We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Picture this. You have just walked out of Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly‘s annual birthday bash/fund-raiser at the James Kelly Casino. On the sidewalk in front of the casino, your senses are assaulted by rows of Elvis impersonators crooning to Herroner:
Li’l sister, won’t you run?
Li’l sister, won’t you run?
You have been our mayor twice?—
Four more years would be nice.
Now won’t you run?
Li’l sister, you’ve done more than the brother ever done.
A beaming Kelly blows kisses to the singing Elvises as she heads for the nearest limousine. Finding one is no problem: The pretentious vehicles clog the block in front of the casino—formerly the District Building—that bears her husband’s name. (After all, this casino scheme seems more like his idea than hers, so why shouldn’t he have a gambling hall named in his honor?) The limo industry has flourished since casino gambling was legalized in the District, as competing companies have modified and refurbished their products to fit the new style of Las Vegas on the Potomac. Downtown parking—once difficult to find—is now a distant memory, since one limo can take up the space of four normal cars. As a result, the ordinary automobile has all but disappeared from D.C. streets.
Herroner heads for a bright-red limo with a full-body-size bubble on its roof that allows her to stand on a rotating platform and wave to the throngs of ostentatiously clad tourists who have flocked to the downtown area in hope of hitting it big. Kelly’s limo heads up garishly lit 14th Street, past the Thomas Bliley Roulette Palace in the old Garfinckel’s building—named, of course, for the conservative Richmond congressman whose surprise endorsement of the casino scheme put in the fix for the District’s conversion into a gambling mecca. The Bliley casino, however, is not a favored spot of the locals because it is filled every night with aging former members of Congress who once railed against the evils of Sin City but now have neither the heart nor the stomach to return to the Podunkvilles whose virtues they previously extolled.
A few blocks farther up 14th Street, Kelly’s limousine passes the George Washington Brown Baccarat Bistro, a popular watering hole named after the former Kelly aide who led the charge to bring casinos to D.C. After seeing his dream become a reality, Brown left the administration to open up hiscasino/nightclub. As Herroner’s limo slows to make a turn, the tuxedo-clad Brown can be seen outside, enthusiastically waving passers-by into his establishment. He tips his top hat to his former boss as she passes.
The mayor’s limo turns right on New York Avenue and slides past the Jack Evans Slot House in the old Greyhound Bus Station. Kelly’s original plan outlawed slot machines because they are a lowlife form of gambling. But Councilmember Evans, whose Ward 2 domain has become home to the city’s casino boom, insisted there had to be something for the little people. His crusade for the common man—and woman—won him his name in lights.
On this particular evening, however, an infuriated Evans is standing on the sidewalk in front of the gambling house, screaming at a well-decked-out lady of the night who gives the snapping councilmember about as much notice as she would an annoying miniature poodle. Evans is the author of the city’s anti-prostitution law, which allows the police to seize the cars of the johns who stop to purchase a few moments of erotic stimulation from these curbside pleasure-sellers. But as officers began to seize limousines, the police storage lots gradually filled beyond capacity and the law could no longer be enforced. Now the streetwalkers brazenly ply their trade in and around the casinos without discretion or fear. Prostitution was always a thriving business in D.C., but the industry has skyrocketed since the opening of the casinos.
Evans momentarily halts his tirade against the unheeding harlot as he catches sight of the lights atop 1201 K St. NW. The councilmember smiles in satisfaction at the spectacle of gamblers frolicking around tables in the casino perched on top of the building. At one time, 1201 K Street instigated a battle over whether the city—in a laudable attempt to entice middle- and upper-income taxpayers back into D.C—would require developers to build apartments and condos in their downtown office and retail developments. But Evans succeeded in scrapping the residential requirement in favor of a mandate forcing developers to put casinos atop their downtown projects. The Vegas-style night life has flourished as a result. Along with it, enthusiasm for “living downtown” vanished.
But Kelly’s limo speeds past the Evans Slot House without the mayor so much as glancing toward the councilmember; Kelly is headed for the Charlene Drew Jarvis Convention Center and Casino Castle at Mount Vernon Square. The mammoth structure is named after the D.C. Council chair who, despite intense community opposition, pushed the multistoried convention center/casino development through soon after her 1993 election. Kelly is on her way to another fund-raiser in the center’s top-floor casino. There, she will greet out-of-towners with fat offshore bank accounts—and first names of Joey and Nicky and Lucky—who will pour cash into her re-election campaign. (The restrictive Initiative 41 campaign finance law was scrapped immediately following the September 1993 council chair election.) These men will also outline their plans for the next phase of Kelly’s economic development program: casinos on the Anacostia.
