The much-bullied D.C. Council flexed some seldom-seen muscle during the playground tussle with the White House over President Clinton’s rescue plan for the city. But when the Clintonites began to make seriously threatening noises, the council turned and ran like schoolyard sissies.
Only three days after dealing a setback to the president’s rescue plan at the May 6 council session, the opposition crumbled and the council approved the plan’s “Memorandum of Understanding” (MOU) without winning significant concessions.
In a face-saving move, council supporters hid behind the fig leaf of a deal with the White House in which the Clinton administration and the council “agreed to disagree” over the future of the city’s annual federal payment. LL wonders how relevant an MOU is if there’s no understanding about the bottom line. As it stands now, the Clinton administration intends to trade the 175-year-old federal payment for the feds’ picking up the city’s tab for courts, prisons, Medicaid, tax collection, and pensions.
So now the District has an MOU-for whatever that’s worthbut the fate of the federal payment was apparently sealed before Clinton even unveiled his rescue plan Jan. 14. In the wake of the council’s balkiness, D.C. congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton said council approval of the MOU was not really necessary because Congress would have the final say.
That prompted councilmembers to jump on board the MOU train for fear of getting left at the station and losing their newfound status as “players” at a key juncture in the city’s history, even if they’re getting sand kicked in their faces every time they speak up.
At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz was the clear leader in the nonleadership sweepstakes. After speaking eloquently in defense of the city’s $660-million federal payment May 6, Schwartz retreated to her beach house in Rehoboth, claiming a longstanding Mother’s Day commitment, and skipped the special May 9 Friday-evening session at which the MOU won approval in a 7 to 4 vote.
Some council MOU supporters speculate that Schwartz wasn’t interested in serving as the swing vote on an issue that will undoubtedly have a very long tail. Although Schwartz could not make the trek back from Rehoboth for the vote, former Councilmember Betty Ann Kane, currently a member of the Rehoboth city council, skipped her Friday-night council session to watch her political protégée, Sharon Ambrose, cast her first vote as the new Ward 6 councilmember. Ambrose voted for the president’s plan.
Perhaps Rehoboth and D.C. should have swapped Schwartz for Kane for the evening.
Even without Schwartz’s vote, opponents held the upper hand because acting chair Linda Cropp needed eight votes to bring the plan back up on an emergency basis after it failed to win approval only three days earlier. But the opposition caved when Ward 1 Councilmember Frank Smith switched and voted to declare an emergency. That gave Cropp the needed eighth vote to reconsider the earlier decision.
On final passage, Smith turned around and voted against the MOU. He was able to profile as a defender of home rule without doing anything that would further anger the White House.
“Frank Smith is trying to have it both ways,” says council watchdog Dorothy Brizill.
During the half-hour special session, feelings ran high, especially between At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil, chief critic of the president’s plan, and Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas. Lingering animosity between the two flared in public view. When Thomas tried to interrupt Brazil’s efforts to block consideration of the MOU on an emergency basis, Brazil warned, “Don’t start, Mr. Thomas.”
But when Thomas got the floor, he chided Brazil as “a Republican” masquerading as a Democrat. He was referring to Brazil’s pro-business, anti-government stands. Thomas, a die-hard defender of D.C. government programs, never seemed to notice that this time Brazil was the District’s outspoken defender.
“When you say you stand up for the city, I want to ask you, what do you put on the table?” Thomas inquired of Brazil, who did not respond. “When you ain’t at the table, you can’t do a durn thing.”
Thomas, a longtime party faithful, said the plan must be good because it was proposed by a Democrat in the White House. That apparently was all he needed to know about the MOU. He, too, seemed to fear the council getting left out of the mix.
Tensions between Thomas and Brazil became so strained last year that Brazil stopped attending meetings of the council’s Public Works Committee, which Thomas chairs. When the council was reorganized last winter, Brazil quit the committee to get away form Thomas.
Brazil vehemently opposed the MOU, and claimed that Chief Financial Officer Anthony Williams had concluded the city would “only save $44,000-49,000 the first year.” That claim had Williams’ staff perplexed, until the office reviewed its analysis of the president’s plan, which listed the savings in a table that instructed readers to add “000” to each figure.
The actual savings was thus not $49,341 next year, but $49,341,000.
Lawyer Brazil apparently hadn’t read the fine print.
Last weekend’s poll by the Washington Post, which found that nearly eight in 10 D.C. residents feel Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. should narrow his sights to being Mayor-Only-Until-1999, also raised serious doubts about the future of the “Kool-Aiders.”
Before the end of his first stint as mayor (prior to his forced sabbatical to get a firsthand look at the nation’s prison conditions), Barry’s inner circle coined the term “Kool-Aiders” to characterize Hizzoner’s die-hard supporters, after the followers of cult leader Jim Jones, who drank poisoned Kool-Aid in a mass suicide at their leader’s urging nearly two decades ago. The Kool-Aiders are the core group Barry assumes will stick by him through videotape, crack pipe, womanizing, and whatever the D.C. financial control board and the GOP-led Congress may throw at him next year.
