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There are lots of occasions that prompt Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. to strut around town like the honorary king of an African country. Hizzoner, for example, assumes his distinctive, haughty royal air any time he announces a new and meaningless crime initiative or shames the D.C. Council into rubber-stamping one of his budgets.
But last week Barry had an unprecedented reason to gloat.
At a meeting announcing a new strategic plan for the city, control board member Steve Harlan called on the feds to take over $1 billion D.C. government spending. The irony could not have been more acute: Here was the board’s earnest white guy, a conservative real estate businessman, echoing a plea issued by Hizzoner nearly two years ago.
And just in case anyone had forgotten who came up with the idea first, there was Barry handing out copies of his Feb. 22, 1995, testimony before Congress foreshadowing Harlan’s proposals.
Hizzoner was too busy taking credit for the control board’s strategic plan to recognize that the board’s proposal sounded the death knell for the home rule dream born 23 years ago.
Critics viewed Barry’s plan to surrender key city functions—corrections, mental health, and other programs—to the feds as a ploy to avoid painful spending cuts and layoffs of government workers. And for statehood advocates and home rule warriors, the plan was tantamount to burning the D.C. flag. Instead of fighting to preserve D.C.’s limited self-government, Barry was giving it away—to a Republican-controlled Congress, no less.
But when Harlan and the control board repackaged Barry’s plan last week, there was no protest. Hizzoner’s willingness two years ago to give away significant city responsibilities to the feds has given the control board the political cover to offer the same solution while raising nary a whimper.
In fact, the control board’s action touched off a game of political one-upmanship over how best to rescue D.C.—with more federal aid or tax cuts, or both. And there was a sense of euphoria in the air that President Bill Clinton had finally again discovered the city he lives in, and that “Uncle Sugar” soon would be riding in to save D.C.
“The federal government ought to be our state,” the mayor said Friday the 13th, one day after the control board had issued its strategic plan to rescue the city, and just hours after Clinton had promised more money.
Barry would have been drawn and quartered for such a traitorous statement back in December 1973, when the District’s latest experiment with home rule began. In those days, a more idealistic and less-battered Barry joined in the wild celebrations breaking out all across town to fete the rebirth of self-government in the capital of the free world after a century of strict congressional rule.
Even the Washington Post added its powerful voice to the home rule chorus, which ordered Congress and the president to butt out and let D.C. residents manage their own affairs. There were calls for abolishing the D.C. oversight panels in both houses of Congress, to remove the opportunity for congressional interference.
Barry recalled last week that he and other local leaders had still been giddy with victory back in December 1973 after helping unseat “a tyrant” as head of the District oversight committee in the House the year before. He was referring to longtime South Carolina Rep. John McMillan, the patrician Southern Democrat who ruled the District like his own personal fiefdom.
McMillan was succeeded in January 1973 by Charles Diggs, an African-American congressman from Detroit, who quickly became the architect of the District’s new self-governance plan. President Nixon signed the home rule charter on Christmas Eve 1973.
Barry said he and others were dancing in the streets and didn’t really bother to focus on the charter’s various flaws. “It’s like freedom,” he now recalls. “We wanted to grab it all.”
Barry and the gang even ignored the warnings of their new hero, Diggs, who pushed for more congressional oversight under home rule, not less.
The charter required the president’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to certify annually that the District’s budget was balanced. But OMB never took this responsibility seriously for fear of being accused of meddling in D.C. affairs. OMB merely rubber-stamped the District’s budget every year, never bothering to figure out whether it was balanced.
When the rogue’s hall of fame is established to dishonor those who contributed to the failure of home rule in the District, Barry will find a spot in the center hall. He has inflicted more damage, through his nefarious exploits and misdeeds, than any other single person. But he has had plenty of accomplices, including U.S. Rep. Ron “Hands Off D.C.” Dellums (D-Calif.)
As chair of the House D.C. committee from 1979 to 1993, Dellums’ approach to D.C. oversight was to refrain from doing oversight. During his tenure as chief congressional D.C. watchdog, Dellums repeatedly slapped down proposals by Republicans in Congress to take back some of the powers granted to the District, particularly the power to run its own correctional system.
Now that Barry and the control board are pleading with Congress to take over the city’s costly prison system and complaining that the city should never have been saddled with this “state function” in the first place, the proposal suddenly has become politically correct. Despite the initially cool reactions to the control board’s plan for the federal government to spend another $1 billion annually on D.C. problems, Congress next year can be expected to move swiftly to annex Lorton. Federalizing the city’s prison system and closing down Lorton have been a top priority for Virginia Democrats and Republicans for years.
And trust that each succeeding Congress will no doubt find additional D.C. functions it is willing to absorb as part of the great home rule takeaway.
One home-rule amendment Congress will not stand for, however, is a commuter tax. Barry and his home-rule cronies once figured that taxing suburban commuters would counteract the defects of home rule. But suburban members of Congress, Republican and Democrat, blocked every attempt to do so.
Now that the District has failed as a city and as a quasi-state, the idea now is to turn it into a “region.” Regional panels already run Metro and the Blue Plains water and sewage treatment plant. Harlan and the control board last week appealed for increased involvement in D.C. affairs on the part of surrounding jurisdictions. LL is sure that county executives Wayne Curry and Douglas Duncan would be glad to pitch in once they finish plotting ways to steal more D.C. businesses.
