Address Unknown: Fentys State of the District speech played to a select audience.s State of the District speech played to a select audience. Credit: (Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

The National Democratic Club is one of the last refuges in this town for those who cherish the smoke-filled room. The NDC, situated right next to the Democratic National Committee’s offices on Capitol Hill, has a nonsmoking section that consists of five tables tucked away in the least desirable part of the dining room.

The rest of the place is a smoker’s haven – a classy but relaxed joint with heavy ashtrays on most tables. No doubt the club managers have a strong incentive to maintain the environment. For one thing, they’ve invested in six big smoke-eating machines on the ceiling.

For nearly three months now, the NDC has managed to get around the city’s ban on lighting up in restaurants and bars. Patrons are still welcome to puff freely.

The NDC, which has no official affiliation with the Democratic Party, is one of eight establishments granted a temporary exemption from the ban. To become exempt, a representative of each business simply had to sign a notarized document stating that at least 10 percent of its revenue is derived from the sale of tobacco products and self-report sales figures to support that claim. The same document grants the D.C. Department of Health the authority to check financial records to determine whether a business actually qualifies for the exemption.

At least for the time being, it’s a pretty good deal for the NDC, particularly since the health department hasn’t checked on any of the claims. But based on the club’s history with the smoking ban, the agency should have good reason to be skeptical.

When the ban kicked in on Jan. 2, the folks at the NDC simply ignored the law. It was the kind of arrogance from the federal quarter that city residents are all too familiar with. After all, Congress has always managed to keep smoking legal in its quarters, even though smoking is banned practically everywhere else.

In essence, the club granted itself an exemption. A story in Roll Call highlighted that some top Republicans were spotted puffing away at the NDC instead of at their own Capitol Hill Club because they somehow figured the city’s law actually applied to them.

The official tale behind why the NDC didn’t originally comply with the law is murky. Manager Christine Hilty had no comment. But the management suggested to Roll Call that because it was a big cigar-smoking joint, the NDC was exempt from the law.

Then someone dropped a dime on the club and let city bureaucrats know that the hangout of the politically powerful wasn’t following the law. That prompted a visit from a health department inspector who politely informed the club’s management that, like any other business in town, it needed to either apply for a temporary exemption from the law or enforce the ban. No fines were levied.

So the NDC basically took the same action it took when the law went into effect: It declared itself exempt. On Feb. 2, NDC President Jim Zois signed the 10-percent-tobacco-sales affidavit and attached some financial records. The health department would not share those records with LL. The city has not yet published final regulations on how an establishment that is primarily a smoking parlor can get a permanent exemption from the ban.

The other seven restaurants and bars keeping things smoky under the temporary exemption seem to fit the profile for an exemption: a cigar store, a few downtown cigar bars, some hookah places, and a lounge.

Andrew Kline, an attorney representing downtown cigar bar Shelly’s Back Room, told his clients that the sworn statement saying an establishment hits the 10-percent threshold is serious business. “They were planning to sign a statement that was sworn under oath,” he says. Or, as the exemption form reads, “I hereby swear or affirm under penalty of perjury” that the statements about tobacco sales are true.

Shelly’s also plans to apply for a permanent exemption, Kline says. The bar has already provided the health department with information that could be used to verify it meets the 10-percent threshold.

A casual look at the National Democratic Club makes it difficult to imagine a similar scenario playing out for reveling power brokers on the Hill. The club sells lots of booze and food and runs a little cigar business from behind the bar. Maybe the club really does sell enough $10.50 Macanudos to exempt itself from the law. Other restaurant managers aren’t sure how the NDC is going to get the math to work out.

The city says the final rules on the smoking ban are soon to be released, and when they’re finally published, the proud institution that counted Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson as members will finally be forced to back up its numbers or butt out of the exemption game.

In an e-mail, health department spokesperson Phillippa Mezile says businesses that are now giving their word, and voluntarily supplying information on sales, will be asked to open up their books. “An audit will take place before any final determinations are made regarding their exempt status,” she says.

Mayor Low-Key

For a high-energy and glitzy guy like Mayor Adrian Fenty, you’d figure his first State of the District address would be a big blowout with lots of pageantry. In past years, the SOD was something akin to the president’s State of the Union address, complete with video presentations and attendees dressed to the nines.

Not this year.

