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Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. on Wednesday held his highly publicized “Day of Dialogue” with religious leaders on healing the city’s racial and class divisions. But as the ongoing dispute over funding for the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) demonstrates, it’s the mayor himself who needs a stern lecture on race-baiting.
Judging from Barry’s recent pronouncements on UDC, you’d think Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson was the troubled school’s chief enemy in city politics. Barry has sought to portray Patterson as D.C.’s version of Alabama Gov. George Wallace, as though she, like Wallace in 1963, has been standing in the university’s doorway on upper Connecticut Avenue to block young blacks en route to enlightenment.
“The council, led by Kathy Patterson, is trying to close down UDC,” Barry claimed on Fox Morning News on Dec. 31. “So here we have a situation where some people don’t want blacks and young black adults to get a quality education.”
So how did Patterson goad Barry to pick her out of the council lineup?
She held the mayor to his word.
Patterson insisted that the university live within its budget, which was fashioned by Barry for FY 1997a package supported by the D.C. Council, the financial control board, and Chief Financial Officer Anthony Williams. The councilmember has made no proposal to attack the $16.2-million deficit the school will soon face at its current rate of overspending.
No matter: Patterson makes a nice racial punching bag for the mayor. She’s white and she represents predominantly white Ward 3, a well-worn symbol of privilege in this majority-black city.
Patterson, whom Barry has been publicly accusing of various sins against D.C. since he returned to the mayor’s office two years ago, is also female. The last councilmember to draw such sustained fire from the mayor was white At-Large Democratic Councilmember Betty Ann Kane. Kane earned Barry’s wrath for trying to ferret out corruption in his tumultuous third administration.
Barry once referred to Kane as “a witch,” his code word for bitch.
The mayor’s attack against Patterson as UDC’s archenemy makes a mockery of his racial healing confab. But Barry protested when reporters called him out on his hypocritical conduct. “I never said anything about her being white,” he insisted.
He didn’t have to. Barry has been playing the race card so skillfully for so long that his followers know exactly what he is implying when he uses “Ward 3” as the symbol for the enemy.
After his Day of Dialogue, Hizzoner should borrow the mirror from the Wicked Queen in the Snow White fable and ask it:
“Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s UDC’s biggest enemy of all?”
The mirror, of course, would remain silent. In his own reflection, Barry would end up face to face with the one politician responsible for the budget he now slams for emasculating the university. Barry last year proposed a budget that cut nearly $10.3 million from the $50-million subsidy the city gave UDC in FY ’96.
He also signed off on another $1.2 million in cuts proposed by the control board. The $11.5-million cut in the city’s UDC subsidy is contained in the so-called “consensus” budget hailed by the mayor last summer as proof that he, the CFO, the council, and the control board have learned to work together after a rocky beginning.
But back then, Barry apparently didn’t understand that UDC funding would blossom as a galvanizing political and racial issue. By railing against his own budget cuts, Barry is hoping to send the message to his core supporters that he remains the city’s steadfast and formidable civil rights champion and the defender of access to higher education for middle-class and poor blacks.
If Barry had staked out his position a year ago in discussions on UDC’s budget for the current academic year, the university might not be in such a bind. UDC now faces the same problem that annually cripples the city’s public schoolstrying to cut spending in the middle of the year, when no painless options are left.
As Barry pointed out at his Jan. 9 UDC “summit,” the city’s annual subsidy to the university has gone from a high of $76 million at the beginning of this decade to a current low of $38.4 million. UDC had previously been getting at least $25 million more than needed, according to council education committee staffer Jim Ford. But Ford says the current level is at least $6 million below the minimum required subsidy.
Until now, city officials had failed to force a reckoning over the future of a smaller UDC because university leaders refused to join in the debate. No District leader dared risk the political fallout of dragging them to the table.
When Tilden LeMelle was appointed UDC president some six years ago, he promised then-council Chairman John Wilson that if his budget remained untouched for his first 18 months at the helm, he would then start to scale back university spending. Wilson agreed, but when the time came for some exercises in subtraction, LeMelle reneged on the deal.
Wilson committed suicide in May 1993, so LeMelle never got his comeuppance. And in subsequent years LeMelle, who earned nearly $150,000 in annual salary and compensation and lived in a $700,000 taxpayer-furnished mansion until being fired last November, never bothered to live within the budgets presented to him by the mayor and the council.
UDC is more than a potent campaign issue for Hizzonerit has also served as a patronage dispenser for him and various councilmembers.
Barry is unwilling to relinquish control over UDC jobs without a fightespecially considering how the control board and CFO have undermined his patronage powers throughout the city government.
The university could also become a golden parachute for Barry after he leaves office. Barry has been mentioned as a future president of the university he is now defending, and Hizzoner doesn’t have many employment prospects looming on the horizon. That’s why he continues to hold onto the mayor’s office.