Barry disputes that last week’s action by the control board signaled the end of the current home rule experiment. He contends that after the transfer of powers back to the federal government, he’ll still be mayor, and the D.C. Council will still be in place. But Barry once routinely referred to himself as “the governor/mayor of Washington, D.C.” and described the District as a city on its way to becoming a state. Now, he talks of D.C. as a city on its way to becoming a city.
That’s quite a step back.
The control board’s two-hour news conference on Dec. 12 unveiling its plan had a depressing quality to it. The five board members are supposed to be the innovators and new thinkers in the District, as well as the architects of the next home rule. But by embracing a time-worn plea for more federal aid for D.C., they are ignoring the fact that the District’s problems are political as well as financial.
More federal money for D.C. will also bring more federal intrusion. And Harlan would probably be the first to concede that subjecting the District to the whims of 535 members of Congress has not always been beneficial to the city in the past.
It’s difficult to see how the city can simultaneously access more federal booty and advance the case for more political power and voting representation in Congress.
Harlan got it right when he said during last week’s news conference: “Congress has been trying to figure out for 200 years how to govern this city. We don’t have it right yet.”
D.C. Inspector General Angela Avant last month canceled holiday leave for her staff in a last-ditch effort to churn out enough audits and investigations to save her job. But Avant recently exempted one IG employee from her dictum: herself. She left the light off in her office for two days earlier this month to attend a meeting of the National Association of Black Accountants.
That ought to do a lot to raise the holiday spirit among her besieged staff members.
Avant, on the job less than a year, is active in the association and also skipped town for a full week in August to attend its conference…
The D.C. Board of Education has taken a pounding in the press in recent weeks over the Marcus Garvey incident, in which Washington Times reporter Susan Ferrechio and school principal Mary A.T. Anigbo scuffled in the school’s hallway. The incident has stirred a media frenzy, and recent reports have impugned the board’s decision last August to approve the school’s charter.
LL reported that board member Jay Silberman felt pressured by the bitter racial divisions on the 11-member board when he voted in favor of the charter, which was championed by African-American board members. Silberman called to say that was not the case. Silberman says he could not have opposed the school’s charter because the new congressional law setting up charter schools in D.C. did not permit him to consider the criminal and financial backgrounds of charter school officials, staff, and trustees. Silberman’s interpretation of the law puts him at odds with the law’s sponsors, who claim the board shirked its duty to obtain background checks on all Marcus Garvey trustees and personnel.
“They may have meant that, but it’s certainly not what they wrote down,” Silberman insists. “They created an anything-goes law, and now, anything went.”
Silberman’s interpretation of the law is not likely to salvage the school board’s sunken reputation on Capitol Hill…
Last Friday’s holiday party hosted by Ward 6 Democrats turned into a cattle show for next year’s special election to fill the Ward 6 council seat Harold Brazil will vacate next month. Most of the would-be candidates turned out to strut their stuff.
Imani Temple’s the Rev. George Stallings sent six bodyguards to Trattoria Alberto on 8th Street SE to check out the place before he arrived. And Stallings had only announced his candidacy six days before. By the time the election rolls around next May, he could have a security detail that rivals the mayor’s.
Speaking of the Ward 6 special election, John Capozzi’s candidacy is looking a bit shakier after his dismal Dec. 4 fundraiser to retire $17,000 in debt from this year’s at-large council quest. Capozzi said before the event that he needed to make “a major dent” in his existing campaign debt to run again next year. But he collected only a few hundred bucks that evening.
The Ward 6 contest is dividing the office of Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson. Patterson’s legislative aide, Derrick Barnes, is running the campaign of zoning commissioner Howard Croft, while Patterson has endorsed Sharon Ambrose, the highly regarded aide to retiring Councilmember John Ray.
Patterson’s willingness to let her staffer get actively involved in Croft’s campaign while she is backing a rival has raised some eyebrows around town. “Most people would get fired for doing that,” commented a D.C. Democrat who is backing Croft…
Barry continues to stick to his three strategies for winning re-election: pick up the trash, reduce crime, and make sure the streets stay clear of snow this winter. During a Dec. 3 community meeting at the Reeves Municipal Center to promote his anti-crime initiative, the mayor linked crime in the city to dirty streets.
“A trash-ridden, dirty D.C. is a crime-ridden D.C. If we clean up the city, we’re going to get rid of the crime,” said Barry.
As part of his crime initiative, Barry vowed to hire 24 new sanitation inspectors. Yes, Barry was cutting sanitation inspectors only a year ago as part of his budget moves. But now he has seen the light.
“Now, instead of doing it for trash problems, sanitation, and health, he’s going to do it to fight crime,” commented Dupont Circle resident Phil Carney, who attended the meeting.
No one is quite sure, though, whether Barry was talking about the 24 new sanitation inspectors DPW was supposed to hire Oct. 1 or an additional 24 who will be hired next year. It’s worth mentioning that when the mayor visited Washington City Paper in Adams Morgan a few months ago, he noticed that the alley behind the restaurants on the east side of 18th Street NW was brimming with trash. He promised to get some inspectors right on it, but the mayor is long gone and the alley-as-landfill still remains.
Just in case anyone still doubts that Barry will seek re-election in 1998, members of the mayor’s cabinet and staff have been meeting regularly with political guru Ivanhoe Donaldson at Faces restaurant on upper Georgia Avenue NW, and at Avignone Freres on Columbia Road NW.
During a recent meeting at Avignone Freres, Donaldson was overheard ordering a Barry staffer to bring him copies of the mayor’s daily schedule so he could determine whether Hizzoner was meeting with the right groups to shore up his political future.
That certainly sounds like a developing re-election strategy to LL. CP