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The Federal City Council Puts the Touch on Tom Foley to Retool the Charter

A 30-year Democratic congressional war horse like Thomas S. Foley pretty much has his pick of honorifics inside the Beltway, and he’s picked up some doozies, including “foreign intelligence adviser to the president.” But in the two years since being unceremoniously dumped from power by Newt Gingrich’s Republican palace revolt, Foley, the former House speaker, has taken on another cause that few congressional emeriti deign to touch: the decaying District.

Instead of splitting his time between the two Washingtons, Foley, a native of Spokane, has taken to his adopted Washington, living with wife Heather in their new house in Southeast. In September 1995, Foley became president of the Federal City Council (FCC), the most powerful—and one of the most secretive—organizations in District politics. FCC is the municipal equivalent of the Trilateral Commission, a cabal of moneyed business types who run part of your life whether you know it or not. And FCC’s stature has been significantly enhanced by Foley, who may be washed up in some circles but has the kind of reputation and juice the District has been sorely lacking in its relations with the Hill.

FCC reportedly sought out Foley for the demanding volunteer position for just that reason. “He’s a very successful and well-loved politician who knows how to get things done,” says FCC Executive Vice President Ken Sparks.

From his perch in FCC’s leather chair, Foley recently called for rebooting the home rule charter, the 1974 document that by most accounts has saddled the city with an unworkable relationship with Congress. In an interview in his spacious corner office in the prestigious international law firm of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, Foley notes, “A better-designed home rule charter might have been undertaken.”

It sounds like spineless claptrap from a lifelong politician, but there’s evidence that FCC is already marching on a rescripting effort. At Foley’s urging, FCC is establishing a charter review commission to study home rule over the next six months. Partners in the study include the D.C. Agenda Project, a private-sector effort to restructure the District, the Georgetown Policy Center, and other local universities. Ultimately, congressional action and a local referendum will be required to move whatever proposal emerges from the commission, FCC staffers say.

“He’s part of the leadership that got us home rule, and for him to say it’s not perfect means something,” says At-Large D.C. Councilmember Linda Cropp. “His voice is a very credible voice.” For the most part, District politicians from Mayor Marion Barry—whom the FCC frequently wines and dines—on down are tripping over themselves to let Foley off the hook for any part he played in creating a sinkhole for D.C. “He had other things on his plate that overshadowed the District,” Cropp says. “The fact that he’s involved now shows he still cares.”

Howard Gillette, an expert on District affairs at George Washington University, says Foley fills a huge vacuum. “Someone has to broker Congress from the city’s point of view,” he says. Foley also knows a lot of people in D.C. and the White House, including Carol Thompson Cole, Clinton’s adviser on the District, and Frank Raines, director of the Office of Management and Budget, observers point out.

If there are any gaps in Foley’s D.C. Rolodex, he’ll fill them quickly at FCC, which is comprised of about 150 of the city’s leading lawyers, media magnates, restaurateurs, and entrepreneurs. Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham, PEPCO Chairman Edward F. Mitchell, area university presidents, and sundry politicos fill out the rolls. Established more than 30 years ago by Post publisher Phil Graham—reputedly as a counterweight to the insular and reactionary Board of Trade—FCC has pushed for a host of successful development projects, including Metrorail, construction of low-income housing after the 1968 riots, the renovation of Union Station, and the MCI Arena. Not bad for a bunch of rich white guys.

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Foley’s enthusiastic supporters on FCC are careful not to pump up Foley’s new and dynamic ideas for saving the District. That’s because he doesn’t offer any. In fact, Foley’s pronouncements on the city sound as if they were lifted from the platform of a two-bit D.C. Statehood Party candidate. “The federal government and the District have a relationship that hasn’t been successful from the District’s perspective,” says Foley, noting that the home rule charter was developed and approved in haste. The words fall modestly and thoughtfully from his mouth. “Congress has a responsibility to give the District a broader and more secure tax base,” he says, articulating another pillar of D.C.’s age-old conventional wisdom. And Foley sounds like a grandfatherly Sharon Pratt Kelly when he notes that the District’s desperate straits owe a lot to its underfunded pension plan and its management of a prison and mental health care system.

