his predecessor, Crawford. “I have not engaged in rife cronyism that plagued service delivery in my ward. I have not done under-the-table stuff. Frankly, with some of the leaders in my ward, that’s why they have a problem with me.
“From the moment I went on the council, I [also] have been railing against environment hazards and dumping,” he continues. “I organized hundreds of people to do wardwide cleanups. I introduced legislation to get rid of abandoned cars on private poverty. I’m also proud we put in the liquor license moratorium.”
That’s the sort of talk that has made Chavous a terror at mayoral forums. He hops on his soapbox, shouts in staccato bursts, and says all the right stuff packaged with appropriate rhythm and conviction. He says he’s a passionate guy always has been. “People don’t know me,” he says. “I feel passionately about our government. I feel passionately about the least of us.
“People criticize me because they say I’m too cool and reserved and don’t show enough passion. Now, I’m being criticized because of too much passion,” he continues. “Six months ago, people were saying, ‘Well, he’s too nice a guy. Is he tough enough?’ We don’t hear that anymore.”
No, we don’t. But we hear the words “thugs” and “hooligans” tossed around in descriptions of Chavous’ campaign operation and with some justification. At the June forum in Ward 7, his supporters helped turn a debate on civic issues into a yelling match. Instead of pleading for silence and decorum, however, the candidate raised his hands, palms up toward the ceiling nonverbal language that translates into “raise the roof.” They obliged.
Chavous has clearly learned some tricks from the man he hopes to succeed, Mayor Marion S. Barry. Even before that night, Chavous had begun to mimic the four-term mayor, borrowing his line about serving the “last and the least.” He has frequently chanted about the needs of senior citizens and youth. And he has taken up the banner of UDC as if it were his personal crusade. He even blames the media and their fascination with Williams for his slide in the polls classic Barry all the way.
Chavous calls the parallels between him and Barry “ridiculous.” “A lot of people close to the political process in this city want to put everyone in a box.
“The beauty of a democracy is that the people are the ones who vote; they’re the ones who decide not you,” Chavous continues. “This isn’t going to be an anointment from the top down; it’s going to be from the bottom up.”
In fairness, it should be said that there is a strong surge at the bottom. Chavous supporters are diverse. Ali Shaleh, who owes a flower shop on Benning Road in Ward 7, says he is for Chavous because, simply, “he has been for me.” Chavous, his wife, and his mother-in-law shop at Shaleh’s business. The Washington Metropolitan Council of the AFL-CIO, the Medical Society of the District of Columbia, and the Sierra Club have all endorsed him.
“The bottom line is, We felt he was the best candidate,” says David Schlein, national vice president of American Federation of Government Employees District 14. “He has a strong voting record on labor issues, connects with our members. He demonstrates great concern about the community in general. He is the type of mayor who can bring together all elements of Washington.”
Schlein, however, concedes that union leaders didn’t probe Chavous’ entire record before granting their endorsement. They didn’t look at his tenure as chairman of the now-defunct Committee on Labor. That’s the post where Chavous failed to spot the millions of dollars that were not spent for employee training and the dysfunction in the city’s disability-compensation program, which permitted workers to remain on the rolls while holding down jobs elsewhere.
“It’s not like we’re demanding perfection,” Schlein adds.
Seated in his campaign office, Chavous flips through crib notes in a black loose-leaf 0notebook. Prepared by his campaign staff, the notes assist him in answering pesky questions from journalists and voters about his record.
To disarm the skeptics, the campaign has taken a by-the-numbers approach to spinning his achievements on the council. For instance, his campaign literature says he has introduced 130 pieces of legislation since 1993. He says he has missed only seven of 133 legislative sessions in five years. He says he has held three job fairs in conjunction with clergy in the ward, which together yielded between 200 and 300 jobs for his constituents. He says he has held 40 hearings during his 18-month tenure as chair of the education committee.
The numbers are misleading. Take, for example, the 130 bills: Chavous’ staff provides documentation for 73 measures, but only 52 of those were bills specifically introduced by Chavous. The others were introduced by his colleagues; he merely co-sponsored them.
Of the 52 he actually introduced, 31 were resolutions, the ceremonial nonsense of council transactions. For example, there were the Vincent Spaulding Retirement Recognition Resolution, the Barbara Parks Lee Recognition Resolution, and the Official Dinosaur Designation Act.
When told of the discrepancy between the evidence his office has supplied and what his campaign literature boasts, Chavous says, “I have a lot more. I have them right here.” The documents he presents show 208 pieces of legislation either introduced or co-sponsored by him. As in the first batch, there are a bunch of ceremonial resolutions 116, to be exact. They celebrate various constituent retirements, churches, and schools. Only 82 are actual bills and, again, several of those are measures Chavous co-sponsored, rather than introduced. Lots of show and not much go.
