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Last week’s midnight power swapwhich vested the control board with yet more authority at the expense of the city’s globe-trotting mayor and the beach-loitering D.C. Councilhas left D.C. congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton doing more about-faces than the new female cadets at VMI.
Norton, who initially hailed the legislation as “a big win” for the District, spun like a top when confronted by protests that she had furthered the emasculation of home rule. Within three days, she was depicting the bailout as “a shameful act” and “too high a price to pay.” The sudden reversal may have mollified a few career protesters while inflicting long-lasting damage on the credibility of the city’s most popular politician.
When asked to account for the casualties, Norton resorted to the lone soldier defense. “It was just me,” she lamented, pointing out that she was outnumbered on Capitol Hill by mean-spirited Republicans. Councilmembers offered no help as they headed to the beach, and Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr., following his careerlong pattern of skipping town when the city’s future is at stake, flew off to Africa with first lady Cora Masters Lady MacBarry. Even Norton’s primary handler and political pooper-scooper, Donna Brazile, was absent when the Earth shook, as Norton has noted in desperation.
And Norton got no help from the Democrats in the White House. Office of Management and Budget Director Franklin Raines told lawmakers that whatever management reforms they decided to impose on D.C. would be acceptable to the administration. All the president wanted was proof that he is finally doing something to help the nation’s capital.
Quick reversals are becoming a habit for Norton. She was forced to back off from her initial enthusiastic embrace of President Bill Clinton’s rescue plan last January after councilmembers objected to the plan’s elimination of D.C.’s annual federal payment.
To her credit, Norton did manage to block Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R-N.C.)’s original plan to impose a temporary city manager on D.C., a move that would have prompted a real backlash from home rule warriors. According to congressional sources, Norton first attempted to squash that idea with the only weapon she holdsthe race card.
“Her language was unbelievable,” says a House Republican staffer, describing Norton’s conduct in stormy private meetings with House members. Norton vehemently denies using race to further her cause: “I get on other people for using race. I never use race. It just ain’t me, fella.”
To derail the city manager movement, Norton came up with the strategy in mid-July of sending “strike teams” of consultants into each of the city’s major agencies to identify needed management reforms. Faircloth at first dismissed this plan as “mush.”
He suspected that the recommendations from the “strike teams” would end up in the same place as Barry’s much-ballyhooed “transformation plan” for the D.C. governmenton the shelf next to the countless other reports with recommendations Hizzoner refuses to implement.
Faircloth warmed to the idea last week when his aides suggested granting the control board the power to implement these recommendations, whether Barry and the council agreed or not. The idea was to give the control board the power to hire and fire directors of the city’s major agencies, and to make its own picks if it doesn’t like Barry’s choices. The control board is already running the police department and the schools.
Faircloth holds the control board in much higher esteem than does his House counterpart, D.C. Appropriations subcommittee chairman Charles Taylor (R-N.C.). Taylor pushed for a city manager whose appointment would have to be confirmed by Congress. When informed that the idea was patently unconstitutional, though, he dumped it. Taylor’s active pursuit of D.C. management reform died with his proposal.
By the time members of Congress left Capitol Hill around 7 p.m. on July 29 to attend the annual congressional softball game, Norton thought she had staved off Faircloth’s attack on home rule. Around 9 p.m. a nervous Barry phoned Norton, who assured him that the Faircloth provisions were out of the D.C. bailout package.
Norton also reminded Barry that House Speaker Newt Gingrich stood firmly beside them in opposition to Faircloth’s plan. Apparently, Norton and Barry hadn’t been keeping up with all the reports of Gingrich’s loss of clout on Capitol Hill.
But Faircloth had a valuable ally: Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. Late that night, Lott sent word down the chain of command to House D.C. subcommittee chairman Tom Davis (R-Va.) to include the Faircloth provisions in the final bill, according to Davis aide Ron Hamm. Before receiving those instructions, Davis had played his usual role and tried to broker a deal between Norton and Faircloth, while making sure that pet projects for his Northern Virginia constituents, including the closing of Lorton prison, remained in the legislative package. One phone call had trumped a month of frenzied lobbying by Norton, and Hamm finished writing the Faircloth provisions into the bill around midnight.
After Norton and Davis voted for the D.C. rescue plan the next day, they claimed they were unaware that power had been transferred to the control board and that the council had been stripped of its ability to confirm agency heads.
