City Paper is not for tourists
On a warm fall morning, the gates of the D.C. Armory swing wide open, and a phalanx of tanks, humvees, and artillery roars out of the building. The armed column dumps onto Pennsylvania Avenue and heads downtown, stirring apprehensions that a White House coup is under way. As they zoom past the Capitol, the war machines swerve back and forth to avoid massive potholes that make the terrain at the Army training grounds look like a fairway at Pebble Beach.
By the time the show of force is within a few blocks of the White House, a rush of camera crews, journalists, and thrill-seekers runs in tow. Tipped off to the advancing threat, the Secret Service braces for battle, blanketing the White House grounds with a protective ring of troops and firepower.
But as the brigade reaches 13-and-a-Half Street, it takes a left and points its turrets at the crumbling District building. Out of a humvee steps the crew’s Argentine military adviser, who boasts years of experience in commandeering dank, gray buildings. The trigger-happy gunmen prepare to fire, but the Argentine orders them to hold their fire. “My structural plans indicate that even the weakest volley will destroy the building, and we will have no offices,” he shouts. So the crew huddles and a simple plan emerges: Wait until the council is scheduled to take a vote on a controversial issue and then simply waltz into the empty offices.
The plan works to perfection: As council Chairman Dave Clarke announces a vote on legislation to reduce pension payments, a veritable scrum of councilmembers rumbles out of the building’s side exit. The adviser orders his troops to enter the building. Armed to the teeth, the crew storms the glass doors. A guard, numbed by endless hours of council deliberations on the nearby monitor, waves them past.
The troops reach the council chamber quickly and find Clarke alone at his roost, banging his gavel and slapping himself in the back of the head. The squad leader demands that Clarke hand over the gavel and allow a new set of leaders to have a go at the city’s problems.
After a 10-hour dialogue, Clarke agrees to step down under the following terms: The new leaders will preserve the D.C. School of Law, build more bike lanes on city streets, and allow him to keep his gavel, if not his job. The coup is complete. Out with the nincompoops, in with the Dream Team.
What if a bloodless coup allowed the District to start over again? Pure fantasy? Well, no more fantastic than the hope that the upcoming election will slow the District’s inexorable slide into dysfunction. People of talent and vision just aren’t interested in running for office in a place that chews up good intention in a matter of minutes. It’s not as if the city is short on talent; it’s just short on people who are willing to sail with the ship of fools that currently controls the District Building. Washington City Paper decided to set aside practical realities and come up with a list of local people who could make the District a shining example of urban reinvention:
If only the D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) had listened to Delabian Rice-Thurston 10 years ago. That’s when Rice-Thurston, executive director of Parents United, an advocacy group for local schools, began harping on rampant building and fire-code violations in D.C. schools. In 1989, the group issued a study documenting that some schools hadn’t been inspected since the early ’70s. Eventually, Parents United filed suit to force building repairs, which led to the well-publicized order by Judge Kaye K. Christian forcing DCPS to correct violations at 18 D.C. schools before Aug. 21.
Russell A. Smith
Before there was a control board, an inspector general, or a chief financial officer, there was D.C. Auditor Russell A. Smith. In a town with little accountability—political, financial, or otherwise—Smith churned out audits and investigations with a bite-size staff. Consider this gem: Smith showed that public works officials had used $13 million in recycling money for other bills, prompting the hasty shutdown of city recycling last year. Smith’s findings made their way into the headlines even when—or perhaps especially when—the Barry administration ignored him.
When Eric Holder, U.S. Attorney for the District, recently toyed with the notion of quitting, it was quite a shock in a city where heavy machinery is required to separate officials from their moss-covered seats. Since President Clinton tapped him for the post in 1993, Holder has done an admirable job of undoing the U.S. Attorney’s detached, white Republican image by reaching out to the black community through adopt-a-school programs and Concerned Black Men. A product of New York City public schools, Holder clerked for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund while at Columbia Law School and then went to work for the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section prosecuting corrupt public officials—a skill that would have some nice applications inside the District Building.
Even though the Barry administration didn’t tap Dorothy Brizill in its search for an inspector general, District residents didn’t lose the services of the city’s best-trained eye for corruption and political favor-trading: Brizill continues to run her own private inspector general’s office for free. Still, a council post would give Brizill a little cash to defray all the photocopying expenses she incurs while exposing the excesses of bureaucrats and elected officials. Brizill is not without agendas, but most of them happen to coincide with the interests of plain old citizens.
After the recent dust-up over school disrepair, it’s hard to imagine DCPS sinking to greater depths. But DCPS would have been in receivership years ago if not for the steady guiding hand of Jim Ford, who for six years has served as the D.C. Council’s chief legislative aide on education. Perched next to Councilmember Hilda Mason, the council’s erratic education committee chairwoman, Ford supplies all the hard questions to put to school officials, since he knows where their skeletons are buried. Well versed in investigative techniques as well as in public accounting and management, Ford has even gained access to DCPS payroll records to keep school officials honest. His zeal for good government and his longtime association with the school system make him a desirable candidate for the council, albeit a probably unelectable one.
