D.C. councilmembers last week looked like they could use a stiff drink after enduring an unrelenting lobbying blitz to back private club owner H.H. Leonards in her bitter war against Dupont Circle residents. Leonards owns the Mansion, a posh social hall/bed-and-breakfast/antique parlor on O Street NW that regularly hosts parties attended by the rich and famous. Leonards called on her heavy-hitting constituency of partygoers to win a change in the city’s liquor laws, which have barred her from selling liquor at the Mansion, except on special occasions.
Amid cries of betrayal from Dupont Circle residents, the council voted 8 to 4 to let Leonards seek a permanent liquor license. Final approval is expected at the council’s Dec. 3 meeting. The vote sent a simple message: A steady downpour of letters and phone calls from bigwigs can cause a nasty case of amnesia among councilmembers about promises they have made in the past.
Leonards, who knows that marquee names speak louder than principles in D.C. politics, enlisted Jesse Jackson, Clinton confidante Susan Thomases, downtown restaurateur Paul Cohn, and premier D.C. lobbyist David Wilmot, among others, to secure her Nov. 7 council victory. D.C. Public Service Commission Chairwoman Marlene Johnson, former head of the city’s liquor licensing board, worked behind the scenes to negotiate away community opposition, to no avail.
Cohn serves as president of the Mansion’s board, which also includes Thomases and Bill Jarvis, son of Ward 4 Councilmember Charlene Drew Jarvis.
In addition, officials from Bell Atlantic, Geico, and numerous other corporations clogged District Building fax machines with letters imploring councilmembers to “Save the Mansion” by letting the liquor flow. And Leonards loaded down each councilmember with four volumes of letters and documents to demonstrate that her detractorswith their complaints of noise and parking problems stemming from the Mansionare nothing more than a rabble-rousing minority.
During the vote, Leonards’ backers, wearing “Save the Mansion” buttons, arrayed themselves conspicuously in the council chamber. Some people might find such a show of force over the free and unfettered access to club cocktails unseemly, but Leonards has apparently won a place in the hearts and on the social calendars of D.C. glitterati. Who says Washington doesn’t know how to party?
In a week when councilmembers tackled contentious government procurement reforms, legislation to re-establish the D.C. lottery board in defiance of a control board mandate, and design work for the new convention center, Leonards’ party club caused the most political discomfort.
And the vote on the Mansionwhich caters to hordes of deep-pocketed campaign donorsmarked the symbolic beginning of the fund-raising scramble of the 1998 mayoral race.
According to Dupont Circle activist Marilyn Groves, Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans promised to stay neutral in the community’s fight with Leonards at a campaign event she hosted two days before the Sept. 10 Democratic primary. But two days after Evans coasted to re-election to a second term last week, he voted for the bill, which clears away current obstacles to Leonards’ long-sought liquor license.
Currently, Leonards may only obtain one-day liquor licenses for parties at the Mansion because the city’s liquor laws deny permanent licenses to clubs operating in residential neighborhoods. But the bill tentatively approved by the council Nov. 7 would create an exemption for nonprofit clubs like the Mansion. However, Evans admits, Leonards seems to be the only club owner clamoring for an exemption.
Groves, who heads the Dupont Circle Citizens Association, argues that it’s bad public policy to legislatively dote on a single person, especially when the change could propagate private clubs in neighborhoods all across the city. Given the history of liquor purveyors in the city, it’s a safe bet they will wiggle to occupy any available space, but the council has made no attempt to determine whether the law would benefit anyone other than Leonards. At least 29 nonprofit clubs located in residential areas currently operate without liquor licenses of any kind, according to Leonards.
The bill could benefit its sponsor, Ward 6 Councilmember Harold Brazil, who is trying to cement his ties to the city’s movers and shakers for a possible run for mayor in two years. Brazil seems to be wooing campaign donors, including the Leonards bunch, in Evans’ rich ward.
With the election still two years off, Evans makes no effort to hide his mayoral ambitions. A few days before last week’s election, he took some 50 of his top campaign contributors to lunch at Red Sage. Some of his moneymen are also members and backers of Leonards’ club.
But Evans claims he didn’t put off his decision on Brazil’s bill until after the election to dodge opponents of the Mansion in his ward. Nor was he swayed by face-to-face lobbying from Thomases during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August, he adds. Finally, he says he is not trying to deny Brazil a fund-raising edge.
“I have been trying to get the community and [Leonards] to sit down together and work something out,” Evans said just prior to the vote. “And [her opponents] didn’t.”
“Somebody had to step in and say we’re going to reach a balance between the neighbors, who want her to move, and H.H. Leonards, who wants a liquor license,” he continued. “From my perspective, this thing has to be brought to a conclusion.”
“Neither side could do it, and I’m the person who did it,” Evans added.
His solution limits Leonards to serving liquor only four days a week.
But the multidirectional finger-pointing attests to the political sensitivity of Leonards’ establishment. Opponents claim that At-Large Councilmember John Ray, champion of liquor law reforms during his 1994 mayoral race, reneged on a promise to kill the legislation in his council committee.
“We have been badly dealt with by our councilmembers,” says Groves.
In turn, Ray, Evans, and other councilmembers are laying the blame on former Ward 3 Councilmember Jim Nathanson, who they say acted out of self-interest when he proposed the ban on liquor licenses for clubs in residential areas because his mother-in-law lived around the corner from the Mansion.
“That’s a damn lie,” responds Nathanson. “My mother-in-law had ample parking in the back, and [the Mansion] was never a problem for her.”
Besides, Nathanson points out, the Mansion was “grandfathered in” because Leonards had already applied for a liquor license. The license was granted but later yanked as a result of court appeals filed by Dupont Circle opponents.
“Ray and Brazil and Evans are trying to hide the fact that they’re out there doing a favor for a particular person,” Nathanson said. “What they’re saying about me and my mother-in-law is a bunch of bullshit.”
Although Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson initially opposed the Brazil bill, she switched positions after a Leonards supporter told her Nathanson’s legislation had unfairly blocked the club from acquiring a liquor license. According to Nathanson, Patterson based her vote on faulty information.
At-Large Statehood Party Councilmember Hilda Mason switched sides at the last minute after being handed a letter from Jackson urging her to support the Mansion. Council Chairman Dave Clarke and At-Large Councilmember Linda Cropp also voted for the bill.
Independent At-Large Councilmember Bill Lightfoot, another 1998 mayoral contender, opposed the bill, arguing that it opens the door to anyone seeking a liquor license in a residential neighborhood. Ward 1 Councilmember Frank Smith, Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous, and Ward 8 Councilmember Eydie Whittington joined Lightfoot in opposition.
The council’s action gives Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. a political opening to veto the bill and paint rivals Brazil and Evans as anti-neighborhood. But the bill’s opponents fear that Barry too will fall prey to Leonards’ lobbying campaign.
Footnote: Leonards, who refuses to be photographed but has a large painted portrait of herself hanging in the Mansion’s entrance, may soon have another battle to wage with the city. The Department of Finance and Revenue is reviewing the homestead exemptions she claims on the Mansion, which occupies both 2018 and 2020 O St. NW. According to a DFR source, property taxes on her business are currently assessed at the lowest rate for residential use. If the city decides to reassess her at the higher commercial rate, her taxes could increase nearly threefold. And depending on how far back city officials want to go in reassessing her properties, Leonards may have to lobby some of her rich friends to pay her back taxes.