The 1998 mayoral race began early Tuesday night, when the first returns from this week’s at-large D.C. Council race came rolling in. Ward 6 Councilmember Harold Brazil, the returns showed, was blowing away the field in six of the city’s eight wards. As soon as he was assured of victory, in an election in which fewer than one in six registered voters went to the polls, Brazil set his sights on his next race—the 1998 mayoral campaign—and an incumbent, Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr., who tried to stop him in Tuesday’s Democratic primary.
“Why does the mayor come and jump on my chest and try to squash a victory that is from and of the people?” a defiant Brazil asked before a rather low-key crowd at his campaign headquarters at 1425 K St. NW.
The primary win, which virtually guarantees him of success in November, allows Brazil to claim a citywide following that he hopes will vault him into the mayor’s office in two years.
The victor also slammed D.C. Council Chairman Dave Clarke, who in a widely circulated letter last week called on Brazil to drop out of the race because his win would cost city taxpayers $60,000 for a special election in Ward 6 next year to fill the seat he is vacating. Brazil blasted Clarke’s letter as a “cheap, dirty political trick at the 11th hour.”
Moments later Clarke ambled in, looking like Herman Munster because of the chronic back pain that crimps his gait. He was greeted by jeers and insults from the Brazil die-hards.
“I’m glad they didn’t put you in jail for having illegal signatures,” one Brazil supporter angrily shouted to Clarke.
The chairman made a hasty attempt to jump into the race just as the petition-filing deadline expired in early July. But Clarke had to pull out of the race to avoid political embarrassment after the Brazil campaign geared up to challenge signatures on his qualifying petitions and knock him off the ballot. In announcing his exit from the race, Clarke cited the expense that the city would have incurred in filling the chairmanship vacancy if he had won the at-large seat.
Despite his inconsistent record on the council, Brazil won Tuesday by successfully casting himself as the candidate of change. Black middle-class voters who were expected to side with D.C. government fixture Joe Yeldell because they considered Brazil a male version of failed Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly instead turned out early and often for Brazil.
Yeldell lost his third straight citywide election in the last 25 years.
During his victory speech, Brazil positioned himself not just as a reformer who will vote to make government work, bring back business, lower taxes and fight crime, but also as a leader who is ready to fight to defend D.C.
“All of us are going to have to be man enough and woman enough to stand up, suck it in, and say we’re going to make it work,” said Brazil. “This is our city. We’re going to fight for it.”
Campaign manager Rob Robinson sounded what may become the slogan for Brazil’s expected mayoral bid: “We can make D.C. work with Harold Brazil.”
Robinson now becomes a leading contender for Brazil’s Ward 6 seat. Sharon Ambrose, an aide to Councilmember John Ray, failed at-large contender John Capozzi, who got only 15 percent of the vote on Tuesday but carried Ward 1, and UDC professor Howard Croft are also being mentioned as possible contenders.
Once again, organized labor proved that it is a weak and out-of-touch force in city politics. Labor leaders, some of whom have headed their unions longer than Barry has been mayor, backed Yeldell to stop Brazil. They also boosted newcomer Diane Miller against Ward 4 incumbent Charlene Drew Jarvis. Both Yeldell and Miller failed miserably.
The indestructible Jarvis rolled up 53 percent of the vote against pesky challenges from Miller, who could only muster 15 percent, and Dwight Singleton, who pulled an inexplicable 25 percent despite lacking an organized campaign.
At Jarvis’ victory celebration at Faces restaurant on upper Georgia Avenue on election night, the talk was not of the next mayoral race but of the last one. Jarvis said Miller had been coaxed into the race by Kelly, “who just can’t accept that she lost Ward 4 [in 1994] because of her own performance in office, so she blames me.”
But Barry clearly was the biggest loser election night. He couldn’t stop Brazil, and he couldn’t keep Ward 8 incumbent Eydie Whittington in office, despite campaigning hard on her behalf. The defeat was harsh enough that Barry shunned victor Sandy Allen’s celebration at Player’s Lounge Tuesday night.
The old, invincible Barry would have accepted defeat graciously and turned out to mend political ties with the winner. The defeated Barry, scarcely seen on election night, simply called and left a message for Allen.
Barry was clearly wounded on Tuesday, and the sharks are already circling around the blood he left in the water.
SCHOOL MAYHEM AND MISFITS
Last week’s tumultuous opening of D.C.’s new school year looked like a local version of the new TV sitcom, Men Behaving Badly. Returning schoolchildren were expected to act like grown-ups and not complain about shuttered schools, shortages of teachers and textbooks, and unappetizing school lunches.
(Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson said her son described his first and last cafeteria lunch at Deal Junior High as “revolting—shredded turkey in a nasty sauce on a damp bun. He’s back to taking his lunch.”)
But the city’s adult leaders, meanwhile, were so busy pointing the finger at one another over the school mess that LL is amazed no eyes got poked out. Not that it would have mattered: They’ve been blind to common-sense management for years.
The school year opened with endangered school Superintendent Franklin Smith claiming he didn’t know that leaky roofs constituted fire-code violations, and that that was why he couldn’t get all the schools opened on time. The court, he groused, changed the definition of a fire-code violation on him at the last minute.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist, or even an electrical engineer, to know that water seeping through leaky roofs can cause electrical wiring to short out and start a fire. That was the danger at Jefferson Junior High School, which landed squarely on the court’s list of fire-code violators.
Apparently the superintendent didn’t do his homework.
With his job on the line, Smith seems eager to get out of town and avoid serving out the remaining 10 months on his current contract. But he wants to go out looking like a martyr.
