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See Chairman David Clarke screaming, “Goddamn it!” at his aides for not briefing him before a D.C. Council hearing.
See David Clarke, bug-eyed, shrieking at Mayor Marion Barry’s staffers for not delivering a bill in time for a committee meeting.
See David Clarke, towering over a reporter, yelling, “Fuck you! Fuck you!” in response to a question about budget cuts.
See David Clarke bang his head against walls and slap his hands repeatedly across his mouth to prevent another onslaught of rage.
For more than a quarter-century, David Clarke has been a fixture of the District’s political landscape. He built a distinguished rec ord as a civil-rights lawyer and activist. He has served on the council for 17 years—10 of them as chairman. Now, as the second-most-powerful person in the District government and as leader of the legislature, Clarke should be setting the political agenda for a city that badly needs one. But the chairman is a man who seems to be losing control, according to dozens of people interviewed for this story. Even his friends and admirers have begun to worry that Clarke’s emotional health is impairing his ability to do his job. They say he seems to be buckling under the pressure of the city’s budget crisis, and that he is increasingly unpredictable when it comes to deciding where he wants to take the council and the city.
Bernard Demczuk, head of the Mayor’s Office of Intergovernmental Relations, has known the chairman for 20 years and calls himself a Clarke supporter. He considers Clarke “an important historical figure for the District.” But lately, Demczuk says, “I worry about him like I worry about a good friend.”
“Whatever it is that has my friend acting erratic, I hope—for his sake and for the city’s sake—that he can get it under control, in order to help provide the leadership we need,” adds Demczuk.
Like Mayor Marion Barry, Clarke resurrected a vanished political career. He had served two terms as council chairman from 1983 through 1991, and following the suicide of beloved Chairman John Wilson in 1993, residents sought him out again as cavalry and comforter for a suffering city.
Clarke returned to office touting the slogan “Experience Counts.” But now Washingtonians are learning that it doesn’t. All Clarke’s years in the District Building aren’t adding up to discernible leadership. Not unlike Barry, Clarke is a politician trapped in the past. Faced with a city government on the verge of collapse, he has responded with rage and incoherence. He lacks the fiscal dexterity of his predecessor, and sometimes doesn’t seem to understand debits and credit. Even when he can read the balance sheet, say critics, Clarke focuses obsessively on irrelevant details, entirely losing sight of the big picture. And instead of molding a potent legislature ready to fight a seasoned and adept mayor, the control board, and an impatient Congress, Clarke is presiding over a weak and ever-more-divided council.
“People take comfort in some leadership; these are tough times,” says Ward 6 Councilmember Harold Brazil. “And when you’re looking for leadership, naturally you look to the chair.
“[But] when you look that way,” Brazil continues, “you don’t get that warm feeling that the ship is in good hands.”
The council’s paralysis, warn some D.C. observers, could open a window for a full federal takeover.
“If [Clarke and the mayor] don’t get off the damn dime, we’re going to have a receiver overseeing all the other receivers within a year,” says radio commentator and former Barry aide Julius Hobson Jr.
On this Friday afternoon, Clarke is thoroughly calm, if slightly distracted, when he greets me in his Wilson Building office. No fan of the press, Clarke took three weeks to decide whether to sit for a 45-minute interview. But today he seems ready to push aside his habitual irritation with the District’s media corps. (Though not all of it: Two aides, including Clarke’s new Chief of Staff Tina Smith, join us for the interview. And the chairman’s press secretary flips on a large tape recorder before we start.)
Clarke, who stands an imposing 6-foot-5, folds his frame into a straight-back chair. His face is chiseled, an African mask carved in white: the eyes sunken, the cheekbones high and protruding, the mouth unsmiling. Never a slave to fashion, he greets me wearing khaki shorts and a garish Hawaiian shirt. It’s his vacation uniform: He and his wife Carol are driving to Rhode Island immediately after the interview to celebrate their son Jeffrey’s 21st birthday.
