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Marion Barry never expected to encounter the likes of Newt Gingrich once he got back atop the mountaintop of political power. If he had, Mayor-for-Life (perhaps LL should dub him the Mayor-for-Half-Life in the wake of last week’s approval of the two-term limit in D.C.) might have chosen to let Sharon Pratt Kelly keep the job one more term before he stepped in to lead his people out of the desert. Barry, who never shies from comparing himself to biblical figures or equating his short jail term for drug use to Nelson Mandela‘s long imprisonment for political resistance, views himself as the Moses of this beleaguered city. If so, then House Speaker-to-be Gingrich is the Pharaoh. And the Red Sea Barry must part is the financial tidal wave threatening to drown the city in bankruptcy and bring on a takeover led by a Republican Congress.
All the heat and noise generated by the fall mayoral contest appears but a whimper in the roar created by the stunning Republican takeover of Congress last week. The intense political struggle over whether Carol Schwartz or Barry could best lead this city through the perilous four years ahead now seems almost meaningless. The role of mayor of the District, already a limited one because of congressional powers to intervene, has been reduced even more by Election Day’s outcome. Barry, in essence, has been handed the helm of the Titanic as it heads straight into an iceberg so wide there appears no way around it. Hizzoner campaigned for his old job by depicting himself as “a financial wizard.” Now Captain Barry gets a titanic opportunity to prove his claim.
Under the Old World Order, which seemed so entrenched just a short while ago, D.C. had been looking forward toward statehood and realistic prospects for greater self-government. This past session of Congress began with D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton convincing a majority of her colleagues to give her a vote on the House floor. Her new power was limited—Norton could only cast a vote if it wasn’t the deciding one for the House. But she said the vote gave her something to trade in return for congressional support for D.C. interests. The session also began with the arrival of the first president to support statehood for the District. At the session’s midterm, D.C. residents celebrated the historic House vote on statehood, which failed but exceeded expectations.
Now, the New World Order, ushered in by voters nationwide Nov. 8, threatens to wipe all of that away. Gingrich declared on national TV last weekend that Norton would be stripped of her limited voting powers when the next Congress convenes in January. Gingrich made his pronouncement in answer to a question from George Will on ABC‘s This Week With David Brinkley. It was the first question Will asked of the next speaker. Will must have been unable to sleep well these past two years knowing that D.C.’s lone representative to Congress, and the four delegates from the territories, could cast votes on the House floor as long as their votes didn’t mean anything. He considers himself the learned defender of democracy, but apparently his theory of democracy does not include the District.
Norton vowed this week that she will not give up her vote without a fight. She hopes to persuade moderate Republicans that she should be treated differently than the congressional delegates from the territories, and allowed to keep her limited voting powers. She intends to point out that D.C. residents—unlike those of Guam, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, and the Virgin Islands—pay federal income taxes and therefore are entitled to congressional representation.
But Norton appears even more powerless to prevent the elimination of the House District of Columbia Committee. Most Republicans view the committee as an overstaffed, overpaid extension of the mayor’s office—and a refuge for former D.C. Council staffers when they lose their jobs at the Wilson/District Building. The GOP’s Contract With America calls for a one-third reduction in the size of Congress, and the D.C. Committee is at the head of the line of committees slated for extinction. “Even if we were going to reduce by only one, I suspect the D.C. Committee would be it,” said a Republican congressional staffer.
Under the New Order, District matters will be handled by a yet-to-be-created House Government Operations subcommittee chaired by a Republican that most, if not all, D.C. residents have never heard of. The likely contenders for that subcommittee chairmanship—Stephen Horn of California, John McHugh of New York, and Deborah Pryce of Ohio—have one thing in common: They know practically nothing about the District and its problems.
The posture of Congress toward Barry in the coming Republican era is going to be one of sitting back and waiting for the city to come to the Hill seeking more money. Once that happens, Republicans will declare the city bankrupt and begin pushing for the appointment of a financial oversight board to bail D.C. out of its current fiscal mess. City officials will have their representatives on that board, but they are not likely to wield as much power as the representatives appointed by Congress. Many Republicans expect this to happen during Barry’s first year in office.
