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The Department of Public Works (DPW), long criticized for the Gestapo-like efficiency of its parking-ticket-writers, has suddenly found compassionat least when it comes to the driving habits of DPW’s overseer on the D.C. Council.
After Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Sr. allegedly struck a DPW employee’s car last month and kept on going, DPW officials showed unusual restraint in shielding the councilmember from a traffic citation and a messy police report.
But the much-maligned department’s new-found tolerance didn’t end there. DPW head Cell Bernardino and deputy director Art Lawson dug into their own pockets to help the councilmember pay for repairs on the car he struck after Thomas groused about the $336 repair bill.
The next time Bernardino & Co. come before Thomas’ Public Works Committee, they should have no problem getting shiny new trash trucks or more street-cleaning crewsprovided, of course, that the septuagenarian councilmember can recall DPW’s self-serving act of kindness.
“I really don’t remember hitting nobody’s car,” says Thomas. “I didn’t have no kind of bumps on my car. But I paid the lady to keep you all from writing bad things about me.”
That lady is DPW employee Katina Robinson, who was parked in the Wendy’s parking lot at New York and Florida Avenues NE at lunchtime on July 13. When she exited the fast-food joint, Robinson said, eyewitnesses told her Thomas had driven through the parking lot, grazed her car, and neglected to stop. The eyewitnesses pointed out Thomas, who was stopped at a traffic light on New York Avenue at that moment.
When Robinson returned to work, she told her colleagues about the accident and her intention to report the alleged hit-and-run to the cops. Before she could pick up the phone, however, she was summoned to Bernardino’s office. When she got there, Kay Phillips, the director’s chief of staff, had Thomas waiting on the phone.
“She had me come around to her office and actually speak to the councilmember,” Robinson said this week. “He said send him an estimate and he’d take care of it.”
So Robinson sent him an estimate of $450an amount that Thomas thought was far too much for an accident he couldn’t recall. He refused to pay up. Robinson then countered with a second estimate, for $336. Still, Thomas refused to pay that amount, and sent a check for $300 to Bernardino’s office, which was delivered to Robinson by Phillips. After their initial phone conversation, Robinson claims, Thomas failed to return her phone calls.
“I really don’t get how you have a hit-and-run accident and keep on going, and then you decide how much you’re going to pay,” Robinson said.
However, because her supervisors had gotten involved, Robinson said she felt she had to let the matter drop.
When she was handed Thomas’ check, Robinson said, Phillips also gave her $35 in cash, which she was told came from the pockets of Bernardino and Lawson.
“I wasn’t going to pay no $500 for a scrape,” Thomas says in his own defense, while still questioning whether he had even struck Robinson’s car. He says he was unaware that DPW’s top officials had chipped in to pay for repairs.
“They shouldn’t have done that,” he says. “They didn’t have a damn thing to do with it.”
Thomas shows no concern that his driving habits will become an issue in his re-election campaign. The councilmember keeps handing his four main challengers live political ammo, but they can’t seem to load their guns. Earlier this summer, Thomas lost a sure endorsement from organized labor because of a personal feud with American Federation of Government Employees local president John Frye over the councilmember’s efforts on behalf of a political ally seeking to open a trash transfer station on New York Avenue NE.
Vincent Orange, the best-known contender, who finished a distant second to Thomas four years ago in a crowded race, has been portraying the rematch as “a runoff.”
Last week, the Orange campaign got some unwanted publicity when the Association of Communities Organized for Reform Now (ACORN) protested living conditions at a Dupont Circle apartment building owned by the candidate. “SlumlordJustice Now,” “How can you fix D.C. when you can’t even fix our homes?” read protesters’ signs.
Thomas is so unconcerned about Orange and the rest of the Democratic field that he left this week to tour the troubled privately run prison near Youngstown, Ohio, where D.C. prisoners have been beaten and murdered.
But the councilmember took a planewhich should be comforting news to Ohio drivers.
WARD 1 STANDOFF
Endangered Ward 1 Councilmember Frank Smith, who has hit a number of speed bumps on his road to re-election to a fifth term, was pumped for last week’s candidates forum at Marie H. Reed Recreation Center. Smith had pulled out all the stopsincluding renting full-sized tour buses to truck his supporters to the forum in stylein hopes of securing the endorsement of Ward 1 Democrats.
For nearly 90 minutes, Smith held court with a wildly receptive audience that responded enthusiastically to his every utterance, and the candidacy of chief rival Jim Graham appeared to have collapsed just as the Ward 1 campaign was heading for the home stretch. But when the incumbent and his allies marched out of the auditorium at the end of the forum to cast their ballots, they were stunned to see rows of Graham supporters quietly lined up, waiting to vote to endorse their candidate.
In the final count, Graham got 277 votes to Smith’s 228not enough to win the endorsement, which required 67 percent of the ballots cast, but enough to deny Smith a victory he wanted badly.
“He got all the applause, and you would have thought he was going to devastate us,” Graham exclaimed afterward. “He had a real emotional roller coaster that night. It was really pretty terrific.”
Noticeably disappointed, Smith quickly hit the spin-control cycle.
