Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. returned to the District last week, following a 10-day sojourn to South Korea and China, ready to deflect criticism of his ever-decreasing role in the government he built. In a news conference just hours after his return, Barry unveiled some new titles and duties for himself.
At a time when the financial control board is shrinking his job description, Barry is seeking to enlarge it by dubbing himself “the nation’s capital host,” a post responsible for drawing more international tourism to D.C. “I am confident there will be more Korean tourists coming to America as a result of our trip,” Barry bragged.
He said he also serves as “the international governor/mayor” of the nation’s capital. In this capacity, Barry must travel abroad regularly because “the culture of these countries is that they want mayors and governors to come,” he said.
He has other functions as well, including chief of a one-man truth squad that circles the globe to correct the “negative image” of Washington transmitted by the media. “You all have done a job on us,” Barry told the roomful of reporters, suggesting that they—not the city’s brimming crime rate—were the reason the people he met in Seoul and Beijing “think downtown Washington is like the wild, wild West.”
Another new function for the mayor is international sheriff. While in Seoul, Barry said he uncovered a plot by Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening to get Korean Air Lines to move from Dulles to Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Hizzoner said he foiled Glendening’s plot, which would have funneled Korean tourist dollars to Baltimore instead of D.C.
Unlike Glendening, who reportedly spent $85,000 on his recent trip abroad, Barry boasted that he and his sizable entourage made the trip without spending one dime of D.C. taxpayers’ money. Well, the trip didn’t cost taxpayers anything “technically,” Barry amended. Around $10,000 of his tab was picked up by the D.C. Committee to Promote Washington, which gets its money from the hotel tax imposed by the city.
“But it’s not taxpayer money in the traditional sense of the word,” Hizzoner hedged.
Several times during last week’s news conference, Barry became testy with reporters who wanted to focus on events that occurred while he was junketing abroad. During his well-timed absence, the financial control board fired the school superintendent, stripped the elected school board of its powers, flirted with steps to loosen the mayor’s stranglehold on the upper echelons of the police department, and warned that it was ready to fire Barry’s inspector general, Angela Avant, for poor performance.
Barry argued that the control board was deadset on its school plan and on ignoring his protests—whether they came from 1 Judiciary Square or Tiananmen Square. And he portrayed himself as “glad” he no longer has to deal with budget issues because it frees him up to handle his many other duties, including his mayoral ambassadorship on behalf of the District.
“Now how can I get this in y’all’s heads?” an exasperated Barry asked. “I’m really getting upset here.”
To Barry’s credit, the trip may have netted something city residents crave far more than an elected school board: Roast Duck Chinese restaurants. And locals wouldn’t have to go through mail order to buy Mao caps and the latest in Chinese electronics from branches of China’s Friendship Store, which Barry hopes will open in D.C. He described the store as “on a par, or just below Hecht’s.” District residents will relish this new shopping opportunity, he said, because “we were able to purchase some of these goods ourselves.”
To top it off, Barry expects to bring in new Chinese “Sports Authority”-type outlets so that D.C. parents, including Hizzoner, won’t have to shell out $120 every time their teenagers need a new pair of sneakers.
All in all, Barry described his trip as “more than successful,” and he panned the media for its skepticism. But he’s not about to let the media deter him from his new duties. Don’t be surprised to see Barry at National Airport this weekend greeting visitors with: “Hi, I’m Marion Barry. I’ll be your nation’s capital host this Thanksgiving.”
FOR BRAZIL’S SEAT
When longtime D.C. Council staffer Sharon Ambrose went to Capitol Hill’s Precinct 89 to cast her ballot Nov. 5, she was shocked to spot a Ward 6 voter with a campaign button proclaiming, “Clinton, Gore and Croft.” The button didn’t signal a last-minute addition to the Democrats’ first team, but rather the first volley in the race for Harold Brazil’s Ward 6 council seat. Brazil will vacate the seat in January, when he moves up to the at-large seat he won this fall.
The campaign buttons had been printed by members of the Ward 6 Democrats organization, who are pushing D.C. zoning commissioner Howard Croft to run for the seat. Ambrose needed no pushing—she had disclosed plans to run for Brazil’s seat weeks prior to the election.
Although the special election to fill Brazil’s seat will probably not take place until early May, the race has already attracted four formidable aspirants: Croft, Ambrose, John Capozzi, an impressive contender in this year’s contest for an at-large council seat, and Rob Robinson, Brazil’s current chief of staff.
There will no doubt be others.
Ambrose—a Democrat who supported Clinton and Gore, but not Croft—is hoping to redeem her 17 years of toiling on Ward 6 and citywide issues for votes. One of the most highly regarded council staffers, Ambrose has served for the past five years as legislative director to At-Large Councilmember John Ray. Prior to that, she worked 12 years as chief of staff to At-Large Councilmember Betty Ann Kane.
Croft, chairman of the University of the District of Columbia urban affairs department, is trading on his 30 years as a political activist around Ward 6. A Barry supporter, Croft has been appointed to a number of city posts by the mayor, the most recent being the zoning commission.
Capozzi is expected to try to paint Croft as “a Barry puppet,” which LL finds amusing since Capozzi eagerly sought—and failed to secure—Barry’s endorsement in the just-completed council race. But Croft is the only African-American among the top contenders and will likely focus his campaign on the predominantly black precincts farthest from Capitol Hill and across the Anacostia River. He will be all too happy to let Capozzi and Ambrose slug it out in the white Capitol Hill neighborhood.
