On a bright Wednesday in mid-June, Georgia Brown’s is experiencing a hefty midafternoon rush of District business moguls. They file steadily in through the bar area—reps for giant insurance companies, business association heads, and partners at big downtown law firms.
As the dozen or so guests shake hands, mingle, and nibble on squishy hors d’oeuvres, two valets rush to the restaurant’s front doors and open them wide. Through the yawning berth steps Ward 6 councilmember Harold Brazil, nodding at the valets and buttoning his navy blue suit coat. As he slips into the restaurant, Brazil carries all the radiance of the early-summer afternoon on his smiling face, and for good reason: All the local big cigars have shown up to stuff his pockets with cash for the upcoming Democratic primary for an at-large seat on the D.C. Council—a race Brazil hopes will position him for a run at mayor in 1998.
The fundraiser—set off from the dining area by a waist-high barrier—is brimming with tributes to Brazil’s pro-business record on the council. “We support Harold for his stand against raising taxes,” gushes Emily Vetter, director of the Hotel Association of Washington. “We need to stop running business out of town.” Bill Lecos, who heads the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, chimes in, “We thought the city needed more professional, bright people.” And a Geico lobbyist notes, “Harold Brazil realizes the necessity of creating a vital business community in D.C.”
Vetter, Lecos, and other guests will not only fork over the $1,000 maximum allowable contribution for Brazil’s race, but will also pack their own fund-raising events with maximum contributors for the cause. Robert Ray, president of the board of the Whitman-Walker Clinic, spoke of plans for a July 2 Brazil fundraiser at the clinic, and Lecos vowed to use his political action committee to line Brazil’s coffers.
Over the following months, Brazil would amass over $100,000 for his citywide campaign, a sum more than four times greater than that of his nearest rival, Phil Mendelson, who raised about $22,000. Brazil’s success is testament to how easy it is to lure local business into your campaign account: Just show up now and then for council meetings and cast knee-jerk votes against tax hikes. Brazil has done little else in his six-year tenure as councilmember, yet he has what it takes—big money—to pummel the field, which includes some promising newcomers who may never see the light of day thanks to Brazil’s burgeoning campaign coffers.
It’s a Monday night in late August, and Brazil is capping off another voters’ forum with a canned spiel on his council record. This is Brazil’s chance to show up his neophyte challengers, none of whom has ever cast a council vote. A few anecdotes and buzzwords should do the trick.
But in between glances at his note pad and failed attempts to make eye contact with the crowd, Brazil stumbles: “I stand for strong strength, uh, if you will, for public safety,” he proclaims to a sea of motionless heads at the Chevy Chase Community Center. “I am the author of the personnel reform bill,” he continues, his unsteady voice signaling to the crowd that not even he believes in his own record.
Small wonder. While Brazil has authored various bills on crime and taxes, he has trouble even showing up. As Washington City Paper reported last week, Brazil missed one-fourth of the 1,050 council votes between January 1995 and July 1996.
Brazil sightings are even rarer at committees on which he serves. For example, he attended only one of the 12 public works committee meetings from January 1996 to July 1996. According to a council staffer, Brazil’s attendance at education committee meetings was “spotty at best, and when he did show up, it was just to grandstand for a few minutes and then leave. As a committee member, he was completely useless.”
“He misses a lot of meetings and devotes a lot of time to his legal practice,” says another council staffer, who requested anonymity.
Attendance aside, the best measure of Brazil’s council tenure is the meager accomplishments of the government operations committee, which he chairs. With his government operations gavel, Brazil has unique authority to investigate and overhaul the city’s contracting and procurement policies—a cavernous sinkhole if ever there was one.
In the chairman’s seat, however, Brazil has upheld the council’s tradition of lassitude and complicity in D.C. government oversight. In July 1995, during joint hearings with the human services committee, Brazil’s committee heard endless horror stories of contracting irregularities at the Department of Human Services (DHS). Testimony at the hearings foreshadowed the management scandals that would eventually prompt the control board to fire DHS Director Vernon Hawkins: failure to renew contracts for critical services, failure to spend federal grants, and allowing contractors to provide services without written contracts.
Instead of demanding a purge of DHS leadership, however, Brazil took a more passive approach, going along with a bill to pay DHS vendors without contracts. DHS would continue festering for another year until the control board did the dirty work—dumping Hawkins—that Brazil had declined to do.
“If you really want to restructure government, you have to attack,” says a council staffer. “And Harold hasn’t done that.”
Brazil does have defenders on the council. “His record [on oversight] is above average,” says Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson. “But the standard is very low.”
On the campaign trail, Brazil has portrayed himself as a gutsy leader who takes tough stands on controversial District issues. He is constantly chanting about his opposition to taxes.