Chavous wouldn’t have to quibble over his resolution tally if he had spent more time in his council office. A review by Washington City Paper found that between 1995 and 1996, Chavous missed 26 out of 42 meetings. To use a more charitable measure, Chavous missed 100 of the 500 votes on the council from 1997 through 1998.
“I missed a number of consent docket votes because I came into meetings late,” Chavous says. “I was juggling my schedule, going to funerals. Ten o’clock Tuesday morning is prime time. On the substantive issues affecting the direction of policy of the government, I’ve been an active participant.”
It’s hard to discern just what Chavous considers substantive. During his first two years on the council, according to documents provided by the council secretary, he was absent for the following votes: several key appointments made by then-Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon, legislation that permitted retired police officers to work as security guards in the schools, a bill that set up a trust for neglected and abused children,
an illegal-dumping bill, legislation setting life without parole for repeat criminal offenders, a bill establishing the Georgetown Business Improvement District, the Oyster Elementary School Construction and Revenue Bond Act, and the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics Subpoena Authority Act.
And Chavous has had trouble managing his relatively tiny council staff which is a cause for concern when you consider that even the diminished mayoralty will rise or fall on the next mayor’s ability to recruit and retain talented people. In 1997, for example, Chavous lost several staffers after winning a second term as councilmember. At least a couple of the desertions, Chavous says, were holdovers from the previous Committee on Education chair, Hilda Mason. Chavous says he asked those staffers to stay on for a couple of months to help with the budget. “When a number of them left all at once, it was already preordained that they were going to leave,” he says.
That story, though, doesn’t jibe with the one Chavous told the Washington Post in December 1997, just after the defections. At that point, he acknowledged that tensions may have been a factor in the departures, and although he now says he was prepared for them, he began interviewing for replacements only after the resignations were submitted.
Some former staffers say they left out of frustration with Chavous’ management style, his wishy-washy attitude toward important legislative initiatives, and his lack of dedication to the job. The councilmember spent 75 percent of his time on his law practice and only 25 percent on his council duties, they estimate. “If he had just split the time 50-50, he would have seen some results,” says one.
“I view the management of my staff, particularly as a ward councilmember, wholly different from everyone else,” he says. “I don’t believe that people should linger and be on the 10-year plan in these council jobs. I view myself as someone who gives people opportunity, particularly young people. I have them maximize their potential and move on.”
By that standard, mayoral campaign manager Vickey Wilcher maximized her potential in just a couple of months. In June, amid rumors of a rift with the candidate, Wilcher resigned. Both Wilcher and Chavous attempted to downplay her sudden departure, telling the press it had been planned all along. They both suggested that she had come only to help create a ward organization for the election committee. But Wilcher had confided in some associates that she saw a successful mayoral campaign as the stepping stone for a role in a presidential election. The Washington Post reported that the resignation stemmed from internal campaign strife after the candidate’s poor showing at the Ward 8 Democrats meeting and his indecision on the convention center.
Over the past two years, DCPS has undergone a series of embarrassments, including late school openings, repair fiascoes, and poor test scores. While several forces of community oversight the courts, parents, and school advocates have made sure that the chronic failures have not passed unnoticed, one potential source of stewardship has been silent: the D.C. Council’s education committee. That’s where Chavous has sat.
Chavous expected that his position as education committee chair would help him sail into the mayor’s office, which is why he wrested it from At-Large Councilmember Mason in 1997, after a battle with Ward 3’s Patterson. The committee’s value as a springboard to bigger things may be why Chavous refused to retain Jim Ford, the committee’s staff director under Mason. For many years, Ford, not Mason, had captured the headlines and plied the press with valuable data. Chavous couldn’t afford to have a staffer, even one as expert as Ford, outshine him.
But kicking Ford out was Chavous’ first huge mistake. It left his office without the experience and continuity the chairmanship demanded. His and the remaining committee staffers’ knowledge base was minimal, and he was trying to take on the most unwieldy bureaucracy in the city.
Chavous’ second miscalculation came just as he took over the committee. In November 1996, the control board had effected a DCPS coup, naming retired U.S. Army Gen. Julius Becton to replace superintendent Franklin Smith, appointing an emergency board of trustees, and relegating the elected D.C. Board of Education to observer status.
Like other elected officials, Chavous protested. Screamed bloody murder. But took no action. Certainly, the changes weren’t detrimental to his aspirations. If he played his cards right, he could ride the wave of any success the control board might have in reforming the system. And, if he could open a place for himself at the table, he could even claim some credit. He promised rigorous oversight, which he claimed was even more important in light of recent events. But his statement evolved into yet another empty promise. No one intimately involved in overhauling the schools took Chavous seriously.
Even while the control board held the reins, the council could have preserved some measure of oversight of the schools. The members could have wielded sufficient authority to make their presence felt. And if the control board had chosen to ignore them, the council would still have had the ultimate power of the subpoena although for years it had been reluctant to use it.
