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D.C. government, or at least the city’s elected leadership, seems to thrive on chaos. All the clamor might be a gambit to distract residents from the realization that their elected leaders really aren’t doing much and haven’t for the past 20 or so years.
So it was only natural that D.C. Council Chairman Dave Clarke convened a meeting last week, not to discuss stabilizing a city rocked by mayoral contretemps, but to consider giving up his chairmanship. The meeting was a trifle ill-timed, since the sudden departure of Mayor-for-Life (?) Marion S. Barry Jr. from the city April 27 has spurred speculation that Clarke could be elevated to the top job any day now, through succession rather than election.
But Clarke badly wants to quit the time-consuming job of chairman and move over into an at-large seat, where the demands are much lighter—inside work, no heavy lifting. He seems to be tiring of his own artless endeavors to build a working majority on the council, and he wants the freedom to pursue outside legal and teaching opportunities—something the chairmanship prevents him from doing—in hopes of building a résumé that will one day earn him a D.C. Superior Court judgeship. The thought of the volatile chairman sitting as a dispassionate arbiter boggles the mind; he’d bring a whole new dimension to the concept of judicial temperament.
If the mayor’s office were to be suddenly vacated, it would be difficult for Clarke to make the case that he was up to the job after conceding that the demands of being council chairman are becoming too much. In fact, some around Clarke say he too is badly in need of a respite, and should join the “rejuvenating” mayor and First Lady Cora Masters Lady MacBarry at Thompson Farm near St. Louis. LL agrees, and suggests that the three of them remain there until the next millennium. (Maybe Cora and the chairman could work on some of their anger issues while they are on permanent retreat.)
Myles Glasgow, Clarke’s stalwart Ward 1 worker, was excluded from last week’s meeting. Some have speculated that he was left out because he opposes Clarke’s move to quit the chairmanship midterm for an easier political post. Glasgow says he has no idea why he wasn’t invited, but those who attended the meeting say the message got through that now was not the time to ponder such a switch, which is probably why Clarke is still wavering on his decision.
Clarke doesn’t have to risk anything to get an easier job, because he won’t give up the chairmanship unless he wins the at-large seat. That valiant move by one of the city’s three most popular politicians could cost D.C. taxpayers $350,000-plus for a special election next year to fill the chairman’s job, unless Clarke somehow managed to lose.
Amusingly, Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans was the lone voice last week crying out that if Barry had to step down right now, it would only make a chaotic situation even more harmful for the fragile city. Sounds noble enough, but no one recognized Evans’ statement for the self-serving stand that it was. If Barry steps down this year, Evans would have to choose between running for re-election in Ward 2, where he currently faces no opposition, and running in the special mayoral election. But if Barry finishes his current term before quitting, then Evans can hold onto his council seat in 1998 and still run for mayor.
Another profile in courage.
Now that Barry is no doubt headed back to D.C.—history has shown he can’t stay away long for fear he could be upstaged—it seems prudent for LL to try to sort some meaning out of the last 12 days of chaos and wild speculation.
It is certain that something climactic happened in the mayor’s life to cause the sudden flight from the city. Barry wouldn’t undertake such a politically damaging action without a big push, but the specifics of the cataclysm remain unknown and might stay that way.
We shouldn’t be surprised that hordes of reporters haven’t been able to find out whether the flight was caused by a drug relapse, a rumored suicide attempt, depression brought on by surgically inspired impotence or incontinence, the threat of another federal trial unless he resigns, or something else entirely. Reporters tried throughout the 1980s to nail down rumors of Barry’s cocaine use but never succeeded, because Hizzoner surrounds himself with a tightknit, loyal group that keeps its mouth shut.
Two women, second wife Mary Treadwell and former mistress Karen Johnson, even went to jail rather than betray the mayor. With friends like that, it’s no wonder Barry managed to keep the city divided over whether he was using drugs until it was finally confirmed in a flurry of videotape, charges, and a trial.
That brings LL to our second conclusion drawn from the tumultuous events of last week: Lady MacBarry is no Mary Treadwell or Karen Johnson. She isn’t one to sit quiet when the going gets tough, which may explain why she suggested that the retreat was about her and the mayor’s need for “marital” rejuvenation as much as it was about his search for spiritual renewal. She may want to be perceived as someone who is solely concerned with the health of her husband, but her continued need to thrust herself into the spotlight at a time when her husband seems to be fighting for survival appears unseemly.
Rock Newman’s news conference, in which he seemed to be counseling—and paving the way for—Barry to step down, should not be overlooked or downplayed. It is unheard of for a member of Barry’s inner circle to make such public statements this soon in a crisis. Newman’s performance, in itself, bolsters our first point that something dramatic happened to bring all this on. And the fact that many of Barry’s longtime cronies mau-maued Newman for his candor is further evidence that Barry is in a world of hurt.
LL believes that the city’s most immediate need is to begin to separate itself from Barry so that D.C.’s recovery is not jeopardized by Hizzoner’s own recovery, or lack of it. Let Barry finish out his term and then step down. Let him cut the ribbons, turn the shovels, and make the speeches, because the last thing this election-obsessed city needs right now is another election and some new mayor in need of on-the-job training.
City residents must not let Barry continue to put the District through another roller-coaster ride fueled by his personal crises. And Barry should be counseled away from spending all his time fighting the control board and Chief Financial Officer Anthony Williams.
It’s worth pointing out that Barry’s retreat has not been without a significant upside. With Barry gone, City Administrator Michael Rogers, pressed by the control board, moved quickly to strip the gigantic D.C. Department of Human Services of its contracting powers because of cronyism and corruption. Barry would never have taken such a step because of his longtime personal relationship with DHS Director Vernon Hawkins.
