City Paper is not for tourists
Parachute, if you will, into the 5200 block of Georgia Avenue NW. Bill Clinton did, four years ago next month. I did two weeks ago.
The shops he visited still survive on the eastern side of the tidy but struggling street—Webbs Used Auto Parts, the liquor store next door, the beauty salon, the Chinese carryout, and then Tynisha’s.
Owner Tom Caviness is still at Tynisha’s, standing in the doorway today just as he did Nov. 18, 1992. On that day, Caviness greeted a Bill Clinton so flush with the giant expectations of his new presidency that the world descended on the battered little store.
“After he walked through here, I was on TV about 15 times, and I was interviewed, I think, 58 times by newspapers and others, from Japan, New York, a lot of those,” says Caviness, who at 73 still wears his hair in a ’30s-style conk, and who spent a first career in the federal government.
Caviness remembers Clinton’s visit with both pride and disappointment—like remembering the time you got tickets to the Super Bowl, only to see your team lose. His shop—whose sparsely stocked shelves and vegetable stand outside render the moniker “convenience store” unsuitable—does about as well today as four years ago. Or 15 years ago, for that matter, when the “Art and Gift Shoppe” started selling sodas and soups instead. (“I found out that people had to eat,” Caviness says.)
“When Clinton was up here, Clinton was selling Clinton,” he says, folding his arms across a gray wool cardigan. “Not bettering the neighborhood….There was no change in this neighborhood. As a matter of fact, things are probably worse in terms of crime.”
But as Caviness speaks more, he softens. The arms come down to his sides. He recalls the conversation he had with Clinton, who—for security reasons, Caviness guesses—didn’t actually enter the store. “I said, ‘Just be the best president you can be,’” Caviness recalls.
“I’ve got some stuff saved in the back,” he adds. “Do you have time?”
We move past 2-liter bottles of Rock Creek pop, which are on never-ending sale for 99 cents, and into a back room with an oven and a sink and the treasure and flotsam of nearly 60 years in Washington. The room reeks of the Chinese food shoveled next door. Caviness reaches for a frayed manila envelope and begins disgorging mementos—glossy photos of the mad crowd surrounding Clinton at Tynisha’s, news stories about the visit, and a little symbol of the hope Clinton brought: “To Tom,” the autograph message reads. “Best wishes. Bill Clinton.”
Caviness says he was realistic about Clinton’s visit even back on that day when the president-elect shook his hand. But he also hoped things might improve on Georgia Avenue. Clinton just seemed so smart, so eager, so ready to help.
“I expect to be back out in the city quite a lot,” Clinton said after the Georgia Avenue walk, according to the Washington Post. Dee Dee Myers, then his press secretary, said: “He’d much rather be out on the street talking to people than some of the places he’ll have to be as president.”
But Clinton seems to have forgotten the expectations he built on that trip, both for Georgia Avenue and the city at large. We were there at the beginning, but his presidential voyage left without us. And the Georgia Avenue walk seems like much more than four years ago.
Remember those heady days at the beginning of the Clinton administration? The days when inaugural events were so jam-packed that D.C. fire officials had to turn people away—some of whom had paid hundreds of dollars for their tickets? The days when 800,000 people came to the inauguration, breaking Metro ridership records and topping Ronald Reagan’s 1981 attendance by 300,000? Remember Dee Dee Myers?
It seemed that Clinton wanted to use some of that initial burst of energy to revitalize the District. As a candidate, he had passionately testified before Congress on the “simple and clear” arguments for statehood. “I would be in a state of permanent outrage,” the Arkansas governor had said in that testimony, in 1991, “if I thought that I represented people who could be sent to fight and die for this country who had
no full citizenship
for reasons that
were arcane, and when there was
a legislative, not
a constitutional, solution.”
By the time Clinton took office, District residents and leaders widely shared a belief that, at last, he and the then-Democratic Congress would make the District a different place. Free of spiteful White House Republicans, the city would heal its economic troubles and finally become the state of New Columbia. It would become a jurisdiction with power (like the power to tax all its workers, for example), not a stepchild burdened by its sapping division among federal, local, and foreign governments. It would become a place people stopped joking about.
Four years later, things are different in the District. They’re worse. Clinton and the federal government, of course, aren’t to blame for the fiscal and management mess created by Marion Barry and other ineffectual and even criminal city leaders. But Clinton has decidedly not been “back out in the city quite a lot,” and his administration has earned criticism in all wards and across the political spectrum. Even Donna Brazile, the person running Clinton’s re-election campaign here, says, “It has been a tough battle to fight within the Clinton administration” to win attention for the city.
Though some high-level administration officials care deeply about the District, the president’s feelings are clearly irrelevant to his handling of the city: If he does care about D.C., he allows a host of political considerations to interfere.
