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Nineteen ninety-seven may mark the turning point in the decadelong drive to break Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr.’s choke hold on the District government. Barry has dominated LL’s annual Loose Talk Awards (LTAs) for the past 15 years, so much so that the fireplace mantel built by convicted businessman Yong Yun in Hizzoner’s Southeast home can no longer accommodate all the trophies.
Over the past year, Barry cheerfully displayed the same antics and nonsenselike no-account overseas junkets and astonishing explanations for his management failuresthat made him the first inductee into the Loose Talk Hall of Fame. But after being reduced by Congress and the financial control board to being the city’s chief librarian, park ranger, and tourist guide, the mayor and his talk don’t count for much anymore.
Barry now has about as much juice as Don Folden, the outspoken street vendor and perennial candidate who keeps insisting he can win at the ballot box, even though his vote totals look like a Redskins score.
Even if he only cuts ribbons and greets dignitaries, Barry still relishes being called “Mr. Mayor.” So don’t uncork the champagne bottles just yet. First lady Cora Masters Lady MacBarry has reportedly filled a journal with instances in which LL has underestimated her husband’s unmatched political skills. And city officials are already planning a three-day festival next May at the Lincoln Theatre tentatively titled “Marion Barry Day.” Sounds like an ideal campaign kickoff.
Despite his consistent performance in the LTA sweepstakes, Hizzoner must take a back seat in this year’s contest to control board vice chairman Stephen Harlan, recipient of the 1997 Supreme LTA. While Barry saw most of his powers stripped away during this turbulent year, Harlan experienced a power surge. He went from being control board chairman Andrew Brimmer’s earnest understudy to serving as the city’s de facto police chief and head parking enforcer.
Harlan is currently running the corruption-riddled and badly mismanaged Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) and the hapless Department of Public Works (DPW), the two most important city agencies for residents who long for pothole-free streets and crime-free neighborhoods.
Not bad for a conservative real estate businessman who began the year parroting Barry’s call for the feds to take over $1 billion worth of spending the D.C. government couldn’t affordlike prisons, courts, pensions, Medicaid, and bridge and street repairs. Harlan, however, quickly sensed that his credibility would lag if he spent too much time at the Marion Barry Institute of Urban Finance.
So, in late February he jumped to the Larry Soulsby Police Academy. Harlan and his control board colleagues reasoned that gold ol’ boy Soulsby, with Harlan as his partner, would get MPD to quit filing overtime slips and start confronting crime. Under his guiding hand, Harlan envisioned a rebuilt D.C. police department that would become a model for the nation.
It was a model all right, a model of how to institutionalize dysfunction and avoid genuine reform. Harlan ended up covering Soulsby’s butt for him, constantly called upon to run interference against other politicians and the media. Harlan enlisted former Reagan White House spokesperson Sheila Tate to ghostwrite an Op-Ed piece defending the chief against mounting scandal. He ordered Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose, the first elected official to call for Soulsby’s resignation, to stop bad-mouthing his trustworthy partner. And he told At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil that if the councilmember tried to crash the closed-door meetings of the MPD management team Harlan chairs, he would make Brazil stand in the corner.
All of that would have worked fine if his guy at MPD hadn’t been at the heart of much that is wrong with the department. Soulsby’s fingerprints were all over well-publicized scandals involving overtime pay and incompetence in the homicide unit. Then, in November, the chief met a scandal he couldn’t deny away: accepting discounted rent on a posh Lansburgh apartment he shared with accused extortionist MPD Lt. Jeffery Stowe. Harlan quickly tossed his partner a cement life jacket and moved on to his public works duties.
