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Compared to the game of chicken between Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. and the financial control board, the clash between President Bill Clinton and the Newt Gingrich-led Congress looks like two brats jousting on tricycles. The stakes in the Clinton/Gingrich collision are minor: momentary shutdown of the federal government, messy disruption of services, and some political fallout. The body count will be low.
But a head-on crash between Barry and the board would demolish Hizzoner’s government, total home rule, and 911 a federal receiver to the scene to resuscitate the badly injured city. Barry is barreling his Chrysler Imperial down Pennsylvania Avenue, demanding home rule, money, and full control of the city government. The board is thundering up the avenue in an 18-wheeler—toting a full congressional payload—insisting on huge budget cuts and obedience to its orders. If they crash, there won’t be enough body bags on the East Coast to cart off the casualties.
Barry, a master of the game of chicken, recognizes the high stakes, and probably has the good sense to swerve in time. He knows he can’t beat the control board and Congress, with or without Newt’s friendship. The control board, after all, has already become the city’s banker, doling out money like a father giving an allowance to his kids.
Once Barry swerves, however, he will jump back into the road and start the game over. That’s the Barry MO: push and push, delay and delay, then give in—but only an inch—a second before collision is unavoidable. And never admit that you’re not in control.
Wanting to control news about his prostate cancer prompted Barry to hold a news conference Wednesday, a month after being diagnosed. Surrounded by family, friends, and all his staff, Barry got the word out on his medical problem before it appeared elsewhere.
But Barry’s trickier maneuvering came earlier in the week. Anthony Williams, the city’s unwavering chief financial officer (CFO), went to work Monday fully prepared to face off against the mayor if Barry didn’t give him control over the District checkbook. A public protest or resignation by Williams—especially after less than a month on the job—would have destroyed what credibility Barry still has with the board and the Hill.
Knowing that, Hizzoner relented. He waited until Tuesday—the day after Williams had issued his plan for paying the city’s bills—then wrote the CFO ordering him to do what Williams had already done. In his letter, Barry said Williams could decide what checks to issue, but only because Barry was granting him that power, not because Williams has it by law. Treating the CFO as just another aide, Barry wrote that “it is clear that the prerogative rests with the Mayor.”
The letter was backdated to Monday to make it appear that Barry had issued it before Williams acted. Perhaps embarrassed at his own shameless ploy, Barry skipped the Tuesday news conference he hastily called to discuss it. Instead, the mayor sent his spokeswoman, Raymone Bain, and City Administrator Michael Rogers to face a pack of skeptical reporters.
Bain managed to keep a straight face as she insisted the mayor was absent because he was involved in “high-level negotiations over the closing of government.” Bain also insisted that the letter had been written and delivered, by messenger, to Williams the day before the news conference. Williams, however, says that he received the letter while the news conference was in progress. Barry’s office is on the south end of the 11th floor of 1 Judiciary Square, and Williams’ office is on the north end.
The mayor has definitely got to hire a new messenger service.
Now that this week’s head-on has been avoided, Barry will undoubtedly try to recapture his lost power of the purse. Barry doesn’t know how to govern without an open bank account. The mayor once welcomed the control board, believing it could take the political heat for budget cuts. But he never intended for the board to strip him of his cherished powers to distribute contracts, hire cronies, and decide who gets paid from the District’s meager resources.
But Williams made it clear in his testimony at the Nov. 8 control board meeting and in a subsequent appearance on WAMU’s (88.5 FM) Nov. 10 D.C. Politics Hour with Derek McGinty and Mark Plotkin, that he is not returning the power over the D.C. purse to Barry any time soon. He said that power had been “transferred” to him by Congress, not delegated by the mayor.
In this interpretation, Williams has the backing of Congress and the board. Congress created Williams’ job to keep Barry’s hand out of the D.C. cookie jar. And control board Chairman Andrew Brimmer told Williams he is the board’s eyes and ears in the D.C. government. Brimmer also asked Williams to tell the board immediately if he encounters resistance from Barry or other city officials.
Williams, in effect, is in the awkward position of being a known spy behind enemy lines. If Barry bumps off (or at least stymies) the spy, he risks retaliation that could kill his government. So, the Barry administration has resorted to tactics that Williams described as “belabor and delay” to render the CFO ineffective.
So far Williams has taken the diplomatic high road. The CFO said last week he expects cooperation, not confrontation, from Barry. But Williams does not appear to be a patient man, or one easily seduced by Hizzoner’s legendary charm. If Barry doesn’t play nice with the CFO, expect Williams to enlist the control board’s aid in squeezing Barry’s powers.
This week’s bickering with Williams represents only one round in Barry’s larger game of chicken. Hizzoner accelerated his challenge to the control board during its Nov. 8 public meeting at the Martin Luther King Jr. Public Library. After nearly three months of trying to pry information from the administration, the board summoned the mayor (with one day’s notice) to come explain the absence of data and the squabble with Williams over the payment of contractors.
