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Mayor Adrian Fenty has promised to stay out of Vincent Gray’s backyard.
Gray recently vacated his Ward 7 seat on the D.C. Council to become the panel’s chairman. As he presides over the city’s legislative affairs, he has set off a mad scramble for the distinction of serving in his former position. Twenty-one people are collecting signatures to get on the May 1 ballot for the Ward 7 replacement contest.
The Fenty faithful say the mayor is steering clear of the race out of respect for Gray—a guy he may soon tussle with on a wide range of issues.
But then, how do you explain Victor Vandell?
Vandell, 41, is running for the Ward 7 opening. His familiarity with the area’s politics derives in part from his stint as Fenty’s Ward 7 coordinator during last year’s mayoral race; Fenty ended up beating his closest rival in the ward by 15 percentage points in the Democratic primary.
The Fenty formula worked—so why not simply reprise it? That’s just what Vandell is doing, starting with the colors. In Vandell’s campaign, it’s all green and white, from the campaign lit to the billboards.
And why bother with a new slogan? During the mayoral joust Fenty rolled out “A bright new vision for our future.” Vandell is promising “A bright new vision for Ward 7’s future.”
Fenty’s campaign materials featured pictures of Fenty. Vandell’s campaign materials feature pictures of…Fenty. The backside of a Vandell handout shows the candidate and Fenty standing side-by-side with arms crossed Mr. Clean style. Another photo in the same lit features the back of Vandell’s head; a smiling Fenty is facing the camera and shaking hands with the candidate.
If prospective voters aren’t getting the hint, Vandell offers other cues. The front of another handout depicts Vandell speaking into a microphone with a huge Fenty yard sign tacked up on a lattice fence right next to his head.
Vandell has even adopted Fenty’s distinctive winter outerwear. In two of Vandell’s lit shots, the candidate is wearing a long, dark-brown overcoat and a fedora—a wardrobe flourish that has become a trademark for the mayor, although the mayor prefers black.
According to Vandell, Fenty authorized the use of all of the pictures in his literature. Vandell didn’t really have to ask—they were taken at public events—but he has no problem letting LL know how Fenty responded. “I couldn’t have used the pictures…without having the support from him,” says Vandell. “I asked and was granted permission,” he says. “That says a great deal as to his intent.”
When the mayor was presented with Vandell’s Fenty-heavy literature, he referred LL back to his “previous statements regarding the Ward 7 race.” In other words, Fenty remains officially neutral. “Victor did a great job for us as Ward 7 coordinator,” was all the mayor had to offer.
Of course, even if Fenty approved the lit package, that doesn’t constitute a formal endorsement. And Vandell is quick to dismiss that notion. “We don’t want to be disrespectful to Vincent Gray,” he says.
Certainly not. The idea here is simply to Fentify the entire city, mayoral denials notwithstanding.
Vandell bought a home in Ward 7’s Deanwood neighborhood just 16 months ago. Before that, he says he was a Ward 6 renter for five years. His newcomer status is likely to be a sticking point in a community long on roots and committed to sticking it out during the bad times. But Vandell says he has no problem relating to people when he comes knocking on doors with his just-like-Fenty message of putting constituents first. “So many people know me from seeing me with Fenty,” he says.
KEEP ON THE SUNNY SIDE
Fenty is always keen to point out he is the child of activist parents. Phil Fenty and Jan Fenty arrived in D.C. as idealistic civil-rights crusaders in 1967.
But as far as radical-D.C.-activist bona fides, his communications director, Carrie S. Brooks, can one-up the boss.
Brooks grew up in the District as the daughter of legendary advocate for the homeless Carol Fennelly. She refers to Fennelly’s longtime companion, the late Mitch Snyder, as “my stepfather.” Her upbringing? “We’re talking superhippie stuff,” she says.
Snyder and Fennelly were the driving force behind the District’s battle to provide shelter for the homeless during the Reagan administration. Snyder was a nationally known advocate who engaged in several hunger strikes to highlight the plight of the homeless. Actor Martin Sheen portrayed him in the television biopic Samaritan: The Mitch Snyder Story.
The couple was arrested too many times for them to count. “I have arrest records in five states,” says Fennelly. The last time was in 1994 “in front of [then D.C. Department of Human Services director] Vince Gray’s office,” says Fennelly, who is pleased to see two children of activists in prominent city jobs. “We’ve known Adrian since he went to school with Sunshine.”
Sunshine? Whodat? That would be Fenty’s message chief, Carrie Sunshine Brooks. “It was 1969. I was a hippie; what can I say?” says Fennelly. “I guess people call her Carrie now. I gave her a real first name in the event that flower power did not survive the ’70s.”
Brooks wasn’t so interested in going into all the details of the FennellynSnyder household, but mom says her son and daughter were given a unique view of American society. “My kids grew up with Martin Sheen running through the house stepping over a bunch of homeless people,” Fennelly says.