The president seems content to let Republicans drive the District’s agenda, leaving them to explain why things never seem to improve here. Over the past four years, Clinton has demonstrated that he will not spend an ounce of political capital in the city’s defense.
Just two weeks ago, to take a recent example, the administration flip-flopped on granting the District a waiver of the new, harsh welfare law. Congressional Republicans had charged that the waiver—granted just before the law took effect—demonstrated that Clinton wasn’t serious about welfare reform. Within days, the Clinton administration rescinded the waiver, citing errors in the paperwork.
With that, Clinton tossed the worn District football back to the Republicans. Clinton welfare officials protest that the paperwork snafus are real and significant, and maybe they are. But after four years of almost zero visibility and little leadership from the White House on the capital’s problems, we can’t help but wonder.
Clinton and his officials have said, or at least implied, that they don’t want to become entangled in District affairs for fear of trampling on home rule. But that very real concern shouldn’t excuse inattention to the unique relationship between the local and federal governments here—especially when the structure of home rule has proved so weak and ineffective.
The District still faces a multibillion-dollar bill for pensions it can’t afford—pensions formerly controlled by the feds. Statehood is now a remote fantasy. And the president has squandered his unique ability to focus attention on any problem—and particularly the problems of his new hometown. Just as he did one day on Georgia Avenue.
In short, the president-elect in Tom Caviness’ pictures looks like a stranger, the D.C. of his rhetoric a half-remembered dream. As I leave Tynisha’s, I meet one of Caviness’ neighbors, a program manager at the Peoples Involvement Corp., a neighborhood development group down the street. Nonchalantly munching potato chips, Mary Akinkoye waves her hand along Georgia: “In terms of tangible benefits, I can’t see anything here because of Clinton,” she says. “Well, there is that.” She points to a green street sign that reads, “Historic Georgia Avenue. Welcome!”
In the office of Carol Thompson Cole, the White House liaison to D.C., are three huge, framed photos: a portrait of President Clinton, a picture of a White House meeting with D.C. community leaders in May, and a shot of a flannel-clad Clinton preparing food at a local soup kitchen on Thanksgiving. What’s missing is a picture of Clinton delivering a major speech on the District, which he has never done.
The real power of the presidency lies in the president’s ability to use the bully pulpit persuasively, drawing the attention of his aides, the bureaucracy, the media, Congress, and nongovernmental think tanks and foundations that want to be players. But aside from a few Barbara Bush–style events—the Thanksgiving outing, which is yearly, and church attendance here, for instance—Clinton hasn’t shown his face much.
“He has treated D.C. as sort of like a FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] operation,” says radio commentator and local activist Mark Plotkin. “What bothers me most of all is—and he [would be] very good at it—is he’s never spoken to D.C. about D.C. in D.C….In terms of speaking to our aspirations and our dreams and our unequal status, he just won’t.”
Of course, the Constitution explicitly gives Congress the responsibility for the “Seat of the Government,” as it says in Article I. But no one forced candidate Clinton in 1991 and 1992 to embrace the District and use it to shore up relations with civil rights leaders such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was then involved in the statehood movement. (Remember Jesse Jackson?) Clinton also seemed to recognize that only a strong White House commitment could help overcome the city’s chronic weaknesses: no vote in Congress, no ability to tax suburbanites, and idiotic local leadership.
“He was really our candidate, more than anyone else in the race,” says D.C. Councilmember Jack Evans (D-Ward 2). Evans recalls that candidate Clinton went to the District Building to delight councilmembers. Later, the Clinton people phoned Evans one night at 2 a.m. and invited him to go running with the president-elect the next morning. Evans was one of the first people in the Washington area to do so.
Long before Clinton went running with Evans, he came to know the city during his four years as a Hoya. According to David Maraniss’ 1995 biography, First in His Class, Clinton came to Georgetown in 1964 to be close to Washington’s political scene. And though college politics and a job on Capitol Hill consumed much of his time, Clinton was in D.C. during the 1968 riots.
The National Guard protected the university, but Clinton, along with other students, helped deliver Red Cross supplies to the city’s riot-torn sections. With a friend, Clinton even drove his white Buick into the pummeled 14th Street NW corridor for a better look—and ended up running back to his car when six men started walking toward them. Clinton told his friend that they would never forget what they had seen, according to the book.
And it seemed in 1992 that he hadn’t forgotten the city. In vaulted Clintonian rhetoric, candidate Clinton said, “I know statehood matters because I have lived here, and I have seen firsthand how the residents of the District share the same concerns, fears, and hopes as Americans everywhere else.” During one campaign stop, he told Plotkin that D.C. residents were like Eastern Europeans struggling for democracy. He predicted statehood would pass “in the first term.”
