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D.C. Council Chairman Dave Clarke’s July 12 exit from the race for the at-large seat occupied by retiring Councilmember John Ray was as hasty and ill-conceived as his entrance, which came after a frenzied, three-day scramble to collect 2,000 signatures from registered Democratic voters citywide. And his bizarre explanation for the withdrawal, which went down like a glass of the District’s bacteria-laden tap water, only served to reinforce fears District residents have about the mental well-being of both their mayor and their top legislative leader.
As the whole city knows, Clarke has been agonizing over the decision forever, weighing the prestige of the chairmanship against the freedom of an at-large seat. A key consideration in his hair-pulling deliberations, Clarke insists, has been whether his at-large candidacy would force the city to foot the $350,000 bill for a special election to fill his chairman seat.
In all of Clarke’s strategy sessions, apparently nobody pulled out a calendar. Clarke decided that the city could fill the chairman’s vacancy at no extra expense in the regular elections—which he thought would take place on Nov. 10, a Sunday—if he resigned after winning the at-large seat in the primary, which he thought would be held on Sept. 5, a Thursday. And Clarke claims it was only last week that he realized he had gotten both dates wrong: The primary is scheduled for Sept. 10, the general election for Nov. 5—both Tuesdays, the traditional election day.
When he realized that his fantasy dates for the general election were off, Clarke said he had no choice but to withdraw from the race, in keeping with his pledge not to foist unnecessary expenditures on city taxpayers.
Clarke prides himself on mastering the intricate details of the city’s political and legislative processes, so much so that he often loses sight of substance, but it’s clear he’s losing track of both the forest and the trees. How, you no doubt are asking through fits of laughter, could the legislative boss of the nation’s capital city have discussed this decision with his supporters for so long and not known the dates of the elections?
LL doesn’t have an answer to that question.
Clarke appears to be getting his information from The X-Files these days. D.C. election officials say that even if they wanted to compete with church services and hold the general election on Sunday, Nov. 10, as Clarke claims he believed, they still could not have scheduled a special chairmanship election for the same day. Clarke’s mad-scientist calculations ignored the petition period during which contenders collect signatures to appear on the ballot.
The real reason for Clarke’s withdrawal is that he feared an impending petition challenge sponsored by at-large candidate and Ward 6 Councilmember Harold Brazil, which could have knocked him off the ballot and embarrassed him politically. A Brazil campaign official claimed last Friday that Brazil intended to challenge more than 2,000 of the 3,600-plus signatures Clarke campaign workers had collected in less than three days to get the chairman on the ballot.
The Brazil strategist said his workers had counted only about 1,300 valid signatures by registered D.C. Democrats for Clarke, well short of the 2,000 required to qualify for the ballot.
Clarke premiered his bizarre excuse during a phone interview on the July 12 broadcast of WAMU (88.5 FM)’s D.C. Politics Hour. In the broadcast, WAMU political analyst Mark Plotkin and guest journalist Tom Sherwood, the Felix and Oscar of local journalism, showed symptoms of acute short-term memory loss. WRC-TV city hall reporter Sherwood had been on the program with Plotkin the week before, when Clarke conceded there was no way to avoid holding a special election to fill the chairmanship vacancy.
But local journalism’s odd couple never called Clarke out on his remarks during last week’s broadcast.
In the tradition of Washington journalism, LL will now analyze the fallout from Clarke’s sudden downfall. The big loser, of course, is Clarke, whose credibility has been further shredded by his erratic behavior. Another loser is Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr., who was backing Clarke to knock out Brazil, a potential mayoral rival in 1998.
Brazil is both a winner and loser. He gains by knocking out his most powerful rival. But he also loses some, because Clarke’s withdrawal highlights the improprieties of sticking taxpayers with a bill for a special election just to fulfill political ambitions. Brazil is holding on to his Ward 6 seat while he campaigns for the Sept. 10 primary. A special election to fill the Ward 6 vacancy would cost around $60,000. Brazil is seeking the at-large seat to position himself for a run for mayor in two years.
Dismissed Department of Employment Services Director Joe Yeldell also gains from Clarke’s exit. Yeldell is counting on his multitude of relatives and friends, plus a large turnout in his own Ward 8, to pull him through. The heated Ward 8 council rematch between incumbent Eydie Whittington and one-vote-shy Sandy Allen—not to mention a field of seven other hopefuls—should guarantee the Ward 8 turnout Yeldell is hoping for.
The seven dwarfs, the field of lesser-known candidates, also benefit from last weeks’ developments. The race looked futile for retired federal worker Paul Savage, former council staffer Phil Mendelson, outgoing shadow statehood lobbyist John Capozzi, and the other dwarfs with Clarke and Brazil going toe-to-toe.
But Brazil is not the tireless campaigner Clarke is. With Clarke out of the race, the dwarfs may find themselves standing tall.
Last year, Mayor Barry and his allies seemed to be operating under the belief that if they pushed financial control board Chairman Andrew Brimmer hard enough and often enough, he would screw up badly, become frustrated, and eventually quit. The Barry crew apparently saw this strategy as a way to weaken and discredit the control board.
After losing a couple of bloody confrontations with Brimmer, Barry & Co. must have passed their failed strategy along to conservative Hill staffers and congressmen, most notably Rep. James Walsh (R-N.Y.). Walsh’s frequent and public criticisms of Brimmer, the congressman’s own staff confirms, reflect his desire to install a stronger control board chairman.
But control board staffers say Brimmer isn’t going anywhere. In fact, Brimmer has gained credibility ever since his well-publicized misstep early this year, when he was rebuked by fellow board members for refusing to pursue a loan for the District and ended up publicly reversing himself.
