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D.C. financial control board member Joyce Ladner needed a job. The civil rights veteran and college professor was serving as interim president of Howard University but had been passed over in her campaign for the permanent post. Ladner managed to snag a book deal writing about traditional African-American values but needed a position commensurate with her stature. She thought about becoming an Op-Ed columnist for the Washington Post but dropped her efforts to acquire a spot there. Then she made an appointment with the Brookings Institution.
Ladner didn’t have to worry about getting a cold reception at the liberal think tank. Her control board colleague, Constance B. Newman, sits on the Brookings board of directors. Newman reportedly made a few telephone calls on Ladner’s behalf. Ladner now works as a senior fellow in Brookings’ economic studies department—a post that pays between $70,000 and $120,000. While a woman of Ladner’s substantial achievements is hardly out of place at Brookings, her relationship with Newman probably sealed the deal. For her part, Newman says her involvement in Ladner’s hiring is “nobody’s business.” (Ladner recently said she would not serve a second term on the control board.)
But Newman’s blossoming alliance with Ladner and Vice Chairman Stephen Harlan is no small matter. Last month, control board Chairman Andrew Brimmer abruptly announced his plans to step down in early June. While Newman denies playing any role in Brimmer’s demise, she coveted the control board chair enough to orchestrate a putsch to prevent Brimmer’s reappointment, control board sources say. Brimmer made his announcement one day after a Post article reported that Newman, Ladner, and Harlan would refuse to serve a second term under the current leadership.
Whether the goal is to help a colleague land a job or line up votes on the board, sources say that Newman typically operates in the shadows and always with an agenda. Over the past six months, Newman has methodically maneuvered, manipulated, undercut, cajoled, stroked, and smiled her way to the center chair.
“She has been effectively outflanking Brimmer for the past six months,” says Dorothy Brizill, head of D.C. Watch, a citizen government watchdog group that has monitored control board activities since its inception. “Before Brimmer can bring up an issue for formal vote, Newman already has lined up votes to support her way.”
And her way has earned a constituency that cuts across the divides of party, race, and class. “A lot of it is personality. She is seen as somebody who is compassionate. That has elevated her in the eyes of many of my colleagues—and in my eyes,” explains Ward 1 Councilmember Frank Smith.
But Newman’s rise may say more about her unparalleled political skills than her qualifications for running the District of Columbia. “If you have the mayor, the council, and some members of Congress campaigning for the same person, bells and whistles should be going off,” adds Brizill.
Like any savvy operator, Newman recognizes that openly campaigning for an appointed office is the quickest route to disqualification. “Each day that goes by, I become less and less interested,” says Newman. “The fact that I’m not a star and I am kind of low-key is not offensive to people. I’m not that interested in who takes the credit. People are more comfortable if it doesn’t seem like you’re trying to feather your own nest.”
But a black Republican who has known Newman for years warns that her expressed lack of interest is just part of the plan. He says Newman’s effort to secure the chairman’s seat is part of a bigger agenda—a charge Newman vehemently denies. “She wants to be a top dog in the next Republican administration,” continues the source, who requested anonymity. “[The control board] is small stuff.”
Newman is hardly a neophyte in the byways of power. Her network of political contacts and influence reaches deep into the Republican party and three presidential administrations. Her resume includes serving as assistant secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, director of Vista, commissioner and vice chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and head of the federal Office of Personnel Management. She currently serves as undersecretary of the Smithsonian Institution.
“You don’t get to be a political player with three presidents for nothing,” remarks a control board staffer.
Despite her allegiance to the Republican Party, Newman sticks close to the African-American liberal community—a gambit other city Republicans ignore at their peril. She meets regularly with D.C. congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, Mayor Marion Barry, and other civil rights leaders. Cora Barry calls Newman one of her best friends. And Newman has nothing but glowing remarks about the first lady.
“They’re all part of that elite cluster of black leaders,” explains a high-level District government insider. “They protect each other.”
For good or ill, Newman has been at the center of almost every important initiative by the control board. Although Brimmer and Harlan have always played the front men, it was Newman who recruited retired Gen. Julius Becton to run city schools; she tapped former Brookings Institution executive Bruce MacLaury to serve as chairman of the emergency board of trustees; and she pushed the board to hire Camille Cates Barnett as its chief management officer.
