It’s amazing how often the old good cop/bad cop routine works in a town as sophisticated as this one. In that old shtick, a pair of partners squeeze information from a recalcitrant source. One partner plays the bad cop, badgering the source and confronting him belligerently. The other partner plays the good cop, pretending to be far more sympathetic. Journalists and politicians long ago elevated the routine to an art. And now, Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. is taking it to a higher level.
Barry doesn’t even need a partner; he can easily play both roles all by himself. For several weeks, Dr. Barry/Mr. Hyde preached defiance, vowing not to be part of any congressionally created D.C. control board—which Hizzoner insists must only be referred to as a “financial recovery board.” Responding to congressional actions to bail out the District, he talked about slavery and introduced the subtext of race. And he proposed what he called a “miracle budget,” which avoids cutting the D.C. work force by violating a federal cap on city spending.
All of this angered, alienated, or bewildered members of Congress, including the member Barry was hoping to make his soul mate, House Speaker Newt Gingrich. But it inspired Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy to pen a worshipful, one-dimensional March 12 column praising Barry for refusing to bow down and carry out the dirty work of the slavemaster Congress. Milloy’s column even went so far as to raise the specter of riots in the city, if Congress tried to push Barry too far. Now, no one has been harsher on Barry than LL over the past dozen years. But we would never accuse Barry of a willingness to see the city go up in flames again to get the respect he feels he and the city deserve.
Last week, the good cop side of Barry emerged, with considerable prodding from House D.C. Subcommittee Chairman Tom Davis (R-Va.) and D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. In his March 24 news conference, Barry was all sweetness and light. He reversed statements he made on March 10, and said that he was now willing to serve on the control—oops, “financial recovery”—board. “I didn’t say I wouldn’t be on it, if that’s what they want me to do,” he claimed. This performance didn’t move Milloy to make any comment at all. Last weekend, he didn’t even pen his usual Sunday offering.
Barry said that he called the news conference to “set the record straight,” but he seemed more intent on revising recent history. He denied that he had ever uttered a word against the control—we mean, “financial recovery”—board. And he insisted that he had never compared the impending congressional action to slavery, though he had made that exact comparison in a speech to city workers just four days earlier.
Since Barry returned to power, he has perfected a strategy for dealing with his own flip-flops and self-contradictions: He loudly, steadfastly denies his previous words, and demands that the media produce the exact quote and moment in which he made such a statement. The tactic doesn’t work in the long term, but at least it momentarily stumps inquiring reporters.
WRC-TV reporter Tom Sherwood was probably the only journalist at last week’s news conference who bought Barry’s line that he hasn’t changed; Sherwood even told the mayor that he was being “consistent.” Just as Sherwood could find nothing right in former Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, he seems able to find nothing wrong in Barry.
Sherwood’s instant analysis was that Hizzoner was being conciliatory because Capitol Hill was giving him everything he wanted regarding the “financial recovery board” (see, LL can get it right). But by the time Sherwood went on the air a few hours later, he had sobered up from watching Barry, and reported that the mayor’s act was, indeed, a bow to political pressure.
Even while preaching defiance, Barry was playing the good cop/bad cop routine by privately staking out a more reasonable position in negotiations with Congress. Davis, Norton, and even the more critical chairman of the House D.C. appropriations subcommittee, Rep. James Walsh (R-N.Y.) publicly said they understood, and didn’t mind, Barry’s need to play to his political constituency. But Hizzoner’s words and deeds angered hard-liners in the House, increasing the risk that unwanted, home-rule-diminishing amendments could be attached to the legislation creating the board. (That legislation is expected on the floors of the House and Senate this week and next.)
So Barry was summoned to Capitol Hill just hours before last week’s news conference to meet with Davis and Norton, who told him to cool it. Barry later refused to admit to making the trek to Davis’ office—“That’s not important,” he said when asked where the meeting took place. Nor did he confess that he’d been advised to mind his manners until the legislation clears Congress.
LL must point out that Barry has been consistent in some aspects of his attitude toward creation of this board and his role on it. One, he has consistently indicated that he wants the board; it will make the painful cuts that he recognizes are coming, but that he doesn’t want to make himself for political reasons. Two, he wants to be in a position to take credit for anything good that comes of the board, while avoiding any fallout. And, three, he wants more federal money for the city right away—namely, $300 million this year.
Barry has said that he wants that money to offset the city’s spiraling Medicaid costs. But in last week’s news conference, he also said he’d be willing instead to have the Congress pick up the city’s $295-million annual payment to its pension fund—a move that might be more palatable to a penny-pinching Congress.
These are Barry’s immediate goals, and he’s willing to play good cop/bad cop—or whatever role it takes—to achieve them.