Since the council has approved every major mayoral appointment in the 22 years of home rule, this loss of power should not be missed. But now that they no longer have it, councilmembers are fighting to get it back. They also object to provisions in the bill that bar them from reviewing contracts for the new convention center, the expansion of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, and the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority.
If the council had been spending its time more productively, by holding public hearings and coming up with its own improvement plans for D.C. government, and approving needed Medicaid reforms instead of skipping off on a monthlong vacation, Congress might have been more respectful of its role in local government.
But on Capitol Hill and at 1 Judiciary Square, conspiracy theories continue to circulate as to how the most powerful control board ever imposed on a financially insolvent U.S. city became even more powerful. Speculation on the House side paints the dramatic transfer as a power grab devised by affable control board Executive Director John Hill and stealthily executed by board staffer Tim Leeth, a former Senate D.C. Appropriations subcommittee staffer with the know-how to pull off such a coup.
House members have been critical of the control board lately for failing to flex the muscle it already had prior to last week’s steroid injection. So LL finds it amusing that some on that side of the Hill now believe the control board capable of masterminding such a coup.
According to this theory, Leeth was aided by Mary Beth Nethercutt, a close adviser to Faircloth. Congressional aides point out that Nethercutt, Leeth’s replacement on the subcommittee staff, pushed for more power for the control board in meetings to work out problems between the House and Senate versions of the D.C. rescue plan.
Nethercutt is the wife of Rep. George Nethercutt, the obscure Washington Republican who gained national fame three years ago when he unseated powerful House Speaker Tom Foley in a campaign that relied heavily on the Internet to build a campaign and raise cash.
Leeth and Hill, as well as aides to Faircloth, scoff at this conspiracy scenario, and claim that the five-member control board did not know that it was about to be showered with new powers. LL finds this claim about as believable as Barry’s boast that he still holds “full operational authority” over the D.C. government under the new arrangement.
“We traced it back to Mary Beth Nethercutt,” a House staffer said of the transfer of local powers at the 11th hour of wrangling over the D.C. bailout provisions. “She thinks Tim Leeth walks on water, and Tim knows all the ins and outs of the Senate, and how to get it through.”
“But this is John Hill’s brainchild,” the staffer alleged. “We now have a new mayor, and his name is John Hill.”
The conspiracty paradigm drew a laugh from Hill. “Somebody has a very active imagination,” he quipped.
The old mayor has his own conspiracy theory about last week’s congressional action, which he dubs “re-colonization” of the District. He argues that Republicans have been plotting this move ever since the Democrat-controlled Congress granted home rule powers to D.C. nearly 24 years ago.
Barry’s convenient theory ignores major historical facts. Like the fact that home rule was blocked for decades by southern Democrats in Congress, not Republicans. And the fact that an Iowa Republican, Rep. Fred Schwengel, introduced the first home rule bill, and that home rule finally prevailed only with backing from Senate Republicans.
Since initially blasting the latest congressional intrusions as “a rape of democracy,” Barry has toned down the rhetoric. A master of political timing, Barry knows that the right opportunity to rally the masses is next year, in the midst of his re-election campaign. And Congress has handed him a ready-made platform to run on. Hizzoner might even want to consider making Faircloth an honorary campaign chairman.
So although city workers showed up at Monday’s protest to swell the crowd to around 200, there was no need for Barry himself to make an appearance. Norton’s office called residents to turn out protesters for the demonstration, but she dared not show, either.
The protests so far have been relatively small and mild, although Monday’s arrest of 13 demonstrators at the White House and Tuesday’s raucous control board meeting could portend an escalation of resistance. Norton has attempted to defuse anger against her by joining the outcry, and promising next time to consult with the demonstrators, since she gets no help from the city’s elected officials.
Most of the reforms don’t kick in until after Oct. 1, which means the control board will still be poring over recommendations from its teams of consultants next year when Barry is gearing up his re-election bid. The mayor likely will be able to point to the board’s lack of accomplishments and claim nothing was gained, at the expense of democracy.
And the control board will have to go on a major hiring spree in the final months of this year to find the experts and additional management staff needed to handle its new duties. That will hand Barry another potent campaign issue.
“Now you’ve got people who have power who have never had it before, and don’t know how to use it,” predicts a skeptical congressional staffer. “The city is going to grind to a halt. Barry is going to have a field day with this.”CP
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