After the election came the Georgia Avenue walk and then, the next morning, a famous stop at McDonald’s while out for a jog. There he spoke about local issues with three homeless people (who complained that they met with the president but couldn’t get in to see then-Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly). The Washington Post was moved to publish several glowing stories on Clinton’s “departure from the way most modern-day presidents have approached the city,” as one reporter wrote. Clinton’s aides fed the paper quotes about the president’s desire to stay close to regular D.C. folks.
With expectations raised so high, perhaps Clinton was doomed to disappoint the city. And in fact, he disappointed even close supporters. Although he was a delegate at this summer’s Democratic convention and still calls himself a Clinton backer, Evans now believes “the president has been noticeably absent from any involvement in District affairs.” The man who once ran with Clinton now says, “I was invited to the White House as many times when Bill Clinton was president as George Bush—zero.”
Few people who work for the District—either in the mayor’s office, the council, even the federally created control board—disagree. Late last spring, for instance, control board Vice Chairman Stephen Harlan—a Clinton appointee, no less—privately told a breakfast gathering at the tony City Club of Washington that the administration hadn’t done enough. Sources say Harlan criticized the administration’s failure to help the city on two important fronts: the $5-billion unfunded pension liability and the crushing growth in Medicaid, the federal health care program for the poor.
Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), another Clinton supporter, says the trouble is not administration assistance on small matters but rather on the broader issues facing the city. “I have not found resistance when I call and ask for something,” she says. “But what I haven’t found and what is needed is a systematic, full-court approach to helping the District. I fault [Clinton] for that.”
Outside the government, you hear the same judgments. Roger Wilkins, now 64 and a political scientist at George Mason University, was Lyndon Johnson’s first choice for appointed mayor in 1967 (he turned it down). Since then, Wilkins has remained an authority on the city; his name was floated several times for a possible control board membership. “You can make a list of all kinds of itty-bitty things” that the Clinton administration has done, says Wilkins. “The issue is, as somebody who lives on 4th Street in Southwest Washington and pays taxes here, do I feel any lift from the White House? And the answer is, hell no.”
A high-level Barry administration official manages to be even more frank: “[The Clinton administration] ain’t done diddly-shit, and anyone will tell you that.”
“If you ask me what appears to be the strategy of the administration, it would appear to be not being photographed with Mayor Barry,” says Wilkins.
Nearly every non–White House source interviewed for this article agrees: Marion Barry is a lightning rod. Because Barry’s character is constantly under attack, the president wants no association with the convicted drug user. And everyone seems to agree on a basic symbol of the president’s reluctance: no photos with the mayor.
Norton says she has seen the president greet the mayor warmly and stand next to him in photographs (the White House says the two have been photographed on at least three occasions in the nearly two years since Barry was elected to his current term as mayor). But Norton says a deeper problem for Clinton may be that certain White House advisers—she has heard George Stephanopoulos’ name mentioned—think the District is “some kind of pariah” to most Americans, who believe that “the District seemed to be in so much trouble and couldn’t pull itself out if it.”
Whatever the case, for a president who wants to underline his moderate credentials, keep his distance from liberals, and spotlight his administration’s streamlined approach to governance, the District has all the wrong characteristics. A subtext here, of course, is race: In some quarters, Clinton’s close affiliation with a black-run city might become symbolic of the leftism supposedly lying hidden in his heart.
Clinton has also been inactive regarding the city because he can be. With only three electoral votes—and the most one-sided, empty party system in the nation—the District has no leverage in a presidential election. Urban concerns in general aren’t at the top of Clinton’s agenda, largely because the swing votes are in the suburbs. “Clinton is first and foremost a political animal, and there is not much political mileage in it for him to invest many political resources in the District,” says American University professor Jamin Raskin.
Even the staunchest D.C. boosters acknowledge these political realities. “I think the combination of Barry and [Washington’s] being too urban and too Democratic and too liberal means we’re just being taken for granted,” says Plotkin.
Clinton has benefited from staying on the sidelines while the Republican congressional majority has struggled to get its arms around the District. “I think the administration has been delighted that [Republicans such as House Speaker] Newt Gingrich and [Virginia Rep.] Tom Davis and [New York Rep. James] Walsh have all decided that the District is their tar baby,” Wilkins says.
James Gibson, project director for D.C. Agenda, a corporate-funded civic organization, agrees: “I can understand there are problems relating to the present local government.” Gibson was part of the group of community leaders who met with the president in May. He says he wishes the president had a more public role in the city’s affairs, but he hints sympathetically that both Barry and Kelly weren’t viable leaders. For her part, Kelly was already growing unpopular with voters by the time Clinton took office. “When he came in, this town was losing confidence in the local administration….What was there for the president to invest in?” Gibson asks.
