When At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil was first asked to sign a petition last month to recall Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr., he balked, appearing unsure how such a bold stroke would affect his own mayoral run. By July 4, though, Brazil had steadied his nerve and told city residents that he had climbed aboard the rickety recall wagon. Brazil’s claims notwithstanding, Ward 8 activist and recall leader Sandra Seegars claimed she couldn’t find Brazil’s signature on any of the petition sheets. Brazil then signed at a community meeting last week. (He now claims that he signed twice.)
Ever since Barry began his fourth term in January 1995, District politicos like Brazil have carefully framed him as a roadblock to the city’s recovery. When Barry proposes a budget full of funds for Ward 8 economic development, he’s pandering to his followers in Anacostia. When Barry proposes procurement reform, he’s trying to maintain his grip on the city’s lucrative pork barrel.
But when Barry’s detractors find a recall petition under their noses, they succumb to a nasty case of writer’s block.
Seegars and her flank of petition toters these days are popping up at all the spots where registered D.C. voterswho recently won designation as an endangered speciesroutinely congregate: community meetings on the never-ending school crisis, Independence Day parades, and forums on crime and housing. They managed to corner Ward 2 Councilmember and mayoral aspirant Jack Evans at a July 17 Georgetown community forum. Evans declined to sign, saying, “I’m going to beat him fair and square in the election.” Evans noted that he has been the target of a failed recall campaign. “The place to deal with an office holder is the ballot box,” he said.
If Evans thinks he can win even in a crowded primary, or that Barry will play fair in next year’s election, Boy Blond is as naive as he sounds and looks.
At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz has managed to dodge the petitionmongers in her wanderings through D.C. community politics. Maybe she opposes the recall effort because polls show that on her third try she might just beat Barry.
Come next summer, Schwartz and Evans will no doubt tell supporters at community forums that the city cannot withstand another year of Barry leadership.
Newly elected council chair Linda Cropp says Barry should not run again, but she won’t sign. Neither will Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous, another mayoral hopeful. Other D.C. leaders shy away from even talking about the recall, especially with Barry being coy on his re-election plans for 1998. “He won’t be there after next year,” Chavous contends, although not with a great deal of confidence. “When he finishes this term, that will be the end of his run. There’s no question in my mind that people want a change, even his strongest supporters.”
But with no one willing to stand up and tell Barry it’s time to go, LL doubts he’ll get the message. That’s where the recall fits in.
While most city officials hone their excuses for shunning the recall drive, freshly elected Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose, who signed the petition without hesitation, argues it’s the most effective way to tell Barry he’s reached the end. The recall movement, says Ambrose, gives disenchanted voters a rare opportunity to “send a message.” By signing the petition, Ambrose points out that voters are telling Barry they wish he would not run again, but are not actually punching the ballot that would remove him from office. “Everyone is saying they hope Marion doesn’t run again,” notes Ambrose. “Well, this is the way to send him that message.”
Judging from the recall’s progress, few city voters are heeding Ambrose’s logic. Seegars’ group this week revealed that it has collected only 13,000 of the nearly 35,000 valid signatures needed by Oct. 28 to force a recall vote on Barry next year. Seegars is still hoping to convince at least 60,000 registered D.C. voters to sign before the deadline.
If you place any trust in Washington Post polls, Seegars should have little trouble. According to a Post poll taken earlier this year, three out of every four voters in this city would prefer to see Barry give up the throne voluntarily at the end of 1998 and free them of the unwelcome task of voting him out of office.
But D.C.’s weak-kneed voters are coming up with countless reasons to avoid signing the petitions. One of the most popular excuses is that voters don’t want to side with D.C. cabbies, who kicked off the recall drive after Barry advanced an ambitious plan to reform the taxi industry. Being forced to choose between another Barry term and a ride in a dilapidated, steamy D.C. cab is hardly a decision District voters savor. Even the city’s various political parties, with the exception of the upstart D.C. Green Party, have treated the recall effort like a plague of parking ticket writers.
According to Seegars, white voters have flocked to affix their signatures to the petition sheets, setting up a racial dynamic that she says has hindered the recall. The white rush to oust Barry, says Seegars, has alienated black voters, who fear Barry will paint the recall movement as a racist attempt to further disenfranchise the city’s African-American majority. Those fears are well founded, because Barry has played the race card deftly in his last three elections to rally his core constituency. And Barry would find a way to do it again, even though the group of recall petitioners is overwhelmingly African-American.
“They say, ‘Leave him alone. He’s one of us. He’s a brother,’” Seegars relates. “He ain’t no brother! My brother wouldn’t treat me like Barry treats this city.”
