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This past summer, former D.C. Council chairman Sterling Tucker joined the city’s sausage vendors in working the District’s neighborhood festival circuit. It’s a pro move for anybody running for office, but Tucker’s days as an active candidate are long since past. Still, when festivalgoers saw Tucker or read his name, they reacted as anyone would to a genuine District dignitary. They smiled knowingly, shook his hand, and praised his efforts on behalf of home rule in the District.
And even though Tucker had long since retired from public office, he had a compelling motive for grass-roots activism. He was soliciting signatures in support of a program called “Save the Kids,” which would provide federal funding for 2,000 scholarships for the neediest District schoolchildren. Tucker also tapped many of the city’s ministers for the program, going so far as to personally sign each letter and hand-deliver the written appeal to church offices.
Finally, someone was looking out for the District. Like a true elder statesman, Tucker appeared to have the best interests of his beloved city at heart, and many in the District signed on to his “Save the Kids” program without reservation. In the end, the campaign gathered a couple of thousand signatures and the endorsement of 125 District ministers.
All that support somehow made its way to the floor of the Capitol, whereto the surprise of many of the signatoriesRepublican congressmen touted the signatures as a tangible sign of support for a controversial provision to fund $7 million worth of school vouchers in the D.C. appropriations bill. House Majority Leader Newt Gingrich even waved the signed petitions at a rally he held on the lawn of the Capitol, a firm retort to Democratic lawmakersespecially those from the Congressional Black Caucuswho claimed that vouchers had little support among the city’s residents.
Many who had appended their John Hancocks to the petitions were understandably shocked. Tucker, it turned out, was not free-lancing for the public good but caddying for the American Education Reform Foundation (AERF), an Indianapolis-based think tank instrumental in pushing vouchers throughout the country. Tucker’s firm, Sterling Tucker Associates, had snared a contract with AERF to advance the voucher cause.
District residents had been led astray by another retired D.C. politico. Whether it’s Tucker, former congressional delegate the Rev. Walter Fauntroy, or former councilmember John Ray, by any standard D.C. has the lamest elder statesmen in urban America. And in this time of municipal crisis, you can depend on these retreads to champion ideas and causes that have already failed, work for the highest bidder, and otherwise remind us how we created this mess.
The political careers of our elder statesmen started auspiciously. In the late ’60s, a handful of young civil rights activists decided to make D.C. their home and develop it as a model to prove to both Congress and the country at large that African-Americans could govern a major city.
For nearly a century, the residents of the District had been political marionettes of Southern segregationists in Congress who ruled the key committees charged with overseeing District affairs. The so-called Johnny Macs, named after neanderthal South Carolina Representative John McMillan, were fundamentally opposed to giving residents of the nation’s capital the right to govern themselves. The only way to free the District from their grip was to vote them out of office.
So activists like Tucker, who was then executive director of the Urban League, and Fauntroy, a key figure in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, set out to do just that. They organized voter registration campaigns in Southern congressional districts, lobbied local officials, and educated voters in an effort to defeat as many Johnny Macs as possible. In 1972, their efforts were rewarded. McMillan, as well as a number of other Southern segregationists, were defeated. A little over a year later, Congress passed a home rule bill for the District.
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“Oh my goodness, that was some kind of excitement,” Fauntroy later recalled in Dream City, a book that documents the city’s disintegration since the inception of home rule.
Fauntroy, it seems, has never gotten beyond the excitement. For him, the world of the ’90s sounds exactly like that of the early ’70s. Exactly. Fauntroy is still working the same job: pastor of the New Bethel Baptist Church in Shaw. And his oratory hasn’t altered much, either: As the featured speaker at a Congress of National Black Churches (CNBC) forum on restoring democracy to D.C. a few weeks ago, Fauntroy insisted that the way to restore democratic control to District residents was to engage in the same exact strategy Fauntroy championed in 1972. For motivation, he distributed a Washington Post editorial titled “Black Power Comes of Age.” The date? June 29, 1972.
