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When Sharon Ambrose ran in last April’s special election to fill the Ward 6 council vacancy created by Harold Brazil’s move from the ward seat to an at-large seat, her many rivals and detractors painted her as a career council insider who would go along to get along. After all, Ambrose worked for years as the chief aide to longtime councilmember John Ray, who bowed to every special interest from K Street to Good Hope Road.
Just six months into her stint, though, Ambrose is becoming the councilmember District voters have sought for decades. Of course, distinguishing yourself among this bunch is like being elected queen of the Hogettes, that unsightly group of cross-dressing male Redskin fanatics who act out at every home game.
Instead of kissing up to the same forces that made Ray a force for stagnation, Ambrose is stiff-arming them in plain view. She has told the Greater Washington Board of Trade to keep its campaign money, the Federal City Council (FCC) to stop pushing wasteful projects, and the hospitality industry to abandon its dreams of a new convention center near downtown.
Prior to Ambrose’s arrival, the council appeared ready to rubber-stamp the pet project of Washington Hotel Association head Emily Vetter and Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington leader Bill Lecos: construction of a new convention center at Mount Vernon Square. Ambrose, however, focused the council on the site’s obvious drawbacks: a doubling of the original $450-million construction estimate and the inability of the center to expand beyond its cramped boundaries. Absent Ambrose’s opposition, Ward 4 Councilmember Charlene Drew Jarvis would have turned over the first spade of dirt by now.
Ambrose appears to relish clashes with D.C.’s lobbying titans. She incurred the wrath of superlobbyists Fred Cooke and David Wilmot by opposing a recreational theme park on Children’s Island in the Anacostia River. The fight to commercialize this vacant island dates back more than 20 years, when developers salivated over the prospect of building a King’s Dominion replica in the shadow of RFK Stadium.
Cooke claims the project has been drastically scaled back since then to answer the noise, pollution, and congestion concerns of nearby residents. He also says his clients now are ready to up their original offer to pay a meager $220,000 annually for the use of city-owned parking spaces at RFK. Those cheap spaces would net an estimated $7 million-plus annually in parking fees paid by prospective parkgoers.
The project hit a huge speed bump last week, when the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) objected to granting a 99-year lease on the former national park land to the developers. NCPC chairman Harvey Gantt informed the council that an environmental impact study must be completed prior to approval of the lease.
Cooke still hopes to win council approval of the lease for his clients, a group of foreign and local investors, before year’s end by convincing councilmembers to ignore Ambrose and NCPC. But Ambrose is raising issues that her colleagues can’t ignore, like the lack of information Cooke’s clients are willing to provide the council. “Even I was surprised at the lack of detail,” she said.
In challenging Cooke’s kiddie park, Ambrose has also accomplished something President Bill Clinton couldn’t do last year: standing up to D.C. congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. Buying Cooke’s argument that the theme park would bring jobs and $150 million worth of economic development to a blighted area, Norton last year pushed legislation through Congress transferring the island from the U.S. Park Service to the District government.
Clinton signed the legislation over the objections of his environmental advisers after Norton pulled her patented wild-woman routine, laced with complaints that the president was trampling on home rule.
Clinton may be willing to stare down Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein, but he wasn’t ready to face Norton on one of her rampages.
Last week, the president’s Council on Environmental Quality finally weighed in on the issue, opposing council approval of the leases until the developer’s plans have undergone thorough review. Cooke claims his clients need approval of the 99-year lease before they can devise a development plan for public inspection.
Ambrose has even upset the city’s new powers over at the D.C. financial control board. Control board vice chairman Stephen Harlan warned the freshman councilmember in September to keep her mouth shut after Ambrose repeatedly called for the replacement of Police Chief Larry Soulsby.
But it is her willingness to stand up to the likes of Cooke, Wilmot, Vetter, and Lecos that has drawn admiration from other council offices.
“The lobbyists hate her,” notes a staffer who works for one of Ambrose’s council colleagues. “They have had nasty confrontations with her.”
Ambrose shrugs off these battles with the lobbyists.
“I don’t know why everybody cozies up to them,” she says of Cooke, Vetter, et al. “This very small group of people somehow seems to appear connected with projects that are going to cost the taxpayers of the city.”
“And someone needs to point out that the Federal City Council always seems to be a part of it,” she adds.
For years, activists have denounced FCC as an unaccountable colonizing force in the District. But Ambrose is the first elected official to challenge the practices of the private business group, which is considered to have the ear of the control board.
Perhaps Ambrose’s icy posture toward local moneymen stems from her experience with the Board of Trade. In last April’s Ward 6 special election, the Board of Trade put its money and endorsement behind former council staffer Rob Robinson, who finished a distant sixth in a field of 11.
The Board of Trade uncharacteristically still hasn’t coughed up even a token donation to Ambrose and seems to be hoping for a more sympathetic candidate to challenge her when she seeks re-election to a full four-year term next year.
The lobbyists grinding their teeth over the brashness of the new Ward 6 councilmember refuse to comment publicly, claiming that they and their clients have too much to lose by getting into a public squabble with her. But privately they decry her emerging public reputation as a councilmember willing to ask the tough questions that her colleagues routinely avoid.
