Standing Down To Norton

When D.C. congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton faces tough decisions on Capitol Hill, she can call upon a variety of seasoned advisers. There's the D.C. Council, which is populated by battle-scarred veterans from past congressional wars. There's the financial control board, whose members are constantly checking the pulse of Congress before they act. There's even the Greater Washington Board of Trade, in case Norton needs some input from suburban freeloaders.

But lately, she seems to seek the counsel of her own little politburo: the Stand Up for Democracy Coalition. Norton's love-hate relationship with the group began last July, when she drew heavy fire from coalition members after fawning over a congressional D.C. rescue plan that stripped Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. of most of his powers. The home rule and statehood demonstrators called Norton an accomplice to what Barry tagged "the rape of democracy."

Stung by the group's bill of attainder, Norton quickly repented, abandoning her endorsement of the congressional rescue package as a historic advancement for D.C. self-governance. Since then, she seems to be extending more deference to the 10 or so members of the coalition, particularly polemical spokesperson Mark Thompson.

Last month, coalition members heard rumors that Norton was ready to back congressional proposals aimed at installing a permanent city manager at the top of the District's governing hierarchy—a "reform" that coalition members deem another victory for autocracy in D.C. To head off the headstrong delegate, the coalition passed a resolution "demanding" that she consult with it and with D.C. residents before contemplating any such measure. The coalition hastily approved the resolution two days prior to Norton's Feb. 5 "town meeting."

Norton, who did not learn of the resolution until after the meeting, is still seething over the rebuke. According to Norton aide Donna Brazile, the delegate has helped the coalition fight congressional attacks on rent control, medical malpractice damages, and the city's criminal sentencing practices.

Stung by the coalition's double-cross, Norton stormed the group's meeting last week to berate members as only the mercurial Norton can. The delegate faulted coalition members for failing to consult with her before passing a resolution calling for her to consult with them. Brazile admits that she and her boss were ready to order Cruise missile strikes on the coalition after hearing that the delegate was being dissed by resolution.

"Of course I hit the wall," says Brazile. "I talk to them all the time. I go to their meetings, and I knew nothing about this resolution."

Coalition members, embarrassed by the incident, now dismiss it as "a misunderstanding" and an "in-house affair" not suitable for public discussion or media scrutiny. The coalition begins its meetings by kicking out reporters and uninvited D.C. government officials.

Standing up for democracy only goes so far.

"I'm not sure why we would pass a resolution like that when she had decided to include us in the forum," confesses Thompson, who says he was not in the room when his group acted.

Norton uttered the same excuse last summer, claiming she was not allowed in the conference room when House and Senate Republicans wrote the final version of the D.C. rescue plan. That's when the provisions defrocking the mayor and the D.C. Council were sneaked in.

D.C. politicians have built careers on being out of the room at the right time, and Thompson could soon join those ranks. He is considering a run for an at-large council seat this year under the banner of the Umoja party he founded three years ago. The statehood firebrand first gained recognition as a leader of the student demonstrations that shut down the University of the District of Columbia.

Coalition member Timothy Cooper, author of the resolution, says the group acted out of a belief that "elected officials should not decide new forms of government for the District of Columbia. That should be the subject of a citywide debate that must be held, and it should emanate from the people of the District of Columbia." In recent months, Cooper has lobbied to replace the 13-member D.C. Council with a more representative 120-member legislature.

The last time a major governmental proposal "emanated" from the residents of the nation's capital was 18 years ago, when the runaway constitutional convention produced a blueprint for the state of New Columbia that made D.C. a national laughingstock and ditched the statehood drive before it got out of first gear.

Norton thinks that Cooper et al. foolishly ignored the fact that she agreed to let three coalition members—Thompson, Cooper, and the Rev. Graylan Ellis-Hagler of Plymouth Congregational Church—dominate mike time at her town meeting. Norton even refused to turn the podium over to Barry, who made one of his patented disruptive entrances in an unsuccessful effort to steal the audience from her and gain center stage.

Coalition members had to yield the microphone to only two other speakers—American University law professor Jamin Raskin, who advocates a 14th Amendment lawsuit against the federal government to gain full voting rights for D.C. residents, and National Capital Planning Commission chairman Harvey Gantt.

Gantt's presence on the speakers list sparked apprehension among the coalition members that Norton was about to advocate a city manager-style government for D.C. After all, Gantt is a former mayor of Charlotte, N.C., a city that has prospered under the city-manager structure, and Norton invited him to address the town meeting on alternate forms of government for D.C.

Norton says she selected her speakers to put District residents and political leaders "on notice" that they had better get to work writing a new city charter that encourages accountability, prevents deficit spending, streamlines government, and balances power between the mayor and the council. Otherwise, Congress will do the job by itself.

The coalition's resolution reflects the city's distrust of Norton. Some activists blame her for the hiring of Chief Management Officer Camille Cates Barnett, who now runs the major government agencies that once kowtowed to Barry's every whim.

Barnett's job slot arose from a compromise last summer between Norton and Senate Republicans, who wanted to impose a permanent city manager on the District as part of a continuing effort to curb Barry's once vast powers. Under the compromise, Barnett will serve for five years in charge of nine city agencies. Hizzoner, meanwhile, serves as the city's chief tour guide and park superintendent. The compromise may have saved face, but it didn't reserve much power for elected types in D.C.

