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Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr., in the midst of his umpteenth attempt to jump-start his sputtering administration, has a new strategy for the second half of his term: Take credit for everything that goes right in D.C., even if it’s the work of foes or Mother Nature.
“Welcome everyone. Isn’t it a lovely day? And I’m going to take credit for the sunshine today,” Barry announced beneath bright sunshine last Sunday morning on the Ellipse, at the start of the annual AIDS Walk. “When it snowed, everyone blamed me for that. So I might as well take credit for the sun.”
An administration source says this new strategy also applies to Barry’s tense relationship with Chief Financial Officer Anthony Williams, whom the mayor has variously tried to undermine and circumvent during Williams’ first year on the job. Now Barry is switching tactics to give Williams a freer hand in running the numerous city agencies that Congress has placed under his control. For instance, Barry has given up trying to maintain his grip on the D.C. lottery board and is now willing to let Williams take control.
When Williams succeeds, Barry will be the first to take credit and claim, “I hired him. He works for me.”
Some on Capitol Hill might want to dispute that claim.
Of course, if Williams should stumble, Barry will be the first in line to jump on the CFO.
Barry sounds like a mayor jockeying for pole position to run for re-election in two years. Keep in mind that Hizzoner is always at his best just after a defeatlike the drubbing he took in the Sept. 10 Democratic primary. In that election, voters flocked to candidates Barry openly opposed: Ward 6 Councilmember Harold Brazil in the at-large council race and challenger Sandy Allen in Barry’s Ward 8 homeland.
But don’t place your bet on Barry’s re-election just yet, because he’s apt to stumble a few more times between now and Election Day.
“He’s so unpredictable,” observed a D.C. Council member. “One day, he’s the Macho Mayor, the next he’s heading off to a drug clinic. With Barry, you just never know what to expect.”
After last month’s electoral defeat, Barry licked his wounds for a few days, went on an “advance””This mayor never retreats”to the Coolfont resort in West Virginia with nearly three score of his top staffers, and returned to D.C. upbeat and in fighting form. Now he’s rushing around the District turning on that famed magnetism to disarm his critics.
Thus, it was not surprising to see Barry standing onstage in the ballroom of the Washington Court Hotel Oct. 3 for the Democratic “Unity Celebration,” which was organized by nemesis Brazil, whose victory Barry had tried to head off in the at-large primary. Barry even shared the stage with Allen, even though he campaigned on behalf of Allen’s rival, Ward 8 Councilmember Eydie Whittington, in the September race and in the 1995 Ward 8 special council election.
Barry pledged at the Unity Celebration to vote for both Brazil and Allen in the Nov. 5 general election.
The stage was adorned with the few winners and numerous also-rans from the primary looking ready to do a remake of “We Are the World.”
(Allen, perhaps the most sonorous crooner to hit D.C. politics since former D.C. congressional Delegate Walter Fauntroy last belted out “The Impossible Dream” six years ago, did some singing at the piano bar in the lobby later that evening. But she was mostly solo.)
Barry’s endorsement of Brazil doesn’t mean Hizzoner is about to step back and let the Ward 6 councilmember take the spotlight for the 1998 mayoral race. After failing to kill Brazil’s mayoral ambitions in last month’s primary, which was considered a warmup for ’98, Barry last week bragged to reporters that he could easily dispatch him two years hence.
Sounding more like an incumbent running for re-election with each passing day, Barry has already come up with a slogan to use against Brazil, which the mayor has been trying out on friends and colleagues:
“Do you want another Pepco executive as your mayor?”
The slam is meant to invoke comparisons to former Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, the first Pepco exec to hold the city’s top office. But Kelly’s skills in plugging cogeneration and rate hikes didn’t prepare her well for her duties at 1 Judiciary Square, where her political naiveté paved the way for a disastrous term and for Barry’s return after his six-month prison sabbatical. Brazil, a lawyer, also worked for Pepco prior to winning the Ward 6 council seat in 1990.
Barry’s well-publicized break last week with organized labor, a longtime ally, over contract negotiations for city employees, has also helped him reinvent himself as a leader poised to safeguard the city’s depleted coffers. And he shoved labor even further from his inner circle by endorsing Brazil last week. After watching the September campaign results, Hizzoner has obviously concluded that labor is dispensable as an electoral ally, at least for now.
Labor leaders have apparently decided that they want to take more of a bruising in the November elections than in the September primaries. Even though labor-endorsed candidates suffered lopsided defeats in the primaries, labor leaders, who despise Brazil more than Barry does, are turning to independent council contender James Baxter in November’s at-large election. Baxter, vice president of the local teachers’ union, is still groping for long-shot status.
While Barry these days appears rested and ready for battles to come, D.C. Council Chairman Dave Clarke is looking more and more like a candidate for the Hilda Mason Home for Feeble Councilmembers Who Don’t Know When to Hang It Up.
Clarke’s every appearance in public, such as his attendance at last week’s annual dinner of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, sparks speculation over just what is ailing the chairman. He hobbled into the dinner, his gait hindered by back problems, and sat at a table for much of the evening wearing a glazed look and an imbecilic half-smile.
