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Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s feisty delegate, still retains the title of the city’s most popular politician. But in some congressional, D.C. Council, and D.C. Board of Education offices, Norton is now about as welcome as Hillary Clinton at a Pat Buchanan rally.
The complaint LL keeps hearing from these disparate groups—who don’t like or trust each other very much—is that Norton has spent too much time carrying water for school unions and not enough working to improve the sorry state of District education or lobbying to pass a budget bill. And this gripe is as common among D.C. Democrats as it is among congressional GOP staffers.
“Because of the way Eleanor politicked this, she’s one of the primary reasons we haven’t gotten an appropriations bill,” says a council staffer, referring to the Hill fight over school vouchers that has stalled D.C.’s budget for nearly six months.
Republican staffers say that Norton repeatedly crippled the congressional voucher proposal. When House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) first proposed allowing D.C. students to use public money to attend private schools, Norton objected. Such a plan would accelerate the exodus of the middle class from D.C. public schools, she argued, and would damage public schools in order to benefit elite private schools.
Because of her objections, the plan was stripped down to a pilot project that would have provided $2.5 million in new federal money to about 1,000 needy families to send their children to the schools of their choice. Another $2.5 million in new federal money would have been given to poor D.C. families to pay for after-school programs, day care, and tutoring. And to appease Norton’s home-rule concerns, Hill Republicans agreed neither program would be launched unless the council voted its approval.
But these compromises did not satisfy Norton, according to congressional sources, and she continued to push for other changes. She also rankled Republicans by not actively lobbying Democrats for the school-reform package on the House floor. GOP staffers say that Norton cooperated with other congressional Democrats in protecting teachers’ unions, which adamantly opposed the D.C. voucher provisions as a dangerous precedent.
“None of the concerns that she has raised had anything to do with children or students,” claims a GOP congressional staffer. “Her concern was the teachers’ union and the union issues in general.”
“There’s a general sense among pretty much all Republican members that it’s almost impossible to work with her, that it doesn’t get you very far,” the staffer continues. “The feeling now is that every time you compromise on anything, that becomes a basis for a new attempt on her part to water things down further.”
The package eventually passed the House as part of the D.C. appropriations bill. Senate Democrats who object to the voucher provision have stopped approval of the appropriations bill with a filibuster.
Norton, who wins high marks for her frankness about D.C.’s fiscal problems, seems stunned by the criticisms. She said in an interview this week that she saw her role in the arduous school-reform negotiations as the mediator, making sure that House leaders heard the concerns of “everyone at the table.”
She resents the implication that she flacked for the unions. “The unions were at the table,” she said. “But so was [public schools Superintendent] Franklin Smith. The unions hardly drove the meetings.”
And Norton bristles at suggestions that she hasn’t worked hard to pass the D.C. appropriations bill. “Just check the Congressional Record if you want to know how hard I fought,” Norton told LL.
Norton and her staff dismiss the criticisms as the bellyaches of Capitol Hill Republican staffers who don’t have the courage to speak on the record. (The staffers say they won’t go on the record for fear of retaliation from Norton. Last year, during heated congressional debate over D.C. affairs, Norton singled out two GOP staffers, John Simmons and Ray Shepherd, for espousing harsh views not shared by their boss, D.C. Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Rep. James Walsh of New York.)
None of her disgruntled colleagues, who include some Democratic House members, have complained openly about Norton. But according to GOP sources, Norton’s maneuverings on the D.C. school-reform effort have alienated her from Walsh, a champion of the voucher plan. These days, the two have almost no contact with each other.
“I’m not going to get into that,” Walsh said in a phone conversation this week. “She’s tough to work with, I’ll tell you that. But that’s about as far as I’ll go.”
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The school-reform fight has also strained Norton’s relationship with Gingrich, according to Hill Republicans. That could portend rougher times for D.C. Throughout 1995, Norton often touted her relationship with the speaker as her first line of defense against harsher moves by Congress against D.C. and home rule.
She appears taken aback at suggestions that her relations with House leaders have deteriorated. “I work well with Walsh,” she said this week. “What am I supposed to do, not fight for my city?”
