Wilson As Media Spin Doctor

Washington is full of media consultants—highly paid, cellular-toting press hounds who can spin the media into portraying defeat as victory and scandal as the people’s work. Most spin-sters occupy plush offices in the White House, on Capitol Hill, and in top-dollar PR agencies. But even the most masterful strategists in the federal power loop could not have pulled off the sort of coup authored last week by the Rev. Willie Wilson, pastor of Anacostia’s Union Temple Baptist Church.

With the help of misleading and self-serving media coverage, Wilson turned a flaccid, poorly attended June 6 demonstration against the D.C. financial control board into a launching pad for his self-styled “war” against the “out-of-control board.” The “war” began when the control board ordered Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry to fire Vernon Hawkins, a parishioner at Union Temple who until Monday also happened to be director of the Department of Human Services (DHS).

Because newspeople took the bait, Wilson was able to build momentum and turnout for last Monday’s demonstrations outside the D.C. homes of control board members. Just in case, he recruited parishioners from Maryland to generate a respectable crowd.

The media spotlight has elevated Wilson himself from a ranting failure to a genuine force in District politics, as demonstrated by his penetration into Barry’s inner circle.

And the mentor now seems to be feeding off of his protégé. After making peace with the control board last week, Barry, taking his cue from Wilson, renewed his linguistic recklessness, comparing members of Congress to “pharaohs” and, by implication, himself to Moses. (Perhaps Barry is seeking to divert attention from why he has been stopping by Roweshea Burruss’ party house on 12th Street NW to “change his clothes.”)

Wilson’s bait and switch began last week. In a Channel 5 interview on the morning of the last week’s protest, Wilson vowed to turn out 500 to 1,500 chanting protesters by noon. Four hours later, Wilson stood in front of the board’s Thomas Circle headquarters amid a gathering that numbered barely 50—if you count some of the reporters and all of the bystanders on lunch break attracted by the commotion.

The core group that came to defy the city’s new power structure numbered closer to 25.

The media swallowed the nonevent anyway: Every local TV station sent a crew, most of them prepared to go live for the demonstration. Unwilling to admit they had been duped, the broadcast journalists performed a classic cover-up. Instead of showing live shots of the noon demonstration, which would have included a lot of blow-dried white guys in sports coats and ties holding TV mikes, the reporters treaded water with chatty live stand-ups and promised to report back, in the words of one, “as the demonstration builds.’’

It never really did. Barry’s capitulation to the control board’s demand to dump Hawkins after a five-day standoff let most of the air out of the balloon.

“The problem is, once the general comes over and surrenders, you can’t have a rally,’’ lamented Channel 4’s Tom Sherwood.

But at the June 6 rally, the perceptive Wilson, knowing he had harvested the cream of the local media crop, put on a performance that earned him prime-time spots on the evening news as well as extensive coverage in the June 7 Washington Post. He referred to House Speaker Newt Gingrich, House D.C. appropriations subcommittee chairman James Walsh (R-N.Y.), and House D.C. subcommittee head Tom Davis (R-Va.), as “the Ku, the Klux, and the Klan.’’

He likened Gingrich to a “slave master’’ threatening to take Barry “to the wood shed and whip’’ him for comparing the control board to Germany under the Nazis. (Barry used the word “dictatorship,’’ but the reference was obvious, and he seemed to regret it as soon as he uttered it on June 3.)

And Wilson unabashedly compared his “spiritual war’’ against the control board to the Tiananmen Square demonstrations by Chinese students and Rosa Parks’ courageous refusal to give up her bus seat to a white passenger. Somehow, saving Hawkins’ job hardly seems to merit comparison with bringing democracy to totalitarian China or ending segregation on public transportation, but everything is relative in the hyperbolic world of Wilson.

After years of toiling in the Balkans of District political life and trying desperately to gain political influence, Wilson has finally arrived. That’s a switch from 10 years ago, when Wilson complained that he couldn’t even get Barry to meet with him. Barry avoided a close association with the fiery Wilson during his first three terms in office, but as his inner circle has atrophied, he’s become less picky as a practical matter.

In 1989, months before Barry’s drug arrest and the beginning of his downfall, Wilson, seeking a friend in the mayor’s office, sided with challenger Sharon Pratt Dixon. But just before the 1990 election, the pastor, apparently thinking that Dixon wasn’t going to make it, switched to John Ray, whom Dixon defeated soundly.

Talk about bad timing.

Wilson finally ingratiated himself with Barry when he and Hawkins organized the April 1992 bus caravan that escorted Barry from prison back to D.C. in a manner befitting a monarch returning to his kingdom. And Barry’s subsequent political comeback has finally given Wilson the political status and influence he has long sought.

Wilson and company insist their protest is about preserving home rule in the face of the harsh budget and personnel dictums coming from the unelected (and unpaid) five-member control board.

But unless the city gets itself in fiscal shape, and soon, local government is going to come crashing down under the twin weights of mismanagement and bankruptcy. The board is the only body capable of doing the dirty work the job requires, since the locally elected officials go into hiding every time the city faces a crisis, just as they did during last week’s confrontation.

The control board had tried quietly for several weeks to get Barry to do something about the mess at DHS, but Barry was able to fend off the board as long as the issue remained behind the scenes. The debate didn’t explode into a public flap until May 31, one day before 125 DHS contracts were due to expire. Hawkins got his ticket punched because he made no attempt to renegotiate the contracts and planned instead to operate on verbal agreements with contractors. The board had had enough and demanded that Hawkins be removed.