Of course, there is a Clinton side to this story. In fact there are, not surprisingly, multiple Clinton sides to the story.
The first is the on-the-record, public defense of Clinton’s D.C. record. That defense is offered most stridently by Alexis M. Herman, who has worked for the White House since she was deputy director of the transition. Herman is one of three or four key advisers to the president on District issues—depending on whether you count Alice Rivlin, the D.C. native and former budget director who is now vice chair of the Federal Reserve Board.
Herman now directs the Office of Public Liaison at the White House, which means she’s used to telling state and local officials that the president cares deeply about their regions. She simply denies that Clinton has lacked visibility in the city. “The president has had great presence in the District,” she chirps. She cites a visit this summer to Eastern High School, where the president spoke to Olympic athletes. What she does not mention is that reporters were expressly told before the speech that the president wouldn’t answer questions about the District—a stark contrast to Gingrich’s visit to the same school a year before, when he sweated through several hours of local Q&A.
Herman also mentions the yearly Thanksgiving visit, which she says is a sacred date on the president’s calendar. She cites other D.C.-related meetings, but all of them took place in the White House—including a well-publicized May 14 meeting in which the president heard from community leaders about their grass-roots efforts to help the city. (No local politicians were present at the hourlong session in the Cabinet Room—a sign that the president at least knows something about the District’s lackluster leadership.) Herman’s list ends there.
Carol Thompson Cole, who was appointed special adviser on the District of Columbia by President Clinton last March, has a more honest assessment than Herman. Cole’s D.C. credentials are solid: A former city administrator, she is generally credited with running the day-to-day operations of the D.C. government from 1988 to 1991, when Barry was using drugs and, later, going to trial. In March, the White House lured her from a construction business she started with her husband—a change she says she would not have made if she felt the president weren’t committed to the city.
Today, White House officials point to Cole every time they need to defend the president’s record here. Alerted that Washington City Paper was working on this story, chief Office of Management and Budget (OMB) flack Larry Haas elaborately arranged for me to interview Cole—I was cleared through the White House gates, allowed into the West Wing, and then escorted to Cole’s office in the Old Executive Office Building. Haas later faxed over an unsolicited article about Cole.
Sitting in her spacious, but cluttered office and taking careful notes of our conversation, Cole is, indeed, an impressive figure. The 45-year-old District native and former congressional staffer knows Washington well, and it’s hard to imagine a person better able to coordinate the administration’s District-focused efforts.
But you wonder why the White House waited more than three years to name her. Before Cole arrived, coordination was spotty or nonexistent, and District officials could hold no single person accountable for the bureaucracy’s decisions on the District. For the first half of the Clinton administration, there wasn’t even a formal group of administration officials who met to discuss D.C. issues. And after the Federal D.C. Interagency Task Force was formed in 1994, it met irregularly. Cole was hired in part to be executive director of the task force, and she has worked to give it more prominence within the administration.
But Cole must spend most of her time connecting city officials with federal officials, like some glorified telephone operator with a snazzy title. She doesn’t work with big ideas or structural reforms: She told me she once even spent time arranging a donation of mattresses from the Department of Defense to dilapidated D.C. firehouses. You sense that she must have one of the more frustrating jobs in federal Washington.
Like Clinton, Cole, who remains an executive in her construction company and does not work full-time in the administration, also has some visibility problems. Few city officials know exactly what she does, except those who work with her directly. She has no prominent media presence; she hasn’t been quoted in the Post in the last four months. “I think they’ve put her in the witness-protection program,” says Plotkin.
But Cole has one thing going for her: She speaks more frankly about the Clinton White House’s record on D.C. than anyone else. She admits, for example, that Clinton officials often consider national events to be “D.C. events” if they merely occur in city—like the Olympic ceremony. And she acknowledges that “there are a lot of events that have been proposed….Sometimes they don’t happen as quickly as we would like them.”
Cole also tacitly acknowledges that the president has been too busy getting re-elected to really focus on an uncontested city. She notes that the District’s solvency crisis coincided with the beginning of the Clinton-Gore re-election campaign last year. “The crisis now has caught everyone’s attention, and they want the president to make some big announcement. But it’s difficult for that to happen in an election year,” she says pragmatically.
Cole says it’s her “hope and desire” that the president will have a more observable presence on District issues in his second term. But she can’t offer concrete promises—only that “no one has said to me that the president will not go out into this community in the second term.”
Yet another defense of Clinton’s approach to the city is that the presidency is simply too important a job to focus on one city, even the deteriorating capital and the president’s hometown. U.S. Attorney Eric Holder Jr., a Clinton appointee and defender of the president, says the very focus on presidential visibility in the city is misplaced. “That’s a bunch of bullshit,” he says. “We’re talking about the president of the United States here, who’s got a whole host of responsibilities. He has delegated to people here who’ve been incredibly responsive.”