Norton contends she rescued D.C. from a permanent city manager—a defense that home rule activists decry as a mix of bluster and semantics. The chief management officer, they say, is the dreaded city manager by another name. The coalition in January led protests against the appointment of Barnett—a white woman from Texas—that focused on her gender and race as much as on the affront to home rule.

Activists still haven't forgiven Norton for her role in creating the control board, an autocratic body that has failed to re-engineer the District government after nearly three years in office. Ever since she supported legislation creating the board, Norton has claimed she was heading off proposals to put the insolvent District under the more demanding whip of a federal receiver. Last week, Norton again took to the floor of the House of Representatives to fault Congress for the board's mixed performance.

"The Congress seeks an efficient government from the District, but the fact is that the Congress has imposed a highly inefficient structure to do the job," Norton stated on the floor of the House Feb. 24.

But if Norton lets the Stand Up for Democracy Coalition design D.C.'s next government—complete with 120 council potentates—beleaguered D.C. residents might just beg for a few more control board terms.

MAYORAL POTPOURRI

The 1998 mayor's race spilled over into last week's D.C. Council hearing on the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), signaling that council harmony could be on the sacrificial altar during the upcoming political season.

During his testimony about retaliation against MPD whistle-blowers, former homicide commander Capt. William "Lou" Hennessy revealed that he had previously conveyed his concerns in writing to two councilmembers, who didn't even bother to contact him.

Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, a declared candidate for mayor, sensed an opening and pressed Hennessy to name names. Hennessy reluctantly disclosed that he had sent his five-page letter in 1996 to then-At-Large Councilmember Bill Lightfoot, chair of the council's judiciary committee at the time, and to At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil, who plans to follow the two declared candidates into the race some time this month.

When questioning Hennessy and other officers during the hearing, Brazil seemed to be on the verge of apologizing for leaving whistle-blowers blowing in the wind. But he instead cloaked his apology in a statement that the entire council had been too willing to back former MPD Chief Larry Soulsby and ignore warnings from whistle-blowers.

At that point, Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose, the first councilmember to call for Soulsby's resignation, sought to set the record straight.

"Mr. Chairman, point of personal privilege," interrupted Ambrose.

Brazil's face immediately turned red with anger. "Did I say something about you?" he snapped, refusing to yield the microphone to his Ward 6 colleague. Ambrose moved into Brazil's ward seat last May after he sought and won an at-large seat in preparation for this year's mayoral run.

Moments later, Brazil backtracked, telling Hennessy, "This is not to vilify the body per se, or any member." Ambrose then triumphantly interjected, "Thank you, sir."

Brazil, getting even angrier, attempted a weak jab at Ambrose by thanking the officers for their "civility."

Evans' die-hard support for Soulsby, who stepped down amid scandal Nov. 25, is expected to dog him on the mayoral campaign trail this year. But any attack coming out of Brazil's camp will be blunted by last week's testimony from Hennessy. The disclosure may also hinder Brazil's plans to paint himself as a council leader in the public safety crisis.

Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous, the third mayoral contender from the council's ranks, appears willing to let Brazil and Evans spar over who was more eager to stick with Soulsby, despite the warnings. Campaign strategists for Chavous this week conducted focus groups aimed at middle-class African-American residents.

Middle-class black voters may be rapidly fleeing the city, but they are still numerous enough to be the crucial swing vote in the upcoming mayoral sweepstakes. Chavous is employing Madison Avenue tactics to determine which issues motivate them.

Michael Brown, son of late Commerce Secretary and Democratic strategist/fund-raiser Ron Brown, thinks he can compete with Chavous for the black middle-class vote, even though most D.C. voters have never heard of him and he has never sought office before. In spite of his political virginity, Brown continues to act and sound like a candidate.

He has met with Barry several times and claims he has Hizzoner's blessing. Brown has also interpreted Barry's encouragement as a sign the mayor won't run for re-election.

If Brown weren't such a novice, he'd flush out Barry's obvious political maneuvering. Barry would encourage even LL to run to get the crowded field he knows he'll need to secure a fifth term.

The mayor hasn't made a firm decision on whether he'll run again or retire and probably won't before summer. Aides say he was upbeat following his Feb. 19 "town hall" in Ward 4, which attracted a crowd of some 200 onlookers. If he had made his decision then, according to a source, Barry would have become a candidate for a fifth term.

The hottest issue of the night was haphazard enforcement of the parking regulations regarding street sweeping. Concerned residents grumbled that they had moved their cars out of the way, as directed, but had moved them right back as soon as the street sweeper departed. They got ticketed because the Department of Public Works requires streets to remain cleared of autos for a four-hour period, regardless of whether the street sweeper has come and gone.

Barry appeared unsympathetic to the complaining voters. He began the meeting by announcing the "good news" that downtown parking meters are being repaired. That may be good news for Chief Financial Officer Anthony Williams and other bean counters, but not for motorists who have to travel downtown.

Maybe Barry's vaunted political instincts got stripped away along with his official duties.CP

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