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In 1990, Councilmember Hilda Mason was accused of “reaching senility” by former D.C. Board of Education member R. Calvin Lockridge. That was seven years ago. Mason is still here today20 years into her reign. And next November, she may just run again.
It’s a Tuesday afternoon, and the 81-year-old Mason is welcoming her 3 p.m. appointment into the office she shares with Charlie, her ever-present husband of 22 years. Their guest today is Arlene Ackerman, who recently came to D.C. from Seattle to take over the day-to-day operations of D.C.’s public schools. Mason starts the meeting by asking Ackerman where she’s going to workat the board of education, or what? Ackerman’s staff exchanges polite glances, and Ackerman kindly reminds the councilmember where she and Mason previously met: at a reception a month ago to welcome Ackerman to her post as chief academic officer.
Unfazed, Mason moves on to more important questions, like whether Ackerman knows whose portrait hangs above her office’s teddy-bear collection. After a brief and unimpressive guessing game, Mason reveals that it’s her predecessor, Julius Hobson, who established the Board of Education and co-founded the Statehood Party, of which Mason is the last remaining elected official. Mason clutches the arms of her chair and says, “This is his chair.” Then, tapping the desk in front of her, she says proudly, “And this is his desk.” Charlie affectionately corrects her: Hobson’s desk is the one Charlie uses across the room.
During the conversational lull that follows, one can’t help wondering who will sit in Hobson’s chair nextand when, fer crying out loud. Mason has been elected to her at-large seat six times since her appointment in 1977, even beating Marion Barry in 1990 and two tough challengers in 1994. Charlie, 86, has escorted Mason the whole time, working as a “gratuitous servant” to the city.
Now that Mason no longer chairs the Committee on Education and Libraries, a role she surrendered in January under pressure from her colleagues, few visitors drop by and the phone seldom rings. Mostly, it’s family members who call and Mason’s staffers who come and go. But everybody plows through the motions. “Mrs. Mason likes to be involved in everything,” says Sarah Powell, Mason’s secretary of 12 years, who packs the calender with events. This evening, for example, Powell has tentatively scheduled a Native Washingtonian Club awards ceremony, a birthday party for Councilmember Frank Smith, and yet another awards ceremony. Mason’s staff is quite adept at keeping up appearances, insisting that sheand themselves, by extensionare as vital as ever. One staff member boasts that the Masons worked until after 11 the night before because of a Children’s Island hearing. She fails to mention that it was the only scheduled event of the day.
But Ackerman, for one, has plenty to do today. She deftly steers the conversation back toward academics and expounds on her quest to bolster test scores. Surprisingly, given her 16-year tenure at the helm of the education committee, Mason shows only passing interest in this conversation. “Have the students taken the SAT this year?” she asks.
Then, putting business aside for good, Mason points to a photo of herself hugging President Clinton. “I’m his grandma,” she says, looking unsuccessfully for the photo of herself with Ted Kennedy amid the hundreds of pictures, awards, and plaques that plaster the walls and chronicle a woman who has lived a full life. “He’s my Ted,” she says.
Years ago, Mason proclaimed herself “grandma of the world.” (Today, Charlie mentions that he considers himself “grandfather of the world.”) “Do you love your Grandma?” Mason asks Ackerman.
Doling out a round of hugs to all her guests (including me), Mason says, “Grandma wants a hug,” to each. And everyone tells her they love her as she ushers them out. “Are you my baby?” she asks no one in particular as she leaves to go to a council briefing.
Mason does not close deals, broker power, or make rain. She’s no fire-breathing politicoif she ever was. But she’s also no anachronism: Make no mistake, on a council that has ceased to be relevant, Mason is perfectly cast. She may not be changing the world, but she sure is nice to have around.
Earlier in the day, Mason joined the 11 other councilmembers to drone through the city’s business before an almost-empty chamber at 1 Judiciary Square, the council’s temporary headquarters. After voting on a tedious agenda of pressing issuessuch as renaming the University of the District of Columbia Law School the Dave Clarke School of Lawthe body’s attention turns to its latest snub. Presumably at the direction of the control board, David Watts, now head of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, failed to appear at Monday’s hearing on Children’s Island. And this is not the first dodge by an agency head in recent weeks that has painfully and publicly exposed the council’s impotence.
Just the same, the councilmembers express outrage at the very idea that the control board might block agency officials from testifying at public hearings. Kevin Chavous says he plans to “introduce something” to remedy the situation. Harold Brazil describes the de facto policy as “reprehensible” and perhaps even “illegal.” Mason chimes in, calling the affront “unexplainable.”
Understating the obvious, Frank Smith calls the apparent policy “the beginning of the final erosion of any kind of home rule in the District.” Like actors in the theater of the absurd, the councilmembers play on. But no matter how thorough the pretense of business as usual, no noisemaker manages to drown out the sound of the council’s wheels spinning.
No matter. Though Masonlike the rest of the councilhas lost her political edge, she carries on, filling her days cutting ribbons and fulfilling favors for constituents in need. “A lot of people come in asking for help with their gas bill and stuff like that, and the Masons try to help them when they can,” says legislative assistant Tim Hiskey.
The Masons are famed for their generosity to churches and charities around town, though Hilda Mason refuses to disclose much about her quiet contributions to constituents. “I don’t like to make it public,” she says.
At the end of the day, Hilda Mason is only what she claims to be. Just like your grandma, she gives you more hugs than you’d like, slips you the occasional $20, and shows up at all the events, however minor. Whether or not your grandma should be running the city is another question altogetherand a moot one.CP