Among other pledges, Becton told parents that as the schools chief he would open the schools on time. But by summer of 1997, repairs on more than three dozen roofs hadn’t been finished, and D.C. Superior Court Judge Kaye Christian prohibited students from entering the buildings. Schools would open three weeks late.
The entire city gasped. Parents had not planned for the delay and had to scramble to find alternatives for their children. Some argued that repairs to a few dozen buildings did not necessitate keeping all 100-plus schools closed. All eyes turned to Chavous, the elected official who should have seen it coming.
Why hadn’t he known the roof repairs were being delayed? Why hadn’t he held hearings on the capital repairs before Becton’s announcement? Why didn’t he push to have the control board and new administrators open some schools? Why didn’t he protest with parents?
Chavous was slow on the uptake. Congress scheduled a hearing on the matter before Chavous did. Each time he scheduled an oversight hearing it was after the crisis had occurred and been resolved: His committee finally met after Becton announced the long-delayed opening.
When the media reported that Becton, with control board approval, had handed out large bonuses to his top aides, including one totalling $30,000 to facilities chief Gen. Charles Williams, the man responsible for the roof fiasco, Chavous’ committee didn’t conduct its inquiry until a week following public hearings on Capitol Hill. And, instead of conducting his own investigation into the roof repairs, he punted: In a letter to control board Chairman Andrew Brimmer, Chavous asked for an independent audit.
“I don’t have any sense that things are any different because he has been chair,” says one frustrated school advocate, who requested anonymity.
Bonnie Cain, a schools activist and a Chavous supporter, admits that her candidate didn’t shake things up. However, she contends that the councilmember’s only option was to “persuade and cajole” agents of the control board into working with his committee and keeping it informed.
“[Still], he did a terrible job of it,” she adds.
Chavous, of course, comes prepared with a different spin. “Frankly, we’ve done a tremendous job,” he argues. He contends that, although the committee appeared to be behind the curve when the council went into recess and didn’t learn until later of Becton’s decision to delay the schools’ opening, “What we haven’t been given credit for is that we had the foresight to get authority from the council to have a hearing while the council was in recess, because we were suspicious that the school system wasn’t providing us with information.”
Becton, however, was a no-show at that hearing, making the whole affair pointless. It wasn’t until the council came back in session that Chavous sought and received subpoena authority. Although Becton showed up at the second hearing, nothing was ever done. Chavous railed on about the emergency trustees’ operating in secrecy, about the continuing crisis in getting roof repairs done, about the need for teacher and principal evaluations.
And although he now hammers Anthony Williams for the $62 million deficit in the schools’ fiscal 1998 budget, Chavous should instead claim his share of the blame. As education committee chair, Chavous also should have known about the shortfall that is, if his committee had found a way to put itself in the loop.
On other education committee matters, Chavous came to UDC’s rescue after the control board forced the school to sell its popular jazz radio station. However, he didn’t hold a public hearing on proposed budget cuts for the university until after Barry held his highly publicized and well-attended forum at One Judiciary Square. And recently, when media reports surfaced of new finance problems at the school, Chavous called for an investigation but failed to conduct any emergency oversight hearings.
On the campaign trail, Chavous is smooth and savvy enough to dance around responsibility for the schools, fudge his attendance record, and convince skeptics that he has rid Ward 7 of cronyism. However, Chavous will have less luck covering up the most damning evidence of his council tenure: the state of his ward.
Take, for example, the corner of Nannie Helen Burroughs and Division Avenues in Northeast: “The pulse of the two-block commercial strip is a neighborhood park where drugs and flesh are sold any time of the day. Many customers come from the Maryland suburbs, Lincoln Heights and other public housing complexes.” That’s the description that I wrote in the Washington Times in 1993 of one of the areas Chavous wanted to designate as an economic development zone strip.
Today, things aren’t any different: An Amoco service station occupies one corner. An abandoned, fading green-and-white house with a sinking roof sits on another, across from the city-operated Drug and Alcohol Abuse Administration. The folks at the Sign of the Times, an arts and cultural center, have tried to make the last corner a little more presentable, painting a mural on a bricked-up building.
Along the strip, there is a bustle of people, many of whom appear to be involved in the drug trade. A few young mothers can be seen pushing baby carriages across the streets and ducking into the carryouts. Strand Liquor still provides the day’s beverages.
Huddled under a nearby grove of trees are nearly a dozen men preparing for the news conference that will be held on the site the next day. Barry and control board Chief Management Officer Camille Cates Barnett have decided to tackle the problem that Chavous could not. They will use money from the Department of Employment Services to hire substance abusers who are in treatment to help clean up nuisance properties in the area.
“This is one of the worst areas,” Chavous told the Washington Times back in 1993. Unfortunately, it still is one of the reasons why some of Chavous’ strongest supporters have deserted him.
“Kevin is somebody that can continue to play a role in the city’s political life,” says Anthony Robinson, Chavous’ former chief of staff. “But, based on his record to date, I don’t think Kevin has earned the right to be mayor.”CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.