While the spotlight last week centered on Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr.‘s return to the office that he—more so than its only other two occupants over the last 20 years—created, Council Chairman Dave Clarke was having himself quite a week. At week’s start, Clarke announced a reorganization of the D.C. Council for the coming session that still has some councilmembers smarting over “back-room deals” cut by a chairman with a reputation for honesty and ethics. Then, last weekend, Clarke appeared on WRC-TV‘s (Channel 4) Viewpointand got into a shouting match with a panel of reporters. The volcanic Clarke verbally erupted over the issue of funding for his pet project, the $5-million D.C. School of Law, which because of his steadfast support is now referred to as the Dave Clarke School of Law.
In between, Clarke deflected urgent questions about the city’s fiscal and political crises with mind-numbing dissertations on legislative process that convey no sense of urgency at all. Nor do Clarke’s answers reveal any hint that he has definite ideas about how to restructure the D.C. government before Congress does it for him. Clarke appears ready and willing to react to whatever the new mayor and the new Congress put forth, but not that eager to lead the city in the direction that the current crises appear to require.
After listening to Clarke expound on the council process and on the achievements of the council under his direction, LL always feels the need to go bang our head against a brick wall three times—just to think clearly again.
Under Clarke’s reorganization plan, two council panels—the committees on Regional Authorities and on Self-Determination—were done away with. That means that new Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson and whoever Ward 8 elects to succeed Barry in May will be the only ones among 13 councilmembers without committee chairmanships.
Clarke also named At-Large Independent Councilmember Bill Lightfoot to chair the coveted Judiciary Committee. There was a move this time around by some Democrats on the council to deny Lightfoot the Judiciary Committee post because he is not a member of the city’s majority party. In the 20-year history of the council, only one non-Democrat, Carol Schwartz, has been denied a committee chairmanship rightfully due her. And she was denied the post solely on her Republican party affiliation.
But Clarke insisted that if party membership instead of seniority was going to be the criterion, he wanted that put in writing and officially adopted by the council. Those proposing that course, who included Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, apparently did not want to be so publicly identified with the one-party rule that has proved so disastrous to this city. The matter was dropped.
Evans badly wanted to join the Judiciary Committee, but Clarke appointed less-senior Ward 7 Democrat Kevin Chavous to the panel instead. Although Clarke endorsed Evans in the 1991 Ward 2 council race, Evans refused to return the favor in 1993, when Clarke won a special election for chairmanship. The honeymoon between these two definitely is over, and divorce seems to be the only option.
To make room for Chavous on Judiciary, Clarke had to persuade Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas to move to the Committee on Human Services. But Thomas was not about to leave Judiciary if Ward 6 Councilmember Harold Brazil, already a member of the panel, was going to become its chairman. Clarke assured Thomas that would not happen, and Thomas exited quietly.
But then there was the problem of Ward 1 Councilmember Frank Smith, chairman of the Committee on Housing and Urban Affairs, who had the seniority to take the Judiciary Committee post if he wanted it. Smith was concerned that if he stayed in his present post he might be stuck chairing a Housing Committee that had little to do. After all, the city’s housing programs may soon be under the control of a court-appointed master, and the new mayor has been given a proposal to abolish the city’s current housing department and merge it with economic development. To keep Smith from jumping to Judiciary, Clarke gave the Housing Committee control over the city’s zoning agencies and alley closings. Public alley closings, which are usually requested to make way for development, have traditionally brought a windfall of campaign donations to the councilmember who controls these decisions. Clarke had these powers under his control as chairman in the past council session. Smith was appeased, and abandoned any thoughts of the Judiciary Committee chairmanship.
All of this wheeling and dealing led Brazil to complain publicly to the chairman during the Jan. 3 council meeting: “Come clean here. What other secret deals don’t we know about?”
Clarke contends there were no back-room deals made in choosing the council committee heads. He said he gave authority over zoning decisions to Smith’s committee, instead of keeping those under the chairman’s jurisdiction, after councilmembers complained he was amassing too much power for himself. While giving up that power, Clarke granted himself other powers over international business matters, and kept decisions about budget and taxes under his control instead of re-establishing the old Committee on Finance and Revenue.
Some councilmembers argued that it made sense to re-establish the committee, abolished by the late Chairman John Wilson in 1991, in this time of financial crisis when the city is in desperate need of less spending and new sources of revenue. But, according to one councilmember, Clarke threatened to resign as chairman if the committee were reformed to hold power over budgets and taxes.
“Dave recognizes the power that goes with that committee,” said one councilmember. “Now, he gets to pick and choose when to put tax bills forward. But the chairman of Finance and Revenue would be able to bottle up those bills in committee.”
And Clarke, during his TV appearance last weekend, already was talking about new taxes on parking-garage owners.
