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New D.C. school board President Wilma Harvey has been both Wilma the Bad and Wilma the Good during her nine years as Ward 1’s representative on the board. At times, she has opposed reforms aimed at getting the schools to actually educate students; on occasion, she has sided with reformers. At the moment, Harvey is back to being Wilma the Good after emerging victorious Jan. 4 from a two-day deadlock over the election of the school board president for the coming term.
Harvey, who had seemed to be aligned with four board members wanting to fire school Superintendent Franklin Smith right away, won on the fifth ballot after promising to let Smith finish his term. She made other overtures to board reformers who had been backing Ward 8 school board member Linda Moody for another stint as board president. After coming back the second day with a carefully worded statement of her intentions—drafted after four ballots cast Jan. 3 all ended in a 5-5 tie—Harvey was elected unanimously by 10 of the 11 board members. The sole holdout, Ward 6 board member Bernard Gray, refused to vote for either Moody or Harvey, and abstained on all five ballots. Some observers speculated that Gray was hoping the deadlock would result in a movement to elect him as a compromise.
In her statement, Harvey promised to be “very supportive” of the embattled Smith. Although she opposed Smith’s past effort to privatize D.C. schools, she pledged to support contracting with private firms whenever such a move is more efficient and effective, and has community support. Ward 5 school board member Angie Corley, a firm foe of Smith’s privatization efforts, voted for Harvey anyway. “I know she doesn’t mean privatization when she says contracting,” Corley said after the vote. “I will not agree to save money through privatization.”
In other words, money wasted through the current system is money well spent.
Harvey also pledged to pursue decentralization and give school principals more room to manage their own affairs; reduce and professionalize the board’s staff; develop a code of conduct for board members (LL can’t wait to read that document); end the bitter sniping among board members and promote racial harmony; and cut out excessive travel by board members and the use of other perks, such as chauffeur-driven city vehicles. These pledges come from a board member who, in the past, has shown a fondness for being chauffeured around at taxpayer expense, and who hindered efforts to set up the city’s only Latino high school, Bell Multicultural High School, in her ward.
After Harvey’s election, at-large board member Karen Shook—one of four whites on the 11-member board representing a school system that has fewer than 3,300 white students out of an enrollment of 80,000—was elected vice president. “This is the team I’ve prayed for,” at-large board member Valencia Mohammed enthused following the elections of Harvey and Shook. Mohammed, a leading critic of Superintendent Smith, then apologized to Moody for being so hostile to her over the past year. That, Mohammed said, comes from growing up as one of 25 children, only four of whom were boys, which gave her an understanding of how to relate and deal with other women. LL is certain Moody took comfort in that explanation—if she could figure out what it meant.
Turning to Shook, Mohammed said, “you always remind me of a cheerleader.” But Shook can’t take that as an insult, since Mohammed herself is a former cheerleader.
Harvey has gotten off to a good start. She declined to move into the board president’s more spacious office until the entire board relocates to its new headquarters on Franklin Square in September. That action saved the cost of having Moody and Harvey swap offices.
But Harvey has her work cut out for her with other board members. Just before heading off to Japan last month on a three-week trip paid for by the Hitachi Foundation, Ward 4 school board member Sandra Butler-Truesdale got city workers to repaint the offices she will occupy for only the next eight months or so. While away, she also had city employees redecorate her office with carpet donated by the Kennedy Center. Some of that cherry-red carpeting also wound up in the offices of new Ward 7 school board member Terry Hairston, who won, in part, by campaigning against the current privileges of the office.
How quickly they forget.
School officials could not say this week whether any of the carpeting donated by the Kennedy Center actually wound up in public schools for the benefit of students.
ODD COUPLE SHERWOOD & BARRY
In his increasingly difficult search to find people willing to work in his administration, Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. got another turn-down last week, this time from WRC-TV (Channel 4) city hall reporter Tom Sherwood. Since Sherwood and the Washingtonian‘s Harry Jaffe did such a thorough job chronicling Barry’s prior failures in last year’s book, Dream City, someone in Barry’s fourth administration apparently thought Sherwood could help the mayor get it right this time around. Or perhaps Barry wanted to perpetuate the odd-couple relationship he has had with the former Washington Post city government reporter for the past decade.
Rumors that Sherwood was about to be named Barry’s press secretary peaked Friday, Jan. 13, when the topic made it onto WAMU-FM‘s weekly discussion of D.C. politics by Derek McGinty and Mark Plotkin—rather an odd couple themselves. After Plotkin indicated on-air that Sherwood was mulling over the offer, the Channel 4 reporter said his phone jumped off the hook from callers for and against the idea—but mostly against. Sherwood described these as “panic phone calls. People thought I was going to do it.”
But he claims he informed Plotkin before last Friday’s broadcast that he had turned down the offer. “I told him I was not going to be Barry’s press secretary. It was a declarative sentence.”
Those, sometimes, are the hardest to understand.
Sherwood admits to being tempted by the offer, even though it would have meant a substantial pay cut. His contract with WRC-TV expires this November, and Sherwood really hasn’t found the professional happiness he was seeking when he made the move from print reporter to TV personality in 1989. He sought to go back to the Post last fall when the city editor’s job became open, but the newspaper’s hierarchy didn’t want him back.