One lobbyist said he views Ambrose as worse than the rest because she “tends to get too caught up in the politics of her ward and leads the charge against what’s best for the whole city. She tends to focus on things that will give her publicity.”
For instance, he argues, Ambrose’s opposition to the Children’s Island project is a ploy to win over environmentalists who backed rival John Capozzi in April. And by attacking Soulsby, she is pandering to the vocal voters who fueled the anti-crime candidacy of Sandy McCall.
Ambrose won’t make many enemies, other than lobbyists, by trying to win over constituents who shunned her last time, even if she conducts her affairs with an eye firmly fixed on next year’s election. And she is bringing a different style to what Cooke and company would prefer to dismiss as politics as usual.
When the local chapter of the Sierra Club wanted to alert Ward 6 residents to last month’s council hearing on the Children’s Island project, Ambrose took the environmental group’s fliers and handed them out door-to-door in the Kingman Park neighborhood.
“I’ve never seen a councilmember do anything like that before,” says the Sierra Club’s Jim Dougherty.
Even Capozzi, who has been searching for a viable opponent to back against Ambrose next year, is cautiously impressed.
“The problem is, Fred Cooke and David Wilmot want to run D.C. They just don’t want to run for office,” says Capozzi. “When Sharon stands up for her constituents, I stand up for her.”
And so will many others, if the alternative is standing up for the lobbyists.
After years of circling the block in search of parking, Georgetown residents thought they’d found a cure for their neighborhood’s No. 1 headache. Prodded by a group of motivated Georgetown activists, this fall the Department of Public Works (DPW) considered restricting one side of all neighborhood streets for residents-only parkingthe better to keep interlopers and inebriates from gobbling up choice spaces. DPW crafted the initiative the old-fashioned way: through numerous community meetings, a fact-finding effort, and a mayoral task force.
Then the control board pulled up to the curb.
Control board vice chairman Stephen Harlan ordered DPW director Cell Bernardino to quash the plan, which he feared would hurt Georgetown retail and restaurant owners. It was hardly a surprising edict coming from Harlan, a businessman who oversees public works and the police department for the board.
While Georgetown car owners resent the control board’s big foot in their back yards, they’re saving their venom for one of their neighbors: Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans. According to DPW spokesperson Linda Grant, Evans asked Harlan to kill the parking plan. “Mr. Harlan was in fact expressing the concerns of Councilmember Jack Evans. We did not have Mr. Evans’ support to do this project at this time. And so that’s really what has happened,” says Grant. “The intent of the board was to respect the wishes of the councilmember who represents that ward.”
In Evans’ defense, he at least acted decisively. Ever since the parking proposals surfaced in 1993, the councilmember has test-driven both sides of the issue. The DPW initiative forced him to choose. “Most people know that Jack Evans is against the residents-parking plan, but most residents don’t know that he was actually lobbying to hurt the residents,” said activist Westy Byrd.
Evans’ role notwithstanding, Georgetown parking is odd turf for the control board. The five-member panel, after all, was appointed in 1995 to focus on the dysfunctional parts of D.C. government. “Here we had a task force, then a report, and the report was adopted and implemented,” said Byrd. “Now the control board’s getting in the way.” Apparently, strong community sentiment is no match for the executive authority of the board.
DIXON’S APPALLING COUNCIL CAMPAIGN
Interim At-Large Councilmember Arrington Dixon seems bent on making history in the Dec. 2 special election to fill the at-large council vacancy created by Linda Cropp’s ascension to the chairman’s seat in July. Judging from his empty and almost nonexistent campaign, Dixon could win the election to serve out Cropp’s unexpired term without pushing a single issue during the most critical period in the city’s recent history.
The former council chairman appears content to win the special election on name recognition and the proven willingness of D.C. voters to return widely known Democrats to office despite their previous failures. Dixon’s speech at last weekend’s opening of his campaign headquarters sounded so vacuous that even die-hard Dixon loyalist Phil Pannell appeared embarrassed and stormed out of the room in anger.
Dixon’s stance on council-control board relations? Never mentioned it.
On the school crisis? Again, nothing.
And his forecast for Election Day? “It’s going to be dark, cold, and potentially weather could be a problem,” he said.
Dixon appears happy with the emptiness of his campaign spiel, which never even rises to the level of rhetoric. Instead of schooling himself on the issues, Dixon is encouraging his supporters to get their friends and relatives to the polls. Less than 4 percent of the electorate is expected to cast ballots in the first D.C. election ever held in December.
“I’m concerned about a low turnout, not for me, but for the city,” the candidate claimed before some 50 supporters last weekend. He warned that a record low turnout could encourage Congress to take away what’s left of home rule.
It also could expose the weakness of Dixon, who had hoped a resounding victory would catapult him into next year’s mayoral contest.
Dixon raised another concern during his brief talk to supporters at the headquarters opening last week.
“Frankly, we find there’s a movement throughout the city to go after people who have been there before,” he lamented.
If only it were true. CP
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