Kelly slips into the convention center’s garage without noticing the demonstration going on out front. Former D.C. Council Chair Dave Clarke—who narrowly lost that pivotal ’93 council chair race to Jarvis despite taking a strong stand against casinos and the new convention center—is leading the protest, deploring the moral decay and neighborhood despoliation caused by the casino explosion. Joining Clarke in the protest is downtown housing advocate Terry Lynch, who supported Jarvis over Clarke in the council chair race. Lynch claims he thought he was getting a new, improved Jarvis when he backed her in ’93, but now he laments that she has returned to her old habits of siding with business and against the community.
Spotting a reporter observing the protest, the always-unpleasant Clarke rushes over to register his latest complaint. “I tried to tell everybody that this was going to happen if Jarvis and Kelly got their way and brought the casinos in,” Clarke grumbles. “The community wasn’t for this, but the press just wouldn’t report that there was opposition out here. Once again, the press wasn’t doing its job.”
Some things never change.
If D.C.’s leaders decide to open the floodgates to the gaming industry, this futuristic vision of D.C. may not be far off. LL suspects that the full force of opposition to the scheme has not yet been felt, however, because everyone we have questioned has expressed disbelief that city officials would harbor this kind of vision for their city. Of course, the idea was born not out of vision but out of sheer financial desperation. D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton has been warning the public not to underestimate congressional opposition to casinos. But so far, she has been the lone voice crying into the gale of overly rosy Washington Post articles.
LL must admit that, when we saw the headline on the front page of the Aug. 20 Post announcing Kelly administration plans to bring big-time gambling to D.C., our first image was not of Las Vegas but of an Indian reservation. We figured that Herroner had given up on the idea of statehood and now was seeking the right that Native American tribes have won in the courts to set up casinos and other gambling operations as much-needed revenue sources. Gaming activities on reservations have prospered despite anti-gambling laws and stiff opposition in the states where the reservations are located.
The casino revelation also brought to mind a proposal offered by Vincent Orange before he was knocked off the ballot in the council chair race. At early candidate forums, Orange had aroused interest in his plan to make D.C. a tax-free territory. Instead of asking for statehood, which he pointed out was not realistic at the moment anyway, Orange proposed asking Congress to declare that all D.C. residents and businesses headquartered here be exempt from federal taxation. In return, D.C. would give up its annual federal payment and most other federal subsidies after a suitable period of adjustment. The idea is that individuals and businesses from all over the world would rush to move into the city to avoid federal taxes. Local taxes would then generate enough revenue to pay for social services and cure the city’s ills. And unemployment would be virtually wiped out by the influx of new businesses.
Orange’s idea is no crazier than the casino scheme.
ADA WARS PART II
Last week’s column detailing the “purge” of Sam Smith from the national board of the liberal Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) stirred Smith’s opponents to voice their complaints—about him and about the column. These ADAers say the local activist was bounced from the board not because his views are too “progressive” for the organization—as he and his supporters have claimed—but because Smith, Chicago board member Ben Streeter, and Baltimore board member Ward Morrow (LL listed his first name incorrectly in last week’s column) were intent on being disruptive troublemakers.
“Sam would like to present himself as John the Baptist,” says Howard Croft, chair of the local ADA chapter and one of the national board members who voted against giving Smith another term. “But Sam, when he doesn’t get his way, engages in the kind of behavior that can only lead to destruction. I think organizations have a right to be led by people who operate in a way that is not destructive to the organization.”
Margie Bernard, another national ADA board member from D.C., agrees. “I’m very fond of Sam on lots of levels,” says Bernard. “But I saw Sam playing a role that bespoke the Sam I knew. And it certainly wasn’t progressive.” Bernard claims that Smith and Streeter tried to sabotage a recent ADA conference on drug policy to make the organization look ineffective, even though the keynote speaker, Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke, supports their stand for drug legalization. ADA board members also became alarmed at what they saw as Smith’s effort to make himself the Svengali of Youth for Democratic Action, ADA’s under-30 division, and incorporate it into his band of mischief-makers.
Meanwhile, the purge continues. At its meeting last week, the local ADA chapter initiated action to remove local attorney Dan Press from its board. Press also is regarded as a troublemaker. “I certainly will admit to being vocal in criticizing mismanagement,” says Press, “and I think they don’t like being criticized.”
This reminds LL of the Carter years, when liberal Democrats spent their time fighting each other.
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by Michelle Reidy.