A move into the Barry administration might have given new life to one of Sherwood’s stalled projects. For years, he has been peddling a screenplay about the relationship between a white Southern male journalist and a charismatic black civil rights leader turned big-city mayor. Sound familiar? But so far, not even Robert Redford has shown an interest.
The move certainly would have looked odd, particularly on the heels of Dream City. Sherwood concedes that becoming a part of the new Barry team after writing so critically about the old Barry teams “would have been seen as forgiveness or foolishness, I don’t know which.”
Despite the appearance of Dream City in the midst of Barry’s comeback campaign, Sherwood has taken a kinder and gentler approach to covering Hizzoner’s return to power. “Judge him in the context of what he is doing now, not what he did before,” Sherwood regularly lectures his media colleagues.
With so much of what Barry is doing now reminiscent of what he did before, history may be the most important context.
For instance, when Sherwood broke the story Jan. 9 that former Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly had taken two D.C. police officers with her for security reasons while vacationing in the Bahamaslast week, this smacked of Barry’s old prowess for media manipulation. The story looked like a leak from the Barry camp to Hizzoner’s favorite reporter to provide cover for Barry’s own shenanigans with police officers at taxpayers’ expense.
And sure enough, three days after Sherwood’s broadcast, the Post reported that nine police officers had been yanked off their beats two weekends ago to guard the mayor and his wife at the Mayflower Hotel while they celebrated their first wedding anniversary in a $2,500-a-night suite. These officers were added to Barry’s regular 24-hour security detail of 12 D.C. police officers, who also were lounging around the crime-free Mayflower that weekend at taxpayer expense. Barry, naturally, has sought to shove the blame off on Police Chief Fred Thomas, whom the mayor may be setting up for a fall when he decides to handpick his own police chief.
Sherwood admits it’s possible his source was trying to use him. But he points out that he did a follow-up story speculating that Barry was using news about Kelly’s traveling police detail to divert attention from the new security fence around his house. “If anyone’s goal, in leaking that to me, was to divert attention, it had the opposite effect,” the reporter said.
The fence has become a political problem for Barry. At first, Cora Masters Lady MacBarry said that the more elaborate and expensive part of the fence she and her husband wanted would be paid for through private donations rather than tax funds. That statement conjured images of city contractors rushing forward with cash to curry favor with the self-proclaimed people’s mayor. Recognizing the political damage, Barry quickly retracted his wife’s statement, saying that part of the fence would be paid for out of his own pocket.
But the fence is being built by retired D.C. police Officer Fred Gaskins, who was a key member of Barry’s prior security detail, which never seemed to notice that the mayor was using drugs and getting into mischief at all hours of the night. Gaskins got the contract to build the fence without bidding for the job, and he is not a resident of D.C. All of this poses a problem for a mayor who wants D.C. employers to hire city residents first, and has vowed to curb sole-source contracting in city government.
As for Sherwood, the question he now faces is, will he cover the Barry administration with the same investigative zeal he exhibited in disemboweling Kelly on the nightly news these past four years?
His answer is, wait and see.
Footnote: While LL is on the Barry beat, it’s worth noting that Hizzoner has signaled his choice among the 18 contenders vying for the Ward 8 council seat Barry vacated upon his election as mayor. Cora Barry has signed on as campaign chair for newcomer Eydie Whittington, a Ward 8 Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner.
When Ted Gay‘s multitude of friends read his obituary last weekend, many learned for the first time that he had been a decorated combat Marine during the Vietnam War. Some knew him as the gentle, bald and bearded mountain of a man who enjoyed canoeing the boundary lakes along the Canadian border, or inviting a dozen or so friends to his Shenandoah mountain retreat above Culpeper. Others knew him as the Capitol Hill gallery and frame-shop owner who cultivated promising artists from St. Martin to Moscow. Or as the skillful political organizer who turned out the vote that elected mayors and councilmembers.
Gay was a refuge of calm in a fast-paced world, a rare person who liked to hear about and help others more than talk of himself. He never seemed too busy, even at the peak intensity of the political storms he dwelled in, to take a moment to talk. The last two councilmembers he helped elect—Jack Evans in Ward 2 and Harold Brazil in Ward 6—benefited greatly from his free advice and untiring effort. Gay had set up his political consulting business only three years ago.
He was a bedrock of integrity and an ethical benchmark in a city rampant with self-promoting charlatans. After helping elect Barry mayor in 1978, he was rewarded five years later when Barry had him removed as Democratic Party chairman because Gay refused to put Barry’s political future above everything else, as the mayor demanded. Had Barry not been so intent on pushing away people of Gay’s caliber, he might have spared this city, and himself, the tragedy that followed. And had Sharon Pratt Kelly heeded Gay’s advice instead of trying to play racial politics, she might have become more than just a political aberration.
Gay died suddenly Jan. 12 in St. Martin, French West Indies, where he was vacationing before heading off to Russia to teach budding politicians in that part of the world how to run campaigns. His death robbed the city of the kind of much-needed talent and character in such short supply here.
Services will take place at 1 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 21, at All Souls Unitarian Church, 16th and Harvard Streets NW.