“I have fought against tax increases over and over,” he said at the Chevy Chase candidates’ forum. True enough: Brazil’s credentials as an anti-tax crusader would put even the most dogmatic Republican to shame: He helped form the “Not a Penny More” coalition, which fought a property-tax increase in 1995, and he sponsored legislation this year that would freeze all D.C. taxes in case the federal flat-tax plan proposed by D.C. congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton becomes law.
While Brazil’s stands against tax hikes are sensible in a polity that has nearly been taxed out of existence, they hardly reflect the bold leadership he claims to have brought to the council. What they do is earn him adoring media coverage and generous campaign contributions from local businesses.
A more accurate picture of Brazil’s boldness as a leader emerges from the council’s July 19 vote on a bill to reform the city’s pension system. The issue set forth a true test of political mettle: Vote for the cuts in pension payments, and you alienate powerful municipal unions; vote against them, and you throw away your reformist pretensions. Brazil apparently concluded that neither choice was appealing and bolted the council chamber before voting. A few days later, at a campaign stop in Blagden Alley, Brazil seemed to imply that there was something noble in his willingness to duck and cover. “I walked out because I was very perturbed that Dave Clarke and the rest of that crowd on the city council were being pushed around by Brimmer and the Post. When they say, ‘Jump,’ we ask, ‘How high?’ just because they ask us to.”
The meet-and-greet for at-large candidate John Capozzi at JR’s Bar and Grill is a little on the intimate side. The tiny crowd makes the normally cramped bar feel like a spacious dance hall. A couple of hardened D.C. politicos mingle along the bar rail next to a handful of churchgoers, who have no idea who Capozzi is. When asked whether the paltry crowd includes Capozzi supporters, Capozzi responds, “If they’re not now, they soon will be.”
As Capozzi tears his way into tea party, Jim Brandon, a Logan Circle activist, remarks, “This guy’s got energy like I’ve never seen before.” With his perfectly parted jet-black hair and lily-white complexion, he could pass for an altar boy, a salesman for group insurance policies, or a loyal foot soldier for Ralph Reed’s Christian Coalition.
Instead, Capozzi is the self-proclaimed “hardest-working politician in the District,” and it’s hard to take issue with his assessment. Today Capozzi, the District’s “shadow” congressional representative, will make nice at JR’s, stop for a short talk at a church on Rhode Island Avenue NE, and then drop in for a fundraiser at the Park Princess Condominiums on 13th Street.
The Capozzi supporters at the fundraiser bear witness to his ubiquity. Deidra Owens, the hostess, notes that she originally met Capozzi at a McDonald’s black history event; supporter Duane Clark says he met Capozzi at a January meeting of the African American Business Association; another supporter says he hears Capozzi is “at all the political meetings around town.”
Capozzi delivers a brief address on council leadership to the 13 people present at the fundraiser—a tally that includes Capozzi himself, his wife, his campaign manager, and a reporter. That’s a capacity crowd for Capozzi. The king of retail politics, Capozzi will win by a landslide if he plucks one-eighth of a vote from each meeting he’s attended.
For every cause there is a meeting, and Capozzi hasn’t missed many of them. When asked about his stance on the homeless, for example, Capozzi cites his ties to the Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV). He mentions numerous meetings on D.C. statehood with lawmakers from around the country when congressional relations come up. His work with orange-hat patrols gives him crime-fighting bona fides. And on the environment he cites his dogged opposition to the Barney Circle freeway project, which would link the Anacostia Freeway to I-395 and claim a handsome chunk of federal parkland. “Every time I went to a meeting on Barney Circle, Capozzi was front and center—every time,” says a D.C. political observer.
Still, Capozzi’s community-level blitzkrieg has not yielded any substantial political victories. Despite years of inveighing against the Barney Circle freeway, construction on the project is due to begin this fall. Along with outgoing Councilmember Bill Lightfoot (At-Large), Capozzi has also attempted to dun mortgage colossus Fannie Mae for D.C. income taxes. But Fannie Mae, secure in its congressionally conferred D.C. tax exemption and shielded by the real estate industry, has yet to register the gnatlike attacks of Capozzi. And on statehood, his No. 1 issue, Capozzi’s achievements can be measured only in terms of fruitless meetings, protests, and votes.
Despite a history of lightweight impact, Capozzi is making some headway in the current race. In a straw poll taken at a Ward 1 voters’ forum, for example, Capozzi blew away the field, tallying 19 votes—14 more than his closest rival. Days later, he won a similar poll at a forum sponsored by the Ward 2 Democrats. When people marvel at his energy level, he points out that if elected he would be putting it to work full-time on behalf of the city.