“I had more people there than he did, but he had more people who voted than we did,” claims the incumbent. “I wanted it, no question about it, and we delivered enough people there to get it. It was a very bad process.”
Smith says his supporters got tired of waiting and left without casting their ballots. Some of his foot soldiers retreated to the air-conditioned buses, a cool retreat from the stuffy forum hall.
“That won’t happen on Election Day,” he vows.
Graham, executive director of the Whitman-Walker Clinic, so far has picked up endorsements from the Gertrude Stein Gay and Lesbian Democratic Club; doctors’, realtors’, and firefighters’ groups; Hotel and Restaurant Employees Local 25; and the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest union in the D.C. government.
He also has blocked Smith from receiving endorsements from tenants’ groups and organized labor, which backed him in prior elections. Smith hired gay activist Chris Long as his campaign manager to try to blunt Graham’s appeal among gay voters. But the incumbent could manage only three votes at last month’s Gertrude Stein Club endorsement forum.
Smith is trying to convince voters that he deserves credit for the reforms of the last three yearsafter all, he chairs the council committee that oversaw the successes of former Chief Financial Officer Anthony Williams.
“People know I work like everything to make the government work,” says Smith, “and if I can’t make the government work, I’ll come out there and do it myself. I’ve cleaned more alleys, swept more streets, moved more tons of trash with my own hands than anyone else in Ward 1.”
Graham responds that Smith must have done his good deeds in the middle of the night. “No one has seen him for two-and-a-half years. He has been a virtual phantom,” says Graham. “I hear that from one end of the ward to the other.”
Smith boasts that he caddies not only for DPW, but for the cops as well. “I nearly tracked down two criminals myself,” he says.
Smith is referring to the 1993 Mount Pleasant shotgun stalker and the more recent murders of women on Princeton Place in Park View. He led marches, started a reward fund, and “picketed, protested, sang, preached and prayed” to put pressure on the Metropolitan Police Department to solve those murders.
“Where was he then?” Smith says of Graham.
To counter Smith’s stature on the east side of Ward 1, Graham opened his campaign headquarters on Georgia Avenue NW, not far from the site of the murders. He says that this campaign is about delivering services to the ward and notes that Park View residents came to an Aug. 7 candidates forum waving 2-year-old orders to remove dead trees, not placards proclaiming Smith a hero for pressuring the police department to solve the Princeton Place murders.
As a measure of his confidence in his prospects, Graham has chosen not to attack some of Smith’s more personal vulnerabilities, like the incumbent’s long-standing claim to be a graduate of historic Morehouse College in Atlanta.
For years, Smith has claimed in council bios, and in a 1988 court deposition, that he has a degree from Morehouse. But this week, he conceded what Morehouse officials confirmedthat he attended Morehouse during the 1960s but never graduated.
Smith said Morehouse registrar officials had informed him last week that they had received inquiries about his tenure there. Graham has declined to use the information in candidate forums.
“I spent four years there. I did not actually meet all the requirements,” Smith said this week. “I did meet Dr. [Martin Luther] King [Jr.] there.”
He blames the distortion of his educational requirements on his staff, who “took some liberty” when writing his council bio.
The councilmember apparently was too busy picking up Ward 1 trash and solving murders to bother to correct that error until now.
•When word gets out about the sweetheart severance deal fired Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs Director David Watts received for hitting the road two months ago, D.C. agency heads will be lining up begging Chief Management Officer Camille Cates Barnett to give them pink slips.
Barnett abruptly fired Watts in early June, after returning from a two-week vacation to Italy. But the dethroned agency head departed with a $121,000 check in hand, equivalent to one year’s pay.
The severance deal was negotiated by Barnett and quietly approved by the D.C. financial control board.
•At-Large D.C. Council candidate Bill Rice last week captured the endorsement of the Ward 2 Democrats. In securing the ward party organization’s hotly contested nod of approval, Rice accomplished what no mayoral candidate could dowin 60 percent of the votes from Ward 2 Democrats present. (Rice formerly worked for Washington City Paper.)
Surprisingly, his main competition was council contender Phyllis Outlaw, who had not been on the radar screen before, even though former At-Large Councilmember Bill Lightfoot is serving as her campaign treasurer.
Ward 3 activist Phil Mendelson, considered by many to be the
front-runner after picking up endorsements from organized labor, nurses, tenants, and environmentalists, was not even in contention for the endorsement. Shadow U.S. Rep. and statehood lobbyist Sabrina Sojourner also disappeared from the radar screen during the Ward 2 endorsement forum.
Of course, LL cautions soothsayers against reading too much into the ward endorsements: In the past, the winners have not always converted their skills at stacking forums with supporters into votes on Election Day.
To propel his candidacy, Rice has chosen a popularand gimmickytarget: DPW’s ticket writers. The candidate has put up posters around town decrying DPW’s dreaded ticket quotas and has even drawn up Rice propaganda in the form of a parking ticket, which he has attached to windshields across town. Rice is running the only campaign with its own song (sung to the tune of the ad jingle for Rice-A-Roni), thanks to his wife, jazz guitarist Myrna Sislen. Last Monday, opera diva and D.C. native Denyce Graves headlined a fund-raiser for the candidate. CP
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