It’s immediately clear that the chairman is determined to present his kinder, gentler side. His voice doesn’t rise one decibel above a normal conversational tone, except when his phone rings in the middle of the interview: “Can’t they get anything right?” he barks. The brief flash of annoyance hints at how low his boiling point is. After this outburst, his press secretary soothes him as he might calm a child, practically cooing: “Don’t worry about it. Somebody will get it.”
Though I ask broad questions about the issues facing the council, the interview quickly devolves into the minutiae that Clarke is infamous for. He glances down at a pad filled with notes, and launches into an epic account of the District’s budget woes—Parts I, II, and III. The Complete Works of Dave Clarke.
“When I came as the council chair, the budget figures were in disorder….It was awful,” he says. “The budget presentation lacked much of the detail I was used to. I presumed it was because something was being hidden. It was a mess.”
“We had some flexibility in ’95, and we did the rainy-day fund,” he continues, heading off into budget purgatory. He then proceeds to catalog budget item after budget item: the decision to raise the sales tax; then the decision to lower the sales tax; the decision to lower the gasoline tax….
This is Clarke-speak, a language that is all trees and no forest.
Clarke has also brought a report or two or three to show me. A report on the long-term impact of D.C. short-term borrowing. A report on his comprehensive platform for tackling the city’s fiscal crisis. A report that covers his budget plans—all the way back to 1984. Another report he can’t find at first and then locates, stapled to the back of another report.
Just hours after the Friday interview, Clarke sends me yet another report. On Monday, another report arrives by courier. Tuesday he has a staffer fax a Washington Post editorial praising his plan to solve the District’s unfunded pension-liability problem. I asked Clarke’s staffers for his legislative record since 1993: This limited request morphs into a box of documents that covers his entire council career, beginning with his record as Ward 1’s representative during the mid-’70s.
The only thing that Clarke hasn’t written a report about is his state of mind. He responds to a question about his renowned temper with uncharacteristic brevity: “Yes, I am an intense person. But I think people want integrity over intensity,” he says.
“The intensity is not much of an issue,” he continues. “People do not have a problem with a person who pushes very hard.”
And as for his outbursts, well, “I’ve had eight budgets and two elections in two years.”
As the interview approaches the 45-minute mark, Clarke’s staff pushes him to finish it so he can get out of town. He reluctantly agrees. Carol Clarke arrives and says hello. The interview ends with everyone smiling cheerfully.
I leave his inner office and wait by the receptionist’s desk for a box of documents. Even before I head into the hall, I can hear Clarke behind the closed door of his office. A string of “goddamns” fills the air.
Any institution, for better or worse, reflects its leader’s personality and style. Under former Speaker Tom Foley (D-Wash.), for example, the House was congenial and less energized. With the arrival of Speaker Newt Gingrich—a self-proclaimed “revolutionary”—the House is rushing to pass the most radical agenda in a generation, and Newtisms are invading the speech of all House members—even Democrats.
The D.C. Council chairman’s personality is equally contagious. During some meetings, At-Large Councilmember William Lightfoot raises his voice two decibles to be heard above a frazzled Clarke. Other days, aging At-Large Councilmember Hilda Mason mimics the chairman’s general irritation with constituents, blasting the testimony of District residents who fail to agree with her. And when Ward 8 Councilmember Eydie Whittington flip-flops on an issue in the middle of a vote, she snaps in Clarkesque style: “I changed my mind!”
The council mirrors Clarke’s indecisiveness as well as his ill temper. Consider this summer’s epic battle over a simple building lease—a struggle where the council tangled with both the mayor and the Congress, and humiliated itself. Barry’s longtime friend and political ally, R. Donahue Peebles, proposed to rent two buildings to the District government to house 720 city employees. The workers needed to be relocated from offices on G Street NW so that construction on the downtown arena could begin. Other developers and councilmembers questioned Peebles’ proposal, arguing that the city could get a cheaper deal from someone other than a Barry crony.
The lease presented the perfect opportunity for the council to assert itself. It could either reject the lease outright, arguing that the city didn’t need any additional space for workers; demand a cheaper deal, striking a blow for fiscal responsibility; or accept the lease, announcing that the arena is too valuable a project to jeopardize. So when Barry sent the council a request to approve the multimillion-dollar, 15-year lease agreement in August, what did Clarke do? The chairman wrung his hands for days, then decided not to take any action at all.
