House speaker Newt Gingrich once commented that when it comes to the District of Columbia, “thoughtful men’s brains turn to mush.” That’s an accurate assessment of the current Republican Congress, which abhors the sprawling federal bureaucracy and is always looking for ways to eliminate superfluous government functions. Yet Congress gleefully abandons its core philosophy when confronted with Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr.
In its frenzy to keep Hizzoner under wraps, Congress has created a CMO (Chief Management Officer), a CFO (Chief Financial Officer), an IG (Inspector General), and the D.C. financial control board. And if Barry wins another term at the ballot box in November, LL can already see the next layer in the anti-Barry bureaucracy: the CBO (Chief Barry Officer), a functionary whose only job will be to shadow Barry and make sure he doesn’t create more havoc during his fifth term.
The prospect of another four years on Barry Time has renewed a frenzy to find Candidate Xthat fresh (black) face who will inspire apathetic D.C. voters and calm Capitol Hill jitters.
The latest brand being carefully test-marketed is Michael Brown, son of late Commerce Secretary Ron Brown. A political operator in his own right, Brown, 32, is a member of the prestigious Patton, Boggs & Blow law firm, a locus of Democratic power brokers where his father wheeled and dealed before joining the Clinton administration. “People are asking me to consider it,” Brown told LL this week. “I’m certainly flattered that people have the confidence in me to do this job. I’m still undecided.”
But Brown’s future as a hot mayoral brand may face recall before he ever gets on the market. Although appealing on the drawing board, Brown’s candidacy is not likely to have the mass consumer popularity initially anticipated by its creators.
“It’s almost, in some respects, an insult,” says Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, the only declared candidate for Barry’s job to date. “It assumes that just because someone happens to be black and has a famous father, then voters in this city will support him.”
Brown’s career as a Democratic heavy could take a beating when his polling numbers come in neck-and-neck with those of perennial laughingstock Don Folden.
Very few D.C. voters would recognize Brown’s name, and even fewer know of his kinship to his famousor, in some circles, infamousfather. But Brown gained some unwanted attention himself recently, when he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor violation of federal campaign laws for secretly funneling his own money, reported as donations from others, into the 1994 campaign of Sen. Ted Kennedy.
At least Brown knows Teddy, always a trump card in Democratic circles.
Replacing the weary-looking Barry with the fresh face of Brown is not likely to convince Congress to stop meddling in District affairs, a major goal for those who want to send Hizzoner to the sidelines. Republicans in control of both houses of Congress blame political strategist Ron Brown for Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential victory. To get even, GOP leaders were pushing ethics investigations into Brown and his business associates when the commerce secretary died in a 1996 airplane crash during a mission to Bosnia.
“Ron Brown is still the most hated Democrat among Republicans in Congress,” notes a D.C. Democratic official. “They would just go over the edge [if Michael Brown becomes D.C.’s next mayor]!”
The ultimate Candidate X is District CFO Anthony Williams. Although Williams’ name pops up frequently when D.C. voters fantasize about replacing Barry, no one expects him to surrender his power as CFO to become a figureheadeven if he could be hoodwinked into thinking he could prevail at the polls. Williams, unlike his anointed brethren on the control board, genuinely seems to like mixing it up among the hoi polloi. But knowing how to get a few laughs at a public meeting is a far cry from stumping for the mayoralty.
Perhaps fearful of being upstaged by Candidate X, wishy-washy Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous is finally ending his prolonged ride on the mayoral fence. Chavous has told supporters he will announce for mayor on Super Bowl Sunday, at a location still to be determined when LL was penning this column. At press time, bookies were giving 2-1 odds that Chavous would not follow through on his announcement.
Evans supporters were hoping to cancel Chavous’ Super Bowl party by reporting a campaign war chest of $100,000 raised during the last two months. That campaign finance report won’t be filed until Monday, the day after Chavous’ party and too late to scare him out of the race.
Meanwhile, At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil is sticking with his Hamlet routine, wondering whether his mayoral run is to be. After musing publicly for six months over whether the stripped-down mayor’s office was still worth pursuing, Brazil set up an exploratory committee in early December to launch his mayoral bid. But the exploratory committee hasn’t even explored meeting sites; it’s been inactive since its kickoff.
And lobbyist David Wilmot, initially the leader of Brazil’s exploratory panel, quickly disavowed any role in the campaign after questions were raised about Brazil’s sudden reversal of his position on the Children’s Island theme park planned for the Anacostia River. Two weeks after unveiling his exploratory committee, Brazil switched and provided the crucial seventh vote for the controversial project, which is being pushed hard by Wilmot on behalf of his well-heeled clients.
The switch gave Brazil the John Raylike appearance of determining positions on issues after assessing their value in terms of campaign donationshardly the high road to the mayor’s office. But just when politicos were beginning to count Brazil out of this year’s mayoral sweepstakes, the councilmember scheduled a Super Bowl-watching confab this Sunday for key supporters, like pollster Ron Lester. Game-time talk will switch between John Elway’s passing prowess and Brazil’s ability to stiff-arm his rivals.
All the mayoral wannabes, minus Candidate X, were on display in last Monday’s Martin Luther King Jr. holiday parade through Ward 8. Although hopes continue to mount that Barry will not seek a fifth term, the mayor looked like a candidate for re-election as he rode the parade route in a convertible, braving the cold, rainy weather, and getting out occasionally to walk and shake hands with well-wishers.
