Get our free newsletter
D.C. residents are numb from the month-long barrage of bad-news headlines, all screaming that the city is broke and badly needs to be fixed. Each morning brings another depressing realization that no one seems to be in charge here, and that those in power don’t realize—or refuse to admit—how much this city will suffer for their failures. All that’s missing is the one headline that could offer hope for the future: “Entire D.C. Council Resigns, Leaves Town: Mayor Soon to Follow.”
When governments and corporations find themselves in states this sorry, heads roll. Regimes fall, companies are taken over, and fresh leaders emerge to offer new direction. But not in D.C. Instead, District residents watch supplicant Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. bonding with loose-cannon House Speaker Newt Gingrich over “radical enterprise zones” to aid crime-ridden inner-city neighborhoods. And frantic-looking Council Chairman Dave Clarke—the Alexander Haig of D.C. politics—bombards citizens with assurances that the council is taking charge and “doing the best that we can on everything that we can because it is our government, and our people.”
The most disheartening part of this crisis is that those who have done the most to push the District into the abyss are now rushing forward to rescue it. That’s like the heads of the country’s failed savings and loans attempting to take over the Federal Reserve. The very politicians who betrayed home rule by failing to govern wisely now want to write the blueprint for the next experiment in government in the nation’s capital—and, no doubt, preserve as much of their turf as possible.
Only D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton still holds the confidence of most city residents; she is also the official who has made the most sense lately. Last week, Norton called for an outside, federally appointed control board to run the city until the current mess is straightened out. Her proposal would reduce the mayor and councilmembers to mere advisers, bystanders, and errand-runners.
Norton realizes that D.C.’s political leaders, through inaction or wrong-headedness, have lost all standing with Congress. “We have to begin to restore some credibility,” she said last week, urging congressional approval of her proposal by the end of the month. Her bitter medicine certainly appears more tenable than the prescription offered a week earlier by Barry and Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous. They too proposed setting up a financial oversight board—but one that would remain under the thumb of local officials.
By seizing power from the people who helped create the current mess, Norton hopes to preserve some shreds of self-government after the fallout from the current catastrophe settles. Her move also constitutes an attempt to calm frothing Republicans and soften the avalanche of District-bashing expected at this week’s House hearing on D.C. finances.
Barry, ever the consummate politician, unleashed some moves of his own after Norton called for the immediate intervention of a control board. His Feb. 17 meeting with Gingrich and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp stole the media spotlight from Norton’s proposal, which Barry claims to support. Perhaps Barry also hoped that rubbing elbows with Gingrich would persuade Republican House members to treat him gently at this week’s hearing.
Norton said she was forced to act by the lethargy with which the council and the mayor have responded to the crisis. Her colleagues and constituents, she said, have been asking, “Is anybody awake out there?”
Indeed, those in charge have met the city’s catastrophe with a calm, business-as-usual demeanor, and no wonder. Although the revelations about D.C.’s deficit have shocked most residents, local officials have seen this debacle coming for years. But they refused to take the tough, unpopular actions required to head it off: Every time the council approved the phony budgets sent by a deceptive mayor, it did so knowing that problems were only being pushed into the future.
Even Barry finally admitted to the Washington Post last Sunday, Feb. 19, that he and other councilmembers knew as far back as 1992 that the city’s Medicaid program was amassing huge debts. Medicaid overspending is the chief engine that has driven the city’s debt to $722 million, the latest figure embraced by the political establishment. Before last weekend’s moment of candor, Barry had wrung his hands and said he had no idea before he returned to his old office six weeks ago that the city’s financial mess was this bad. He blamed the entire problem onformer Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, even though unpaid Medicaid bills piled up during his prior administrations, when the city actually had the money to pay them but didn’t.
Also in last Sunday’s Post, columnist Courtland Milloy penned a nauseating paean to Barry as the savior of the city. Milloy in effect said the city had chosen wisely in electing a rehabilitated addict because Barry, in recovery from alcohol and drug abuse, can now apply the 12-step program to the District.
The first of the 12 steps requires an admission of powerlessness and lack of control over one’s own destiny. The second step calls for submission to a higher power. Milloy said Barry acted with “honesty and humility” two weeks ago when he declared the city unmanageable and home rule unworkable (Step 1), and offered to give major portions of local government back to the feds (Step 2). Now, Milloy proposed, the city should do the same—admit that it can’t control its own destiny—to prepare for the uncertain future.
But somehow, Barry doesn’t seem the model of recovery. During the Feb. 2 news conference when he supposedly launched the city on the road to sobriety, Hizzoner sought once again to blame everything on Kelly. LL has examined the 12-step program, and can’t find anything about passing the buck. Rather than being honest and humble, Barry may have acted out of self-preservation, offering to return certain District functions to the federal government in hopes that the Republican-controlled Congress will not take over his entire domain.