For five days, Barry succeeded in turning the issue into a public-relations war over his loyalty to Hawkins, while board officials proved much less skillful in framing the issue as a dispute over the poor services provided for the city’s poorest residents.

Davis came out of this looking more like the District’s statesman and the de facto mayor he’s been depicted as. The Fairfax freshman congressman confronted Barry and Wilson head-on, but in doing so managed to lower the level of rhetoric instead of escalating it.

You might expect a couple of councilmembers to be engaged in similar statesmanship, but all LL can say is, be careful when you put your feet under the table. That person you’re kicking down there may be your councilmember in hiding.

POLITICAL POTPOURRI

All does not appear to be well at the Barry household these days. That was the impression conveyed by the Barrys’ appearance last Saturday, June 8, at the re-election campaign kickoff of Ward 8 Councilmember Eydie Whittington.

Cora Masters Lady MacBarry and Hizzoner arrived separately for the event at the firehouse at Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and 4th Street SE. They addressed the gathering separately and left in separate cars headed in opposite directions. Between arrival and departure, the District’s first couple took time out for a brief spat that was out of earshot, but not out of view, of the 30 or so Whittington supporters present.

“Can I speak to you for a minute?’’ Lady MacBarry inquired of her husband, and they huddled together for what definitely could not be described as a friendly chat.

Lady MacBarry spoke to the gathering first, calling the freshman councilmember “all right, and a bag of chips.’’ That must be the latest phrase going around.

You read it here first.

Barry called his hand-picked successor to the Ward 8 council seat “one of America’s finest, most concerned, most compassionate, most capable elected officials.’’

When it comes to laying it on, Hizzoner is without equal.

Whittington, with strong backing from both Barrys, won a special election last year to serve out Barry’s unexpired council term. Last weekend, she announced her candidacy for a full four-year council stint.

But Whittington’s campaign got off to a bumpy start when she—along with Harold Brazil, current Ward 6 councilmember and candidate for an at-large seat—missed the June 10 deadline for submitting campaign finance reports with the city’s Office of Campaign Finance (OCF). “It’s just ludicrous that they missed the deadline,” said ubiquitous activist Marie Drissel. “This should be a real, real, real big no-no.” Penalties for missing the filing deadline range from $20 to $50 per day, according to OCF staffer Michael Simpson.

Simpson said Whittington requested a one-day extension, and James Didden, Brazil’s campaign manager, said, “It’s just a dinky report....It’s my fault. Don’t blame it on Harold.”

Sandy Allen, whom Whittington defeated by one vote in last year’s bitterly contested race, was on the money trail last weekend in Ward 3. Glover Park political activist Ron Bitondo raised $1,100 for Allen’s Ward 8 campaign in his home last Sunday. “We’re all one city,’’ Allen told her Ward 3 supporters.

Last year, Barry raised money for Whittington from all parts of the District, and Allen is trying to respond in kind this time around...

Speaking of elections, some Democrats are still wondering how Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas commandeered three D.C. Department of Recreation buses to ferry his supporters to the D.C. Convention Center on June 1. The bused-in bunch helped to elect Thomas and his wife, Romaine, delegates to August’s Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

Thomas said at the time that he paid for the bus drivers but not the buses. This week he said, “If I have to pay for the drivers, I will.” The councilmember claims the recreation department provided the buses free of charge after residents of Fort Lincoln senior citizens village requested them. “They wanted to be part of that election,” Thomas said. “They wrote a letter to the director of recreation to secure them. That’s all you have to do.” Ah, the joys of incumbency.

Ward 6 politico John Capozzi is still badgering giant mortgage lender Fannie Mae to pay its way on the District’s tax bus. Capozzi, along with At-Large Independent Councilmember Bill Lightfoot and Plymouth Congregational pastor the Rev. Graylan Ellis-Hagler—“The Three Musketeers’’— traveled to Dallas last month to confront Fannie Mae officials at their annual stockholders’ meeting.

In the past, Fannie Mae has held the meeting in the District, but Capozzi claims that it chose Dallas this year to get away from D.C. protesters demanding that the multibillion-dollar lender pay the city corporate income taxes. The congressionally created lender would owe the city approximately $300 million per year if Congress hadn’t exempted it from paying local taxes.

At the meeting, Capozzi brought before the shareholders a proposal that Fannie Mae pay the taxes, despite the exemption, to assist the financially strapped District. The measure failed in grand fashion, winning support from a mere 11 million shares out of more than 820 million shares of stock voting at this year’s meeting.

After Capozzi made his pitch, Lightfoot pushed for the musketeers’ fall-back position, asking the shareholders to make a one-time payment of $50 million, or a nickel per share, in lieu of taxes, to help build new schools in the city. The fall-back failed as well.

Among those present was Franklin Raines, the outgoing Fannie Mae vice president, who recently was picked by President Bill Clinton to head the Office of Management and Budget. But Raines wisely kept quiet during the meeting.

Since the meeting, Lightfoot said Fannie Mae has begun negotiations with the D.C. Housing Finance Authority to bolster its housing loan program in the city.

“We did some good,’’ he said. CP

Got a tip for Loose Lips? Call (202) 332-2100, Ext. 302, 24 hours a day.

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