Only Republican At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz joined Barry in putting politics before comfort. Schwartz also braved the raw conditions, sitting bare-headed in a convertible and waving to the crowd.
Brazil, riding in a van, couldn’t be found at the end of the parade route. He must have made a wrong turn along the way or, as usual, not finished what he started. Chavous and Evans never emerged from their cars, either.
The search continues for Candidate X, a brand of leader that tastes great and won’t fill you up with a lot of empty promises.
D.C. SCHOOLS SPINMEISTER
Embattled District school official Gen. Charles Williams, under fire for overspending by more than $7 million on roof repairs and lavishing tax dollars on the Promise Keepers, appears to be studying from the Dick Morris manual on political spin control.
Judging from the outcome of a Jan. 14 hearing before Sen. James Jeffords, no one would have guessed that Williams and schools chief Gen. Julius Becton were responsible for opening schools three weeks late, botching roof repairs, and defying control board auditors. The two school executives spun so effectively that Jeffords praised them and even tried to shield them from critics. The spin job was in part the handiwork of Becton aide Richard Wenning, who used to work for the senator.
Jeffords bought Becton and Williams’ line that they hadn’t wasted millions on school repairs and that they had accurately counted the number of students attending D.C. public schools. The senator appeared to try to cut off D.C. congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton when she questioned how the school system could still have 77,100 studentsa drop of only a few thousand during a decade when more than 60,000 residents fled the city, taking with them many children bound for better schools in the suburbs.
“If you did a head count, then some of the children must have two heads,” Norton told Becton and Williams.
And not all of Williams’ spinning is going on up on the Hill. Last week, Williams aide Suzanne Conrad called LL to complain about a report in this column (1/9) disclosing that Williams had spent well over $300,000 on transportation and food for the Promise Keepers volunteers who fixed up D.C. schools last year. According to Conrad, the school system spent only $27,737 to bus and feed 1,500 PK volunteers last June, and another $32,470 for 1,900 Promise Keepers who volunteered their time again in October. In return, she claimed, city taxpayers got $589,893 worth of free skilled labor.
Conrad made no mention of the control board auditors who were at Williams’ office at the time of her call to LL. Nor did she reveal that Williams, according to school administration and control board officials, had refused to cooperate with the auditors, enter the same room with them, or “look them in the eye,” according to a control board source.
The control board estimates that Williams spent $300,000 to rent a fleet of cars initially intended to haul Promise Keepers. However, Williams, according to these sources, kept the vehicles for staff use. The control board also estimates that Williams & Co. spent another $70,000 or so on $21 box lunches for the volunteers. Many of the gourmet lunches eventually ended up at area homeless shelters, because D.C. Superior Court Judge Kaye Christian refused to let the volunteers into the schools during the October visit. Williams had failed to seek the judge’s prior approval for the PK work.
In yet another effort at spin control, some school sources suspect Williams of leaking a critical, confidential report to Washington Times reporter Susan Ferrechio last week. In a front-page article in the Jan. 17 edition of her newspaper, Ferrechio reported that school principals had given the Becton administration a failing grade in a survey conducted in November, but had given the high marks to operations, improvement of facilities, janitorial work, and securityall areas under Williams’ supervision. Ferrechio pointed out Williams’ higher grades in her article.
Eat your heart out, Dick Morris.
Camille Cates Barnett, the newly anointed CMO, discovered last week that her job description contains no provisions for a honeymoon with District residents.
Radio commentator and Umoja Party founder Mark Thompson spent several days blasting Barnett’s selection by the control board as “an insult” to black men and the District’s black majority. Thompson called for a Jan. 15 demonstration against the appointment outside the control board’s offices at 1 Thomas Circle.
But the uproar over the control board’s hiring of a white woman to serve as the city’s first chief management officer and to oversee a black mayor carried all the markings of a well-choreographed political dance benefiting Norton.
Norton has frequently sought Thompson’s advice and counsel since last July, when she came under fire from him and others for supporting the congressional bailout plan for D.C. that stripped Barry of power and created Barnett’s job.
“I see all of this stuff as cover to conceal the fact that Norton presided over the end of home rule,” says a D.C. Democratic party official.
Norton aide Donna Brazile was featured prominently in a Jan. 14 Washington Post article discussing opposition to Barnett because of her race and gender. Brazile said Norton’s office had gotten numerous calls of complaint.
“Donna Brazile, in my view, would not have gone out there without Eleanor’s approval,” says Evans.
Brazile’s comments about black-white discontents gave Norton the opening for the third step in this dance: an appeal for racial harmony. “About the last thing this city needs is a loss of racial and civic unity as we work to regain our rights and rebuild our city,” Norton said in a Jan. 14 statement put out by her office.
She said she had been assured by Thompson that he and others opposed Barnett on home rule grounds and not on the basis of race.
“I think it was pulled off perfectly,” says Lawrence Guyot, the city’s most persistent critic of the control board.
“Look at the scenario,” Guyot notes. “You’ve got Donna Brazile, one of the most respected politicians in Washington, and you’ve got her picture juxtaposed with the lady’s picture. And Donna says, ‘There’s a problem here. We’ve gotten a lot of calls.’
“On the eve of the demonstration, Eleanor comes out and says, ‘Let’s take race out of this.’ It was played so beautifully.”
It’s an old Barry tactic: divide, conquer, then make a call for unity.CP
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