CLEANING HIZZONER’S YARD
When a group of private citizens took reporters on a citywide tour of illegal dump sites March 20—in the wake of the city’s proposal to eliminate trash inspectors, bulk trash collection, and mechanized street cleaning—the traveling troupe encountered a startling sight at the mayor’s new home on Highview Place SE. A bevy of U.S. Park Service employees were cleaning the section of federal parkland that fronts the mayor’s home, located on a cul-de-sac that overlooks the city’s skyline, the Potomac River, and National Airport.
“It’s a little bit perplexing,” said JePhunneh Lawrence, a candidate for Barry’s Ward 8 council seat, who took part in the tour. “Someone has gone in, cut down the trees, dug up the stumps, and that’s now seeded with grass. It may have been for security reasons, but people on the C&O Canal [in Georgetown] can’t just cut down the trees to get a better view. What this does is give a clear view of the city and the river from the mayor’s house. I think that’s one of the most beautiful views in the city.”
“It appears that the front lawn area has been expanded into the park,” he added.
But the Park Service employees weren’t the most startling sight. Four D.C. Department of Public Works (DPW) employees were toiling inside the fence surrounding the house. The workers seemed to have covered the DPW patches on their work suits, but members of the tour group said there was no mistaking the blue uniforms. While the group watched, a DPW truck drove up and began unloading mulch for use on the mayor’s lawn. The truck’s government emblem was also covered.
The workers denied to reporters on the tour that they were employed by the city, but they refused to name their employer. “It did appear to be a little bit curious, let’s say,” offered Lawrence.
Nothing curious about it at all, the mayor’s office and DPW later told a Washington Times reporter. The city crew was repairing damage to the lawn from an earlier installation of security cameras, lights, and telephones on the property. The mayor’s office had no comment on the Park Service employees, since they were not working on Hizzoner’s property.
The trash-inspection tour had gone to Barry’s new neighborhood to point out the old tires, trash, and other rubbish being dumped on federal parkland in Ward 8. The work crews at the Barry home provided an unexpected sideshow.
But the tour didn’t end there. At the old D.C. Coliseum near 3rd and K Streets NE, where the Beatles once played, the reporters and citizen activists found a private company breaking up waste brought from construction sites to resell the steel and other materials to reprocessing firms outside the District. The legality of such “transfer stations” is being contested in court.
“It’s very lucrative, but you cannot get a permit for that in the District of Columbia,” said Lawrence, a lawyer and former federal employee. He said this particular operation had been cited several times by the city, but was still in business on the day of the trash tour last week.
“It was like a subterranean mine shaft in there,” Lawrence said, referring to the noise and the dust inside the abandoned coliseum. He said a supervisor of the activity defended the operation to the unexpected visitors, claiming that it provided jobs to five residents of the surrounding neighborhood.
But when Roll Call columnist Duncan Spencer checked back two days later, the coliseum was empty. The transfer station had disappeared. Lawrence said such operations are scattered all over the eastern half of the city.
Two weeks ago, LL wrote of the slow pace of the DPW in removing an unwanted hill from the Kennedy playground (see “Hill of a Mess,” 3/17). As you perhaps remember, Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans had been pushing city workers to eliminate the hill for security and environmental reasons. But due to bizarre departmental policies, DPW employees worked on the project only one day a week—Saturday, no less—and hauled away only one truckload of dirt each Saturday.
DPW spokesperson Linda Grant says that things have changed. She reports that 30 truckloads of dirt now are being removed each Saturday. That rate represents a 30-fold increase.
But Evans says he hasn’t yet seen evidence that the pace has quickened. “There was a flurry of activity the Saturday after your article,” he said this week. “But last Saturday, it was back to business as usual. The hill is still there.”
Meanwhile, the column stirred former neighborhood resident James Boykins to voice objections to eradicating the hill that, he said, “lifted children up from that flat area. I think this is a terrible loss in resource”….
Speaking of Evans, his March 22 fundraiser has come under fire from supporters of the current campaign-finance law restricting donations to ward candidates to no more than $50 per campaign. The law places no limit on donations to independent political action committees (PACs). Evans last year proposed setting a $2,000 limit on PAC donations as part of a bill that would have raised the current limits on campaign contributions to $1,000.
He says he intends to reintroduce that bill in this council session. Last week’s fundraiser only netted two donations in excess of $1,000, Evans said—one check for $2,000 and another for $2,500. And besides, he said, he does not intend to use this money for campaign purposes, but to attend national political dinners and make donations to Democratic candidates outside the District….
A D.C. Council move this week to revive the tax checkoff could have brought dough into the coffers of the D.C. Democratic State Committee. But the effort failed when Council Chairman Dave Clarke refused to call a special session to override the mayor’s veto. Barry vetoed the bill March 2, and the 30-day override period expires before next week’s regularly scheduled council session. The measure, sponsored by Ward 6 Councilmember Harold Brazil, would have further entrenched D.C.’s dominant political party, which has served the city so miserably.