Just days before the legislature was scheduled for summer recess, Sen. William Cohen (R-Maine) stepped in, telling the council to take action before Sept. 13 and mandating a review of the proposed Peebles lease before then. Now there was a deadline, but the council still didn’t act. Clarke stalled, then recessed the council, then stalled another week after the council returned. By Sept. 8, when Clarke finally called a special meeting, the council still had not acted on the lease. And it didn’t have to: At the 11th hour, Clarke and the council were saved from having to make any decision when Barry withdrew the Peebles proposal. Now, two weeks after Cohen’s Sept. 13 deadline, Barry is considering two other lease agreements.
Most disturbing about the council’s (in)action is that Clarke and his colleagues refused to grapple with the fundamental fiscal questions raised by the lease. Why does the District need office space when it’s eliminating 5,200 positions over the next 12 months? And can D.C. afford to rent new space when its projected deficit approaches $150 million?
Clarke displayed a similar genius for paralysis over the issue of job cuts ordered by the control board. In August, just as the council was about to recess for the summer, the board told D.C. to eliminate another 704 jobs from the city’s bloated bureaucracy. A frustrated Clarke refused to call a special council session, saying he didn’t know where fellow councilmembers were. Later that week, Clarke boarded a plane to the Philippines, laying the entire mess at Barry’s feet. When the council came back to work—just days before the Senate appropriations committee held a hearing on the District’s budget—Clarke and his colleagues decided simply to accept Barry’s plan. Rather than do its job by exerting legislative authority, the council abdicated to the mayor.
The council, say observers, is not only directionless, but needlessly chaotic. Everyone is trying to lead because Clarke can’t. “[Clarke] does not have a working or ideological majority. He has to continuously recreate a consensus for every vote,” says American University law professor Jamin Raskin. “Dave Clarke does not have a whole bunch of loyalists on the council; there are 13 generals and no soldiers.”
Clarke seems bruised by the criticism, “Look, I’m the leader of a group of people who have different points of views,” he counters.
“Yes, I’ve had to build consensus on every issue. I don’t think we are factionalized. And we’ve not had too many tight votes,” he continues. “I’ve been effective at building a consensus, [but it’s] not always the same consensus. The members’ interests are different.”
Clarke is typically dogged in defense of his leadership skills: He cites his attention to the city’s fiscal problems as far back as 1989. He says he led the council in cutting $140 million from the budget last year. He points out his plan to ease the strain of D.C.’s multibillion-dollar unfunded pension liability. And, Clarke says, he used his friendship with labor unions to convince them to accept the pay reduction approved by the council earlier this year.
“I can’t think of anything I put out there that the council didn’t follow,” he says.
But critics inside and outside of the Wilson Building say the chairman refuses to establish any government priorities. Instead, he seems to stake out positions randomly, concentrating on his own pet issues. Newer arrivals to the council are stunned by its fecklessness.
“The council is not mission-driven, it’s not outcome-driven, and it’s not goal-driven,” declares Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson, who was elected to office less than a year ago and hasn’t been shy about expressing her frustration with the way things don’t get done.
“Any institution has to have a plan,” she adds.
And the council, needless to say, does not have one, as Clarke proved when he testified early this month before a House subcommittee marking up D.C.’s fiscal 1996 budget. While Barry used the occasion to outline a future in which Congress assumes responsibility for statelike functions—prisons, Medicaid, and so forth—the chairman delivered Clarke-speak. He meticulously recounted how the council followed control board recommendations. Then he chastised the subcommittee for proposals expected to be attached to the budget bill that would alter the school board and rent control. Clarke told the subcommittee members that the city and the council had done enough, and that Congress should butt out of city business.
“That, gentleman, ought to be the end of it,” Clarke said looking up from his paper for the first time and staring over his reading glasses straight into the eyes of subcommittee members.
But Clarke doesn’t seem to understand the Hill’s skepticism, says Brazil. “The Congress saw a captainless ship. They didn’t have any confidence and didn’t give us [the council] any power,” he continues. “The less willing we are to make the tough decisions, the more home rule we are forced to give up.”
