During the tumultuous year almost gone, the city saw Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. follow his own advice to an outraged electorate in the wake of his stunning 1994 mayoral comeback. After being worked over all year by the D.C. financial control board, the city’s chief financial officer, and Congress, Barry was left looking in the mirror, telling himself, “Get over it.”
The financial control board created by Congress to supplant Barry got off to a slow start but hit its stride during 1996. The five-member panel removed longtime Barry ally Vernon Hawkins as head of the pork-barrel Department of Human Services (DHS), pried Barry’s fingers from the lucrative D.C. lottery agency by abolishing his hand-picked lottery board, and seized power over the D.C. schools at a time when Hizzoner was floating his own plans to take control of the school system and its 10,000 jobs.
Chief Financial Officer Anthony Williams spent much of the year battling Barry’s carefully orchestrated moves to undermine his authority. Barry at first tried to circumvent the powers Congress gave Williams to prevent the mayor from thwarting needed government reform. When that tactic failed, Barry tried to bury Williams under an avalanche of new assignments and then blame Williams for his own failures, including last winter’s snow disaster. But Williams emerged at year’s end virtually unscathed.
Even mayoral wannabe Harold Brazil, who ditched his Ward 6 seat on the D.C. Council for an at-large seat, got involved in the raid on the mayor’s vanishing powers. Brazil’s procurement-reform bill, which was passed by the council this month, creates a new chief procurement officer to usurp Barry’s longstanding control over city contracts.
Yet Barry remains formidable because of his Clintonesque ability to constantly reshape his image and his role. As another damaging year for Hizzoner fades into history, Barry shows no signs of giving up or going away. So LL will still have Barry to rely on next year for the kind of antics that spice up this space each week. It’s one blessing we will count anew as we ring in the new year.
Hizzoner has gotten so many Loose Talk Awards (LTAs) over the past 13 years that LL has lost count. Barry has never shown up to claim his past LTAs, which are piling up at Washington City Paper’s office. So this year LL may have to hand-deliver a specially created trophy to honor Hizzoner’s never-ending contributions to this column.
Here are just a few of Barry’s 1996 achievements:
Hizzoner wrapped up a 1996 LTA when the year was barely two weeks old, with his boast of doing a “herculean” (he badly mispronounced the word, and on national TV, no less) job of removing the record snowfall from city streets. Meanwhile, D.C. residents were left to hire their own private snowplowers and shovel their own streets, which they did while cursing the mayor. Another disastrous winter like last year’s could topple the Barry administration, and Hizzoner knows it.
His presentation of yet another phony D.C. budget, featuring cooked numbers, a time-honored practice for D.C. mayors. Barry quickly retreated from his own budget proposal last winter after Williams and the control board threatened to fire Barry budget director Rodney Palmer for going along with his boss’ scheme. The mayor then shielded Palmer from the control board’s wrath by moving him from the budget office to the mayor’s Office of Policy.
His sudden flight from the city for 10 days in late April for “rejuvenation.” Barry’s hasty exit left the city’s leadership in the lurch and sparked all kinds of speculation about drug relapses, marital conflicts, and suicide attempts. Upon his return, local TV stations went live with his orchestrated news conference, expecting a dramatic announcement from Barry about his health and his political future. Instead, viewers got a boring seminar on spiritual healing, the risks of smoking, and the benefits of eating more vegetables and spending more time away from the office.
His palling around with convicted fraud artist Roweshea Burruss. Barry claimed he frequented Burruss’ Logan Circle house because it was a convenient place to grab a sandwich and a quick change of clothes. Only Hizzoner can come up with such alibis and keep a straight face.
His firing last May of longtime ally Joseph Yeldell as head of the Department of Employment Services for “insubordination.” Yeldell earned his demerits by angering Cora Masters Lady MacBarry, who disliked the way Yeldell conducted a prayer breakfast while she and her husband were out of town “rejuvenating.”
His prodding of D.C. lottery board members to fire lottery director Frederick King last August after King RIFed some of the mayor’s cronies at the overstaffed, work-free agency. Barry implausibly denied having intervened in the board’s actions: He pressed board members to get rid of King, and called board Chairman Ken Brewer in the midst of the meeting at which King was fired. The control board rode in to save King’s job and ordered the council to abolish the lottery board. After the council balked, the control board finished off the lottery board just last week.
His “advance” (“This mayor never retreats,” Barry boasted) with nearly five dozen of his top staffers to a West Virginia resort in September, even though the city was short on cash.
His November trip to the Far East to lure Korean and Chinese restaurants and clothing stores to D.C.—a junket that coincided with the school crisis. While Hizzoner was sampling wonton soup and playing tennis in the Orient, the control board was busy firing school Superintendent Franklin Smith and stripping the elected school board of much of its power.
His recent announcement of a “community empowerment policing” initiative, which is drawing fire from officers and public-safety activists. The mayor’s office last week tried to stack a Ward 5 meeting on his crime-fighting proposal with a more sympathetic, hand-picked audience. But Capitol Hill residents, irate over the latest neighborhood murder, learned of the meeting and showed up to ruin Barry’s evening.
The mayor has been busy this year. But he is not alone.
Despite taking another bruising during 1996, Barry at least has shown he can still stay in the ring with the heavyweights. But D.C. Council Chairman Dave Clarke, the city’s second in command, has played rope-a-dope all year long and looks woozier every day. Clarke put on a performance that left the city relieved to have Williams and the control board in charge. LL is giving Clarke an unprecedented LTA Retirement Award this year—in fact, take two and call us in the morning—because his days as council gavel-pounder appear to be numbered.
