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District officials ended last year in a state of depression because bumbling, grandfatherly Andrew Brimmer appeared to have a lock on a second term as chairman of the D.C. financial control board. Ever since Brimmer first foisted his stodgy and secretive management style on the city, residents and elected leaders alike have prayed that the control board chief would turn his fishing hobby into a full-time job.
Although he is disliked from Capitol Hill to Columbia Heights, Brimmer’s chances for a second term seemed even more overwhelming than the Green Bay Packers’ odds in last Sunday’s Super Bowl. But now, just like Denver Broncos fans, local leaders are beginning to smell upset. And they are uniting behind control board member Constance Newmana Republican, of all thingsas their choice to dethrone Brimmer.
“A black woman Republican who can get along with everybodythat serves the city well,” observes a Barry aide. “That also serves President Clintonor maybe it will be President Gore. And, quite frankly, she’s probably able to get along with Republicans on Capitol Hill.”
“They don’t like to have Brimmer up there,” the official notes. “They just don’t like him.”
During his three-year stint as head of “the Authority,” the cranky, curt septuagenarian has acted like Moses dictating the Ten Commandments to the District of Columbia from on high. To his four control board colleagues, Brimmer has declared, Thou shalt not defy me in public. The Brimmerettes have kept that commandment, except for one or two instances of sin. But in private, the control board disciples have taken to defying the teachings of their secretive, authoritarian apostle.
Newman, say inside sources, often leads the challenges.
Brimmer has treated Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. and local leaders like Pharaoh and the Egyptians, as if they are deserving of a good drowning in the muddy waters of the Potomac for their sins against the nation’s capital and its residents. He displayed his deep disdain for local government during the Jan. 23 congressional oversight hearing on the city’s continuing school crisis and last year’s roof repair snafus.
D.C. congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton asked Brimmer if he had consulted with elected officials in the wake of this month’s federal appeals court ruling that the control board had overstepped its power in November 1996 when it set up an appointed school board to replace the city’s elected board.
Yes, Brimmer promptly replied; he had held several discussions with members of Congress.
“No,” Norton snapped in amazement. “I’m talking about locally elected officials.”
Brimmer can’t seem to figure out why Norton insists he consult D.C.’s elected powerless; after all, he commands the Authority.
“Local elected officials don’t really cross his radar much,” comments Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson.
In spite of the control board’s setbacks in overhauling D.C. schools and the Metropolitan Police Department, Brimmer has engineered one remarkable feat during his first term: uniting the city’s elected hierarchy, from Barry to Norton to members of the D.C. Council, and on down to the advisory neighborhood commissions.
Opposition to Brimmer has also allied D.C. officials with some of the District’s harshest Republican critics in Congress, including House D.C. Appropriations subcommittee chairman Rep. Charles Taylor (R-N.C.). Of course, Taylor couldn’t care less that Brimmer has dissed the District’s elected leaders. He wants to oust Brimmer for being too lenient with the Barry administration.
Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans predicts that Newman will succeed Brimmer as chairman come June and claims his prediction isn’t just wishful thinking. Newman, a top official at the Smithsonian who only a few months ago seemed unwilling to serve a second control board term because of her heavy workload, even has supporters within the mayor’s office. Barry aides say her style is more inclusive than Brimmer’s, and she doesn’t shun city officials. Newman’s respect for elected officials has deflected attacks on her prominent behind-the-scenes role in some of the board’s more controversial moves, like the recent hiring of Chief Management Officer Camille Cates Barnett and the 1996 selection of retired Army Gen. Julius Becton to reform city schools.
Brimmer, not Newman, has taken the heat for those actions.
Newman, a former Bush administration official who headed the Office of Personnel Management, also has a rapport with D.C.’s powerful unions, who regard Brimmer as a reincarnation of notorious union buster John D. Rockefeller.
“She’s got a pretty good grasp on how to make things work,” says Patterson. “I get the impression that she would be awfully good in [the role of control board chairman].”
Local officials are convinced that uniting behind Newman more than four months before Clinton has to decide whom to keep on the control board will propel a campaign already under way on Newman’s behalf.
“I’m sure she’s got some big-time Republican friends who have influence with the president,” observes a D.C. official. “She has to be very silent and she has to use her well-placed connections. And her connections are better than Brimmer’s.”
Newman has aided her own cause by being the firstand usually onlycontrol board member to pick up the phone and apprise local officials of the board’s agenda. Brimmer, city officials say, only calls when he can’t avoid it.