Instead ofo depending on Barry, D.C. residents need to start a new recovery program for the fallen politicians who wrecked the city’s home-rule dreams. The first step would require pols to stop echoing the refrain that home rule was doomed from the outset; instead, they should admit their own culpability in the failure of self-governance.
Barry can start by confessing that he viewed D.C.’s bureaucracy as his own personal jobs program rather than as the vehicle of a noble experiment in home rule. Then At-Large D.C. Councilmember Linda Cropp can step forward and explain where she has been the last two years. Cropp chairs the council’s oversight committee on Medicaid spending, but failed to tackle the malignant problem after being warned in 1992. After Cropp, the other councilmembers can take turns revealing their sins. They’ll feel better afterward.
After finishing that first step—stepping forward—the elected officials can take the second: stepping aside.
Apparently Shadow U.S. Senator/D.C. statehood advocate Jesse Jackson has done so already. Although elected to promote the city before the Senate, Jackson hasn’t addressed the current crisis. His unusual silence has sparked speculation that he’s either in the witness-protection program or living somewhere with Bigfoot.
If the council follows Jackson’s lead, the city can cope just fine under the outside review board. In fact, the balance of power has already shifted from city hall to Capitol Hill. On Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day, Norton, House D.C. Subcommittee Chairman Tom Davis (R-Va.), and House D.C. Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman James Walsh (R-N.Y.) traveled to the District Building to hear the council explain its conduct. That meeting symbolized the change that is under way.
Look on the bright side. The city can save itself 14 salaries when the mayor and the councilmembers exit. And Norton can—at least for the time being—take over running the city and protecting its interests on Capitol Hill.
After all, she’s the only one who still has credibility.
CHOOSING BARRY’S SUCCESSOR
The battle to choose Ward 8’s D.C. Council successor to Marion Barryhas all the trappings of a Shakespearean drama. Barry is the acknowledged king of the ward he adopted only three short years ago on the way to his political comeback. But his attempt to name Eydie Whittington as his successor has stirred rebellion throughout the land. The unfolding drama offers enough characters to stock several of the bard’s plays.
One of the leads, Sandy Allen, took center stage this past Monday when she officially announced her candidacy. Allen could pose a serious threat to the king because she, along with campaign manager Bob Bethea, built the Ward 8 political machine that in only three years carried Barry from the jailhouse to the council and the mayor’s office. Without Allen and Bethea, Barry’s machine may not remain intact for Whittington.
“[Allen] opened the doors of Ward 8 for Mr. Barry in ’92,” observed Bethea, a longtime friend of Barry’s. In last year’s mayoral race, Bethea ran Barry’s Ward 8 campaign.
Allen launched her campaign this week before an impressive turnout of about 90 supporters. They cheered knowingly as she was described as the most experienced and best qualified “home-grown” candidate—a dig at Whittington, a newcomer to the ward. Allen enters the race with a deep history of Ward 8 involvement and 15 years of experience in city government, including a stint as an aide to then-Councilmember Barry. The candidate immediately picked up an endorsement from Ward 8 school board member Linda Moody, whom Barry unsuccessfully tried to unseat last fall.
In her announcement, Allen proved that she has learned well from the master. Taking a page from Barry, she repeatedly invoked God and pride in Ward 8, the city’s poorest ward. She also displayed a Barrylike talent for crowd-pleasing rhetoric.
“Now there are those who will say I’m not polished enough, not articulate enough, not experienced enough, not young enough, not pretty enough, or not educated enough to represent Ward 8 on the city council,” said the 51-year-old candidate. “But they can never say I wasn’t dedicated enough, caring enough, hard-working enough, or devoted enough to bring political, economic, and social parity to the citizens of Ward 8.”
Besides her obvious gifts, Allen also possesses another advantage: She is seen as a victim. Ward 8 voters talk openly about how Allen, through her hard work and devotion to Barry, had earned his endorsement. But she didn’t get it, they say, because the queen, Cora Masters Lady MacBarry, doth despise and distrust another woman so close to her husband, whose keen eye for the skirt is well known throughout the kingdom. So, neighborhood legend has it, Lady MacBarry was able to convince her pliable husband to turn away Allen for newcomer Whittington.
Stay tuned. The story is just beginning.
Another who feels that he and Ward 8 residents have been dissed by Hizzoner’s choice of a successor is William Lockridge, who announced his candidacy on Saturday, Feb. 18. Last fall, with Barry’s endorsement, Lockridge ran for the school board against Moody; that race boosted his name recognition, making him a serious contender for the council seat.
Announcing his candidacy before some 30 supporters, Lockridge took a slap at Barry’s new chosen one by referring to the spending cuts in social programs now pending before the council—cuts that especially affect Ward 8. “This,” he said, “is not the time to be represented by a neophyte.”