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Seven years ago, District lobbyist Ted Walker walked into a meeting with Mayor Marion Barry and one of his staffers to discuss a business problem. No, Walker wasn’t looking for a contract or a tax deferment. Walker, who also happens to work as a street vendor, had come to protest a proposed regulation to require city vendors to peddle their wares from standard pushcarts.
To make his point, Walker brought along another street vendor—a 68-year-old woman who had entered the trade to support her two granddaughters, whose mother had abandoned them. “I told Mr. Barry, ‘If there is a way that you can design a cart so that Mrs. Jackson can continue to pursue her livelihood and support her granddaughters, then this is a fine idea,’” recalls Walker.
“And Barry looked at Mrs. Jackson, and then he turned around to the guy who had proposed the change,” Walker says. “And he said, ‘You build the cart!’”
That, according to Walker, was the end of uniformly designed vending carts in the District.
For Walker, it was just another skirmish in one of the District’s longest-running battles. Year after year, sidewalk vendors come under siege from the police, community groups, city government, and ordinary citizens. The attacks come in the form of fines, regulations, bans, moratoriums, and just about any other measure designed to put the city’s least powerful business group out of business. Every time an anti-vending initiative pops up, however, so does Walker, the vending community’s own paterfamilias.
On a cool August day, Walker hovers around his F Street NW vending stand. As he holds forth on the plight of downtown vendors, Thomas Blanton, an aide to outgoing D.C. Councilmember Bill Lightfoot (At-Large) approaches Walker and begins quizzing him on the recent wave of counterfeit Oakley sunglasses on D.C. streets. Blanton notes that he’s seen the shades advertised in magazines for $160. “And I find them selling everywhere on the street for $15,” he says.
Walker responds, “The ones you’ve got to watch are the little old Asian ladies who come up and whisper in your ear outside a Metro station, and the husband has the merchandise in a bag over there in the corner.” The day before, Walker continues, federal marshals swooped down on a stand across the street and confiscated boxes of counterfeit Oakleys.
Like many others in city government, Blanton knows where to go when he wants the scoop on local vending.
Enemies of local vendors on the D.C. Council can throw their bombs at a variety of targets. They can push up vending fines issued by the cops. They can sponsor legislation outlawing vending on busy commercial strips. They can impose outrageous licensing fees and inspection requirements. And the most predatory measures can be buried in Sub-Item III of Subchapter Z in some arcane municipal-code regulation.
Luckily for vendors, Walker knows these regulations as well as the market for cheap shades and $4 umbrellas.
In the summer of 1994, for instance, Walker examined the fine print on Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly’s contract for concessions at the World Cup soccer matches. Local vendors, he found, were being squeezed out. “Mayor Kelly was negotiating solely with the big boys, like Coke and Nike, whose philosophy is ‘Take all, share none,’” says Walker. “So I asked the mayor, ‘Is it your intention to exclude the residents of the District of Columbia?’”
Larry Hammond, who then worked in the mayor’s Office of Policy, remembers, “Ted really hammered us on that. He came in and said, ‘You’ve got to do something about this.’” After Walker’s wakeup call, Kelly decided the deal, which left no room at all for hometown vendors, was bad politics. The city renegotiated the contract, and 22 D.C. vendors got to sell at Cup games.
“And the funny thing is,” says Hammond, “our vendors killed their vendors. Our vendors had the T-shirts flying, the caps all over very colorful. The big corporate types were cordoned off with a wall, kind of sterile. They didn’t do nearly as well.”
Hammond, who has worked under both Kelly and Barry, says Walker has mastered the lobbyist’s No. 1 skill: access. “Ted has been able to meet with just about anybody, at the highest levels of city government,” including both recent mayors. The reason, says Hammond, is that “Ted is charismatic, and he’s professional. When he calls you, he’s done his research. He’s prepared, and he’s knowledgeable. He keeps the vending issue alive and well in the mayor’s office at all times.”
Walker used his juice at the mayor’s office in 1986 to head off an initiative that would have ended vending as we know it in the District. At issue was a move to ban general merchandise vending in favor of handmade jewelry and other crafts. “We knew that the mayor saw vending as economic empowerment for entry-level entrepreneurs,” says Walker. He and others were able to convince Barry that the switch to craft vending would provide too little year-round work for citizens dependent on vending for their livelihood.
But assaults on D.C. street vendors aren’t a thing of the past: Just this year the D.C. Council passed a law imposing new vending restrictions that could, for example, cut the number of vendors in Adams Morgan by half. Meanwhile, a judge is considering requests from business and community groups for a one-year vending moratorium in Adams Morgan.
The feds also play a feature role in vendor-bashing. Last year, the feds banned all vending around the FBI building and other federal buildings in the post–Oklahoma City anti-terrorism frenzy. And in the early ’90s, the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation (PADC), a federally appointed body, in one pen stroke bounced all vendors from prime territory along Pennsylvania Avenue. “[PADC] just kept chipping away at it, using federal jurisdictional stuff, anything they could find, and if you look down there now, the vendors are gone,” says Hammond. “Ted fought and fought and fought, but he lost.”