“She’s the power behind the throne,” says a control board staffer.
But her tendency to broker behind the scenes doesn’t always yield rave reviews. Take, for example, the dispute that last year enveloped the control board’s emergency board of trustees. In January, a federal appellate court ruled that the control board had overstepped its legal authority by delegating policy-making power to the trustees. The ruling threw the entire school system hierarchy into upheaval: Members of the 30-year-old elected school board wanted their power restored, and the trustees threatened to quit if they were stripped of their power.
Newman stepped into the melee to negotiate a settlement in cooperation with Norton. In doing so, she promised Norton that the solution would involve a greater role for the elected board, which had sat idle ever since the control board took over the schools in November 1996.
But Newman didn’t deliver on that promise, and sources say she never intended to. They charge that Newman was just trying to keep Norton quiet while the control board figured out how to handle the mess. Days after Newman’s meeting with Norton, the control board announced a plan that continued to leave elected officials on the outside. Sources say Norton was peeved that she had been snookered. But Brimmer, not Newman, took the heat for dissing home rule.
And it fell to Brimmer to explain Becton’s failures as leader of the school system. Newman acknowledges that she brought Becton into the fold and that she talked him into accepting the job. But sources at the control board say that soon after arriving, Becton aligned himself with Brimmer, much to Newman’s dismay. Newman says her problems with Becton were about performance, not loyalty.
“I take each person as they come,” she explains. “I have a certain set of expectations. We might be friends, but a professional relationship is different. There were certain things he was expected to do no matter what.”
Newman may have had her own set of expectations, but when Becton fell short, she refrained from speaking out publicly. Via back channels, Newman was reportedly attacking Becton for fouling up the schools. “She was knifing him all the time,” says a congressional source.
“We did have a difference of opinion on procurement,” she continues. “Just because we had a difference of opinion, that is not saying, ‘Therefore, you should leave’.”
Newman’s public reticence on policy matters is giving way to an increasing assertiveness now that Brimmer is on his way out. At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz ran into Newman at the recent annual dinner of the Greater Washington Board of Trade and took advantage of the occasion to push her agenda at 1 Thomas Circle. At issue was a personnel reform bill that carried a controversial provision requiring all D.C. government employees to reside in the District. Schwartz says she tried to convince Newman that the provision shouldn’t be a deal-breaker, but Newman, a staunch opponent of residency requirements, didn’t budge. “At that moment I felt I was talking to Dr. Brimmer and not Connie Newman,” says Schwartz, who reports that Newman went ballistic and claimed ownership of a bill crafted mostly by the council. “It was a side of her I had never seen. It gave me great pause.”
Newman’s ability to use the levers of power to specific ends has left a few people wondering what hit them.
Not long after control board members began their tenure, Newman and former City Administrator Michael Rogers began having regular breakfast and dinner meetings during which Newman allegedly attacked Barry. She stated that the board had sought to expose the Barry administration as a perpetrator of waste, fraud, and abuse. And then, in passing, she reportedly intimated that Rogers should watch himself because Cora Barry was “out to get” him.
What Rogers didn’t know, according to a source close to all parties, was that Newman was playing the same game with the Barrys. In fact, she regularly told Barry she and her board colleagues had no confidence in Rogers—a position that contradicted efforts by control board Executive Director John Hill and Vice Chairman Stephen Harlan to convince Rogers to accept an appointment as independent city administrator and make a break from the mayor.
Sources also says that Newman repeatedly pushed Barry to take procurement reform out of Rogers’ hands. The mayor acquiesced—after Rogers had presented a full procurement reform proposal.
While Rogers refuses to discuss the specifics of his relationship with Newman, he does offer a single assessment: “She plays a cruel game,” he says.
When apprised of Rogers’ comment, Newman responded, “I’m surprised to hear that. I thought he was one of the best people to come through the District government. He had his hands full, and that was the reason why he didn’t fix procurement.”
Although Newman’s MO will continue to baffle D.C.’s heavy hitters, no one doubts its effectiveness.
“You’ve got to stay up all night to catch Connie Newman. She is good,” says an informed source, who requested anonymity. “She knows how to play the game, and she plays it well.”CP