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Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans pulled off an escape last week that made the daring feats of legendary escape artist Harry Houdini look like amateurish stunts. Evans, chair of the D.C. Council’s judiciary committee, had strapped himself politically to failing Police Chief Larry Soulsby and seemed in danger of being dragged under as Soulsby was going down for the last time.
However, just hours before Soulsby sank on Nov. 25 under the weight of yet another scandal, Evans wriggled free and swam away, leaving Soulsby to drown.
Evans’ desertion coincided neatly with preparations for Soulsby’s final press conference, called to address revelations that Soulsby got a hefty discount on a posh Lansburgh apartment he shared with close friend and accused extortionist Lt. Jeffrey Stowe. Soulsby must have thought the Lansburgh Apartments, home to luminaries like U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, fell under the city’s rent control law, because he never questioned his meager $325 share of the monthly rent until WUSA-TV Channel 9 raised the issue in its Nov. 21 broadcast.
No wonder the chief hadn’t noticed that his ally, Stowe, was skimming police funds. Or that the homicide squad room was filling up with unsolved murder cases. Or that most of his officers were hanging around police stations to avoid going out on D.C.’s mean streets. Or that 7 percent of the police cars were missing and couldn’t be found.
In the words of Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose, who first called for Soulsby’s resignation last winter, “This is not an inquiring mind.”
But the ever-faithful Evans stuck with the sleepwalking chief through it all, including allegations that Soulsby sidetracked a 1995 murder investigation to shield an aide to Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr.
The councilmember had been counting on his association with Soulsby, and his role in reforming the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), to propel him into the mayor’s office in next year’s elections. But with the chief going down, Evans quickly got out in front of the dump-Soulsby movement. He called for the chief to step down a few hours before the chief actually did so. At least Evans showed faster footwork than Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous, his mayoral rival. Chavous pulled the same stunt, issuing a press release boldly calling for Soulsby’s resignation exactly 65 minutes before MPD announced the chief’s press conference.
Like any good politician, though, Evans wanted it both ways. So, at Soulsby’s farewell news conference, Evans praised the chief for “an outstanding job.”
“Jack must think he has the same Teflon as the mayor,” notes Gary Imhoff, a Columbia Heights advisory neighborhood commissioner and co-founder of D.C. Watch. “He’s not getting the blame he deserves for…prop[ping] up Soulsby.”
Evans stepped onto center stage on the crime issue last March, when the financial control board selected him to serve on an elite panel called the “MOU Partners,” which was commissioned to wrest control of MPD from Barry. Instead of probing MPD for poor management and crime-fighting lapses, though, Evans excused Soulsby’s failures and pointed to statistics showing that crime has dropped dramatically this year, even though residents in many areas of the city claim they can’t see any change in their communities. The councilmember also advocated shutting the public out of the group’s meetings and defended its refusal to release consultants’ reports critical of MPD. And Evans backed a controversial plan to re-establish a civilian complaint review board for the police department composed entirely of retired judges.
“Jack looks like someone who can’t get on the reform train and is really trying stand in front and stop it,” Imhoff says.
Evans says that supporting Soulsby was part of his job description as an MOU Partner and chair of the council’s judiciary committee.
“When you put someone in a leadership position like the chief’s, you do everything you can to support that person until you lose confidence,” he said on the Nov. 26 broadcast of The Derek McGinty Show on radio station WAMU. “I supported the chief and tried to make this process work until that point came.”
Evans is not the only 1998 mayoral hopeful who has failed to take a bite out of crime. One year ago, Evans, Barry, and newly elevated At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil all claimed ownership of the issue with an eye toward next year’s election.
With Soulsby in tow, the mayor conducted town meetings devoted specifically to public safety. Hizzoner went as far as threatening to replace the chief if he failed to reduce crime throughout the city. And in his campaign for his at-large seat, Brazil touted his crime-fighting record and his call for a public safety commissioner to oversee the police department, a platform backed by the Fraternal Order of Police.
But the control board in March stripped Barry of his vast powers over the upper ranks of MPDa move that now gives the mayor a ready-made excuse for the crime problem: It’s the control board’s fault. And Evans outmaneuvered the more senior Brazil for chairmanship of the judiciary committee, which oversees MPD.
Although Evans has dodged political fallout from his Soulsby connection, his greatest escape act may be yet to comeextricating himself from increasingly unpopular control board vice chairman Stephen Harlan. Over the past few months, Harlan has become the lightning rod for critics of the police reforms, as well as opponents of the control board’s ever-expanding role in District government.
Evans’ ties to Harlan go deeper than the councilmember’s ties to the departed chief. Harlan heads the MOU team and confers frequently with Evans on MPD. The kinship extends beyond the public safety realm, too. At Evans’ urging, Harlan recently directed the Department of Public Works to shelve a plan reserving one side of Georgetown streets for parking by residents only. Harlan also oversees management reforms in the city’s public works programs.