Barry at first agreed to the meeting with the control board. Then a banner story in the Washington Post‘s Metro section portrayed the board as calling Barry on the carpet. The mayor suddenly changed his mind and refused to attend. Barry is as proud as he is savvy. He never allows himself to be taken to task publicly if he can avoid it.
Contradicting a statement by his aides that he couldn’t rearrange his schedule on such short notice (an obvious fiction—the meeting was listed on his daily schedule), Barry sent Brimmer a letter stating he would not appear because he was unprepared to answer questions. This is the same Marion “The Financial Wizard” Barry who boasted during the 1994 mayoral race that no one knew more about the city’s finances than he.
Hizzoner had another good reason to shun the meeting. Brimmer intended to have the mayor sworn in before he was questioned. Barry supporters complained that the oath-taking would have “insulted” the city’s top elected official.
By refusing to attend, Barry effectively challenged Brimmer to make good on his threat to subpoena the mayor to force him to attend a future meeting if he refused to cooperate. But Brimmer backed away from that threat after last week’s meeting.
In his place, Barry dispatched Rogers, who proceeded to lecture the board on good manners. Rogers said board members displayed poor etiquette in calling a hearing “with less than 24 hours notice, and you cast it in this light, as a confrontation.” (Rogers read the municipal politics chapter in Emily Post: “Engraved invitations should be sent at least one week before any control board meeting. Always serve Earl Grey tea to witnesses.”) Such ungraciousness “is not helpful to this relationship,” Rogers added, referring to the already dysfunctional marriage between Barry and the board.
It was also rude, Rogers said, for board staffers to turn up at city agencies unannounced. (That’s funny: LL believes that unannounced meetings might actually help the board understand how the government really works.) In other words, the mayor wants to know whom the board is talking to, and when. And it was also a sign of poor upbringing, Rogers added, for the board to ask agency heads for copies of contracts instead of channeling all requests through the mayor. Barry wants to know what the board knows, or doesn’t know, about his administration.
Rogers also played the “Oh, we just didn’t understand what you meant” card. The board asked him why the administration failed to comply with an Aug. 16 request for information on all city contracts in the works. Rogers replied that Barry was uncertain about the legality of that request, since it was not made and voted on at a public board meeting.
Only a slight, whimsical smile that crept over his face several times during his testimony seemed to belie Rogers’ pledge of willingness on behalf of the administration to cooperate with the board.
The city administrator was astute enough to bring along props for the TV cameras: two cardboard boxes that he said contained all the documents the city has provided the board since Oct. 1, when the board officially assumed its powers. “This is evidence that we have not been stonewalling,” Rogers said, pointing to the cartons. But the boxes were small, barely large enough to hold the junk mail LL has received over the last five weeks, much less adequate information on a $5-billion budget and 40,000-plus city employees. No reporter got a peek inside before the boxes disappeared.
Rogers and the board seemed to agree on nothing, not even whether Barry is required to turn over city contracts in full, or merely summaries. The board wants copies of all contracts, but Rogers indicated the mayor believes summaries are sufficient. (One of the few contracts Barry did provide the board was illegible.) LL can understand why Barry would prefer to supply summaries: The really smelly stuff in city contracts hides in the fine print.
Those rancid contracts are exactly what the city’s new inspector general (IG) is supposed to rout out. (Memo to the IG: Check out the agreements the Barry administration pushed through during the last week in September, just before the board gained its full powers.)
But so far, there is no IG. Congress required D.C. to appoint an IG with sweeping powers, but Barry—no surprise—has dragged his feet. Rogers told the board that Hizzoner plans to interview a finalist for the job sometime this week. But Rogers indicated, much to board member Stephen Harlan‘s amazement, that none of the candidates suggested by the board was in the running for the job. During the meeting, Brimmer issued a veiled threat that the board would fill the IG’s job if Barry didn’t settle on a suitable candidate soon.
Following the showdown between Rogers and the board, the Barry administration acted as if it had won a public-relations battle. If Hizzoner did win, though, it was a hollow victory: The board is winning the war for power. When the city received its partial $292-million annual payment from Congress last month, the check was cut to the board instead of the mayor. Of that amount, $148.8 million went directly to Wall Street creditors. The city so far has gotten only $90 million of the remaining money.
Brimmer said the other $53 million will be released to Barry “just as soon as we receive a reasonable list of payment priorities.” That list is what Williams and Barry feuded over this week.
By not subpoenaing Barry, Brimmer may have swerved a little to avoid the head-on collision. But he won’t quit the game. Neither will Barry. The mayor won’t be pushed into a position where he looks like he is losing control. And, who knows, Barry may be pushed to the point where he decides that a head-on collision would do less damage to his ego and political stature than capitulation.
If that happens, watch out for flying shards of home rule.