But even Holder acknowledges that Clinton raised hopes too high in the early days. “People’s expectations were unrealistically raised by that walk down Georgia Avenue,” he says. “People thought he would walk down Georgia Avenue or some other avenue every week or so….But if you check the facts, figures, and just the amount of assistance this administration has given to this city, any impartial observer would have to conclude that this administration has been incredibly helpful.”
And that is the final Clinton defense, one also offered by Cole, Herman, and others familiar with the White House. Policywise—in the trenches of the bureaucracy—these folks say that Clinton’s administration has done more for the District than any since Lyndon Johnson’s. “There is much more going on in the administration than has been reported,” Cole says.
While she admits that the president hasn’t appeared very often in D.C., Cole firmly believes Clinton’s administration—including the president himself as well as certain top officials—has forthrightly tackled problems on a policy level, “in boring ways the media doesn’t always focus on.” In fact, she says the administration’s biggest problem is not lack of policy but lack of publicity. “I think it’s really a lot more myth and misperception that the president doesn’t care about the District.”
So what are all these boring, policy-minded tasks the White House has completed on our behalf? And if the president has done so much, why have administration officials been so quiet about it? After all, like all successful politicians, Clinton is usually masterful at making even mild accomplishments seem earth-shattering.
Let’s take the supposed policy achievements first. Whatever the White House says, very little happened with respect to D.C. in the beginning. According to White House and District sources, the administration really had no D.C. policy for the first few months. Clinton’s term got off to a rough start, and the District was supposed to take care of itself. After all, the Democrats have strongly supported statehood in recent years—a legacy (perhaps the only legacy) of Jesse Jackson’s involvement with the city.
As for jogging to McDonald’s or strolling along city streets, Clinton soon found that time pressures and his own national unpopularity greatly devalued any time spent in the District. Sure, he dined at Nora and ran along the Mall, but promoting the health care bill, for example, required more than gabbing with District shopkeepers. And after one man flew a plane at the White House and another fired bullets at the mansion—and after the Oklahoma City bombing—ambling around the city seemed much less inviting.
Even though it was a departure from his campaign rhetoric, Clinton’s lack of focus on the city wasn’t unusual from a historical standpoint. Traditionally, District affairs have fallen to OMB because the president’s most significant formal role in the city is to sign its budget. (Cole, for instance, officially works for OMB.) Local historians couldn’t remember officials in the Carter, Ford, or Nixon administrations who worked on District issues. But the presidents themselves all left some impression on the city. For example, Johnson is remembered for becoming personally involved in granting Washington limited home rule, and John Kennedy named a liaison to the District in the early 1960s—probably the first such liaison ever, according to Jane Freundel Levey, a local historian.
After Clinton arrived, then–budget director Rivlin led the way on D.C. issues. She inherited a typically inactive and unstructured D.C. operation from the Bush and Reagan administrations. But the Reagan-Bush years were somewhat different, because social conservatives had achieved more prominence within the White House—and, by extension, in D.C. affairs. Indeed, anyone who criticizes Clinton too harshly should look back to those days.
Listen to James Pinkerton, a major domestic adviser to George Bush, when he was asked recently about D.C.: “I can’t remember any domestic policy other than abortion that came up,” says Pinkerton, referring to Capitol Hill battles over District abortion policy, which Republicans were always trying to control. As for everything else, “I would also guess that just given the general low priority the District would have had back then, that somebody low in OMB would have taken care of the numbers.”
James Miller, budget director in the 1980s and a conservative Virginia politician, says the same for the Reagan White House. “There were a number of issues, social issues, that Gary Bauer would have been familiar with,” he says of the Reagan administration’s approach to the city. A former Reagan official, Bauer is a conservative Christian activist who opposes abortion rights and gay equality.
Clinton, at least, opposed the social experiments Republicans wanted to conduct in the city. And as for deeper policy involvement, the District wasn’t always clear on what it wanted from him. The Clinton administration’s first meaningful exposure to city affairs came when Kelly made a plea for federal assistance that would help sink her mayoralty. Casting about for a way to fight the soaring murder rate, she asked Clinton for a power held by most governors—to call out the National Guard.
But the Kelly administration hadn’t decided exactly what the guard would do to fight crime, and critics charged that she was damaging the city’s credibility and the statehood cause. Clinton officials played it cool, studying the issue for a few days and then saying that granting Kelly such powers wouldn’t be legal. But behind the scenes, with Clinton’s approval and at Rivlin’s urging, Attorney General Janet Reno and Holder, the newly appointed U.S. Attorney for the city, began working on a “Federal Assistance Program” to lower the District crime rate. At the time, it was viewed as a reasonable response to an unreasonable request.