The biggest obstacle facing Clarke may be his tenacious hold on the liberal past, when the government was all things to all people and there was enough money to pay for it. But today the city faces bankruptcy, and a new generation of councilmembers is trying to redefine the council’s mission.
“There are some people who think the government should be all things—big mama, big daddy, uncle—it’s almost a socialist perspective. I’m not saying that’s wrong. But it’s just not a workable philosophy any longer. Reality just stepped in,” argues Brazil.
It’s a reality that Clarke has been slow to acknowledge. Take the bitter struggle over property taxes that divided the council for much of last fall and winter. Property tax hikes were going to take effect automatically. In preparing the 1995 budget, the council expected $32 million to be generated by the increase; it counted that amount as anticipated revenues. The tax hike would especially hit commercial property owners, who would surely pass it on to tenants—store and apartment renters. Some councilmembers objected: The city, they said, had taxed too many businesses and residents to the suburbs. They voted to rescind the tax hike.
Clarke attempted, in a series of complicated legislative maneuvers, to prevent the rollback. He lost. Ultimately, a bloc of seven members prevailed and returned the property tax rate to its 1994 level.
Clarke says he fought for the tax because the city had promised it to Wall Street investors. “I felt the city should not go back as a matter of principle,” he says. And he denies that his support of the tax hike represents a general love of taxation. “There’s a vision of me that I’m this big tax guy. But if you look at my recommendations to cut sales tax, gas tax, and foreign-source income tax….”
Nothing epitomizes Clarke’s nostalgia for the past better than his unflagging support for the D.C. School of Law. He taught there after he lost the 1990 mayoral election, and he has protected the school obsessively ever since.
Many Washingtonians and most folks in Congress agree with Clarke that the law school is a noble ideal. But they insist that a city that can’t fully fund its secondary education system certainly can’t afford to train lawyers. Former Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly twice targeted the law school for elimination. Some, like Hobson, urge that city money used to capitalize the law school be redirected to private law schools to fund scholarships for D.C. residents.
But true to his ’60s origins, Clarke believes passionately in the school’s mission of providing low-cost legal education to Washingtonians and offering cheap legal services to the poor. So he has been its white knight, frantically lobbying behind the scenes to save it from the budget ax. Earlier this year, some councilmembers sought once again to slam the door to the school. But Clarke called in almost every political chit he has to keep the school open. He managed to preserve the D.C. School of Law (by now fondly known as the “Dave Clarke School of Law”) by merging it with the University of the District of Columbia.
If Clarke chose a theme song, it might be “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” No one questions Clarke’s intentions, which are always good. And no one denies that Clarke is a man of true principles. But his inability to temper his missionary zeal disturbs many. Friends and enemies alike consider him obsessive; some of them call him “weird” and “strange.”
In the ’80s, for example, Clarke, like many Washingtonians, opposed horse-drawn carriages. But he baffled city residents when he donned a harness and pulled a carriage several blocks up Pennsylvania Avenue NW, dramatically demonstrating the plight of the beasts.
A rabid gun-control advocate, Clarke brought a similar passion to his campaign to hold gun manufacturers liable for injuries inflicted by assault weapons. In 1991, when he was out of office, he organized ministers, trained them in political strategies, legalese, and media jargon to win passage of a city-sponsored liability law. Clarke became fixated on passing the gun-control measure, working nearly 24 hours a day and seven days a week, remembers the Rev. Albert Gallmon, who worked with him on the effort.
“If it had not been for the chairman, we would not have been able to reach as many ministers. He shared his political savvy, he did all the homework, all the research, and drilled us to make sure we knew what we were talking about,” Gallmon says.
“He was already out of office,” continues Gallmon, “so it was not something that was going to get him elected. It was from his heart.”
The chairman’s sacrificial style doesn’t sit well with everyone. Last year when the council was trying to meet a congressionally imposed deadline, Clarke and much of his staff slept in their Wilson Building offices. Clarke’s budget director, Carol Myers, took early retirement after that budget season.