Fenty’s State of the District speech was directed at a very select crowd. A formal-looking invite was hand-delivered to councilmembers last week. The only others to make the invite list were the real targets of the speech: the press.

The mayor listed the big accomplishments of the 78-day-old Fenty administration at noon before a bevy of cameras and about 200 seniors waiting patiently for their lunches at the Congress Heights Senior Wellness Center in Ward 8.

The mayor didn’t even get the biggest spontaneous cheer of the day. The host councilmember, Marion S. Barry Jr., was greeted by a standing ovation after he walked halfway down the aisle with his hands raised overhead and dramatically kissed a woman wearing a red hat.

A few uninvited guests who found out about the speech via the Washington Post were disappointed with Fenty’s break with the tradition of a big SOD production. “It should have been in the evening,” said retired D.C. employee Bernadette Tolson. “Did he purposely do this so he wouldn’t have to deal with people who have jobs? It’s stupid.”

Despite the grumbling from the hoi polloi, Fenty got what he wanted: a huge press event that just happens to coincide with the release of his first budget.

After the speech, Fenty cleared up why having such a narrow audience really isn’t so important. “We made sure that the entire speech was televised on Channel 16 and will be replayed”especially leading up to our budget rollout on Friday.”

Bobb’s Surge Strategy

When D.C. school board President Robert Bobb was lured to D.C. from Oakland, Calif., he brought along a few loyal staffers to make sure he had some friends in the city administrator’s suite.

Now that Bobb has moved from government to the elected realm, he’s decided one of those Oakland followers should come along, too” at least for a few months. Last week, he informed the board that he was hiring longtime confidant Edward Reiskin to serve in the newly created position of chief of staff for the Board of Education.

In an e-mail to board members, Bobb announced that Reiskin would be coming on for the next 110 days. Apparently, the school board president is looking for some short-term help for a period that is expected to be anything but relaxed.

“What I see is it’s a pretty intense time right now, and there are a lot of demands being placed on the board,” says Reiskin.

Yeah, like a possible neutering of the board as we know it via a mayoral takeover of the school system. Reiskin will be the guy who makes sure the school administration follows through on Bobb’s and the board’s direction during a period of exaggerated scrutiny. “Despite all the larger issues, the board was elected with a mandate to get things done,” he says. “That is what I expect to do.”

Reiskin is comfy riding shotgun with Bobb. He started with him as an assistant city manager in Oakland in 2000. He arrived in D.C. the same day as Bobb in late 2003 and rose through the ranks to eventually serve as deputy mayor for public safety and justice. “I’ve been with him almost seven years,” says Reiskin.

But who does Reiskin really work for? Most people expect that will be Bobb, despite the fact that as president, Bobb doesn’t really manage the board so much as follow its direction.

“I have never known there to be a chief of staff to the school board,” says rookie school board member Tonya Kinlow. “The school board is really not supposed to have a million dollars’ worth of staff people.”

Reiskin says he’s being paid from existing funds. And besides, it’s only for three months.

Bobb did not return calls seeking comment.

The Dirty Work

The Fenty administration has made hundreds of staffing decisions during the past few months. The mayor’s hired some, fired a few, and moved some others. The task of bringing in the best and the brightest and sending the rest on their way mostly falls to City Administrator Dan Tangherlini.

According to e-mails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, Tangherlini is apparently the guy charged with delivering the bad news to employees who may be on the brink of losing their jobs. In the following example, Tangherlini gets stuck with prepping then-interim Department of Human Services Director Brian Wilbon and Office on Aging Interim Director Sam Gawad for a spending request both might find a bit unsettling:

From: Ganoe, Loren (EOM)
To: Tangherlini, Dan (EOM)
Sent: Mon Feb. 05 18:07:14 2007
Subject: DHS & Office on Aging

Hi Dan—

Could you please reach out to Brian Wilbon and Sam Gawad and let them know that we’re considering other candidates for their positions? We’re going to need them to cover travel/incidental costs associated with the searches. We thought it might be better if the news came from you b/f we hit them up for the money.

I think they will both want to be considered for the jobs – let me know if you want us to have them interviewed by the respective panels.

Thanks

Loren

In his reply to Ganoe, Tangherlini agreed to “reach out” to both men. He also had Wilbon and Gawad interviewed for their positions. Gawad is still interim director of the Office on Aging. Wilbon is no longer with the administration.

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