At DPW, Harlan proved a maxim that District residents learned long ago: We don’t need more overseers, just better ones. Harlan intervened in a long-simmering Georgetown parking dispute on behalf of Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans and killed a DPW plan to reserve one side of the street for residents-only parking. The vice chairman’s big foot quashed a project that DPW had been executing by the book, soliciting community involvement, studying the issue, and making tough decisions. The move angered residents who circle the blocks they live on because suburban motorists take advantage of free on-street parking while they shop or dine on M Street. If Harlan is interested in donning the hardhat of the micromanager, he should stick to projects that DPW is actually screwing up.
Harlan also stepped on a few Capitol Hill toes as he clamored to conquer more territory.
During a grilling from House D.C. Appropriations subcommittee chairman Rep. Charles Taylor (R-N.C.) last June, Harlan told the unsupportive congressman, “Either back us or fire us.” Taylor, highly critical of the control board’s meager achievements, would like to take Harlan up on the dare and fire him and his colleagues. But Taylor can’t convince House Speaker Newt Gingrich or Senate D.C. Appropriations subcommittee chair Lauch Faircloth (R-N.C.) to sign the pink slips.
Harlan, currently campaigning to convince President Bill Clinton to reappoint him to a second three-year term next spring, has had a banner LTA year. Maybe as long as he has such a ferocious appetite for the people’s business, he could look into how a presidentially appointed board of fixers has managed to put the District even deeper into the hole.
Speaking of which, his board colleaguesBrimmer, Ed Singletary, Joyce Ladner, and Constance Newmancollectively earned an LTA during 1997 for their failure to tame the out-of-control D.C. government and free the city from Barry’s stranglehold. Nearly three years after the Magnificent Five rode into 1 Thomas Circle, they appear to have gotten co-opted by their quarry. Now they’re just five more voices in the chorus defending an entrenched, entangled government they can’t reform.
Like Barry, the control board whines about media coverage, stacks public meetings with sympathetic bureaucrats, hands out consultant contracts to cronies, demands secrecy from subordinates, defends Barry appointees who don’t perform, fails to hold its own appointees accountable, orchestrates media events to reform the government by public relations, and pleads for more money from Congress. When Barry was talking about transformation, he must have been schooling the control board in the tried and true ways of District governance.
The board’s record this year includes:
•sticking by an appointed school board that didn’t open schools on time, just like the discredited elected school board,
•seizing control of the police department from Barry only to watch it sink further into scandal,
•taking control of the D.C. lottery to halt declining revenues, and failing dramatically, and
•ousting Inspector General Angela Avant at the beginning of the year because she was too close to Barry, and then refusing to confirm her successor, Bob Thomas, at year’s end because he exhibited independence from the board.
A Washington Post poll taken last spring found that only 46 percent of District residents gave the control board a favorable performance rating after its first two years of existence. LL would bet that public confidence in the board is even lower after the year it just had. LL’s own polling system estimates that the board’s support could disappear completely by the time its members’ terms expire in April. When pressed on their performance, the members of the control board are fond of pointing out that they don’t get a nickel for their voluntary effortsperhaps it’s just a case of the District getting exactly what it paid for.
Other winners include:
•The entire police department, for failing to close even a third of its homicide cases, for a sea of blue lining up to get photos taken with porno movie star Vanessa Del Rio while a nearby bank alarm went unanswered for several minutes, and for failing to give more than lip service to community policing. LL could go on here, but that’s more than enough for a shiny LTA.
•Former chief Soulsby, for being more concerned about his golf score than his department’s homicide closure rate.
•At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil, for pandering in the extreme. In an inauspicious start for his 1998 mayoral bid, the spindly-spined councilmember flip-flopped on the Children’s Island theme park proposed for the Anacostia River. For years Brazil had sided with residents in his former Ward 6 base, opposing the project on the grounds that it would further pollute the river. Last week, though, he found that argument unappealing and provided the crucial seventh council vote to keep the controversial park alive. The mayoral hopeful, in a heated exchange with newly elected At-Large Councilmember David Catania, denied that his sudden change of heart had resulted from the fact that the project’s lobbyist, David Wilmot, had gotten on Brazil’s mayoral bus.