The same heavyhandedness that has helped Barry maintain a tight grip on the city’s vast bureaucracydespite efforts by the financial control board, the city’s chief financial officer, and Congress to loosen itis also thwarting the effort to force a recall election.
Business leaders who unrealistically hope that Barry will fade away after next year have expressed fears to Ambrose that the mayor will win again in ’98, and they will be punished, through the denial of city contracts, for failing to back him. After all, Barry used this strategy to keep the business community in line during his notorious first three terms as mayor.
Even though District voters in 1994 approved a two-term limit for mayor, the limit doesn’t kick in until 1998, meaning that Barry could hold onto 1 Judiciary Square until 2006, or two more Olympic cycles. Concern that Hizzoner could last that long is driving a campaign on Capitol Hill to install a temporary city manager who would absorb Barry’s remaining powers. Congressional lawmakers might hold off on the city manager plan if they saw evidence that District businesses and voters were uniting to take on Barry. Thus far, they haven’t seen any.
Near the end of the dismal one-term reign of former Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, D.C. congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton vowed to take a more active role in heading off the failures of another mayor and protecting home rule. But Norton has been missing in action on the Barry problem, even though she fights every day to keep Congress from emasculating Hizzoner’s prerogatives. If someone of Norton’s stature spoke out openly on the need for Barry to step aside and put the city firmly on the road to recovery, District voters might just queue up outside Seegars’ front door.
LL never signs petitions, but if we ever made an exception, the Barry recall would be it.
STATE COMMITTEE FIASCO
The D.C. Democratic State Committee, the ruling arm of the city’s dominant political party, is about to take its turn in showing District voters how not to lead. Now that Cropp’s elevation to the council chair is official with her victory in Tuesday’s no-show election, the 74-member State Committee will meet Aug. 14 to choose a temporary successor for the at-large seat Cropp vacated in her move up the ladder.
The leading contender, by most accounts, is longtime Ward 5 party faithful Paula Nickens. Paula who?
Most voters will remember Nickens, if they recognize her name at all, from media accounts of her stormy personal relationship with local labor boss Joslyn “Josh” Williams. After their breakup, Nickens, a former Williams employee, sued her former boss, alleging physical abuse. Nickens eventually won a large award in D.C. Superior Court.
These are not exactly the kind of credentials that would catapult a long-suffering wannabe into the political forefront.
However, Nickens has the support of Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas, whose patronage politics have gained him a wide following in his back yard. Some political observers speculate that the elderly Thomas may be pondering retirement next year. By engineering the election of Nickens to the at-large seat, Thomas would be removing a contender for his ward post and clearing the path for his son, Harry “Tommy” Thomas Jr. The third-term councilmember does not hide his desire to see his son succeed him.
Yes folks, this is how D.C. pols are born.
Nickens’ early lead among State Committee members is a setback for former D.C. Council chair Arrington Dixon, once considered the only heavyweight in the running for Cropp’s at-large seat. Undaunted by Nickens’ coziness with the city’s Democratic leaders, Dixon plans to run for the seat in the special election that will take place sometime in December. He has scheduled his campaign announcement for Aug. 9, five days before the State Committee balloting.
The successor to Cropp chosen by the State Committee next month will serve only until the voters have their say in the special election at year’s end. Dixon figures he stands a better chance before the voters than before the State Committee.
Despite Democratic Party chair Amanda Hatcher Lyons’ insistence that she is neutral in the contest, Dixon supporters complain that she has been working behind the scenes for Nickens. Lyons, they say, has depicted Nickens as “a breath of fresh air” and Dixon as yesterday’s news.
Voters in December may feel the same way.
PAY IT BACK, MARY
Despite vehement protests by Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1B chair Lawrence Guyot, the Columbia Heights ANC last week voted to demand that former chair Mary Treadwell return $10,900 in ANC funds she allegedly diverted to personal use. The alleged wrongdoing was uncovered in a investigation by D.C. Auditor Tony Cooper into Treadwell’s purported misuse of tax money the city provides ANCs annually.
The ANCs require groups and individuals to return money granted to them if it is not used for the intended purpose. But according to Cooper, Treadwell wrote checks for over $10,000 to attorney Larry Williams, who then returned the money to Treadwell. Williams received no commission for his work.
Guyot unsuccessfully argued that Treadwell, the second Mrs. Marion Barry, should not have to return the money until her criminal case, including possible convictions and appeals, has run its course. That could take a lifetime.
The resolution seeking repayment with interest passed on a 4-3 vote, with four abstentions and Treadwell absent. Its approval was a legal setback for Treadwell’s defense. Had it failed, her lawyer could have argued that her ANC didn’t view the diversion of the money as a criminal matter, which was one reason why the resolution’s supporters hesitated in bringing it to a vote.CP
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