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When D.C. Council Chairman Dave Clarke appeared last week before the House D.C. appropriations subcommittee, he was prepared to defend the District’s $5.1-billion budget and play some offense against rumors of receivership. But before Clarke even launched into his usual mind-boggling discourse, he announced that he was on drugs—just in case anybody was inclined to take him seriously. During a break in the June 26 hearing on the District’s financial condition, Clarke even showed reporters the three prescriptions he’s taking for his back pain. (The medications were indonethacine, oxycodone, and cyclobenzapprine, for those of you who are keeping score.)
Clarke was apparently trying to head off the sort of speculation about drug problems that have dogged Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. since his sudden retreat for “spiritual rejuvenation’’ two months ago. But Clarke doesn’t need pharmaceutical aids to act bizarre, a habit that dates back well before his back problems started.
By the time he got around to challenging subcommittee Chairman James Walsh (R-N.Y.) on his plans for the District, Clarke was the very picture of the woozy, bumbling official that congressmen envision every time they drive by the District building.
Clarke came out of his haze long enough to suggest that every time Walsh takes aim on the District budget, “the ante is upped.” Why, Clarke wanted to know, did Walsh want to cut yet more funding out of the District’s FY 1997 budget, which was approved in a chorus of consensus by the mayor, the council, and the federally appointed control board? His darkest suspicions about Walsh’s plans for the District eventually bubbled over: “Mr. Walsh, I have heard that you, in a private meeting, said the plan is to push the city into receivership,’’ Clarke stated.
“The last thing I would want is for this city to go into receivership,’’ responded Walsh. “It would mean I have failed. I, for one, don’t want to be dealing with the District’s day-to-day problems, and a receivership is what that would be.’’
A federal receiver would be under the direct control of Walsh’s subcommittee, an oversight role that would further distract the Syracuse, N.Y., Republican from serving his constituents. Not to mention increasing his meddling to a full-time hobby.
Clarke’s accusation stems from a well-traveled rumor that Walsh plans to push for D.C. receivership soon after the November elections. The rumor’s authors, one of whom passed the tip on to Clarke, claim to have been present at a recent Capitol Hill meeting where Walsh mentioned the plan. But these sources refuse to go on the record with their allegations, and, when pressed, they backtrack on what Walsh actually said and in what context he said it.
Still, District Republicans and a handful of Capitol Hill residents who want federal management of the District’s Metropolitan Police Department have been pushing the federal receivership button with members of Congress. And House Republicans have entertained the chatter like gracious hosts, hanging the threat of receivership over D.C.’s head, like the sword of Damocles, to push local pols onto a reformist track. Local opponents of congressional involvement in District affairs may also be pushing the rumor to sully the reputations of Republican members of Congress who play key roles in District affairs.
But House D.C. subcommittee chairman Tom Davis (R-Va.) has pledged to fight any effort by his party to impose a federal receiver on the District. Davis could lose the fight, however, if the city slips into financial default and is no longer able to pay its bills.
Like Pentagon contingency strategists, Capitol Hill Republican staffers have made a habit of mapping possible responses to a complete financial and political collapse in the District. But they claim it will take much more than embarrassing revelations about Hizzoner’s private life to trigger a Normandy-style landing on the Potomac. Barry, however, is clearly viewed both on Capitol Hill and among local business leaders as an impediment to the city’s recovery.
At its most preposterous extreme, the speculation on federal receivership has Eric Holder stepping down as U.S. attorney for the District to take over as its federally appointed receiver. Holder may want to be mayor someday, but he’s not likely to give up his current post to clean up after Barry and the city council under the supervision of House Republicans. And Holder is a rising star in the Justice Department, another consideration that would make him an unwilling candidate for the no-win position of receiver.
A Walsh aide says the real plan is not to install a receiver but rather a tougher, less gentle control board. The five unpaid board members currently serve “at the pleasure of the president.’’ Thus, if GOP presidential hopeful Bob Dole miraculously develops voter appeal, or one of President Bill Clinton’s self-inflicted wounds prove fatal, the appointment of a meaner and leaner control board would be among the first orders of business for a new resident in the White House.
Even if Clinton wins reelection, Walsh may still call for the resignation of some, if not all, of the current board members. Judging from his statements, Walsh’s real target is control board Chairman Andrew Brimmer. Brimmer has truly become the man in the middle: He managed to alienate Walsh and other hard-liners by failing to take swift, bold swipes at the District’s budget, but he also disappointed local pols who insist that the District’s financial woes stem from revenue shortfalls and its miserly federal payment.
House Republicans are also upset that Brimmer has failed to promptly provide information to the congressional Government Accounting Office, which is conducting an audit of the board’s first year of operation. However, Brimmer still has the backing of D.C. congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, to whom President Clinton turns on District business.