But as most everyone else in this city has come to realize (including, for that matter, most who attended the CNBC event), the District’s problems can no longer be blamed on the Johnny Macs. Sure, home rule was inherently flawed. But the subsequent years of fiscal irresponsibility and mismanagement, coupled with a middle-class flight of both white and black from this city, have crippled municipal resources. Add in a lack of credible political leadership, and the problems with the charter seem like small potatoes. Fauntroy blithely ignores that history and says it all comes down to “the Plan,” a white conspiracy to keep blacks down and take over the District government. “They planned their work and then they worked their plan,” Fauntroy warned the assembled crowd.
Conjecture on the Plan isn’t Fauntroy’s only foray into conspiracy theories rivaling scripts from The X-Files. Over the holidays, Fauntroy added his voice to those calling for an investigation into the death of late Commerce Secretary Ron Brown. Brown died last year when the military plane in which he was traveling crashed into a mountainside in Croatia. There were no survivors. However, reports in the conspiracy-happy Pittsburgh Tribune Review allege that Brown’s corpse appeared to have a bullet hole in its skull. Along with activist/crackpot Dick Gregory, Fauntroy is on the case, asking for Brown’s disinterment and an autopsy.
“We need our elders to help us write the compass, give us a kind of moral authority,” says Howard Croft, a professor at the University of the District of Columbia. “I can’t think of a D.C. politician that has that kind of authority.”
Tucker doesn’t see it that way. “I don’t see an official role for myself at all,” he says. “Once you get out of office, you’re out.”
And you’re free to cash in. Even though he gave up his gavel long ago, Tucker is no stranger to the halls and offices of the D.C. Council. Although he insists that his management consulting work only rarely directly intersects with District business, denizens of 1 Judiciary Square disagree. “I always see him in the hallway; he lobbies everyone in the council,” reports a council staffer.
No cause is too petty for Tucker. Last month, he even lobbied the council to pass a regulatory provision to benefit the owner of a strip club on H Street NW. “A friend who has a good case should not be put out of business,” says Tucker of his involvement. “It is a legal business. We need all the business we can get in the District.” Spoken like a true D.C. elder statesman.
Walter Washington, the District’s first mayor, has embraced the inverse of Tucker’s elder statesman approach: He has disappeared. “Walter Washington is not a part of D.C. politics anymore,” argues Croft. “I don’t hear people saying, ‘Walter said.’ What I’ve seen is a photograph of Walter, Marion Barry, and Sharon Pratt Kelly sitting at a table together all getting honored.”
Of course, Washington’s low profile out of office jibes with his style while in office. During his 10 years as the appointed, and then elected, mayor, Washington was considered largely a place holder for Congress and a counterweight to firebrands like Julius Hobson, who agitated for real independence for the District. “Uncle Walter,” as he was called, laid the groundwork for home rule’s disastrous tenure.
But that doesn’t disqualify him from elder statesmanship. “I think Walter Washington has the greatest potential as an elder statesman,” says WAMU political analyst Mark Plotkin. “Congress has a nostalgia for the Walter Washington era.”
Perhaps District residents should couple their appeals for a new generation of leaders with a call for a new generation of elder statesmen. Ray, who retired from the council in 1996, appears to be following the Tucker model. Among Ray’s lobbying clients is the Corrections Corp. of America, a private prison operator seeking to expand its business in the District. Thanks in part to Ray, the District is now linked to a powerful company with a vested interest in prolonging prison termsnot for public safety or rehabilitation, but for profits.
But perhaps we should nurture and groom Ray for the job. He has a grandfatherly look and a warm smile. He championed a couple of decent causes on the council, like redevelopment of the New York Avenue corridor. He speaks coherently, doesn’t fly off the handle, and hasn’t worn out his welcome around town. Those traits look awfully attractive when you look at the bumper crop of elder statesmen that 1998 will likely produce: Hilda Mason, Harry Thomas, and, perhaps, Marion Barry. CP