The sight of the chairman these days is enough to stop traffic on the 14th Street Bridge.
Previously, Clarke said he suffered from chronic back pain, and at a congressional hearing last summer, he pulled out a handful of his prescription drugs, apparently to prove he was on painkillers and nothing else. But last week, the chairman’s office issued a news release explaining that Clarke suffers from “hypothyroidism,” a condition that leaves him “continually worn out” because his thyroid no longer produces enough thyroxin to sustain his normal energy level.
Clarke said he has been experiencing this condition since the beginning of the year, and that’s why he suffers hearing losses, loses his equilibrium, and sometimes sounds like a recording stuck on half speed.
“I could not ride my bike due to my balance being off,” he stated last week. “People were thinking that I was drunk, the way I was walking and talking, when what I really was showing were signs of my illness.”
Not everyone is buying his new diagnosis.
“I think he’s had a stroke, I really do,” said a council colleague.
Clarke spokesman Bob Haney reacts angrily to such armchair diagnoses.
“That’s insane!” Haney barked. “What did we do, wrap him up in a blanket and check him into a hospital as Joe Doaks? That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard. He has what he said he has.”
Whatever the cause of Clarke’s ailments, D.C. residents can’t feel too confident right now about the two men at the helm.
But then, that’s what the control board is forto take command of the D.C. Titanic before it hits the iceberg.
Speaking of Chairman Clarke, he raised some eyebrows when he urged the newly created D.C. Tax Revision Commission at its Sept. 25 meeting to study whether merging the District with Maryland would help the city financially.
Haney said the chairman had advocated such a study previously on his weekly WPFW radio program, but that was news to many in the room.
Larry Mirel, head of the Committee for the Capital City, which lobbies for “retrocession” to Maryland, said Clarke had expressed his support for a study in private meetings with the group. But Mirel was unaware of any public call by the chairman for the study.
“He’s serious about it,” Mirel said this week. “Thoughtful people are driven to that conclusion.”
Mirel’s group has been trying to raise money privately since the beginning of the year to finance “an objective study” on retrocession.
“I’d love to see the Tax Revision Commission do it,” he said. “I just don’t think they’re going to get to that for a while.”
At the moment, the commission, which held its first meeting in August, doesn’t know if it will be around much longer.
The D.C. Council voted last spring to spend $250,000 on making the city’s voluminous, cumbersome tax codes fairer and easier to understand. But that money had dwindled to $118,000 by the time the 18-member commission got appointed in midsummer.
“It just kind of disappeared,” said commission Chairman Bob Ebel, a nationally known expert in revising state tax codes.
Although the commission is working on a shoestring budget, its nonpaid members voted on Sept. 25 to pay Executive Director Phil Dearborn, formerly of the Greater Washington Research Center, $100,000 in annual salary. Dearborn’s pay, originally set at $105,000, was reduced after commission member Marie Drissel objected to paying such a high salary, especially for a job that had not been advertised publicly.
There is no money in the city’s budget for the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, to finance the commission’s work.
“Obviously, if we don’t get full funding, we’re out of the picture in a couple of months,” Ebel admits. “I think we’re going to get full funding, though. Tony Williams is committed to helping us find the money.”
Commission members, appointed by the mayor and the council, include former Barry deputy mayor Robert Pohlman, and Carolyn Smith of Coopers and Lybrand, which drew heat from Congress last year for failing to sound the alarm about city finances during the Kelly administration, when D.C. was sinking financially.
Republican at-large council candidate Carol Schwartz is so anxious to find D.C. voters that she turned up last week at the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club’s annual banquet. Schwartz, although a member of the opposition party, has a strong following among the club’s gay and lesbian Democratic voters.
Still, she looked out of place among all those die-hard Democrats. “Anywhere I show up in this town, I’m among Democrats,” she said. And after all, she was invited…
Campaign forums, plentiful during the Democratic primary season, have been scarce since the Sept. 10 primary. The only forum LL could discover last week was sponsored by Bell Atlantic, but only its employees were allowed to attend.
D.C. voters don’t seem to care about the Republican, independent, and Statehood candidates challenging Democrats on the November ballot. Or maybe they just don’t think the council matters anymore…
The deadline set by the control board to decide the fate of school Superintendent Franklin Smith has passed with no decision in sight. Control board Chairman Andrew Brimmer said at the end of August, when Smith’s head seemed to be on the chopping block, that the board would decide within a month whether Smith should stay or go.
But Smith’s job seems safe for at least a while longer. Apparently the board hasn’t been able to find a suitable replacement for the beleaguered superintendent…
Meanwhile, city officials are getting conflicting signals over who is in charge of selling off vacant school buildings. Williams just hired a staff member to administer the project, but Congress two weeks ago entrusted the control board with selling off 22 empty schools.
The city’s new quarterbacks can’t seem to get their signals straight…
The control board, however, did change its mind on hiring 316 new kindergarten classroom aides for the current school year. The council put money in the budget for these hirings, but the control board last summer gave the superintendent the option of using the money elsewhere. The board relented last week, after numerous protests by council members, teachers, and parents, and restored the council’s mandate ordering the superintendent to hire the aides. CP
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