Doubting Thomas Can the Ward 5 Councilmember fend off a pair of strip clubs?

Strip Maul: Graham’s club-moving bill threatens Thomas’ political standing.
Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

D.C. ward councilmembers can usually catch a break during their first year. Laying low, keeping quiet, and attending every meeting back in the ward is pretty much all that is expected of a rookie.

Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. won’t get that luxury. Less than half a year into the job, Thomas is facing a career-defining issue that will make or break the judgment of his constituents. The test is about nudie bars—fighting them off, that is.

Thomas is tasked with killing a bill that would clear the way for several adult entertainment venues to set up shop in his ward. The issue has been brewing for some time: A number of adult clubs have been displaced by the construction of the new Washington Nationals baseball stadium in Southeast. They need a new home, and Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham is playing the role of real estate agent. He’s championing a measure that would allow for a one-time look-the-other-way on alcohol regulations so the clubs could become Thomas’ newest constituents. The bill would permit establishments that allow nude dancing to transfer their licenses to areas zoned for commercial use. The real-world effect would grant the clubs a license to ply their trade in a warehouse district near Ward 5’s Ivy City and Trinidad neighborhoods.

At a May 16 community meeting in Ward 5, residents living near the proposed club zone made it clear the nudie clubs are every bit as big an issue today as the dreaded trash-transfer stations were back in the ’90s. “We expect you are going to take up for us,” said Ivy City activist had a different take on the project: He considered it economic development. Ray got rolled.

Kathryn Pearson-West, another Ward 5 community activist, offered an analysis that would challenge any macho ex-jock like Thomas. “Did they think our councilmember was the weak link because he was new to the council?” she asked. “I am insulted. Mr. Graham wouldn’t even allow a homeless shelter in his ward,” she said, referring to Graham’s successful fight to prevent the Center Union Mission from relocating from Logan Circle in Ward 2 to south Georgia Avenue in Ward 1.

There will be no calming words from Thomas. “I’m going to take up the fight,” he promised the crowd gathered in the Bethesda Baptist Church in Trinidad. During that meeting and from the dais, Thomas portrays the battle over the clubs as an unprecedented effort to shove undesirable but legal businesses down the throats of presumably powerless residents.

“You can not look at any other ward councilmember…and say that they’re being asked to accept the total relocation of clubs…due to the stadium,” Thomas told his colleagues during the May 15 council session. “There is no fairness in this.”

When Thomas is in a mellower mood, he exchanges the passionate rhetoric for direct shots at Graham. “We have special interest legislation being drafted for business owners, some of which have purchased property already,” says Thomas. “We are in a very dangerous situation where we are writing legislation to give somebody a break, based on a business owner’s existing location.”

The councilmember is referring to adult entertainment mogul Bob Siegel, who essentially ruled the area near the baseball park. Last year, he purchased at least two properties in a warehouse district on West Virginia Avenue NE, right in Thomas’ ward—one at 2120 West Virginia for $2.6 million, and another down the road at 2046 West Virginia for $3.95 million.

In order to migrate his nudie biz to these locations, Siegel would need approval to transfer his license into a zone not contemplated by current city regulations. In other words, he needs Graham’s bill. The entrepreneur had no such approvals before buying the buildings. He didn’t even wait until Graham’s bill was in motion.

Graham’s bill says the clubs have to be more than 500 feet from one another—a provision aimed at calming fears that the establishments could cluster into a new red light district.

And when Graham brought the bill up for a May 8 vote in his Committee on Public Works and the Environment, At-Large Councilmember Kwame Brown shopped an amendment at Thomas’ request. Brown proposed pushing the buffer zone out to 1,000 feet. According to Brown, Graham refused to consider the amendment. “He said that would mess everything up,” says Brown. Translation: The 1,000-foot plan would have put a crimp in Siegel’s vision for West Virginia Avenue NE. Siegel did not return calls seeking comment.

The Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance (GLAA) is framing the club relocation bill as a piece of social justice legislation. In a May 6 letter to all members of Graham’s Committee on Public Works as well as Chairman Vincent Gray, GLAA presses old buttons that hark back to the days gay-oriented establishments were harassed by the authorities. “The city’s gay club zone occupied the site off South Capitol Street for more than three decades, after being chased there by then-MPD Chief Jerry Wilson,” writes the group’s president, Barrett Brick. “The city, having caused their dislocation, is honor bound to facilitate their relocation,” he says. He refers the proposed Ward 5 club sites as “suitably zoned areas.”

Thomas feels unbound on this piece of legislation. “I will not allow us to be distracted by arguments about sexuality,” he says. Thomas notes that during the May 16 community meeting, participants never once uttered the words “gay” or “homosexual” during their speeches denouncing Graham’s bill.

But the Ward 5 councilmember is finding out that it may be too late to argue about the merits of the bill.

Groups like GLAA may politely cite the city’s previous history of ghettoizing gay establishments, but gay activist Philip Pannell—who once served as Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ gay liaison—puts the issue more succinctly. “The opposition to the clubs in Ward 5 is sheer homophobia,” says Pannell. “[Opponents of the clubs] don’t fear gay people, they just hate them.”

Red Letter Day

Tag, I’m It: Low numbers, high visibility(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

The obnoxious D.C. tradition of issuing low-numbered license tags to the politically connected is now a little more garish.

A redesign of the tags—which are requested for favored constituents of the mayor, council chairman, and councilmembers—has rendered an eye-grabbing white plate with a red low number surrounded by a red box. A red-and-white depiction of a D.C. flag is on either side of the low number.

The new look is a sharp departure from the old tag, which simply displayed the low number in the same color and scheme as plates issued to the proletariat.

The Department of Motor Vehicles was responsible for the new design, which according to spokesperson Janis Hazel was not ordered by anyone in particular.

“The low tags are redesigned annually for reissue,” says Hazel. “Designs differ each reissue year so enforcement agencies can differentiate between prior years.” That won’t be a problem with the jarring 2007 version.

The only issue now will be filling the requests pouring in to D.C.’s top two elected officials. Sources tell LL that neither Mayor Adrian Fenty nor Council Chair Gray have any interest in the elitist-tag-issuing process. One source close to Gray says the chairman considers the scramble for low tags “stupid.”

Political Potpourri

• With five new members of city council, there were bound to be some changes in the halls of the John A. Wilson Building.

The first clue that a new generation of members had taken over were the flags: a D.C. banner and the Stars and Stripes on either side of the door to Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells’ office. Apparently, he decided that the building needed more of a federal feel.

When LL inquired about the flags, he was directed by Wells’ staff to take a look at the offices of the U.S. House of Representatives. Each morning, a large number of House staffers plant their state flags—along with Old Glory—outside their boss’ doors.

It’s supposed to convey some sense of officialdom and importance. So when newcomer Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser moved in next door to Wells, her staff couldn’t resist the urge to display the colors just like our congressional overlords.

It wasn’t long before At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz, a patriotic Republican, hopped on. Sources say she’s displaying both the American flag and the D.C. stars and bars. Around the corner from Schwartz, the nationalist momentum apparently overwhelmed rookie Ward 7 councilmember Yvette Alexander, as well. That leaves At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson alone as the only politician on the fourth floor to buck the trend, but his staff is reportedly lobbying him to flag up.

• It’s not every day that you get a chance to see Cora Masters Barry compliment her estranged husband, Ward 8 Councilmember Marion S. Barry Jr. But the feisty executive director of the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center accepted an invitation from the Ward 8 Democrats to recognize the councilmember at the organization’s 25-year celebration and prayer service last Saturday. Every politician ever to hold office in the ward was feted at the event. According to attendees, Cora Barry was short and sweet during her presentation, pointing out that over the years, she and the councilmember had some differences. But when she presented the councilmember with his token of appreciation, Cora Barry offered this closing remark: “He is still my husband.” Marion Barry was spotted later at the Players Lounge with his current steady companion, Chenille Spencer.

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