The council has advocated tighter controls over contracting for at least the past six years, but they proved to be ineffective in dealing with an obvious, longstanding problem. With Barry out of the way and the council on the sidelines, Rogers used his executive authority to accomplish some long-overdue reform.
The council’s general ineffectiveness is part of the reason that Congress decided last month to give the control board power to veto “emergency” legislation passed by the council, thereby reducing the council to the equivalent of a very well-paid advisory neighborhood commission at-large. Although Clarke disavowed the use of the “emergency” designation when he ran for chairman in 1993 because it deprived citizens of input on bills, under his leadership the council has frequently resorted to the stratagem to get around congressional and control board oversight.
Rogers, after first resisting Williams’ powers over the city’s purse strings, seemed to forge a closer working relationship with the CFO even before Barry left town April 27. In speeches before the Brookings Institution in early April, Rogers and Williams made many of the same points about the work that lies ahead. And they both signed the letter withholding 10 percent of the budget of the University of the District of Columbia that Barry later disavowed when he urged UDC students to protest by continuing to block Connecticut Avenue during rush hour.
Control board Executive Director John Hill was also suspicious of Williams when he was appointed last fall, because Williams was Barry’s choice for the new job, not the control board’s. But Hill has overcome those initial suspicions, and he, Williams, and Rogers now seem to be operating on the same wavelength. These three men, not the city’s elected officials, are the ones who can lead the city back up from rock bottom. They have shown no interest in retreating or surrendering in the face of tall challenges, unlike so many of the city’s elected leaders.
COUNCIL BAIT AND SWITCH
There’s another trend besides the usual fecklessness on the 1996 council. Sitting councilmembers are switching to at-large seats, where they won’t have to face so many pesky constituents coming to them with their problems, nor attend nearly as many community meetings. Chairman Clarke, as LL noted above, wants to move into the at-large seat being vacated by John Ray. And so does Ward 6 Councilmember Harold Brazil.
Brazil practically announced he would run at-large this year during a phone call to WAMU’s D.C. Politics Hour program last Friday, May 3. Brazil, like Clarke, won’t have to give up his current seat unless he loses, so both men risk little with this move.
But it may be a harder sell for Brazil, since he has attempted to build a reputation as a watchdog over wasteful council spending. Brazil brought an end to the practice of holding special elections, at a cost of $1,500 to the taxpayers per election, to fill advisory neighborhood commission vacancies. The second-term councilmember at one time also pushed for cancellation of this week’s D.C. presidential primary as an unneeded expense. But he eventually bowed to pressure from his own Democratic party.
If he runs for an at-large seat, as expected, Brazil will have to explain to voters why he is now willing to stick the city with a $75,000-plus bill for a special election to fill his Ward 6 vacancy, should he win. The former PEPCO official says he wants to switch to an at-large seat to build a citywide constituency for the governmental reforms he wants to enact. But his more nettlesome Ward 6 constituents suspect he is trying to get away from them and get himself into a council seat he won’t have to give up to run for mayor in two years.
Brazil and Clarke could end up running against each other if they both get into the at-large race. And Clarke would be running against his former legislative aide, Phil Mendelson, who left the chairman’s staff last week to launch his campaign for an at-large seat.
Mendelson is the architect behind Clarke’s 17-member tax-revision commission, which will study tax reform for D.C. He plans to run on a platform of lowering D.C. income taxes for the city’s dwindling middle class by raising the top tax bracket from the current level of $20,000 to $50,000. The council, he says, has only considered tax breaks for businesses, “but not one penny is being talked about for residents.”
Long an advocate of historic preservation, downtown housing, and tenants’ rights, Mendelson also plans to press quality-of-life issues in the District. He advocates holding weekly council oversight hearings on the delivery of city services. Those hearings with agency officials “don’t have to be confrontational,” Mendelson told LL this week.
This Friday, May 10, John Capozzi, D.C.’s elected statehood lobbyist to the U.S. House of Representatives, will kick off his campaign for an at-large seat with an announcement at the Louisiana Cafe on Capitol Hill. Capozzi is best known for his advocacy of D.C. statehood and his opposition to the proposed Barney Circle freeway interchange near RFK Stadium. He was on the ballot this week as a candidate for an at-large seat on the Democratic State Committee. But Ward 8 Democrats refused to endorse Capozzi in the May 7 primary after he skipped their April 27 forum—because he was getting married that day.
“They figured that if he really wanted their endorsement, he would have scheduled his wedding for another day,” said Ward 8 Democrat Phil Pannell.
Ward 1 school board member Wilma Harvey challenged last week’s claim by local American Civil Liberties Union official Art Spitzer that the board violated Malik Shabazz’s constitutional rights when Shabazz was denied use of Bruce-Monroe Elementary School. Shabazz, notorious for his anti-Semitic comments, had planned to use the public school for an April 19 forum attacking the city’s financial control board and “the new white police chief.”
Harvey stopped short of calling Shabazz’s organization, Unity Nation, a hate group, but she said his message is “offensive” and “in total contradiction of what we are teaching our children.”
“Why should we teach children to have a hostile reaction to people who are different from them?” Harvey said. “That is definitely out of context.”
Among those who called to warn her about Shabazz were Howard University officials, who won’t let the former student back on campus because of the damage his prior events have caused.
Harvey said Shabazz also had not posted the insurance policy required to use the public school. At the rate he is apparently closing doors, the flamethrowing Shabazz may become a message in search of a soapbox.CP
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