“I think I can make ends meet on $82,000 a year,” he said at an Aug. 14 Dupont Circle forum, suggesting a contrast with councilmembers like Brazil, who treat their D.C. Council duties as a part-time job. The crowd chuckled.
“If you want someone to hit the ground running, I’m running anyway because I have a community record,” says Ward 7 activist and at-large candidate Paul Savage to a group of supporters at an Aug. 3 fundraiser on Fort Baker Drive SE. Savage is the race’s fed-up candidate who won’t stand for elected officials who are less dedicated than community activists like himself. “If you don’t want to serve the citizens of the District of Columbia, get our of our face,” he yells, prompting applause from the crowd of 25.
It’s tough talk, but Savage, a retired Department of Health and Human Services employee, can back it up: Along with neighbor Vince Spaulding, Savage convinced Safeway and several other retailers to build the Good Hope Marketplace off Alabama Avenue SE. The development will save thousands of Southeast residents the hassle of crossing into Prince George’s County to do their shopping and raise millions of tax dollars each year for the D.C. treasury. “He’ll make a very good representative for the city,” says Thelma Lackey, who hosted the fundraiser. “Thanks to him, we have a new Safeway and don’t have to go over to Maryland all the time.”
On the stump, Savage trumps the Safeway project and insists that a new economic-development policy is needed to replicate his success story in other neighborhoods. “I favor a public/private economic-development consortium,” says Savage. “The people who are trying to do it now don’t know what they’re doing, so let’s get some people who do,” he said at a Chevy Chase forum.
In 1994, Savage, then president of the Hillcrest Civic Association, joined forces with Dupont Circle activist Marilyn Groves to found the League of 8000, a citywide group that campaigns for cleaner streets and alleys (full disclosure: the writer formerly participated in league activities). The league derives its name from a drive to gather 1,000 signatures from each of the city’s eight wards on a petition requesting higher funding levels for the Department of Public Works (DPW). The drive demonstrated how quickly city hall rolls over when faced with a well-organized movement sprouting from both sides of the river: The council promptly delivered the funds.
Savage’s league also lays claim to a distinction that eludes many councilmembers: legislative accomplishments. Working with Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas’ Public Works Committee, the league helped draft and lobbied for bills to hike fines and penalties for businesses and residents who violate the city’s sanitation code and to deny driver’s licenses to residents who fail to pay the fines. At the league’s urging, the council also allocated funding to increase DPW’s crew of sanitation-code ticket writers from seven to 31.
But like most candidates, Savage’s assets double as his liabilities. By dirtying his hands on public works issues and neighborhood development, Savage suffers from an ankle-high profile outside his back yard and Ward 2, where his links to Groves have netted him a swarm of eager followers. And in a race against notorious press hounds such as Brazil (who garners TV time whenever taxes are mentioned), Capozzi (who issued a press release to announce that a fire alarm had gone off in campaign headquarters), and Joe Yeldell (who never met a camera that didn’t love him), Savage’s low-profile can-doism is struggling to find an audience.
On a Sunday morning in mid-August, the pastor at Young’s Memorial Church, at Alabama Avenue and Ainger Place SE, finishes a long opening prayer and waves in a group of parishioners who arrived just after the service began. As the parishioners scatter throughout the chapel, Joe Yeldell, a stocky man with graying hair dressed in a dark green suit, takes a seat in one of the front pews. Yeldell, a championship-level D.C. bureaucrat until he recently got axed, is back, this time as a candidate for the at-large seat. Young’s Memorial is an ideal spot to shore up his substantial following in Wards 7 and 8, a base he hopes will catapult him to citywide office.
The service itself is a test of apostolic endurance: For nearly two-and-a-half hours, the congregation shakes the rafters with gospel music and run-on prayers. After the pastor introduces Yeldell as a candidate in the “Ward 8 council situation,” Yeldell approaches the podium and faces a fervent, whipped-up crowd. But Yeldell immediately dissipates the energy by launching into a bureaucratic riff honed by almost three decades in D.C. government.
“I am a candidate for an at-large seat on the city council,” he deadpans. “I want to work with dynamic people like yourselves. Thank you for allowing me to be with you. I will be back again, again, and again.” As Yeldell returns to his seat, the pastor says, “We don’t endorse anyone from the pulpit, but I support Mr. Yeldell.”
More often than not, Yeldell sounds like he’s running for head of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. Whether he’s in front of a church congregation or a group of Ward 2 voters, Yeldell is constantly suggesting that the solutions to the District’s problems lie in program reviews, performance evaluations, and governmental re-engineering. At a time when most voters would like to see the District Building leveled and something new spring up in its place, Yeldell’s opponents are trying to paint him as an old-school Barry crony committed to recycling failed management practices.