In fact, Brazil and Wilmot now both claim that the lobbyist has no role in the councilmember’s bid for Barry’s job. But Wilmot’s name appeared at the top of the list of exploratory committee members posted at Brazil’s Dec. 4 Capitol Hill fundraiser.
•Two-time council contender John Capozzi, for choosing the wrong profession, politics, over policing. While hanging campaign posters for his unsuccessful 1996 at-large council race, the Caped Capozzi chased down a purse snatcher and even solicited votes during the pursuit. While campaigning door to door for the Ward 6 council seat last spring, Capozzi unwittingly interrupted the burglary of a van on Capitol Hill and suffered a broken nose for his vigilance. His crime-fighting exploits didn’t win him sympathy at the polls, where he received drubbings in both contests.
•Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, for failing to use the council’s powerful judiciary committee to conduct hard-hitting investigations into police corruption. Evans, like Harlan, had been counting on Soulsby to do the dirty work for him. But now Evans’ mayoral ambitions will hinge on getting to the bottom of police overtime abuses, allegations that Barry and Soulsby squashed a murder investigation involving mayoral aide Rhozier “Roach” Brown, and other evidence of police wrongdoing.
•Appointed emergency school board trustee Maudine Cooper, for playing the race card in the city’s school crisis. When Cooper and fellow trustees came under fire for the three-week delay in the start of the school year, she blamed the Parents United advocacy group. Cooper claimed that Parents United’s lawsuit, which forced school closings for safety reasons, was a racist ploy to protect students in predominantly white Ward 3 schools.
Cooper, head of the Urban League, also claimed that Ward 3 schools get better lunches than schools in black neighborhoods, even though the same lunches are served citywide. And she strongly objected after board of trustees chairman Bruce MacLaury accepted an invitation to dinner at Parents United member Rod Boggs’ home last month, forcing MacLaury to stay home.
•Appointed school chief Gen. Julius Becton, for failing to open schools on time. In April, Becton announced that he had the money to repair leaky school roofs before the start of the school year. Sure, the money was there, but the management wasn’t. Instead of opening the schools on time and shuffling students among facilities cleared by fire inspectors, Becton delayed opening all schools for three weeksproof that the laconic, aloof retired general views parents as unkempt PFCs.
He also retained all but one of the school system’s 146 principals, including the principal at Winston Elementary, which gained national notoriety last school year when unsupervised youngsters disrobed and engaged in sex acts. Becton admitted in the midst of this fall’s school crisis that he doesn’t like to take orders, which might be fine if he had been appointed emperor instead of public servant.
•D.C.’s elected school board, for failing to deal with problems at the Marcus Garvey Public Charter School. Garvey continues to operate on $500,000 in public funds and in secrecy despite last summer’s misdemeanor assault convictions of principal Mary A.T. Anigbo and three of her staffers. Oversight of charter schools is about the only power the elected board has left, but board members lack the backbone to hold the Anigbo family-run operation accountable for its failure to document spending or provide test scores proving its students are really being educated.
And the award is shared by Ward 5 school board member Angie Corley, who said in a board meeting in November that she was certain, despite the assault convictions, that Washington Times reporter Susan Ferrechio had provoked the encounter at Anigbo’s school.
•D.C. congressional delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, for her stunning reversals on the Clinton administration’s financial rescue package for the city. She enthusiastically embraced the plan in January, claiming it advanced the cause of home rule. But she backed off a few weeks later after criticism mounted over elimination of the annual federal payment. In July, she hailed the plan’s approval by Congress but reversed herself two days later when confronted by protesters objecting to the transfer of Barry’s powers to the control board. Norton urged Clinton to veto the bill, but the president ignored her pleas. She was back praising the legislation when Clinton spoke at Metropolitan Baptist Church earlier this month. That’s a seminar in loose talk.