When contacted this week, Newman threatened to hang up on LL if we persisted in quizzing her about her future on the control board.
“I think it’s too soon for everyone to be thinking about this,” she said, skillfully skirting the issue. “April would be a good time to have this conversation.”
When asked whether that meant she has not yet discussed her reappointment and possible ascension to the chairmanship with the White House, Newman dodged again. “I’m not going to say that,” she replied.
In between evasions, though, Newman provided a few glimpses into how a Newman administration over at 1 Thomas Circle would differ from the status quo.
“I think there should have been more give and take,” she said of the board’s penchant for conducting its business in secret. “I think there might have been a value added with more direct contact with the public.”
“We all have to figure out what is the best way to provide quality of life to the citizens and to move through the transition of turning government back to elected officials,” Newman added.
The best way, many in D.C. are convinced, is to oust Brimmer as chairman in the hope that he will behave like Seinfeld’s Fragile Frankie character, who disappears into the woods whenever his feelings get hurt.
Barry recently chastised the local media for failing to report the good news about D.C. government agencies that now perform like a Lexus just off the assembly line. An example cited by Hizzoner was the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, where, he claimed, D.C. residents no longer have to endure long lines to renew driver’s permits, license tags, and vehicle registrations.
Barry should be grateful that no one bothered to heed his protestations. Otherwise, news cameras last month would have caught hordes of unhappy motorists queued up to get their car registrations renewed. Most had learned that their registrations had lapsed when they discovered a pink slip under their windshield wipers telling them they owed the city $100 for not renewing their registrations on time.
Why, they asked, couldn’t the department have chosen the more conventional method of sending a renewal letter to let them know it was time to come in? The reason, officials said, was that the machine that mails out renewal notices was broken during December.
“It’s like being set up. You do it by mail, and you come to expect that,” says Tenleytown resident and motorist Dan Noble. “One month the machine is working; the next it isn’t.” Noble waded through a crowd of D.C. residents in the same predicament before renewing his registration.
On his way home from the Tenleytown Metro station, Noble said, he had noticed a half-dozen cars with expired registrations. He put his own warnings on their windshields to save them from the city’s merciless ticket writers. Perhaps Barry should hold them out as an example of how well the government works.
•News that CMO Barnett has been cooling her heels at a “Dupont Circle bed and breakfast” while she looks for a house in the District had Dupont Circle busybodies up in arms. The knee-jerk reaction of concerned denizens was that Barnett was shacking up at the Mansion, a fashionable O Street bed and breakfast that opponents claim is gobbling up precious residential real estate.
But the CMO showed she is not that naive. She has been staying at the little-known but politically correct Swann House at 18th and Swann Streets NW. Besides, the city couldn’t afford to put her up at the posh Mansion, which is currently fighting the deep-pocketed Dupont Circle Citizens Association before the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board to get a new liquor license.
•During a Jan. 21 council hearing on the city’s epidemic of beheaded parking meters, Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Sr. noticed that Department of Public Works head Cell Bernardino kept turning to control board staffer Valerie Holt for advice when answering questions. Thomas, chair of the council’s public works committee, asked Bernardino why Holt was sitting there whispering in his ear.
Bernardino replied that Holt had negotiated the recent contract with Lockheed to repair the parking meters and knew many details better than he.
That answer only made matters worse.
Thomas and Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose demanded to know how a control board staffer could negotiate a contract that ultimately had to go before the board for final approval. After the hearing, Ambrose asked D.C. Corporation Counsel John Ferren for a ruling on whether Holt’s actions had violated city contracting regulations.
•D.C. Fire Department wagon driver Robert Lohr was heading down Georgia Avenue NW Jan. 14, lights flashing and siren blaring, en route to Howard University, when a motorist suddenly made a left turn right into his path. “I did a hard left to avoid T-boning the guy, which could have killed him,” Lohr recalled later.
The firetruck bounced off the intruding car and headed straight toward a Metrobus unloading passengers on the other side of the street. Lohr somehow missed the bus and three pedestrians on the sidewalk, plowed over the curb and up an embankment, avoided crashing into a small grocery, steered around an oak tree and an abandoned car, and finally came to a stop back on Irving Street.
“Two of my crew got slightly injured, and I got hugs,” the relieved fireman said later. “I saved a lot of lives and a lot of property.”
According to Lohr, a D.C. emergency vehicle driver experiences, on average, a dozen close calls a month. Drivers in this city “just don’t yield to the light and siren,” he said in frustration.
Drivers in this area don’t like to yield to anything, even in an emergency.CP
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