Holder was a natural person for Clinton to rely on to help erase the “Murder Capital of the Nation” headlines. In his first year, Clinton had won loud praise for granting Norton the authority to nominate federal judges and the federal prosecutor for the District—a privilege long held by members of Congress from the states but not by D.C.’s delegate. Norton nominated Holder, an impressive D.C. Superior Court judge, and Clinton made him the city’s first African-American U.S. Attorney.
Holder started working on the “Reno Proj-ect,” as it was known internally, less than two months after coming to work. The program, the bulk of which lasted about nine months in 1994, brought help from nearly all the federal law-enforcement agencies in Washington, from the Secret Service to the Drug Enforcement Administration.
According to White House figures, federal agents made 2,500 arrests, provided short-term protection for 60 witnesses, and conducted background checks of many police recruits. The feds also gave D.C. more than $7 million to quadruple the number of homicide detectives, examine a backlog of 2,000 firearms, and upgrade police technology, among other things. The agencies even gave the city 115 vehicles. The Department of Justice is also currently funding Holder’s Operation Ceasefire, the gun-recovery program whose officers had confiscated 763 firearms as of June.
Holder is proud of these efforts, and he should be. The city’s murder rate declined in 1995 to the lowest level since 1987, thanks in part to the massive federal effort. Other violent crimes also declined.
The Federal Assistance Program started a rough pattern. A crisis would be identified by city officials or the media, and Rivlin or others would work with the city to manage the crisis. The blizzard? Send in FEMA. Crumbling roads? The Federal Highway Administration helped the city get millions in grant money. Sometimes these efforts were quite extensive, involving as many as “several hundred” administration officials, according to Cole.
But curiously, Cole and other White House officials now say they purposefully tried to keep their activity quiet. Aside from noncontroversial initiatives like the crime-fighting program, White House officials say they have operated behind a veil when it comes to the District.
Why? The Clinton people say the president and his aides were passionately determined not to offend Jackson and other civil rights leaders. For those leaders, home rule was sacrosanct, and any high-profile interference with the city might be seen as meddling. For instance, up to now Capitol Hill Republicans have claimed credit for creating the control board. But a well-placed Clinton official now insists that the first draft of the control board legislation—the draft, in other words, that most broadly shaped the law—was formulated by the Clinton administration. “What we tried to do early on, right after the mayor came in and placed his $700-million deficit on the table, was think about a major reform,” the official says.
That official also notes that the Clinton Treasury Department generously lent the city more than $500 million. “Since home rule, that level of lending is extraordinary, just extraordinary,” the official says. The District was declared insolvent in February 1995 and could no longer borrow money on Wall Street.
“‘The administration supports half-a-billion in loans to D.C.!’ Have we taken out signs that say that? No,” the official says. “The more we take out billboards that the president is doing these wonderful things, the more the question of home rule is invoked, and the more Congress says the president’s out there trying to take credit for these things.”
In a way, of course, this cloak-and-dagger business is the ultimate spin: We’ve done so much for the city that we can’t even talk about it. But the political considerations were, no doubt, delicate. “One of the reasons why [District leaders complain about Clinton] is they don’t understand the way it was done. There was great sensitivity to home rule,” says Holder. “There wasn’t a superstructure put in place, so the hand of the Clinton administration was not as obvious as it might have been.”
But now administration officials say their strategy backfired. Even their Democratic allies are complaining about a lack of focus on D.C. “We’re not getting our record out,” says Herman. “We’re doing a terrible job.”
The Clinton administration’s efforts on the District’s behalf were such a well-kept secret that the administration finally decided to detail them in a 22-page report produced in March by the interagency task force. The White House released the report (and an update last month) because it received so many complaints about its inactivity.
The accomplishments aren’t insignificant—but neither have they ever been kept secret. A brief summary:
•Earlier this year, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) assumed control of grant payments to AIDS service organizations in the city, which had mishandled the grants. HHS is also providing technical assist-ance to the city, such as helping it create a “Statewide Automated Child Welfare Information System.” Other assistance is designed to improve the city’s management of Medi-caid. An HHS official is also detailed to the mayor’s new Health Policy Council.
•The administration pushed Congress to allow the city to delay paying matching funds in order to receive more than $172 million in federal highway aid. The resulting compromise saved as many as 4,000 construction jobs and allowed needed repairs to begin on the Whitehurst Freeway, for example. Since then, federal highway administrator Rodney Slater has helped streamline the highway contract–approval process for D.C.
•The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) launched two pilot projects in the District that put computers, job training, and employment counseling in low-income housing. HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros took a special interest in the city after a homeless woman died on a park bench across from HUD headquarters in 1993.