But Yeldell doesn’t run from his record, he touts it. “I have experience that is unmatched by any other candidate,” he said at a Chevy Chase forum. “I have an intimate knowledge of the institutional capability of the D.C. government.”
Yeldell is a bureaucratic preservationist for whom the District government is just a few tweaks away from functional splendor.
Ask the other at-large candidates about the D.C. schools, and they will blaze away on Franklin Smith. Yeldell’s strategy for fixing the schools is, well, a bit more complicated. “As far as the school system goes, I would deal with the issue of management accountability as well as program accountability,” he said at a Chevy Chase forum. “When you look at the issue of accountability, you see that the school system is ripe for re-engineering. We have to work with the organizational structure of the schools.”
And if his decades of government work have taught him nothing else, Yeldell knows jurisdictions. He refused, for example, to comment on whether Smith should be fired, saying, “The elected school board should have the decision on the superintendent.” At a Dupont Circle debate, Yeldell declined to articulate a position on the control board. “The control board is based on a federal law, and we’re running for the city council,” he said.
Of course, Yeldell’s mastery of bureaucratic lingo serves him best when he has no clue on an issue. “I think the homeless problem exists because we’ve deinstitutionalized our institutions,” he said to a small crowd of blank stares at the Mount Pleasant Library on Aug. 27. “We need to go at it as a systematic program effort.”
Adam Maier, a staffer on the council’s public works committee, says that Yeldell has a legitimate claim to the title of bureaucratic know-it-all. “He was known as a Mr. Fix-It when he worked in the government,” says Maier. “When we had problems, we would sometimes go to him, and he would know just who to contact.”
Although Yeldell may not win over hordes of voters with his fluency in bureaucratese, he is banking on big voter turnouts in Ward 4, where he lives, and Ward 8, where he has a strong base of relatives and supporters. Both wards, along with Wards 2 and 7, are electing their own councilmembers, making the wards frequent stomping grounds for at-large candidates. Yeldell also expects a big push from municipal unions, which are gung-ho about his notion of streamlining the D.C. bureaucracy without laying off workers.
All of which has made Yeldell the consensus No. 1 rival to quasi-incumbent Brazil. With his vague formulae for government re-engineering, Yeldell is the only candidate in the pack who has promised the change that D.C. voters want without the pain that reformist candidates acknowledge is necessary. Yeldell’s candidacy represents a commitment to the overfunded activist government—whose current champions are Clarke, Thomas, and Frank Smith, among others—that the control board is now dismantling. The platform has earned Yeldell valuable campaign support—Thomas’ entire staff is working for him—which may carry him into office on the backs of those still vested in the ancien régime.
While Yeldell drones on about bureaucratic tinkering, Brazil, Savage, Capozzi, and Ward 3 activist Phil Mendelson carve up the city’s growing reformist constituency. Brazil has the greatest name recognition, thanks to his bottomless advertising funds, but he can’t rely on a big turnout in his own ward, where there is no council race. Savage will undoubtedly get a boost from the high turnout east of the Anacostia River. Capozzi has trounced his rivals in recent straw polls. And Mendelson, a six-year council staffer who understands budgets, taxes, and other nitty-gritty issues better than any candidate, will likely harness whatever Ward 3 voters show up at the polls. Whether any one will claim a big-enough piece of the reformist pie to beat Yeldell is anyone’s guess.
The rest of the field is underwhelming. The anti–control board platform of Ward 5 activist Kathryn Pearson-West has consistently alienated District voters, who want more accountability, not less. The other candidates, Ernest Johnson and Ronnie Edwards, will be lucky to break the 100-vote mark.
When he voted in favor of a bill to hike campaign-contribution limits in April, Brazil boasted that the change would help challengers unseat council incumbents. The former limits—which capped contributions for at-large races at $100—were “just ridiculous,” Brazil told the Washington Post. The new limits approved by the council allow Brazil and other at-large candidates to collect $1,000 per contributor.
But challengers to Brazil aren’t exactly thanking him for the campaign-finance vote. “I haven’t been helped at all” by the heightened limits, says Savage. “This guy can go to 10 or 15 of the major businesspeople in town to raise that kind of money and spread his faith around, on buses and all that. That doesn’t help me,” he says.
“When people give Harold Brazil that kind of money, they want something,” continues Savage.
They want endless permissions: alley closings for development projects, tax inducements, and tax deferments. But Brazil’s supporters don’t want what the city needs most: an at-large councilmember who will spend his days poring over DHS contracts, calling for the dismissal of incompetent managers, and setting goals for agencies under the council’s jurisdiction. Until D.C. voters have the stomach to elect councilmembers who won’t play along, the city’s dependence on federally appointed overseers to supply responsible management will persist.CP
Additional reporting by Bill Rice
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.