Despite being snubbed by Clarke, Evans finagled a seat on Judiciary by moving authority over cable TV out of the Committee on Public Services and Regional Authorities he chairs and into the Committee on Economic Development chaired by Ward 4 Councilmember Charlene Drew Jarvis. In return, Jarvis gave Evans her seat on the Judiciary panel. The deal with Evans represented a turnaround for Jarvis, whose powers have eroded in recent council reorganizations. Clarke did snatch jurisdiction over international business decisions away from her committee, but Jarvis got newoversight powers over the National Capital Planning Commission.
All of this wheeling and dealing leaves the Judiciary Committee in the hands of five lawyers. That control most likely sounds the death knell for the already slim chances for medical malpractice reforms in this council session. New Chairman Lightfoot and new committee member Chavous have been among the biggest defenders of the trial lawyers on the council; and the trial lawyers form the chief foe of legislation that would cap legal fees in medical lawsuits. Judiciary Committee member Brazil recently joined Lightfoot’s law firm, and Evans is a member of the law firm of Baker & Hostetler, which drafted the last tort reform bill before the council. At-Large Councilmember John Ray, the fifth Judiciary Committee member, was a partner in that law firm until he resigned to make a fourth run for mayor last year. Evans and Ray recused themselves when this issue came up previously.
The appointment of Lightfoot and Chavous to the Judiciary panel was seen as a favor for malpractice lawyer Jack Olender, one of Clarke’s major financial supporters. Clarke conceded this week that his Judiciary Committee will have a conflict of interest on any tort reform bill that might get introduced this session. “I wasn’t going to let that stop the whole council reorganization,” he said, “and I was not heeding any of Jack Olender’s interests.”
Nonetheless, Clarke said he would have to refer medical malpractice reform legislation to the Committee on Human Services, chaired by At-Large Councilmember Linda Cropp, instead of to the Judiciary panel. What other conflicts of interest may arise for this committee of lawyers remain to be seen.
Another misstep for Clarke occurred when he announced that he was only reappointing Evans as the city’s representative on the regional Metro board. Evans currently is chair of the board. At-Large Statehood Party Councilmember Hilda Mason appeared to be learning for the first time at the meeting that Clarke would not reappoint her to the Metro board, and, in an embarrassing public moment, she wanted to know why. Mason and Smith were the only councilmembers who endorsed Clarke in the 1993 election that saw his return to the chairmanship after a three-year absence.
Clarke later said that he thought he had brought the matter up at an earlier private meeting with councilmembers in his office, which Mason attended.
“It’s possible that she didn’t know,” he said in a phone conversation this week. “Does that mean I didn’t say anything in the previous meeting? I can’t be fully responsible for every level of awareness for every member. It’s hard enough for myself.”
In the heated exchange with reporters on Viewpoint Jan. 8, Clarke said he resented probing questions from journalists who don’t attend council sessions regularly. “I know facts are very irrelevant to the press,” an angry Clarke told Washington City Paper’s Jonetta Rose Barras and Channel 4’s Tom Sherwood. “But if you want to discuss issues, get your facts straight!”
“Not my best performance,” Clarke now says about his outburst. But, he adds, “I was right.”
He can take consolation in the fact that the program aired at 7 a.m. on a Sunday, when no one was watching him reinforce his unwanted reputation for volatility.
On his first day back in his old job Jan. 3, Marion Barry led reporters on a tour of his new office—the same office built by his predecessor that he criticized during the campaign as too lavish, and hinted that he might not occupy. Although he continues to denigrate his new digs, complete with granite fireplace and spiral staircase, as “too big” and pompous, he said he has no choice but to keep it.
Barry insisted he’d prefer to be back in the old, smelly, dilapidated John Wilson/District Building with the council, but it would cost too much of the taxpayers’ money to move. “Money is too precious just for me to be down there,” he said. So he is willing to sacrifice and stay in the plush, comfortable surroundings of his predecessor, even though he doesn’t like it one bit. But what can he do? Kelly already has spent the money for the spacious, 11th-floor mayor’s suite at 1 Judiciary Square. So Barry figures he’ll just have to put up with this much more pleasant environment as a public service.
The bitch set him up again.
Speaking of the former mayor, Sharon Pratt Kelly demonstrated right up until the very end the lack of political acumen that made her term such a fleeting disaster. When the Washington Post was preparing its final piece on Herroner, she refused to talk to reporter Nell Henderson, and insisted that the paper’s new city hall reporter, Howard Schneider, do the interview instead. But Post editors told Kelly she could not pick and choose reporters to cover her, and Henderson was doing the profile as her last act before leaving city hall to get on the O.J. Simpson beat out West. After the article had been written, and before it ran Dec. 31, the Post even offered to fly Henderson back from L.A. if Kelly would reconsider and consent to an interview at the last minute.
No deal, replied Herroner, and the article ran without her input, which could have, at the very least, gotten more of her point of view across to readers. Kelly was willing to blow her final chance to have her say for…well, who knows what her reasons were.
Now back to the new/old mayor. After the shooting death of a 16-year-old student at Cardozo High School last week, Barry said he had “nothing specific” he plans to do to combat school violence. What ever happened to his much-touted program during the campaign to get the guns off the streets?
How quickly they forget.