And she has not had a falling-out with Gingrich, she says. “The speaker and I have always had a good working relationship,” Norton told a meeting of the Rock Creek East Neighborhood League this past Monday. “He and I have no illusions about each other.”
GOP staffers challenge her claim.
“Gingrich, on his own, tried very hard to work with Norton from the beginning,” says a GOP staffer, “and he found that to be extremely difficult, if not impossible, in most cases.”
Another GOP staffer issued the most damning assessment of Norton’s current standing with the House Republican leadership. “The mayor is at least practical about some things—she gets way off on these ideological tangents,” he said.
My, how Washington has changed! Some Republicans find Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. easier to work with than Norton.
All of this carping is not likely to undermine Norton’s standing in the District. The petition deadline has passed for the May 7 Democratic primary, and no one filed to challenge Norton, all but ensuring her easy re-election.
And she actually appears to have increased her popularity during the bitter D.C. appropriations battle. While GOP Hill staffers, some D.C. school officials, and some councilmembers may not like the way Norton has conducted the school-reform/budget fight, most D.C. residents still give her kudos for a tough job well done.
The hottest rumor around town these days: Ward 6 Councilmember Harold Brazil plans to run for the at-large seat being vacated by Councilmember John Ray. Brazil’s mayoral ambitions are the worst-kept secret in District politics, but his current seat places him in an awkward position for the 1998 mayoral contest. As it stands, his Ward 6 re-election campaign falls in the same year as the mayoral contest. That would force him to surrender his council seat if he wants to run for mayor.
But by sliding over into Ray’s at-large seat, Brazil could run for mayor without risking anything, because the mayoral election would fall in the middle of the at-large term.
An at-large seat would also free Brazil from pesky Ward 6 constituents. Ward members must handle many more constituent complaints, attend more neighborhood events, and stay longer at community meetings than at-large members.
Some of Brazil’s Ward 6 constituents point to recent community appearances by Brazil administrative aide Rob Robinson as proof that a scheme is afoot. They speculate that Robinson is laying the groundwork to run for the Ward 6 seat after his boss vacates it.
“I’ve been going to the same number of meetings I always go to,” Robinson said this week, dismissing any electoral interpretation of his recent activities.
Robinson said Brazil considered the option of switching seats when Ray announced his retirement plans last year. “But I haven’t heard him say anything about it recently,” he said. “Harold has no plans to run for any other office that I’m aware of.”
Brazil did not return phone calls inquiring about his political intentions.
MADNESS, D.C. STYLE
In the District, March Madness isn’t hoop hysteria. Rather, it means that the Barry administration is once again scrambling to find 18 qualified people to serve on the city’s property-tax appeals board, known as the Board of Real Property Assessments and Appeals.
The board rules on some 3,000 property-tax appeals from homeowners and commercial landlords every year. Downtown office-building owners typically petition for millions of dollars in property-tax rollbacks from the board.
And as he did in 1995, the mayor is loading up the board with emergency appointees, who will hear this year’s appeals without the required confirmation by the council. At last count, Barry had named 10 emergency appointees. The council will consider the qualifications of Barry’s emergency appointees only after the current appeals season ends in July. If last year is any precedent, some of the emergency appointees will resign immediately after deciding on this year’s appeals, thereby avoiding the confirmation process altogether.
Local attorney James Murphy, who served an emergency appointment last spring but quit before his confirmation hearing, is returning to the board. Murphy vowed last year that he would “never again” serve on the board because of its heavy caseload. Barry also extended an emergency appointment to Noël Evans, wife of Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans. This may signal that Evans and Hizzoner are patching their differences. But Barry did not reappoint Charles Cotten, a cousin to former Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, who wanted to serve another term.
Once the mayor fills the board, his appointees will undergo a quick training before they start hearing cases at the end of this month.
Meanwhile, more than 1,000 residential property owners (out of 110,000 citywide) have received tax statements revealing that the city has increased their assessments—and taxes—by more than 50 percent from last year.
So March Madness in D.C. really means that an inexperienced tax-appeals panel will try to decipher the complicated complaints of furious property owners and savvy developers—all without emptying the city’s coffers in the process. CP