This year when the council was forced to meet another tight deadline, Clarke repeated the slumber party: “He was three days in the same suit,” says one council staffer.
“I was in shock a lot of times; I never saw anybody like that,” says a former Clarke employee.
Clarke actually bought a bed for his office. He says the couch was too short for him.
And, unlike most politicians, Clarke is so focused on his issues that he hardly gives a thought to his appearance. A former staffer tells the story about the time Clarke and his wife posed for a photograph for a Christmas card to constituents. He wore a lovely Afghan sweater, purchased specially from a nearby department store. The price tag never came off the garment. Immediately after the shoot, Clarke sent a staff person to return the sweater and get a refund.
The devil made Flip Wilson mischievous, but religion and the civil rights movement—for some civil rights advocates the two were synonymous—sculpted Clarke.
A native Washingtonian, Clake was born in 1943, the child of a teacher and a government clerk. He grew up in Shaw and graduated from Western High School. He rarely mentions it, but Clarke received his Bachelor of Arts degree in religion from George Washington University, and he planned to become a minister. He enrolled in Crozier Seminary—the Chester, Pa., institution that graduated the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. King and other ministers of the civil rights movement inspired Clarke with their fiery orations: “It was in the middle of the 1960s, you know. It was the “change the world’ kind of time, and I had seen religious leaders were at the head of everything,” the chairman now says.
Once Clarke was drawn into the movement, he never left. Though he dropped out of seminary after two weeks, he headed immediately toward Dr. King’s other profession, activism. He became fascinated with the Upland Institute for Social Change and Conflict Management, which was located on the seminary’s campus. The institute trained organizers and sent them to communities around the country. Immediately after dropping out of the seminary, Clarke enrolled in Upland. When it came time for his field assignment, the organization planned to send him to a church. He pleaded to be sent home to the District where he could join the fight for home rule. He was hired by the Rev. Walter Fauntroy, who then worked for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Clarke was paid $25 per week.
Clarke returned to D.C. in 1965, the same year another civil rights organizer, Marion Barry, arrived from the South, also to start agitating for home rule. Soon after Clarke arrived, he met Frank Reeves, a professor at Howard University School of Law and a civil rights and home rule activist. Clarke became enamored of Reeves, whom he says was like a father to him. Clarke wanted to follow in Reeves’ footsteps, so in 1966 he enrolled at Howard’s law school—one of only a handful of white students there—and became Reeves’ research assistant.
During law school, Clarke clerked for the NAACP legal defense fund. He graduated in 1969, and in 1971, after a stint with the U.S. Senate Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, he became counsel and director of the Washington Bureau of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a position where he lobbied and litigated to make King’s birthday a national holiday. In 1973, he married Carol Leavitt.
By 1974, the civil rights lawyer’s love of causes garnered him a reputation for taking the case of any indigent who came to him.
“If you got in trouble, everybody knew to go get Dave Clarke because you didn’t have to pay him,” recalls Jerry Cooper, a friend and adviser who met Clarke in the early ’70s.
When the city finally won limited home rule in 1974, Cooper encouraged Clarke to run for the District’s new council. Clarke agreed, launching his bid for the Ward 1 seat. He ran against Conrad Smith (now a riverboat gambling advocate) and legendary Latino activist Carlos Rosario, among others.
“A few of us joined Dave and put on the campaign; his wife was quite pregnant then and worked worse than a slave, which is the way she always works,” continues Cooper. “And the night of the campaign we were watching the returns and the next thing we know we’re leading on the first count. We didn’t have a victory party planned. And we didn’t have a campaign office because we worked right out of Dave’s one-bedroom apartment.”
“We called the man who owned Avignone Freres at the time and he said, “Y’all can come around here because we don’t have that many customers at night,’ ” laughs Cooper. “Dave was the only attorney that won in that whole election. Everybody else was a community activist.”
Clarke took his place on the new council alongside Marion Barry, Julius Hobson Sr., Arrington Dixon, Nadine Winter, and Sterling Tucker.