Barry dispelled any lingering doubts about his 1998 campaign plans with his racially loaded defense of UDC and this week’s Day of Dialogue. Hizzoner’s divide-and-conquer strategy works well in a town where mayors get elected with a mere 35 percent of the vote, thanks to election laws that don’t allow runoffs.
The Barry administration, as usual, was sending mixed signals last week on the UDC furor. While Hizzoner was hosting his UDC summit and arguing that the university could not endure any more cuts, City Administrator Michael Rogers ordered UDC to proceed with the $16.2-million reduction, plus an additional $680,000 cut.
Hizzoner, who has said he is as comfortable in the corporate “suites” as he is “in the streets,” is sending a message to his political adversaries that he may get kicked out of the suites, but he still controls the streets.
And that’s the message he hopes will propel him to another term in 1998, even if he has to racially divide the city to get there.
Draining the Think Tank
Brookings Institution fellow Carol O’Cleireacain has been poring over the District’s tax codes since last May in an attempt to engineer a long-term solution to the city’s pesky revenue problems. A former New York City budget director, O’Cleireacain hoped to make some noise with her recommendations, which call for a flat tax and elimination of certain business taxes. But her plan hit the streets a day too late.
No sooner had O’Cleireacain finished answering questions on her plan at a Tuesday-morning press conference than reporters began bolting to cover the day’s real news: the announcement of President Clinton’s District rescue plan. Brookings officials scheduled O’Cleireacain’s news conference for Tuesday on the hunch that Clinton would announce his plan personally at a D.C. school on Thursday. White House strategists moved up the release of the administration plan by at least two days to upstage O’Cleireacain.
The White House won easily, reducing coverage of O’Cleireacain’s study in Wednesday’s dailies to a mere footnote.
“Clearly they wanted to be seen as getting out front on this,” said a Brookings official.
An administration official who spoke not for attribution denied all charges of press-conference jockeying: “We didn’t try to trump her plan. The president is going to be spending a lot of time out in the District over the next few days, and we thought it was important that this information was out there. We didn’t intend to overshadow anyone.”
Administration officials acknowledge they knew the fine print of O’Cleireacain’s studyshe had shared it with them beforehandbut said they preferred their own plan. Although the plans share at least one recommendationthat the IRS assume responsibility for collecting income taxes from District residentsthey focus on different sides of the budget equation.
Clinton’s plan addresses municipal spending by proposing to transfer D.C. costs for prisons, income-tax collection, pensions, and Medicaid to the federal government. In return, the city would forfeit its $660-million federal payment. With a price tag estimated at several billion dollars, the plan has met stern opposition on Capitol Hill.
O’Cleireacain’s study, on the other hand, focuses solely on strategies to boost District revenues. She favors an overhauled tax code that would peg the D.C. income tax rate to 28 percent of federal income taxes paid by D.C. residents, slash property taxes by 27 percent, and cut taxes on District businesses by 30-40 percent. Ward 1 Councilmember Frank Smith, for one, prefers O’Cleireacain’s plan over the president’s because hers would not eliminate the annual federal payment entirely.
“They are different approaches,” said an administration source of the two plans. “We think ours is better, but I don’t think they are necessarily in conflict.” Unless, of course, you’re competing for the time and attention of a fickle press corps.
Not everyone in town has bailed on the widely discredited D.C. school board. The board has found a few allies to support its federal lawsuit to overturn the control board’s action last November transferring power over city schools to an appointed board of trustees.
Among the groups that last month filed a brief backing the school board suit are the D.C. Missionary Baptists Ministers Conference, the D.C. Statehood Party, the local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, Plymouth Congregational Church, PUSH, the National Rainbow Coalition, and the D.C. Appleseed Center for Law and Justice.
The Appleseed Center has distinguished itself with economic analyses exposing how Congress has shortchanged the city. Hardware-chain mogul and home rule die-hard John Hechinger reportedly persuaded the reluctant organization to join the brief. Only Congress, not the control board, has the legal right to strip the city’s elected school board of its powers, the brief argues…
The transfer of power at the Jan. 8 Adams Morgan Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 1C meeting went smoothly, despite a clash the weekend before between outgoing chairman Robert Pittman and newly elected commissioners. “I was being a nice guy,” Pittman said of the Jan. 4 confrontation at the ANC office, which resulted in the police being called.
Although his term ended two days earlier, Pittman said he invited the new commissioners to the office for an orientation session, and problems ensued when Daniel Horrigan demanded he turn over the keys. Pittman claimed the ANC’s bylaws allowed him to remain as chairman until his successor was elected Jan. 8.
Other ANC 1C commissioners said they were not aware of the bylaw but eventually bowed to what Pittman assured them was a tradition of ANC 1C. Horrigan was elected the new chairman last week. CP
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