But the politically savvy Barry quickly recognized the traps that lay in his path as he prepared to tackle the financial crisis. During the fall campaign, Barry indicated that he might go to the federal treasury, which the city is allowed to do, to borrow the money necessary to get through the current crisis. But within hours after the Republican sweep, in his Nov. 9 election victory news conference at the Mayflower Hotel, Barry ruled out borrowing from the federal treasury.
Hizzoner apparently had realized that Republicans could be expected to respond to such a move by withholding the federal payment to the city until the money borrowed had been paid back. Thus, going to the federal trough for financial help could end up deepening the city’s financial woes. But going to Wall Street for short-term loans will force the city to pay higher interest rates, which will leave less to spend on services.
This week, Norton held meetings with both Barry and the D.C. Council to form a united front the way D.C. officials did with then-new-Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon in 1991. That year, the city succeeded in getting $431 million in extra financial help from a Congress grateful that Barry no longer was mayor.
But now he’s back.
Norton wants Barry and the council to cut city spending by $300 million before Congress steps in and imposes its own spending cuts on the city. Barry publicly had been prepared to cut spending by $140 million, but Norton had been warning him privately that the cuts had to go much deeper. The day after his election last week, she went public with those warnings to keep the pressure on the incoming mayor and the council.
Such pressure created divisions between Norton and Kelly, whose administration criticized the delegate as too concerned with being part of “the club” on Capitol Hill. Norton views Barry as much more politically astute than Kelly. But those same frictions could develop quickly between Norton and Barry, who won election by promising his supporters more government services, not less.
Like many Democrats, Norton is operating on the hope that Gingrich will be made kinder and gentler by his ascension to power. And if the city acts quickly to rein in its spending, the hope is that the Gingrich-led House will leave the District alone to manage its own affairs without further congressional interference. But that appears to be a false hope. New York Republican Rep. James Walsh, in line to be the next chairman of the House D.C. appropriations subcommittee, told the Washington Times last weekend that he doesn’t trust Barry to make the needed changes. Walsh said he plans to take a greater role in managing the D.C. budget than his Democratic predecessors.
And as for D.C. statehood, the Republican response will be “forget it.” If D.C. residents want voting rights and greater representation in Congress, Republicans say they should follow the lead of the Ward 3 secessionists and rejoin Maryland.
Otherwise, citizens of the nation’s capital will have to be content with the status quo, at least until the New Order is overthrown—whenever that may be.
HEATED ANC BATTLES
Some of the most hotly contested races in last week’s elections were waged for the city’s lowest elected offices—seats on the 37 Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (ANCs). In Dupont Circle, Jay Pagano narrowly lost his Dupont Circle ANC seat to challenger Stephen Smith after Smith depicted the incumbent as too tough on gay bars. Smith said the ANC had placed excessive restrictions on the expansion of gay bars and other businesses in the Dupont Circle neighborhood. Both Smith and Pagano are openly gay.
But Dupont Circle ANC Commissioner Dennis Bass, a leader in the fight against expansion of bars, gay and straight, handily won re-election. And H. H. Leonard—owner of a controversial bed-and-breakfast, complete withliquor license, south of Dupont Circle that has attracted the likes of President Clinton—lost badly to Henry Fernandez in a contest for an open ANC seat.
East of Dupont Circle, 14th Street bar owner Dante Ferrando lost a bid to unseat incumbent Commissioner Tom Coumaris, also accused of being anti-business.
The nastiest battle may have been the write-in campaign waged by ACT-UP gay activist Steve Michael against Logan Circle ANC Commissioner Bob Ebel. “Bob Ebel is evil! He must be punished,” Michael and his supporters yelled to voters outside Precinct 17 at National City Christian Church on 14th Street NW. And that was about the nicest thing they had to say of the incumbent. In the final tally, Ebel crushed Michael.
Ebel had been targeted by supporters of Luther Place Memorial Church and its homeless shelter on N Street NW, slated for expansion. So had Logan Circle ANC Commissioner Jim Brandon, who easily dispatched his challenger. But Logan Circle ANC Commissioner Robert Ryan Riddle, a supporter of the controversial Luther Place housing programs, narrowly survived a challenge from Stephen Warren. Riddle, an African-American, put out a pamphlet in Spanish that accused his opponents of being “racists.” The English version was much more benign.
In Ward 4, government watchdog Gail Barnes unseated ANC Commissioner Mary Braganza, who would begin her community meetings with an hour of swaying and chanting.
LL is going to miss those sessions.