After the latest school-opening crisis erupted last month, Smith said that if the D.C. financial control board needed a “scapegoat” for the colossal failure of the city’s schools, he was the man. When he appeared before the control board Sept. 4, Smith defiantly drew a line in the sand.
He told the board he needed someone to help solve the school system’s many problems and not someone who is intent on “finding as much garbage as he can find,” as the schools’ newly appointed chief financial officer, Abdusalam Omer, had done.
The day after the control board’s grueling, three-hour meeting, some D.C. school board members discussed hiring outside counsel to discredit Omer and the findings he passed along to the control board. Some of the superintendent’s staffers even advocated killing the messenger instead of responding to the message. School board members are now backing off of their earlier plan, saying they were only seeking legal help to cope with the current crisis, and not to go after Omer.
This is typical—albeit deplorable—behavior from a school administration that has been getting failing grades for generations.
“That’s the way they operate over there,” says Jim Ford, staff director of the D.C. Council’s education committee. Ford himself has come under attack from the school administration for disclosing many of the same problems Omer outlined again last week.
“If someone dares speak the truth, or tries to deal honestly with the school system’s failings and deficiencies, rather than looking into what’s been said and accepting the fact that there has got to be a valid basis for coming to this conclusion, they go on the attack,” Ford continues.
Ford says he’s concerned that Smith’s lieutenants and some members of the school board may try to undercut Omer by feeding him incorrect information, which will wind up in his reports to the control board.
During emotional battles over Smith’s performance, school board members say they have had their homes trashed and their evenings interrupted by threatening, obscene phone calls because of their support for the super.
Last year, George Pope, a leader of the anti-Smith, anti-education reforms faction, made threatening phone calls to at-large school board member Jay Silberman that Silberman recorded and played for the school board and for prosecutors on U.S. Attorney Eric Holder’s staff. But Pope was acquitted of any wrongdoing in a misdemeanor criminal trial this past summer after a jury concluded that “although he made the statements, they were no more threatening than stuff heard on D.C. streets daily.” Silberman responded, “A jury of his peers has said that I shouldn’t take Mr. Pope seriously, so I won’t.”
It’s now legal to threaten your local school board member.
A November 1990 school board meeting erupted into a melee after the board voted to fire former Superintendent Andrew Jenkins, a favorite of the faction now demanding Smith’s head. During the stormy meeting, a glass pitcher was thrown at a school board member. Future at-large board member Valencia Mohammed was among those loudly demonstrating against the board’s decision.
“All of us have been threatened,” claims Ford. “Strange things have happened over the years with cars, with bicycle tires.”
Barry, as usual, has sought to capitalize on the recent turmoil to shore up his own dwindling power base. While also fingering Smith, Barry last week proposed to solve the school crisis by bringing the superintendent under the control of the mayor.
His plan calls for giving the managerially challenged Smith some help by creating four highly paid posts within the school administration that would be appointed by—you guessed it—Hizzoner. Barry would also set up a school-contracting authority to give him more say in all those juicy contracts the superintendent now hands out. Barry didn’t mention how the proposal jibes with his “Transformation” plan to shrink the D.C. government.
His initial scheme called for abolishing the city’s elected school board. But Barry has been forced to back away from that plan, at least publicly. Home rule supporters say it would be hard to argue against home rule encroachment by the Republican-led Congress while letting Barry scrap the D.C. Charter whenever it suited him.
Barry’s plan might not resolve the school crisis, but it would certainly restore the recent political power outage that short-circuited many of his powers and hard-wired them to the control board and the city’s chief financial officer.
The current school crisis poses a critical test for the 17-month-old financial control board. Despite its efforts to avoid it, the board seems to have been dragged quickly and deeply into the political quicksand surrounding the city’s troubled educational system.
Control board staffers have told reporters their bosses don’t want the task of overseeing day-to-day operations of the city’s schools. But if the board fires Smith at the start of the school year, it risks becoming a council of principals. After Smith all but dared the board to fire him at last week’s hearing, board members seem to have little choice but to find a competent outsider—whoever that might be—to replace him right away.
Last week’s hearing, conducted in the manner of a congressional oversight grilling, was a thinly veiled attempt by the board to stockpile reasons to give Smith the boot. Control board Chairman Andrew Brimmer, despite sometimes appearing to be a political klutz, elicited the headline-grabbing admission from school board president Karen Shook that school board members don’t exert final authority over school contracts.
Shook said such oversight would amount to meddling and micromanaging by the school board, and school board members wanted to give the superintendent more flexibility to run the school system as he saw fit.
The obvious follow-up question for Brimmer was: Why, then, does the school board insist on having final say in the hiring of every principal for every school in the District?
The honest answer, of course, is that school board members want to be able to reward friends, relatives, and supporters with jobs. LL would have loved to see if Shook would have answered that question honestly. But Brimmer doesn’t yet know enough about the inner workings of the D.C. school system to ask the right question.
The control board has also taken several missteps on the school system’s 1996 and 1997 budgets that have upset reform groups, like Parents United, and council members. In the past year, the control board overrode council actions requiring Smith to cut 155 administrative positions, set aside $5 million for building maintenance and school repairs, and hire 300 kindergarten aides for this school year.
Brimmer said the council’s actions took away the school system’s ability to manage its work force and budget. But what Brimmer didn’t understand was that D.C. officials interpret “maximum flexibility” as an invitation to do nothing.
And that’s exactly what Smith and his administrators did, at least with respect to cutting administrative staff and repairing the schools. Now Brimmer and his control board colleagues are furious at the superintendent for sitting on his hands.
But they were counting on adults acting like adults.
And that doesn’t happen in D.C. government. CP
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