“Sunshine never wanted to be involved in political stuff,” says Fennelly. “She actually was mortified that I was her mother.” Fennelly recalls that when a teacher asked her young daughter if she’d seen her mom’s picture in the paper after one of her many protests, “Sunshine told the teacher: ‘That’s not my mother.’ ”
Now Brooks is a high-profile D.C. political figure—albeit a more establishment one. “When she took the job she said to me, ‘I’m really excited being able to make a difference in my city,’ ” says the proud mother. “Really, the apple hasn’t fallen that far from the tree.”
EVEN MORE SUNSHINE
Among Gray’s earliest moves as council chairman is a project to remodel the office of his predecessor. Estimates for the completion of the spruce-up are unknownneven to Gray.
But Gray’s interests in refashioning the John A. Wilson Building digs include a major rewiring project. He plans to bring D.C.’s cable cameras into the smaller hearing rooms so the public can get a live view of committee markups.
The markup is where changes are made to legislation that has had a public hearing and has been vetted by councilmembers. A lot can happen in these sessions, including a complete revision of a bill, without any public input. Most of the time, markup sessions are the province of hired guns and reporters. Lobbyists who have been working a particular councilmember on a bill usually make up most of the cheering section.
During Gray’s two-year tenure as a Ward 7 councilmember, some memorable markup moments have been missed by the public:
• Fenty supported a rent-control bill backed by apartment owners. It was a big turnaround for what rent-control advocates had hoped would be a major legal upgrade for tenants.
• The council scuffled over the city’s open meetings act, a drama that exposed the smoke-filled-room tendencies of D.C.’s political establishment.
• The Committee on Finance and Revenue scratched and clawed over financing the new baseball stadium. Several key issues came down to 3n2 votes in the committee’s markups.
For reasons known only to previous council chairs, the critical sessions never have been televised live. Reporters might be tipped off that some funny business was about to happen. A curious citizen interested in the proceeding could request an audio tape of the meetings several days after the event. It all added up to a pretty good recipe for opaque government.
“It’s just one part of a package of reforms I will put in place to increase transparency,” says Gray. “Markups are very important. The public will benefit from seeing them as they happen.”
• District politicos concerned that Fenty might give a top government job to old fraternity brother Sinclair Skinner can rest easy. Sources tell LL that the guy, who was constantly harassed for his support of tactics painting Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham as a plantation owner set on making the city white and gay, will be working for local real estate developer Banneker Ventures, LLC.
Fenty stuck by his campaign staffer despite reports that Skinner helped spearhead an effort to smear Graham and despite the revelation that Skinner owed back taxes to the D.C. government. Regardless of the heavy baggage, the betting line had Skinner safely ensconced in a city job come Inauguration Day.
Instead, Banneker and one of its chief partners, Omar Karim, have apparently bailed Fenty out. It wasn’t Karim’s first big assist to the Fenty cause. Karim maxed out with a $2,000 contribution to the Fenty primary campaign.
Omar Karim would neither confirm nor deny the reported Skinner hiring. “As a lawyer, I am reluctant to comment on matters involving employment,” he says. “You’ll have to ask the party you are inquiring about.”
When LL called Banneker Ventures, the person who answered the phone confirmed that Skinner works at the company. “He doesn’t have a voice mail yet,” she said. Skinner did not return calls seeking comment.
• Spinning the week’s D.C. political news on Friday afternoons will no longer be such an easy task for D.C. pols. When former partners on the D.C. political talk circuit—WAMU’s Kojo Nnamdi and WTOP’s Mark Plotkin—parted ways in 2002, they weren’t exactly direct competitors on the airwaves. The Politics Program With Mark Plotkin, aired Fridays at 10 a.m. Plotkin kept that time slot when the show moved to WTWP—Washington Post Radio. His old pal’s show, The D.C. Politics Hour with Kojo and Jonetta, stuck with its traditional noon slot.
The different time slots were a boon to D.C. pols who could easily hit both shows in the same day. That cozy arrangement is no more. Plotkin will also be on the air at noon starting Jan. 19, says WTWP and WTOP Vice President of News and Programming Jim Farley. “Mark has always wanted to go head-to-head with Kojo,” Farley says. “It’s for bragging rights.”
With practically no way to accurately measure who will win the war for the hearts and minds of the Friday lunch crowd, both titans of D.C. political babble have already declared victory. “Kojo’s day has come and gone,” says Plotkin of his friendly competitor. Besides, he says, “Kojo lets his guests appear by phone,” an option not offered by Plotkin, whose show is also televised on NewsChannel8. “His guests sound like they are in Greenland.”
“I must say, Mark is a very dear friend of mine, so I really hate to see his career end in this way,” retorts Nnamdi. “My wife has already prepared the guest room in our home in the event he loses his rent-controlled apartment.” Nnamdi does see one big downside for D.C. politicos. “Before, they had an opportunity to correct all the misinformation Mark put out there by coming on my show.”
The friendly rivalry may be moot point, with Plotkin also covering Virginia and Maryland politics. Nnamdi could end up the choice of D.C. political junkies by default. But that doesn’t stifle Plotkin’s trash talk: “The guy has an accent,” he says of Nnamdi. “Has anybody brought that up?”
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