“Here was this young man doing a lot of work for the council,” remembers Cooper, noting that Clarke rewrote many pre-home-rule laws for the new city. “He made a lot of friends.”
Clarke represented Ward 1 until 1982. That year, Marion Barry, by now elevated to the mayor’s office, gave Clarke his big break. Barry refused to endorse Council Chairman Arrington Dixon’s bid for a second term. Clarke opposed Dixon and won the chairmanship.
In 1990, ambition and a weakened Marion Barry spurred Clarke to give up his chairmanship in a risky run for mayor. He faced two of his colleagues—Councilmembers John Ray and Charlene Drew Jarvis—as well as former D.C. Delegate Fauntroy and upstart business executive Sharon Pratt Kelly. Well-timed endorsements by the Washington Post catapulted Kelly to victory. Clarke limped home in fourth place with 11 percent of the vote. In Dream City: Race, Power, and the Decline of Washington, D.C., Harry S. Jaffe and Tom Sherwood write that Meg Greenfield, editorial page editor for the Post, said that Clarke was “too liberal and lacked leadership skills.”
And, no doubt, too white. Privately, political observers contend that the Post couldn’t endorse the only white person in the campaign: “Could you imagine how that would have been perceived?” says one council staffer.
Cooper, Gallmon, and many of Clarke’s friends and foes say that Clarke will never be elected mayor because of his skin color. “In this city, you’re not going to find a brother who would say, “We got some brothers running, why not elect a brother [instead of someone white]?’ ” explains Cooper.
A hint of reticence shadows Clarke’s face when the question of his race is raised. “People of Washington who are Washingtonians have been kind to me,” he says. “In 1990, peculiar things happened. Color is not an issue.”
But it’s not a white thang for most of Clarke’s critics, it’s a vision thang. They can’t see where he’s taking them, and they don’t think he can lead the council.
“Dave does not have the personality to cajole, to try to mold. He doesn’t even have the ability to compromise, which as far as I am concerned does not make him a good chairman,” says former Ward 7 Councilmember Willie Hardy, echoing many critics.
Clarke’s real misfortune may be that he is a victim of history—caught at the wrong time, in the wrong place, and following in the wrong footsteps.
“I miss John Wilson,” says Hobson.
Everyone, it seems, misses Wilson. Bumper stickers proclaiming “I Miss John Wilson” are appearing on cars around the city. And, without prompting, Wilson’s name escapes the lips of nearly everyone interviewed for this article.
At the same time he battles his own flaws, Clarke is battling Wilson’s ghost. Even the building where Clarke works—the John Wilson Building—is a reminder of how revered his predecessor is.
Unfortunately for Clarke, most of his weaknesses were Wilson’s strengths. As volatile as Clarke (though a considerably better dresser), Wilson made friends of his enemies, an art Clarke has yet to discover. And if Wilson couldn’t befriend his foes, he used his political influence to render them insignificant. Even more important, Wilson won his way into the hearts of District residents with his fiscal acumen. He not only understood the difference between a cash shortfall and a budget deficit, he was able to translate accounting jargon into layman’s language. Regular folks understood him, so they came to trust what he said. They believed Wilson more than the GAO analysts, the mayor, or any other member of the council.
From 1991-93, it was Wilson, not Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, who set the city’s agenda. The District’s budget was his domain. Even before Kelly had time to compute the projected deficit for a fiscal year, Wilson already knew and had told the entire city. Before Kelly devised her budget solutions, Wilson had already run two or three up the flagpole. He was the city’s Jeremiah, reminding Kelly, Congress, and voters that the city’s fiscal woes were even worse than they seemed.
“He was among the smartest persons on [the council] in regard to the budget. I learned a lot from him,” says Hardy. “Dave Clarke is no John Wilson.”
“Dave doesn’t understand the budget,” Hobson adds.
Brazil says Wilson was effective because of his “depth of understanding about how government works and how the pieces fit together.”
Wilson had been diagnosed with clinical depression, but few residents knew of his illness. His suicide shocked the city, robbing Washington of a brilliant politician whose best years clearly lay ahead of him. Like a rejected lover, D.C. voters sought the familiar. They knew Clarke; they’d survived him before. And what’s more, they knew he was trustworthy; everyone, even his harshest critics, praises Clarke for his honesty and dedication to his hometown. He easily won a 1993 special election over Charlene Drew Jarvis and Linda Cropp.