Proof of Brimmer’s sharpening political acumen came last week, when Walsh blasted the $5.1-billion “consensus” budget for next year agreed upon by the control board, mayor, and the D.C. Council. Walsh’s criticism—laced with rhetoric about making fundamental cuts in the city’s budget—could well have caused the consensus to crumble and left the District again without a budget when the fiscal year begins Oct. 1. Then Brimmer opened the back door, allowing Walsh to approve the budget without compromising his standing as the meanest budget-cutter.
Arguing against deeper cuts, Brimmer stated publicly that the consensus budget’s projected $99-million deficit was actually an overstatement. If the District government took advantage of all the savings included in the budget, he insisted, the deficit could shrink to as little as $40 million—a figure more in line with what Walsh had previously said would be acceptable.
Brimmer’s statements enabled Walsh to pull off a clever budgetary hat trick: embrace the budget he had previously criticized, avoid looking for more places to cut, and at the same time claim he had further reduced the deficit. The conservative congressman quickly exited through the back door, and his subcommittee on July 12 speedily approved the city’s FY 1997 budget with the requirement that the deficit not exceed $40 million next year.
Unfortunately, Brimmer still seems to take one step backward just when he looks to be going forward. Right after he bailed out Walsh, Brimmer took the time to suggest last week that the city could find additional revenues and avoid painful cuts by issuing more parking tickets.
That’s not the way to bring consumers back downtown, stop the flight from D.C., and get residents to feel better about their government.
WILLIAMS’ NO-NONSENSE HUMOR
Last week’s “town meeting” hosted by Chief Financial Officer Anthony Williams and financial control board Executive Director John Hill demonstrated how effective the two men have become as salesmen for the city’s new power structure. Only 30 or so residents turned out for the meeting, most to plead for specific programs and policies. Noticeably absent was the degree of anti–control board hostility of previous public meetings.
Williams proved particularly adept at disarming would-be critics with his no-nonsense answers and his ever-present sense of humor. “If you have any compliments, you can direct them to me. Complaints you can direct to John,” he joked, as audience members lined up to ask questions.
After one questioner finished with a long-winded statement about the control board, Williams quipped, “Please limit your questions to 30 minutes.”
A University of the District of Columbia student, unhappy that budget cuts will delay classes until October this year, nonetheless complimented Williams for the way he handled himself at a recent meeting with UDC students and faculty.
“That was a tough meeting,” Williams responded. “I tell my friends that was a ValuJet meeting—not very pretty.”
The CFO is big on analogies. At the meeting he recalled traveling to Needles, Ca., and spotting signs warning, “Last Chance for Gas for 400 miles.” The District government, he said, is like a car that has run out of gas. But in this case the gas pedal is broken, the tank has a hole in it, and numerous other problems are keeping the car from operating.
“This car is off the road in another mile, even with more gas,” he said.
At another point, Williams answered a question with an analogy about his career in local government in St. Louis. When he started to respond to yet another question with a reference to his government service in Boston, the CFO interrupted himself to joke: “I sound like a travelogue. Our next city.”
“I don’t always joke,” he said, returning to the issue at hand.
True—just ask the two tax-assessment officials Williams cashiered last week. Williams’ abundant wit and his penchant for requiring financial accountability are welcome trends in District politics.
SOULSBY’S 15 MINUTES
Last Sunday’s report by CBS’s 60 Minutes on the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) may not prove to be politically fatal for Chief Larry Soulsby, as critics had hoped, but it was damaging nonetheless. Soulsby looked like the stereotypically overfed and unresponsive police chief as he refused, once again, to defend himself against accusations leveled by former homicide chief William “Lou” Hennessy and his allies.
This time, however, he was refusing to respond on national TV, which is not exactly the ideal forum in which to decline to answer your critics.
Viewers of the segment would never have guessed that there is another side to this story. The segment opened with four unnamed homicide detectives describing how they have to fix their own squad cars and buy their own cellular phones and beepers, because the homicide department has been decimated under the current leadership.
But it wasn’t always that way, they told 60 Minutes’ Ed Bradley.
MPD once had an effective advocate for the homicide division, but Soulsby removed Capt. Hennessy when he took over as police chief last year, presumably to please his new boss, Barry. Bradley was either unaware, or chose to ignore, that many homicide detectives are upset because, under Hennessy, they earned huge overtime salaries. Some of them reportedly pulled down close to $100,000 a year in salary and overtime just sitting around the courthouse waiting to testify in criminal cases. Soulsby, because of budget constraints, cut out most overtime pay for homicide detectives, forcing them to testify on their own time.
Much of the 60 Minutes report focused on an ill-advised written pact Soulsby signed with Hennessy last year. Hennessy agreed to drop a threatened lawsuit against Soulsby for telling reporters, off the record, that Hennessy was under investigation by U.S. Attorney Eric Holder. (The U.S. Attorney’s office later said there was no investigation.) The demoted homicide chief also promised not to testify against the chief at his D.C. Council confirmation hearing. In return, Soulsby guaranteed Hennessy choice work assignments and training opportunities.
This is not exactly conduct becoming a big-city police chief.
The agreement grew out of a secret tape recording Hennessy made of a meeting between him and Soulsby. Bradley reported that he couldn’t get access to that recording, which supposedly has been heard by only five people. But 60 Minutes interviewed D.C. Council Judiciary Committee Chairman William Lightfoot, one of the five who has heard the tape, and Lightfoot said the tape was not damaging to Soulsby.
Bradley, however, chose not to air any portion of the interview with Lightfoot, who remains a Soulsby supporter.
Soulsby’s refusal to defend himself is lending credence to speculation that he only hopes to hang on until this fall, when he will have 25 years with the department and can retire at full pension. But if Soulsby does start speaking out in his own defense, then he might no longer be regarded as “the team player” Barry wants in that job.CP
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