In keeping with the clubhouse culture of FCC, however, Foley gave few specifics on exactly what the group has in mind. According to Sparks, FCC’s job is “to enhance the nation’s capital in any way we can.” For now, enhancement means pushing downtown revitalization and establishing a reliable revenue base for Metro. Foley did say the District has many “opportunities in high-tech areas,” and FCC hopes “to pay continuing attention to the education system.” Foley and FCC are particularly focused on charter schools.

At a well-attended forum early this month, FCC gathered administrators, teachers, and parents at the downtown Sumner School to discuss extending the reach of charter schools in the flailing D.C. public-school system. Already, more than 200 charter schools have cropped up nationwide, five of them in D.C. “We’d like to see this take hold, people take hold of the opportunities,” says Ken Campbell, director of the D.C. Committee on Public Education (COPE), an offshoot of FCC founded in the late 1980s.

Mike Peabody, a board member of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools (FOCUS), which co-sponsored the forum, says the group hopes to have 10 to 20 charter schools up and running by next fall. “It’s legally possible, but we don’t know if it’s physically possible,” Peabody says.

Still, critics worry that charter schools will leach the best students, teachers, and resources from an already crumbling system. And others question whether FCC—a bunch of old business guys who claim to speak for the city—could possibly know what’s best for District schools.

Ironically, FCC is now overwhelmed by many of the problems it was set up to prevent. Along with promoting home rule and development, the need to stanch the flight of middle-class residents from the city inspired the FCC’s founding. “There was a great hope this would make a difference,” Gillette says. “The current situation is worse than anything they ever conceived of.”

Foley insists that the city’s malaise goes far beyond gloomy budget numbers and demographic tallies. The District, Foley says, suffers from low civic morale—a condition he’s anxious to cure. “After the election, I had a renewed interest on my part to work to solve the District’s problems,” he says.

But others doubt the sincerity of Foley’s interest in the District. “The guy comes from the wrong Washington. If he wants to head a city business council, why not one in Seattle?” says D.C. activist Sam Smith. “Washington has a long history of decisions being made for it by people who don’t have its best interests at heart,” Smith says, fingering FCC as an unelected elite that looks after its own interests first and foremost.

Like an abrupt kiss goodnight, House Speaker Thomas S. Foley banged the gavel to close the 103rd Congress and his congressional reign on Nov. 29, 1994. His stint as the country’s No. 3 in the chain of command was full of conflict. He assumed the post in June 1989 from Jim Wright and inherited the House’s banking and post office scandals.

Though credited for his efforts to boost the power of the speakership and for several Democratic legislative victories, Foley as speaker was criticized from both sides of the aisle for a lack of forcefulness and for putting competency before ideology, the institutional process before partisanship. Even the pundits wondered what he was for.

“Developing collegiality among members and a constructive relationship with the administration were very important,” Foley says, adding that both are chimeras in today’s politics of hostility. “Partisan politics are far different than a constant confrontation between the president and parties,” says Foley, who recently lambasted the current congressional leadership on a C-SPAN panel.

Foley is no less restrained in panning Congress for its treatment of the District. “Both parties have some responsibility for this,” he says. “They criticize and demonize Washington and its Beltway attitudes as if they are not a part of that.” Foley includes plain old D.C. residents as part of the problem. “People who live in the city increasingly speak ill of it, of its prospects, and of the D.C. government,” he says.

Sitting in his office, Foley projects the same air of confidence and attentiveness that he radiated as he sat just behind President George Bush during his 1991 State of the Union address. Foley left his mark on Congress, but his famously cautious style might not work as well in a city where empty rhetoric passes for process. Then again, the District power brokers could learn a lot from Foley by putting aside political loyalties and settling on a process—any process—for revival.

Foley, now 67, has little hankering to return to Congress, even though his ouster occurred in a stormy political season and by the narrowest of votes. “Been there, done that,” he says. Though most FCC presidents stay in office for four or five years, Foley is openly politicking for a diplomatic assignment, which would take him worlds away from the District. Whether Foley’s interest in the District stems from altruism, guilt, or the need for a political hobby, he’d surely drop all the meetings with Dave Clarke and Abe Pollin to take an ambassadorial oath. After all, how can D.C. compete with London, Paris, Brussels, or Port-au-Prince?—Julie Wakefield