Sign up for our free newsletter
A few years ago, the D.C. Council outlawed “aggressive panhandling.” Now city officials may have to heed that law as they make the rounds, tin cups in hand, looking for handouts to nurse the District through January, and to stage an inaugural befitting the return of the Mayor-for-Life.
Probably every D.C. resident has been accosted by the guy who requests $15 to get a prescription filled, or the guy who suddenly got four flat tires at once and needs just $10 to get his family back home. But imagine you’re walking down Pennsylvania Avenue when you’re approached by a sincere-looking trio, led by Mayor-elect Marion Barry. “This is Sharon Pratt Kelly,” he says, introducing the bespectacled woman next to him. “She screwed up the city because she didn’t know how to manage it, and that’s why the people wanted me back. But this is no time for finger-pointing. Today, we’re a united team.”
Barry then turns to the hulking figure on his other side. “This is Dave Clarke, chairman of our city council. He has no real power, certainly not as much power as me, the next mayor. The three of us are responsible for running this city, keeping it clean and safe, so that you can come here and enjoy the sights, as you are doing now. But we need $250 million to make sure we don’t miss our next payroll.
“Do you think you could help us out?”
Or imagine that you’re approached not by the man himself, but by his wife and inaugural chair, Cora Masters Lady MacBarry. “My husband’s election has lifted the hopes and spirits of people in this city who never felt a part of the system before,” she tells you earnestly. “Now we must put on an inaugural celebration that keeps those spirits lifted—and is in keeping with my husband’s stature as one of the greatest political leaders in the history of the world.
“Won’t you help out by donating enough food for an elegant banquet of several hundred? You don’t have to worry about the liquor because we’re not going to serve alcohol.”
But why fantasize? In reality, last week city officials panhandled in the Big Apple, begging for money to meet the city’s payroll. And here in the District, Cora Masters Barry solicited food, equipment, space, and manpower to stage her husband’s inaugural without using city funds.
On Monday, Barry, Clarke, and Kelly led an entourage to New York to solicit letters of credit from foreign banks, and to plead with Wall Street firms for favorable credit ratings. U.S. banks are considered too familiar with the District and its history to offer letters of credit, which would force the banks to pay in the event that the D.C. government defaults on its debts. Foreign banks are judged a better bet because they still have faith that Congress will not let the nation’s capital slide into bankruptcy. House Speaker-to-be Newt Gingrich‘s judgment on the District—“an enormously self-destructive city” that is already “collapsing”—apparently hasn’t yet reached overseas.
Without those letters of credit and a more favorable bond rating, the city may be unable to find buyers for the bonds it intends to issue just after Christmas. The $250 million the city hopes to glean from that bond sale, minus the amount it will have to pay banks for letters of credit and in interest on the nine-month bonds, will be used to meet payrolls in January. The banks and the Wall Street bond analysts basically told the D.C. delegation that they can expect an answer by the end of this week. If the answer is no, the city could be bankrupt and on the path to federal receivership even before Barry takes office.
Four days before the trip to Wall Street, Barry held a press conference, and the self-proclaimed budget wizard outlined his plan to achieve $430 million in spending cuts and savings. That Dec. 8 announcement was intended to show Wall Street that Barry has the situation well in hand. But the next day, when Kelly and Clarke advisers examined the plan, they discovered that the numbers didn’t add up. Thus, the advisers had to strip the plan of its double-counting and unrealistic estimates over the weekend, lest it provoke Wall Street analysts to waves of incredulous laughter.
After the revisions, the total in cuts and savings in the ever-shifting sea of D.C. deficit figures had reached $590 million. But the plan still lacked what Wall Street often expects from financially strapped governments seeking quick fixes from the bond market: layoffs. Barry is still trying to avoid cuts in the government work force. After all, during his campaign, he promised to create jobs, not cut them. That’s why he is urging each city employee to accept 10 days of unpaid furlough over the next nine months.
The plan taken to Wall Street this week also contains risky proposals for trimming costs, namely deferring payments to the pension fund and Metro. The city is already in arrears to both of these entities, and Republicans on Capitol Hill have warned that they will interpret the city’s failure to meet its obligations as a sign that Congress should intervene.
While her husband was trying to impress the powers of Wall Street with his buttoned-collar, no-tie look, Lady MacBarry held a news conference in the District to outline plans for his inauguration. She is counting on an outpouring of volunteers, plus donations of food, talent, and equipment. If she attracts those freebies, she can avoid handing taxpayers a bill—a welcome change from the lavish, District-sponsored inaugurations the city has endured in the past.