•HUD also awarded the city $25 million to entirely rebuild the Ellen Wilson Homes, a housing project near the Capitol. And HUD began the D.C. Homeless Initiative, a program to combat homelessness by providing a “continuum of care”—outreach, rehab, temporary housing, and permanent residences. The District has had trouble contributing its share to the initiative, but advocates for the homeless here praise it.
•The Department of Education formed a “D.C. Desk” to handle education issues pertaining to the city. And the Department of Commerce provided a $450,000 grant to Roper Middle School for computers, in memory of late Commerce Secretary Ronald Brown, who had visited the school.
•The federal Bureau of Prisons is funding a $1-million study of the D.C. Department of Corrections and Lorton prison. The administration also forgave a debt of $12 million the city owed the feds for housing nearly 500 prisoners.
•FEMA helped the city remove snow. (“Look, we brought the plows into D.C. How do you think your snow ever got removed?” says an exasperated administration official.)
With some minor exceptions, that’s about it. The list isn’t shabby—millions of dollars, hundreds of hours of labor, countless reports and studies and meetings. As the Clintonites see it, they’ve done far more for the city than their predecessors, and more than staunch home rule advocates may have wanted them to.
And some city leaders say more is coming. The control board’s Harlan says he thinks the administration has improved since he criticized it last spring. “I think things are coming around rather rapidly now,” he says. “I certainly wouldn’t want to be quoted criticizing the administration at this point.”
But it’s silly to think that the projects listed above have been kept quiet as part of some clandestine effort not to breach home rule. Some of the efforts haven’t hit the pages of the Post, but only those that are too general or unimportant to mention—like the “D.C. Desk” at Education. Nearly every other item in the administration’s report on D.C. is widely known, including the little grant to Roper, which merited a Post story. It’s true that the administration didn’t publicize its role in drafting the control board legislation, but the president—who signed the legislation in a White House ceremony and then appointed the board’s prominent members—can hardly claim now that he is hiding from the board.
The report also includes some dubious padding not listed above—national programs that have local effects, for example, and the president’s large budget requests for certain urban programs that benefit all cities. These budget requests aren’t D.C.-specific efforts.
Moreover, some of the “achievements” in the report have yet to materialize. That statewide child welfare information system isn’t in place, after months of “technical assist-ance.” Even Holder’s much-admired effort to fight crime had to come to its scheduled end, and the city’s murder rate has climbed by more than 12 percent this year.
But what’s really missing from the administration’s D.C. labors is a broad-themed strategy to help the city—big-league thinking that will improve the District in the long run, not address brush fires. The administration shouldn’t solve our problems for us, but it should recognize flawed components of the city-federal relationship and work to remediate problems. Addressing the weaknesses of the home rule charter, for instance, or taking over “state” functions like pensions and Medicaid, would require White House help. And many D.C. leaders say that hasn’t happened—or that it’s only happening now, nearly four years after Clinton took office.
Norton thinks the White House has responded well to every 911 call from local leaders, but not come to the table with any systematic or long-term approach. “The crisis in D.C. is everywhere,” says Norton, who is as familiar as anyone with the Clinton record. “If you attack it everywhere, you never solve the crisis anywhere.”
A moderate Republican official on the Hill agrees: “Sure, it’s a hot potato for a Democratic administration, more so than for a Republican Congress, on home rule. The White House has got sensitivities. But they haven’t tried to work around those to devise a broad plan of attack.”
And there are specific ways to do that without rewriting the Constitution. Take the District’s unfunded pension liability. In the 1970s, the District assumed control of the retirement system for some city employees, even though Congress hadn’t fully funded their pensions for years. That left an unfunded liability now estimated at more than $5 billion—the city’s largest obligation and one that could wreck the city further. Each year, the federal government contributes $52 million to the pensions—an amount the president sought to double this year. But the Hill rejected that stopgap plan, and so far neither Congress nor the administration has devised a permanent fix. And the White House has failed even to state its position on a pension plan drafted by Norton.
Another largely unaddressed issue is Medicaid. HHS officials have been helping the District remove ineligible people from the Medicaid rolls, and HHS has repeatedly waived rules to allow D.C. to move certain recipients into lower-costing managed care. But Medicaid has grown dramatically, now providing health care assistance for a quarter of the city. States usually administer much of the program and use their tax bases—which include wealthy suburbanites—to help fund Medicaid in cities. The federal government might provide that function in the District, but the administration hasn’t offered any concrete ideas.
Other cases of inaction by the administration are smaller but symbolic. For example, the president did some behind-the-scenes lobbying for the 1993 statehood bill, but he didn’t address it with the passion he brought as a candidate. “Compare Clinton’s efforts on behalf of, say, NAFTA, to his efforts on behalf of D.C. statehood,” says American University’s Raskin.