What Washingtonians didn’t realize when they elected Clarke was that they had become quite comfortable with Wilson’s style. He had forged a consensus. He had held information in his breast pocket, crippling members’ ability to argue against his position. When members fell out of line, he whipped them into shape by snatching part of their committee’s authority.
By contrast, Chairman Clarke had been accused of being a rubber stamp for Barry during the ’80s. Wilson made the legislative branch an equal part of the government, at times bullying Kelly into compromises. He championed a consistent, broad reform agenda. He pushed incessantly for a balanced budget, but he also focused heavily on crime and punishment. Education received his attention, as did the plight of the city’s young people. And residents always knew what he stood for.
“John Wilson is a hard act to follow,” says Brazil.
Clarke won’t bad-mouth Wilson. “His way was different from mine, and that’s all right.
“People in the public want a strong voice out there,” continues Clarke, noting that the home rule charter invested great power in the chairmanship. “But it has to be a corporate effort. It has to be an institutional effort. My way was to open it up.”
Admittedly, there were difficult moments under the late chairman. He was by no means a saint. Sometimes he could be heard outside the council chamber on the fifth floor of the building now named after him, cussing out a reporter or blasting the mayor, in graphic language. Still, he managed to reingratiate himself with those who, only moments earlier, had been the target of his ire.
“Whatever the issue was, John was on top of it; he knew where he wanted to go,” explains Brazil. “He immediately tried to get some order.
“He was a man with a plan,” adds Brazil.
The future of the District is looking a whole lot like its past: an unruly Congress and a number-crunching control board that bears an unfortunate resemblance to the old commissioners. And what remains of home rule faces another threat from Congress. Despite Gingrich’s recent intervention, the House and Senate D.C. appropriations subcommittees are sure to pass budgets that stomp all over self-government.
And the city’s elected officials have done little but wail about Republicans. Washingtonians are skeptical of the council, and nothing will change their perception of a visionless chairman and a do-nothing legislature except an aggressive plan to reinvent the District government. Instead of fighting its usual rear-guard action against Congress and the control board, the council must beat them to the punch by specifying which programs should be eliminated, spelling out how to generate new revenue, and attempting to re-energize a disillusioned citizenry. But the council can’t reinvent the government until it reinvents itself. Unfortunately for D.C., Clarke is more likely to buy an Armani suit than to change himself to suit the times.
Rather than present any large scheme for remaking the tottering District government, Clarke is waiting for the control board. And asked whether he would send any agencies to the chopping block, Clarke waffles: “I don’t think you can define priorities by agencies in or agencies out.”
Clarke doesn’t seem to understand that choosing what functions a city should perform is exactly how government sets priorities. How important is the Office of Business and Economic Development? What about the Committee to Promote Washington, D.C.? Or the mayor’s Office of Constituent Services? Or the bevy of public-information offices throughout the city government? Are they more important than, say, more funding for schools, or trash collection, or the police department? It isn’t enough to simply cut positions on paper. The council was elected to decide what the District government should look like after all the carving is done.
But Clarke doesn’t want to do that. He admits that there needs to be a serious examination of personnel and programs, “not just FTE [full-time-equivalent] reductions.” But he hasn’t established even an advisory task force to begin such a process. He wants desperately to restore the middle-class population lost over the past decade by improving education and reducing crime, but he has no plan to achieve those objectives.
A new cast of characters may have to join the council before any real changes can be expected from the folks at the Wilson Building, says Hobson. Expecting Clarke to lead the council back onto the stage is like “trying to put toothpaste back in the tube once it’s already out,” Hobson says.
It’s not surprising that District residents are in a foul mood about their elected leaders. They may demonstrate their dissatisfaction in 1996 by sweeping incumbents out of office. (Clarke, however, is safe until 1998.)
“The city is ready for a new direction on the council,” says Raskin. “The question is: Who can lead it?”