The parking plan faced strong opposition from the Georgetown business community, a major source of campaign cash for Evans’ upcoming mayoral bid.
The five control board members are up for reappointment by the president next year, and who should remain on the control board could become an issue in the elections.
“There is a clear consensus building that Harlan and [control board chair Andrew] Brimmer should be replaced,” says Ambrose.
Councilmembers had hoped to talk to President Bill Clinton about getting rid of certain members of the control board when they met with him this week. But the White House decided to also invite control board membersand various other local luminariesto the Tuesday meeting, which ruled out any meaningful discussion on board members’ tenure.
Harlan has reportedly lobbied the Clinton administration for reappointment to another three-year term, which raises a scary prospect for Evans. Unless he distances himself from the increasingly unpopular control board member, Evans may end up reprising Houdini’s finaleabsorbing a mortal blow to the gut.
DISSING PARENTS UNITED
When the Parents United advocacy group decided to throw a party Nov. 23 to celebrate the end of its tense three-year legal battle over the safety of D.C. public schools, it invited the nine members of the appointed school board and Gen. Julius Becton. A little holiday cheer, Parents United members reasoned, would help salve the wounds sustained during the fall, when the rhetorical battle between Parents United and the Becton regime grew nasty and topped local headlines. Both sides accused the other of playing politics and neglecting the needs of D.C. schoolchildren.
The planned party at Parents United member Rod Boggs’ house would provide an opportunity for a fresh start. Or so Parents United members thought.
Becton and appointed board of trustees chairman Bruce MacLaury happily accepted the invitation. But when MacLaury brought the matter up at the board’s Nov. 20 meeting, trustees Charito Kurvant, Maudine Cooper, and Emily Washington said their colleagues would have to step over their dead bodies en route to the celebration.
All three trustees consider Parents United a front for white, affluent parents, even though Parents United director Delabian Rice-Thurston is African-American and the organization boasts a citywide membership. During the intense public relations campaign waged by Becton and the board of trustees to force Parents United to drop its lawsuit, Cooper accused the organization of promoting a “dual” system in the city by being concerned only with white schools in Ward 3.
Cooper, head of the Urban League, got so carried away with playing the race card that she claimed that Ward 3 schools even get better food than the rest, conveniently ignoring the fact that all city schools use the same food service.
During the heated meeting, Kurvant also accused MacLaury of being a representative of “the ruling class,” which ticked off the trustees’ chairman.
No wonder the appointed trustees hold their meetings behind closed doors.
Faced with the revolt of three of his board members, MacLaury backed down, and so did Becton. Neither attended the Parents United gathering, although MacLaury’s wife did show up.
When the control board stripped D.C.’s elected school board of its powers a year ago and replaced it with the appointed board of trustees, Brimmer said one of the reasons for the action was the elected board’s bitter racial divisions. Now the same thing seems to be happening with the replacements.
Perhaps it’s time to get rid of the appointed board as well.
STROKING AND TRASHING THE OLD GUARD
The District’s old guard, including doomed interim At-Large Councilmember Arrington Dixon, went to the White House Tuesday to bask in the glow of Clinton’s undivided attention for 75 minutes and to plead for more goodies for D.C. As all good D.C. Democrats have done since the onset of home rule, the mayor, the council, and the control board begged Clinton for more federal dollars for D.C. and more autonomy from the city’s federal benefactors.
The wish list included everything from a commuter tax on D.C. government employees to guaranteed federal jobs and contracts for District residents, not to mention a curb on the control board’s power surge. Like most powerless folks, though, the guests seemed content just to be sitting in the Roosevelt Room with the nation’s leader and the first lady.
“The meeting was most significant for the way the president patiently listened,” D.C. congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton told reporters outside the White House afterward.
While the mostly Democratic gathering savored the clubby feel of the White House, city voters were outside sowing the seeds of a revolution that threatens to tear down the Democratic cabal that has ruined the city. For decades, this club has besmirched ballots with its lackluster members and relied on the city’s huge Democratic majority to behave like Pavlov’s dog, obediently and unthinkingly pushing the Democratic lever.
But on Tuesday, six out of every 10 voters who went to the polls in a special election for a vacant council seat voted for two newcomersDavid Catania and Phil Heinrichwhom they had never heard of four weeks ago. Ninety-three percent of the city’s registered voters delivered a resounding rejection of the Democratic club by staying home. In the end, Catania, a 29-year-old gay Republican, captured 43 percent of the vote and guaranteed that heavily favored Democrat Dixon’s White House trip Tuesday would be his last.
The election-night gathering at Dixon campaign headquarters, originally planned as a 55th-birthday/victory bash, carried the delicious smell and feel of deathnot only of Dixon as a candidate, but also of the city’s stagnant political regime.
“This is a wake-up call,” Norton aide Donna Brazile kept muttering to stunned Democrats Tuesday night.
The call may have come too late. After years of thwarting the rise of new political talent in this city, D.C. Democrats may have nothing but old, rotten meat to toss to voters in the upcoming elections.CP
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