Moreover, when security concerns drove the administration to close the stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House in 1995, no one consulted the District beforehand. And despite months of promises, the administration hasn’t fully reimbursed the city for the cost of that closure to nearby businesses and tour groups—not to mention the traffic delays.
White House officials say such critiques are unfair. Herman insists, for instance, that the administration is looking at pensions. “That is an issue that is very actively being reviewed and being taken up in the task force,” she says, adding that the task force does discuss broad reform issues.
But the administration has had nearly four years to “review” the pension system, and nothing specific is forthcoming. And if the administration is helping craft structural changes, it’s arriving very late at those issues. “A deeper kind of comprehension of the District’s structure is now there,” says Gibson of D.C. Agenda, “but it took a long time.”
In fairness, Gibson also notes that Congress, the local media, and others were slow to address structural reform as well. He’s right: Until the early 1990s, the District could take care of its own day-to-day troubles, more or less, and no one bothered to talk much about the inadequacies of the home rule charter or the looming pension and Medicaid travails.
Now those issues are paramount, and we are looking to the most powerful man in the world, a man who once seemed eager to help, for guidance. Just be patient, his minions say. “[White House Chief of Staff Leon] Panetta has said it’s now time to craft some broader responses,” says an administration official. “The [control board] is putting together a plan, and we know what the elements will be. The Brookings Institution has a plan. The mayor’s transformation plan is ready. We had to wait on the big stuff for a time when there’s a [control board] in place, when there’s control over management, when there’s a good [chief financial officer] in place—that time was critical.” And that time, apparently, is now.
Clinton will win big next month in Washington. The Republican ticket, although it offers the rarity of someone who
has personally worked on District issues,
will garner no more than 15 to 20 percent
of the vote.
Clinton’s disappointing record on the District underlines that the city has no viable politics. The language of democracy is spoken in the voting booth, and D.C.—with nine of 10 voters registered in the Democratic Party—is mute. The Clinton-Gore campaign knows this: Its token effort here didn’t even begin until late last month. Last summer I noticed that the Clinton-Gore site on the Web had no listing for the District in its state-by-state assessment (unlike the Dole-Kemp site). A campaign spokeswoman assured me that the site was “a work in progress” and that the District would be included soon. It’s still missing.
Last year, the Republican takeover of Congress did temporarily stimulate local politics: The city was forced to cope with another party for the first time since the advent of home rule. And that party, for once, showed interest in the District. At the height of his power, Gingrich—working alongside Jack Kemp, now the GOP vice-presidential nominee—courageously sank himself into the D.C. morass.
Kemp eagerly encouraged Gingrich to help the city. The former HUD secretary had tried to work with the District as Cisneros has, but Kemp faced resistance from the Bush White House. As a private citizen he wrote articles about how to help the city, and he consulted with Hill Republicans overseeing the District. (Recently, Kemp called Clinton’s record on D.C. “a moral disgrace” and said he might campaign here.)
Gingrich and Kemp’s concern for the city jostled the system. The D.C. Council actually voted to cut the size of government. The mayor prepared his plan to “transform” the city he created. And most notably, Norton proposed—of all things for a Democratic civil rights veteran to propose—a huge tax cut.
Before Republicans took over, Norton had tried to exempt District residents from taxation entirely, on the age-old theory that those who lack representation shouldn’t be taxed. That plan went nowhere, and Norton didn’t see much help coming from the White House. So she did what any smart pol would do—she co-opted the opposition’s idea.
“She did say on many occasions that, speaking to the peculiar role she had dealing with the Republican leadership, that she had to work with what she had,” says a Republican who worked with Norton to develop the tax cut. “And the Republicans were in favor of tax cuts, and so she would take advantage of that, to make an urban policy out of that, rather than traditional, liberal means.” The White House quashed the tax plan at first, but now Cole’s task force has formed a work group to discuss it. Panetta, who had criticized the plan on national television, apologized to Norton for his hasty statement.
Whatever you think of tax cuts, the mere existence of the Norton plan illustrates that two-party politics has dramatically multiplied the number of ideas for the city. The control board, for instance, might not have been created if home rule–revering Democrats controlled both the White House and Congress. Perhaps city government would similarly improve if Republicans—or independents, for that matter—had a shot at holding city offices (aside from the two token council seats held for non-Democrats).
District residents do have a choice. Six names besides the president’s will appear on the ballot next month. Since Clinton’s return to the White House seems assured, the District’s electoral votes won’t matter.
This year, then, it may be time for District voters to send a message. Many will do so by failing to vote, but others should look carefully at those other names and ask themselves, has the president really earned our vote?CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Greg Houston.