Nowadays, many downtown developers play defense by installing sidewalk benches and trash receptacles to crowd out vending spots, and vendors look like one of the city’s most despised groups.
“I’m dead set against them,” says Walker’s downtown neighbor, Rick Jones, owner of Powers and Goode men’s clothing store in the National Shops mall. “Their booths look tacky, and they’re dirty, they’re slobs. They turn the city into a hovel.”
No one articulates petty gripes over vendors better than Marcia Rosenthall, director of the Franklin Square Association, a downtown business group that is leading the push for heightened vending restrictions. “Vending is just out of control. There’s absolutely no rhyme or reason to it,” says Rosenthall. “You’ve got coolers blocking curb cuts, coolers in every color, and water melting all over the sidewalk….And on the carts, how many tiers of popcorn and potato chips can you have? And movies, and sunglasses—you can ask them for anything, and they’ve got it….They’re a mess. They’re like little communities.”
Walker’s own “little community” on F Street serves up just about anything a tourist or a downtown office worker would need in a pinch: ties, umbrellas, scarves, pantyhose, sunglasses, assorted bags and over the shoulder luggage, T-shirts, sweat shirts, polo shirts, and baseball caps. Also, Walker runs a special “dollar table” where passers-by can pick up all kinds of cheap plastic items—like combs and barrettes—for a buck.
While Walker works the lobbying circuit, he leaves his stand in the hands of a backup crew, which includes a 40-year-old Chinese woman, a man on parole from Lorton for robbery and escape from a halfway house, a retired garbage worker, a homeless man, and a former crack addict and outpatient from St. Elizabeths mental hospital who sleeps in Walker’s van, which doubles as a merchandise warehouse.
On the downtown vending scene, Walker seems to spend as much time conferring with other vendors as selling products from his own stand, prompting charges that Walker is a sort of vendor kingpin.
“He runs quite a number of stands throughout the neighborhood,” says Paul Reardon, a spokesman for the company that manages Columbia Square, the blocklong office and retail complex in front of which Walker operates. And a longtime D.C. official says that Walker runs his own wholesale vending operation. “Ted Walker is a very well-to-do person. He’s made a lot of money by supplying other vendors,” says the source. “There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s similar to the taxi drivers, where one guy sets up the others with accessories and so on.”
Another source said he had visited a warehouse operated by Walker that supplies vendors throughout the city. “Ted is very secretive,” he said. “But yes, I think he does have some kind of other business.”
Walker denies that his income flows from sources other than his F Street stand. “If you ask vendors around here if they work for Ted Walker, they might tell you yes,” says Walker. “You might even find some vendors up on K Street that would tell you that. But that just means that we help each other out, and that I look after their interests when there’s problems on the street.”
But if Walker has no financial stake in the fortunes of his neighboring vendors, he’s a shining exemplar of civic activism. For instance, if the police fail to follow up on a theft report—a common occurrence, according to vendors—Walker will be summoned to the scene. If two vendors start a fight over rights to a vending space, Walker will step in to settle the dispute.
In the early ’90s, Korean and Chinese vendors began setting up shop around Metro Center, setting off sometimes-violent friction with established black vendors. Walker, according to both black and Asian vendors, played peacemaker, bringing groups of vendors together at a local church or McDonald’s to talk out their disagreements. Ayesha Dancy, a former street vendor who now sets up vending fairs for fund-raising events, says, “Most of us [black vendors] were angry. We were young bucks. But Ted’s a little older, and he saw that these people are here, and they need help. So let’s reach out to them.” Walker explains his role this way: “You can’t make money when you’re fighting.”
These days, Walker channels his lobbying energy toward the mayor’s vending task force, which meets every week at 1 Judiciary Square. At the meetings, Walker fights tooth-and-nail for the decriminalization of D.C. vending regulations. “If a small-businessman has a violation, say, a health violation in a restaurant, that the police don’t come in and arrest him,” Walker points out. “Because small businesses are regulated under the civil code.” But vendors, he argues, are subject to arrest for any infraction, no matter how petty.
It does happen. Abraham Brema, a downtown flower seller, says that police shut him down last year on Valentine’s Day for having an oversize stand. Instead of issuing Brema a ticket, the policeman arrested him and forced him to take apart his stand. “They choose Valentine’s Day to arrest us,” claims Brema. “Just because they think that’s funny.”
Walker’s position is gaining currency in the mayor’s office: Task force head Rodney Palmer says the group will probably recommend decriminalization of at least some vending infractions.
But Walker probably won’t get the measure that’s dearest to his heart: a permanent, centralized vending commission to handle vending policy, regulations, and enforcement. The commission will never see the light of day as long as D.C.’s appointed leaders push for a smaller government, but such an entity would be a perfect playground for Walker.
“If Ted was on the commission, and I expect he’d want to be, he’d have a perfect platform from which to lobby, lobby, lobby,” says Hammond. “And if he wasn’t, he’d be fighting the commissioners,” he says. “It’d be a win-win situation for him either way.”