If the editorials on District affairs in the Washington Post have the ring of truth, it’s because the guy who’s writing them knows what he’s talking about. A native Washingtonian who attended Dunbar High School and Howard University, Colbert King has the chops to call bullshit when he sees it. Before joining the Post, King helped to draft the city’s home rule, campaign finance, and conflict-of-interest laws at the House D.C. Committee. He also served as deputy assistant secretary at the Treasury Department, which means he could teach the council a thing or two about balancing budgets. At this point, all King has to do is dump his attitude about running for office: “If nominated, I will not run; if elected, I will be impeached,” he says.
If you’re looking for a reference who can vouch for Sandra Seegars’ credentials as a public-minded investigator, try Karen Jones Herbert, former head of the D.C. Taxicab Commission. Seegars single-handedly vaulted Herbert out of her post after discovering that Herbert illegally held driver’s licenses in both the District and Maryland. A lifelong D.C. resident, retired federal and D.C. worker, and former saleswoman for Kirby vacuum cleaners, Seegars now works full-time vacuuming up fraud and wrongdoing throughout the District government. Much of the dirt she digs up appears in her monthly newsletter, One Page at a Time, which she writes and distributes at her own expense.
In a town where Hispanic politicos have yet to break beyond the lowly level of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission, Yvonne Martinez-Vega would close a gaping deficit in local representation for Latinos if she attained citywide office. As executive director of Ayuda, the bustling Adams Morgan clinic for domestic violence and immigration cases, Martinez-Vega has gained firsthand schooling in the legal, educational, and social problems that keep Hispanics on the margins of the District economy. Martinez-Vega has made Ayuda a nonprofit success story in times when many community organizations find themselves stalled or just flat broke.
In her five years of nonstop activism in the District, Marilyn Groves has fought on behalf of an embattled District constituency: its residents. In 1994, along with Ward 7 activist and at-large council candidate Paul Savage, Groves founded the League of 8000, a citywide coalition dedicated to cleaning District streets. Toward this end, the League has secured D.C. Council passage of five public-works bills that stiffen penalties for illegal dumping and broaden the ranks of city sanitation inspectors. And as president of the Dupont Circle Citizens Association, Groves has led opposition to the expansion of bars and restaurants around booze-drenched Dupont Circle. The hordes of Dupont bargoers who despise Groves stand as a swill tribute to her effectiveness.
Emmett Fremaux pulled off an unprecedented stunt in D.C. government: He fixed a decrepit D.C. agency, the Board of Elections (BOE). When Fremaux moved to the District from New Orleans in 1983, elections were as poorly run as the police and fire departments, schools, public works, and every other piece of city machinery. Now, after 12 years under Fremaux’s guidance, BOE is arguably the most professional office in the entire District bureaucracy. Unfortunately, managerial talent doesn’t hover too long in D.C. government: Amtrak hired Fremaux earlier this year to fix its troubled reservation system.
When Jamin Raskin worked on Marion Barry’s first mayoral campaign in 1978, he was a clueless political neophyte. “[Barry] was the maverick, running against the corporate and political establishment in the city,” Raskin says. Since then, Barry has become the establishment, and Raskin, now an associate dean of law at American University, has sharpened his eye. Arguably the most often-quoted local authority, Raskin dishes out reasonable and authoritative takes on all the issues that matter in the District: home rule, urban decay, public schools, voting rights, etc. While other pundits grind axes, Raskin speaks the truth. All that talking may be part of Raskin’s political action plan. “I’m keeping my options open” about running for office, he says.
Unlike D.C. Inspector General Angela Avant, who was insulted when asked at her confirmation hearing whether she was “a junkyard dog,” Drissel wears the title “D.C. Citizen Rottweiler” as a badge of honor. The moniker comes courtesy of Mayor Marion Barry, who noted Drissel’s activism after a June 1995 hearing at the District building. A lifelong District resident, Drissel has taken the city to task on everything from property assessments to pensions to taxes. She’s fed up with the city’s elected leaders and elated by intervention from the control board and CFO Anthony Williams. Drissel and her husband considered moving to Annapolis but couldn’t sell their house. For the sake of poorly governed D.C. residents, keeping Drissel in town—by hook or by crook—is a must.
Jonathan M. Smith
Since the mid-1980s, Smith has been the city’s No. 1 advocate for prisoners’ justice—a distinction in a town where such a high percentage of black males spend time in jail. As executive director of the D.C. Prisoners’ Legal Services Project, Smith has waged a war against the heinous cellblock conditions at the District’s Lorton and downtown jails. In addition, Smith in 1994 helped convene the Fair Budget Coalition, which prepared reports on how the budget crisis affected low-income residents, and presented them to the control board and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Smith, who earned his law degree at Antioch, could also help provide some much-needed oversight of the Metropolitan Police Department, because he specializes in police brutality cases.CP
By Jonetta Rose Barras, John Cloud, Stephanie Mencimer, Bill Rice, Tom Stabile, Julie
Wakefield, and Erik Wemple