They were called the “Young Turks,” the five councilmembers who for the last two years urged the D.C. Council to abandon its free-spending ways. The Turks lobbied for across-the-board spending cuts and against new taxes. And usually, they failed.
But their odds are about to change. Last session, the Turks—Linda Cropp, Kevin Chavous, Jack Evans, Harold Brazil, and William Lightfoot—fell two members short of a council majority. But with the swearing-in of Kathleen Patterson, the fiscally conservative freshman from Ward 3, the Turks have added an ally. Assuming Patterson’s cooperation, they need corral only a single non-Turk vote to pass legislation.
“Six looks very good; five was lonely sometimes,” says Cropp. “[Patterson] seems to be very much in line with the ideas we have about government.”
Chavous calls her a “natural ally for a lot of us who have been espousing change.”
Patterson hedges on a public commitment to the Turks, but admits that their voting pattern lies close to her heart: “I think of my agenda as being fairly consistent with their thrust.”
Certainly, the Turks’ thrust suits Patterson’s constituents. She campaigned on a belt-tightening, fiscal-dieting platform that countered what Ward 3 residents considered the extravagant habits of incumbent James Nathanson. Ward 3, the most affluent of the city’s districts, coughs up roughly 48 percent of the District’s tax revenues. Not surprisingly, Patterson’s constituents expect a lot for their tax dollars—and would prefer to part with fewer of them.
Patterson is already sending an early signal that the city’s finances will be her terrain; her first town meeting, on Jan. 19, will focus almost exclusively on the city’s coffers. James Gibson, head of the D.C. Agenda Project, is expected to attend the meeting. (Gibson is quickly becoming a major player in city policy; the Agenda Project, funded by the omnipresent Federal City Council, will likely serve as the blueprint for the first year of the new Barry administration. So far, the project recommends a commuter tax and a larger federal payment.)
But Patterson’s budget-savvy ways may be moot, since she lacks power. With reorganization of the council, freshman Patterson has been left without a committee chairmanship. (Likewise, the person elected to fill Marion Barry’s council seat will also be committee-less). Councilmembers usually use their committees as vehicles for trading favors and winning support from their colleagues—and Patterson may well be left outside that circle. But she can compensate a little for her powerlessness by drawing on her vocal constituents, who have never been afraid to lobby the legislature. She plans to establish advisory committees of Ward 3 residents, to better arm herself in representing their interests.
Still, says Evans, “she comes in at a disadvantage. She fits right in with the strategy of the Young Turks, but it’s still too early to tell how she’ll affect what we’re trying to do.”
Since its inception, the council has tilted toward members rooted in the civil rights movement and the philosophy that the government should be almost all things. Among such non-Turks number Councilmembers Frank Smith, Hilda Mason, Harry Thomas, and Chairman David Clarke. Over the years, the council’s spending excesses—combined with those of Mayor Barry—pushed the city to the brink of bankruptcy, where it teeters today.
And thus, the would-be reforming Turks have tasted their share of defeats. During the Dec. 21, 1994, council meeting, Cropp proposed an amendment to outline the District’s spending priorities, but that effort was beaten back. Likewise, Chavous, Lightfoot, Evans, and Brazil pushed for a 2 percent across-the-board spending cut and a hiring freeze last year. After they couldn’t muster additional votes, the measures failed.
But the times they are a-changin’, and not just because of Patterson. Currently, the council labors under the threat that Congress might revoke home rule unless the District gets its finances in order. Nowadays, everyone wants to be a Turk—or at least to sound like one.
Last month, the council enacted the deepest welfare cut in the District’s 20 years of quasi-independence. Members voted to roll back cost-of-living increases for welfare recipients, to deny Aid to Families With Dependent Children benefits to first-time-pregnant women in their first and second trimesters, and to reduce spending for emergency housing and utility assistance grants.
“A year ago, if you had told me the council had cut $200 million from the budget, I would have called you crazy,” says Chavous. “But things have changed. The public sentiment is there; the necessity is there. I think you’re going to see more members come around.”
The first council meeting of the new legislative session indicated that Chavous’ prediction is coming true. The Turks plus Councilmembers Charlene Drew Jarvis and John Ray introduced legislation to freeze property tax rates and all other taxes. Both bills are expected to pass.
But just because some councilmembers have jumped on the Turk bandwagon doesn’t mean they’ll stay there permanently; political coalitions shift from day-to-day and issue to issue. Next month’s budget fights will test councilmembers’ loyalties, and no doubt prompt a flurry of furious deal-making. Barry is expected to present a supplemental budget for fiscal 1995 and a new fiscal 1996 budget, plans that will almost certainly chafe both factions. To the Turks’ chagrin, he supports funding such special-interest agencies as the Commission on Women and the Office of Latino Affairs. But to the irritation of civil rights stalwarts, he’s likely to propose closing the city-funded D.C. School of Law.
Barry is nothing if not politically savvy; he undoubtedly understands that pitting the Turks against the non-Turks leaves the council divided, slow-moving, and much more likely to rubber-stamp proposals from his office. Ultimately, in the face-off between the Turks and non-Turks, both sides may lose to the mayor.