Clarke has kept the city and his own staff in the dark about the medical problems that have dogged him all year. Doctors continue to examine him but have apparently reached no conclusion. Clarke himself says he suffers from a treatable condition known as hyperthyroidism. But city politicos are buying that diagnosis about as readily as Barry’s latest scheme to avoid cutting government jobs.
If Clarke’s ailment—whatever it is—continues to worsen, Channel 13 may have to put a warning label on broadcasts of council meetings: “Not fit for prime-time viewing.”
But Clarke’s quirky, ranting behavior make him an LTA shoo-in. Clarke spent the first half of 1996 wrestling over whether to give up the chairmanship and run for an at-large seat. Just hours before the filing deadline last July, he decided to make the switch and hired the homeless to get the needed 2,000 ballot-petition signatures.
Clarke just as suddenly withdrew from the race after filing his petitions. He did not have a crisis of conscience over letting down his supporters by taking a voluntary demotion to the at-large seat. Not at all. Although the date of the September primary had been public for months, Clarke said he had only learned of the date after filing. That discovery, he said, meant there would not be enough time to get his chairmanship vacancy placed on the November ballot and avoid a costly special election.
What he had really miscalculated was the reliability of paying people to collect signatures. Clarke actually quit to avoid the embarrassment of being knocked off the ballot by Brazil, who was also making the switch to the at-large seat. Brazil’s campaign had found enough errors in the signatures collected by the homeless to push Clarke below the 2,000-signature threshold.
But the chairman got his revenge last week, when he helped Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans defeat Brazil for the coveted chairmanship of the council’s Judiciary Committee. It was the towering chairman’s way of saying “in your face” to Brazil, who has more seniority than Evans.
Clarke began the year by calling on the control board to “unite with us against a common enemy” (Congress) instead of cutting spending. Then he closed out 1996 with his selection of Tony Cooper to be city auditor. Cooper was well qualified for the post, Clarke said, because he had been the target of city auditors during his tenure as lottery director.
Brazil also gets an LTA, for mouthing the most inspiring reform rhetoric of any D.C. pol. Too bad Brazil’s stirring words don’t jibe with his performance on the council, or, more accurately, lack of performance. But a thin council record didn’t prevent Brazil from switching to an at-large council seat, with the backing of the Washington Post, and position himself to challenge Barry in two years.
Post Metro reporters and editors get an LTA for helping to stifle the emergence of a new generation of political leaders in the District. The Post stuck a new hire, reporter Vanessa Williams, on D.C. Council races and filled its coverage with hackneyed analysis of war horses like Joe Yeldell, who has been around since LBJ was grossing out visitors to the White House.
Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous earned an LTA for compiling a council absentee record that would compete with most D.C. school dropouts’. But Chavous seems to have gotten a wakeup call from his re-election battle this year, when he had more trouble than expected in dispatching discredited Ward 7 school board member Terry Hairston.
Now Chavous is showing renewed interest in his job. He shoved aside Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson last week in a battle for the Education Committee. If his performance continues to improve, Chavous could re-emerge as a 1998 mayoral prospect.
Hairston earned an LTA for political chutzpah. After only 18 dismal months on a school board that allowed the schools to collapse, Hairston felt he was ready for a promotion to the council. And he sought the council seat despite his criminal record, which has escaped media scrutiny.
Such thirst for power and disdain for the voters are worthy of an LTA.
At-Large Statehood Party Councilmember Hilda Mason gets an LTA for continually fiddling as chair of the council’s Education Committee while the city’s schools burned down around her.
The entire 11-member school board earned an LTA for one of the most dismal performances by an elected body in the history of politics. The badly divided board seemed more interested in protecting its perks than in exercising its responsibilities. And faced with the crisis over the Marcus Garvey Charter School incident, the board members tried to duck and chose to wage a legal fight over the control board’s transfer of their powers to the newly created “emergency educational board of trustees.”
At-large school board member Jay Silberman gets an individual LTA for his blind devotion to failed school Superintendent Smith, and his attitude that he knows best how to reform D.C.’s schools. But then, Silberman still insists that the board lacked the authority to intervene in the Marcus Garvey crisis, even though the school exists only because the board last August too hastily gave it life.
Silberman just doesn’t get it that power belongs to those who seize it, not those who wait to be handed it.
Union Temple’s the Rev. Willie Wilson gets an LTA for his eagerness to escalate conflicts into racial warfare. Last May, Wilson tried to turn the control board’s ouster of Hawkins into a racial showdown, but that quickly fizzled. Wilson never mentioned that his church and its congregation had benefited from Hawkins’ tenure at DHS in the form of city contracts.
Now Wilson’s back at it again with Marcus Garvey principal Mary A.T. Anigbo.
Anigbo also earned an LTA, for demonstrating how reckless the rush to charter schools in the District can be. Despite being a latecomer to the charter-school fad, the District has already earned a footnote in history: No other charter school in the country has had its principal indicted for scuffling with police and a news reporter to prevent public scrutiny. Anigbo also surrounded herself with Wilson, Malik Shabazz, and other race-baiters to camouflage her adolescent behavior in running a charter school.
One lesson from this crisis is that charter schools are going to get, and deserve, more media scrutiny than traditional schools.
Those are all the 1996 winners that space will allow. Congratulations to the lucky—or should we say unlucky—ones, and LL is counting on Barry, Clarke, and the city’s host of political misfits for another banner year of loose talk and misdeeds in 1997.