But the May 11 Post poll revealed that the Kool-Aiders’ confidence in their martyred leader is dropping like a ValuJet plane. Fewer than one in five votersonly 19 percentsaid Barry should run again in 1998an indication that the membership and commitment of the Kool-Aiders has slipped markedly since Barry’s return to the mayor’s throne two years ago.
During his dramatic 1994 comeback, the mayor’s camp calculated the strength of the Kool-Aiders at around 30 percent of the electorate, and Barry won the crucial, crowded Democratic primary by capturing 47 percent of the vote.
When African-American voters are singled out, Barry’s standing in the Post poll doesn’t improve much. Only 24 percent of African-American residents surveyed said Barry should continue his reign over the District into the next millennium, while 72 percent of black voters and 93 percent of the city’s white voters said Barry’s time has come and gone.
Sharon Pratt Kelly mouthed that exact phrase in 1990 to declare an end to Barry rule over the District, only to be proved woefully wrong just four years later. So Barry cannot be counted out, yet.
Despite last weekend’s poll, the mayor’s dwindling band of allies believes Barry holds a distinct advantage over his three potential rivals on the D.C. CouncilWard 2’s Jack Evans, Ward 7’s Kevin Chavous, and At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil.
“Barry is focused on one thing and one thing only: holding on to his 30-percent base,” notes a top Barry aide. “Kevin, Harold, and Jack have got to decide whether they want to be mayor, be councilmembers, or be rich lawyers.”
The aide implied that Chavous, Brazil, and Evans view the pursuit of the mayor’s job as a part-time hobby that takes a back seat to more professional and lucrative business interests. “They are always in their law firms, especially Harold and Kevin,” he said.
Barry’s divide-and-conquer approach to the mayoralty worked remarkably well in 1994, but next year he will face what local political observers, including the mayor’s aides, are calling “the depressed black vote.” That term refers to the diminished number of blacks currently participating in local elections, as vividly demonstrated in last month’s Ward 6 election, when white voters turned out and black voters stayed home.
Local politicians, including former University of the District of Columbia urban studies professor and failed Ward 6 contender Howard Croft, also use the expression to describe the deepened feeling of powerlessness among African-American residents now that the financial control board and Congress are calling the shots. An aide to Barry admits that Hizzoner has added to the “depression” by failing to live up to the expectations he raised in his stunning comeback.
The Post poll mirrors one conducted by political pollster Ron Lester in the Ward 6 race. “If you start out at such a low point, you’ve got so far to go that you really need a four-to-five-candidate field to really be competitive,” Lester said this week. “A lot of black voters still like Barry; they just want someone new.”
But don’t expect Barry to suddenly begin bowing to conventional wisdom. For those many D.C. residents who are hoping Barry will, for once, put the welfare of the District ahead of his own political and job concerns and not seek re-election next year, LL’s only advice is, get over it!
Barry will need another career opportunity waiting before he will give up his $91,000 mayor’s salary, and so far no cushy corporate desk jobs nor multimillion-dollar book deals loom on the horizon. Perhaps, instead of trying to find a formidable candidate to run against Barry head-to-head in the November 1998 general election, where he can be beaten, city leaders should line up a parachute for Barry to lure him out of office.
The news did provide some comic relief for Hizzoner last week. Last Sunday, the New York Times weighed in on next year’s D.C. mayoral clash with a look at the possibility of Barry foes uniting behind one candidate in next year’s Democratic primary. This idea is being floated by Brazil, who perceives himself as the front-runner; otherwise, he wouldn’t be the least bit interested.
But Brazil’s call for a summit at the end of this year to unite behind “the best of us” and avoid splitting up the anti-Barry vote was immediately rejected by Evans and Chavous. Barry’s rivals are also playing the fractions game, each calculating that he can grab the city’s top office with only a small percentage of the vote in a divided primary.
Four days after becoming acting council chair, Cropp last weekend launched her campaign to remove the “acting” label by seeking election to fill out the unexpired term of late council Chair Dave Clarke. Her Saturday campaign kickoff attracted a crowd of about 50 of the usual political junkies and council staffers, and almost no media attention. Neither newspaper carried a mention of her announcement in their Sunday editions.
The lack of media interest reflects the electorate’s apathy toward the council chair post. Cropp, hardly a political powerhouse citywide, may not even face token opposition in the special July 22 election. So far, no major opposition has surfaced.
This lack of interest contrasts sharply with the special council election four years ago, after Chair John Wilson’s suicide, when Cropp was among a crowded field of contenders for the job.
“Now, more than ever, I am part of the solution,” the second-term councilmember declared last weekend, but most of the focus is on the heated battle that will take place for Cropp’s at-large seat, once she wins the July 22 election…
Natwar Gandhi, head of the D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue [formerly the Department of Finance and Revenue], recently told the Washington Business Journal, “I can’t afford to live in the District.” If Gandhi can’t make it here on his $111,000 annual salaryabout $20,000 more than the mayor earnsLL wonders how the rest of us are supposed to cope.CP
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