One of Barry’s first budget-cutting proposals was to eliminate three-fourths of the city’s overtime salaries. And thus, he can hardly afford the political cost of a ceremony that requires city employees to work on their days off. But since Barry’s inauguration will stretch over Jan. 1, a Sunday, and Jan. 2, the national New Year’s holiday, it will be impossible to avoid saddling taxpayers with some overtime costs.
The key question is just how much the city—and Barry—can afford.
Officials of the Greater Washington Urban League were busily planning their annual dinner around the theme of famous friendships that crossed racial lines when one suggestion brought the discussion to a screeching halt.
“What about Marian and Hillary?”
That pair of names was followed by the sound of jaws hitting the floor.
WHAT? Marion Barry and Hillary Clinton are friends? Don’t tell Cora.
“Oh, no, no,” said the person who’d spoken, after realizing what her compatriots were thinking. “Marian Wright Edelman and Hillary.”
Oh, of course. The friendship between the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund and the First Lady is no surprise….
On Dec. 7, D.C. Council Chairman Dave Clarke‘s annual birthday party/constituent-services fundraiser was a festive affair, particularly when compared to previous years’ efforts. The well-attended event at the National Press Club featured good food (roast beef and salad instead of the usual chips and pretzels) and the New Alborada, a Latin string band. Clarke told the crowd he was glad to be surrounded by “friends” when just the day before, the council approved a $40 million property tax hike. This year, Clarke’s Christmas cards feature a romantic photo of him and his wife, Carol. The cards are part of an effort to give Clarke a more personable image….
The theme for the farewell tribute to defeated Ward 3 Councilmember Jim Nathanson could well have been “the graying of Ward 3.” Judging from the average age of the crowd on Dec. 8 at McLean Gardens, Nathanson certainly didn’t draw the young vote, and not much of the middle-aged vote.
One conversation went like this:
“Where are you living now?”
“Near Bradley and Wilson Boulevard.”
Nathanson may not have realized that some of his base, not waiting on the Ward 3 secessionist movement, had already fled to Arlington.
Although Nathanson has not yet settled on his next career, he said he hopes to fulfill his dream of establishing a sailing club on the Potomac River to teach the sport to inner-city youth. He claims the Potomac is better suited to sailing than the Charles River in Boston, where the sport flourishes. Nathanson narrowly missed making the 1952 Olympic sailing team, and is a former Chesapeake Bay men’s sailing champ….
After a local businessman tried twice to cash a D.C. government check for $700, only to have it bounce both times, he says he called the agency. “I was told, “Don’t bother putting it back in. We have no money.’ ”
The check, dated Nov. 22, had been written on the D.C. Department of Human Services‘ account for Emergency Assistance Services. This week, when LL called the telephone number on the check, we got a message that the phone had been disconnected.
What’s going on here?
No one seems to know. The address on the check matched the building on North Capitol Street that DHS vacated last January. Presumably, the move explains why the phone number no longer works.
DHS spokesperson Brenda Perkins said she did not know if the Emergency Assistance account was empty, but “considering the financial straits that the District is in, I wouldn’t be surprised.”
Meanwhile, DHS prepared for its holiday party this Friday at the Washington Hotel. Every last detail was tended, including reserving a block of rooms for employees who might want to spend the night after imbibing too much holiday cheer.
Perkins said that the $20 admission fee will cover all expenses, and that employees who spend the night will have to pay for the rooms they use. “Every employee has to buy a ticket to attend,” Perkins said. “I’m sure we probably already have enough people for the cost of the party. We’re a big department. The department is not paying any money out of department funds for this party.” But a DHS committee is asking firms that do business with the department to buy blocks of tickets….
This weekend, the Whitman-Walker Clinic will open its 10th residential facility in the District for people with AIDS. The clinic recently rented (with an option to buy) a house on Cleveland Avenue NW in tony Massachusetts Heights. That house had been on the market for some time at $630,000. But clinic Director Jim Graham said his organization is paying “substantially less. In a strong market, we could never afford this.” The group house is being financed with federal money for housing AIDS patients. The clinic’s purchase of such a pricey home has raised some eyebrows….
The parking requirements of Barry’s transition team keep expanding. At first, only spaces in front of 1029 Vermont Ave. NW, the site of Barry’s transition headquarters, were reserved for transition team members, and the parking meters were removed. But now the reserved area has extended along Vermont Avenue north of L Street, as well as onto other nearby streets.
The city continues to allow the Barry operation to gobble scarce parking spaces—never mind that one parking garage stands only a few doors from transition headquarters, and another is just around the corner.