By frequently criticizing Brimmer and the board—as he did two weeks ago after the mayor, the board, and the council agreed on the city’s budget—Walsh may be hoping to make life so miserable for the control board chairman that he will step down in frustration. In that event, Walsh and company would be free to recommend a new board chairman for Clinton’s acceptance.
But while Walsh and District politicos busy themselves with receivership scenarios and fussing over the control board, at least one congressman is looking at the root problems of the city’s crisis. Rep. Henry Bonilla (R-Texas) has written legislation that would undo one of the D.C. government’s chief structural faults: the mayor’s unchecked power. The bill would strengthen the council at the mayor’s expense by empowering it to hire and fire the city manager, a position that would have greater powers than the city administrator post now occupied by Michael Rogers.
Bonilla believes the change would give the District professional management and root out the cronyism and horse-trading that have paralyzed the city ever since home rule. He is waiting to review the GAO audit of the control board before introducing the legislation.
Bonilla’s idea has earned support within local political and business circles, particularly the Federal City Council. Supporters point out that Rogers had to wait until Barry left town in late April on his spiritual retreat to make overdue changes at the troubled Department of Human Services. Rogers had pushed these changes for weeks, but Hizzoner resisted because of his friendship with DHS Director Vernon Hawkins.
Councilmembers long have complained that the 1973 home rule charter vested the mayor with authority that the limp-wristed council was powerless to check. In the long run, Bonilla’s blueprint could prove more palatable politically than the appointment of a federal receiver.
The contest for the at-large seat of retiring Democratic Councilmember John Ray looked like a sleepwalk for Ward 6 Councilmember Harold Brazil when he decided in May to jump into the citywide race. After all, Brazil emerged as the race’s only heavyweight and quickly signed on slews of local business luminaries as contributors to prove the point. Last week, local development brass rallied around overdog Brazil for a fundraiser at the prestigious lobbying firm of Patton Boggs LLP.
But then Clarke picked up petitions for the race on Monday, just two days before the July 3 filing deadline. His two-day petition drive, which must net 2,000 signatures citywide, caps off six months of waffling over whether to give up his chairman seat in favor of a less-demanding at-large seat. While Clarke may not be the picture of stability, he knows a good opportunity when he sees one.
Meanwhile, the field of lesser-known and underfunded rivals—15 candidates took out petitions for the race—will be competing for Barry’s endorsement in the early rounds of this fight.
Barry has always shunned Clarke and views Brazil as a potential rival in 1998—for himself or his handpicked successor—and a candidate who can get the backing of the detested Washington Post. Hizzoner will be sizing up the field in the at-large race in search of a candidate who can derail Brazil.
John Capozzi, U.S. (Statehood) representative for the District of Columbia, has made an early impression on Barry, and First Lady Cora Masters Lady MacBarry. Capozzi was strategically situated next to Barry during the June 20 ceremony for the arrival of the Olympic Torch in the District.
Barry also has his eye on former council staffer Phil Mendelson. But Mendelson will have to develop a more aggressive style if he’s going to rise above the pack.
“I like Phil. I’m going to vote for him. He’s right on the issues. But I wish he had a stronger handshake,’’ one of his supporters lamented last week.
Dethroned Department of Employment Services Director Joseph Yeldell took out petitions last week to run for the at-large seat. Yeldell has citywide name recognition after three decades in city government, but he definitely will not get the blessing of Barry, who fired him last month.
After a month of news reports and speculation about problems in their marriage, the city’s first couple appears to be all lovey-dovey again. “We have our ups and downs, just like any normal couple,’’ Lady MacBarry explained outside 1 Judiciary Square one evening last week.
At that point, Barry grabbed his wife and gave her a big kiss, as if to reinforce her point…
Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans called to “correct’’ last week’s column after LL reported that he looked “agonized’’ when announcing at a June 8 public event that his wife is pregnant with triplets. “I’m actually thrilled that I’m having three kids at once. At my age, you got to move quickly,’’ said the 42-year-old councilmember, who was married last year…
Barry has yet to make his appointments to the D.C. Tax Revision Commission, and some are beginning to wonder whether he will get around to it before the commission’s scheduled first meeting in early August. The mayor appoints eight of the board’s 17 members, and the council appoints the rest. The commission has only 12 months to review and simplify all of the city’s tax laws and codes.
The council named its nine commission members June 5: tax revision expert Robert Ebel, activist Marie Drissel, banker Robert Pincus, former council chairman Sterling Tucker, former city auditor Matthew Watson, labor leader Joslyn Williams, Richard Halberstein, James Hudson, and Rosemary Marcuss…
After former councilmember Carol Schwartz tossed her hat into the ring June 24 for the seat she gave up voluntarily eight years ago, Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas was overheard commenting during a council session: “I’m going to ask for my [council] chair to be moved because I don’t want to be stuck between Carol Schwartz and Kathy Patterson. You know I can’t stand that.’’CP
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