•Former D.C. Council chairman Arrington Dixon, for his failed political comeback. Dixon will go down in local history books as having served the shortest stint on the council since D.C. began electing councilmembers in 1974. Appointed by the Democratic State Committee in August to the at-large vacancy created when Linda Cropp took the chairman’s seat, Dixon lost his interim job Dec. 2, when voters demonstrated that they were tired of council reruns. Dixon had thought he was a shoo-in because of his name recognition and made only a token effort to appeal to voters.
• The Democratic State Committee, for thinking it could win by serving up any old failed Democrat in this city. The committee solidified its award for its ongoing consideration of punishment for committee members like Capozzi, who couldn’t stomach Dixon and backed another candidate who didn’t have the DSC seal of approval.
• Repeat offender Mary Treadwell, for the theft of at least $10,400 in tax funds as head of the Columbia Heights advisory neighborhood commission (ANC). The second Mrs. Marion Barry was just beginning her fifth term as the ANC’s chair when D.C. Auditor Tony Cooper started digging into her complex trail of spending. Now she’s facing a return to prison, where she spent 15 months in the mid-1980s after pleading guilty to forcing Clifton Terrace tenants to cash their rent subsidy checks and turn the money over to her. Treadwell was married to Barry at the time, but he was not implicated in the scheme.
•The Washington Convention Center Authority, for trying to cram a new convention center into Mount Vernon Square without providing a single new parking space for the 50,000 conventioneers expected at each event. Only D.C. would build a convention center and sports arena downtown without providing additional parking. The nearby 22,000-seat MCI Center, which opened this month, contains only 400 parking spaces, and those are reserved for employees and VIPs. If the Washington Opera eventually decides to move into the old Woodie’s building, operagoers in their capes and gowns could be scuffling for subway seats or spaces in parking garages with beer-bellied hockey fans headed to the MCI Center and conventiongoers bound for Mount Vernon Square.
The centerpiece of the transportation plan for the new convention center involves plastering the downtown area with signs directing motorists to the nearest parking garage. Downtown parking moguls Oliver Carr, Dominic Antonelli, and Lloyd Doggett couldn’t have come up with a more profitable plan if they had written it themselves.
•And Barryafter all, what LTA presentation would be complete without at least an honorable mention of the master? Even though he didn’t dominate this year’s competition as he has in the past, Hizzoner still made an impressive showing. He made two treks to Africa, including one to military-ruled Nigeria. While there, Barry behaved like the well-mannered guest who doesn’t question his host’s human rights violations or the bodies piling up in the courtyard. Instead, Barry used the trip to whine about his loss of power back home, which will hardly get D.C. placed on Amnesty International’s list of human rights abusers.
Even though Barry doesn’t have much to do on the home front these days, he still took 70 minutes to deliver his State of the District address in April, promising to tow more abandoned autos, pick up more trash, rehab more public housing units, and fill more potholes than ever before. The speech sounded like boilerplate Barry plucked from the mid-’80s, and the follow-up was no better.
Barry doesn’t seem to mind his reduced role as the city’s ceremonial ribbon cutter. In fact, one of his high points this year may have been snipping the ribbon last February on the new Good Hope Marketplace in Ward 7. Hizzoner certainly seemed to savor that moment.
Although he faced stiff LTA competition this year, Barry cinched his award with his appearance on ABC’s Nightline last August. As Ted Koppel and crew followed him around for a day, the mayor put on a vintage performance. He ordered his security detail to stick the flashing red light on top of his Lincoln Town Car limo, turn on the siren, and head the wrong way down a one-way street in rush hour to get to the tennis court on time.
Meanwhile, commuters across town sat steaming in a traffic jam caused by the water-main break on Canal Road NW. Not once during the 14-hour day did Barry venture over to Canal Road to inspect the damage and chaos caused by the water and mud clogging one of the city’s main commuter routes.
That’s Harlan’s problem now, since he’s running public works.CP
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