“I don’t think that Barry baiting plays in the neighborhoods that I have to win,” Croft said.
Capozzi is banking on his experience as a campaigner. He has run three times citywide—this fall’s at-large council race plus two campaigns for “shadow” statehood lobbyist to the U.S. House of Representatives, an office he now holds—while his three leading rivals are making their first forays into elective politics.
The youthful Capozzi is also hoping to galvanize Ward 6 voters by plugging his key issues—forcing nonprofit foundations in D.C. to pay taxes and blocking construction of the Barney Circle Freeway near RFK Stadium. But Capozzi found out during a seven-hour council hearing on the freeway project Nov. 22 that the issue can cut both ways.
Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Sr., who chaired last week’s hearing, lambasted Capozzi from the podium. “You’re the reason we’re here today,” Thomas told Capozzi during the hearing, and he didn’t mean it as a compliment. Capozzi failed to work with others to fashion a compromise to the thorny issue, according to Thomas.
LL suspects Thomas may be upset with Capozzi for other reasons. Capozzi contributed to the 1994 council campaign of Ron Magnus, one of Thomas’ challengers, and did not back Harry Thomas Jr.’s failed bid last summer for chairmanship of the D.C. Democratic State Committee—a defeat that remains a sore point for the elder Thomas.
Capozzi’s stand against the Barney Circle project has made him a hero among environmental groups and a villain to organized labor. Construction unions badly want the project to create jobs for their members, and Barry is pushing it. But Capozzi says he must first retire $17,000 in debt from this fall’s campaign before he can run again.
Brazil aide Robinson, who worked in the mayor’s office during Barry’s turbulent second and third terms, has run political campaigns before, including Brazil’s just-completed council race. But Robinson has never been out front as a candidate. He is counting on the same deep business pockets that helped propel Brazil to victory this year.
Robinson has signed on downtown restaurateur Paul Cohn as his campaign finance chairman. The well-connected Cohn is a pal of H.H. Leonards, owner of the controversial Dupont Circle bed-and-breakfast, the Mansion, and her well-heeled crowd. He serves as president of the Mansion’s board.
Robinson may be in for a long race if he counts on the Brazil organization in Ward 6 to pull him through. Many Ward 6 voters say Brazil never bothered to build a ward organization, and some key Ward 6 Brazil supporters are already backing other candidates.
One-term Ward 6 school board member Bernard Gray, riding the momentum of his stunning defeat in this month’s elections, is also regarded as a potential contender. But Gray’s candidacy may have been pre-empted by his wife, Carolyn Johns Gray, who says she is going to run for the seat.
A husband-wife clash could add a touch of drama to the contest—not to mention the Grays’ family life.
If you’re wondering where the power in D.C. politics rests these days, just watch how local politicos fall over themselves over the mere rumor that the control board is about to convene an important meeting.
At the council’s Nov. 7 breakfast meeting, At-Large Statehood Party Councilmember Hilda Mason surprised her colleagues by announcing they would meet with the control board the next afternoon. Mason said control board members wanted to discuss their closely guarded plans to fire the school superintendent and appoint a new school chief and board to run the city’s troubled schools.
Later that day, Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans mentioned the upcoming meeting to Mark Plotkin, D.C. political analyst for radio station WAMU.
But Mason had gotten it wrong. The Nov. 8 Friday-afternoon meeting with the council would involve control board staffers only, not members, and the discussion would be limited to school building repairs. The control board would not reveal its plans for the superintendent and the school board for another seven days.
Evans was sitting in his office, reading a memo from Mason correcting her earlier pronouncement, when he heard Plotkin on his weekly Friday noon broadcast wrongly announce that the fate of the school board would be decided at a meeting between the council and the control board that very afternoon. Plotkin lectured school board members to get down to the meeting and protest their exclusion and their imminent loss of power.
Evans groaned, realizing he was Plotkin’s source for the incorrect information. But he decided it was too late to try to correct the error.
Following Plotkin’s cue, school board president Karen Shook immediately gathered up fellow board members Jay Silberman and Erika Landberg and raced to 1 Thomas Circle to kick their way into the meeting. When they arrived at the control board’s headquarters, the school board members joined a growing crowd of protesters and journalists milling around the building’s lobby.
Plotkin soon joined the journalists, who had arrived for a news conference with control board Chairman Andrew Brimmer, and Shook thanked him for tipping her off to the supposed meeting with the council.
Control board Executive Director John Hill said later that because a protest earlier that week had gotten unruly, the building’s security guards shut off the elevators as the crowd grew. Hill said that when he learned the school board members were stranded in the lobby, he had to walk down nine flights of stairs to inform Shook there was no meeting scheduled between the control board and the council.
But Shook, convinced that Hill had ordered the elevators turned off, wasn’t buying his explanation and felt the control board was deliberately trying to exclude elected school board members from the meeting. She and Hill exchanged heated words, and Shook eventually pushed her way into Brimmer’s news conference.
Hill was stunned that Shook “would plan her day of protest” around something she had heard on the radio and wouldn’t even bother to pick up the phone to call the control board and check it out.
LL figures the moral to this tale is: Don’t believe everything you hear on the radio. CP