Shaw reformers can't cope with "Mahdi" Leroy Joseph Thorpe Jr.
The District of Columbia has 299 advisory neighborhood commissioners, but "Mahdi" Leroy Joseph Thorpe Jr. just might be the baddest commissioner in the whole damn town.
That's not simply because he shares a given name with songwriter Jim Croce's famed protagonistand Thorpe's turf is far from the south side of Chicago. For more than a decade, Thorpe has patrolled a number of blocks on and along 5th, 6th, and 7th Streets NW, otherwise known as Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) Single Member District 2C02. With his bullhorn and a red baseball hat emblazoned with the acronym "COPE," for "Citizens Organized Patrol Efforts," Thorpe leads his "red hats" in promoting safer streets by shouting down drug dealers, staging anti-drug marches, and working with law enforcement to identify and shut down havens of illicit activity in his Shaw neighborhood.
Neighbors read of his triumphs in his Shaw Bullhorn Newsletter; the March edition, for instance, sports a photo of the commissioner in a menacing Mr. T-like pose at 5th and O Streets NW. Thorpe is a larger-than-life presence in other media as well: Both the Washington Times and the Washington Post use
Thorpe as a reliable source for the Ward 2 perspective on anything from the new convention centerwhich will soon cast an imposing shadow over the downtown neighborhoodto trash collection and school-system reform.
With these bona fides, it's no wonder that Thorpe won re-election this past November. Yet many of his constituents and nearby neighbors insist that "baddest" means, well, just plain bad: as in "ill-advised," "misbehaving," and "harmful." "I am an ANC constituent who will not go to an ANC meeting. Why is that?" asks Nina Masonson, a resident of 8th Street NW. "Two words: Leroy Thorpe."
On the evening of March 1, Masonson and more than 50 of her Shaw neighborsa diverse group comprising black and white, young and oldpacked Room 700 of One Judiciary Square for an unprecedented hearing with At-Large Councilmember David Catania on their neighborhood's elected body. "In the 25-year history of ANCs," Catania remarked, "it's probably the first council hearing called specifically to address concerns of a particular dysfunctional ANC."
It was also most definitely the first to focus on one commissioner.
"Commissioner and now Vice Chairman Thorpe is a prime example of what is wrong with the leadership of ANC 2C," argued 4th Street NW resident Duane Beach. Throughout the hearing, neighbor after neighbor approached the microphone, chronicling what they described as Thorpe's "vituperative, contentious, unproductive" governing style, as Masonson asserted in her testimony.
ANC 2C has been the object of D.C. government scrutiny before, notably from D.C. Auditor Deborah Nichols, who exposed financial mismanagement in the commission in 1997. The ANC also received a rebuke for accepting illegal donations from Wilkes, Artis, Hedrick & Lanean influential and well-known District law firm that often appears before ANC 2C in pursuit of positive recommendations from the neighborhood organization for various downtown development projects that the firm represents.
It's worth noting that Catania has experienced Thorpe's charm firsthand. At a 1999 D.C. Council hearing regarding police performance, Thorpe referred to the openly gay councilmember as a "faggot." A brief editorial tempest ensued after Thorpe's slur, but in the end, the commissioner hung on to both his government job counseling troubled kids with the city's Youth Services Administration and his elected post on the ANC.
And despite his neighbors' best efforts, Thorpe will remain their neighborhood representative. As Catania himself noted, Thorpe was elected by the peoplesome of whom might even live next door or across the street from those who had come to shout Thorpe out of office.
Thorpe decided against attending Catania's March 1 hearing. And despite repeated requests, he declined to comment to the Washington City Paper on any issue related to this story.
Catania's hearing was a damning, if one-sided, laundry list of Thorpe's alleged misdeeds. One resident who gave testimony that night, Brian Kellogg, recounted to Catania his first introduction to ANC 2C hardball last March, at an ANC meeting held in the basement of the Watha T. Daniel Library, at 1701 8th Street NW.
Kellogg testified that he arrived early that night and began innocently chitchatting with Thorpe, whom he had not met before. "During that time, Mr. Thorpe called me a gentrifier and a racist, which he also called me from the panel during the meeting," recalled Kellogg.
About an hour later, about a dozen D.C. police officers responded to a call for backup from an officer in attendance at the meeting: A brawl had erupted in the basement of the library, which neighbors allege was provoked by
Thorpe. As a result of the fracas, which by then had moved outside, ANC 2C03 Commissioner Doris Brooks left in an ambulance, after suffering scrapes and elevated blood pressure.
Keith Byrd, a resident of M Street NW, offered a portrait of Thorpe as neighborhood bully. "I have observed Commissioner Thorpe on more than one occasion," Byrd said, "being verbally abusive, insulting, and using racially charged terms when talking to and about businesspeople who are appearing before the commission to gain approval for their business. He insists that each business agree to hire Shaw residents, although there is no record of businesses in Shaw not hiring qualified Shaw residents. The purpose of this ploy seems to be to provide Commissioner Thorpe with a ruse to justify his hyperaggressive interrogation and hostile manner."
Business owners and residents aren't the only ones who have been stung by Thorpe's poison tongue in the past. In addition to his epithet for Catania, Thorpe has called former Interim Police Chief Sonya Proctor "a house Negro from Maryland" and Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans "a pale-skinned, blond-haired cracker" during a 1998 rally outside police headquarters.
About halfway through Catania's hearing, the ANC 2C residents heard testimony from their smoking gun: Metropolitan Police Department Lt. Michael A. Smith, who both lives and works in ANC 2C. "Before the meeting tonight, I received a message from Lt. [Ralph] Neal," Smith blurted into the microphone. "If I testify tonight, [Thorpe said that] he will retaliate and go to the chief of police."
"Then Mr. Thorpe has just violated the law," Catania announced to the crowd, which responded with hand claps and hoots. Catania banged his gavel. "This is a council proceedingthreatening a council witness is a misdemeanor up to two years in jail and a $2,000 fine."
That declaration elicited even more cheers.
"I won't have witnesses before this council intimidated," Catania thundered. "When there is illegal activity, that is for the judicial branch, for judicial authorities to take care of....We have taken our notes about Mr. Thorpe's actions, and we will contact the proper authorities."
For a moment it looked as if Shaw residents finally had Thorpe on the ropes. But a few days later, the charge appears to have fizzled out. Neal denies that Thorpe threatened retaliation against his fellow officer.
"They misinterpreted that statement," said Neal a week after the hearing. "Mr. Thorpe didn't threaten Smith. Mr. Thorpe [said he] would talk to [Police Chief Charles Ramsey] and tell him what's going on."
Instead of backing Thorpe into a corner, Catania's hearing seems to have energized the controversial commissioner. Six days after his verbal barracking at the hands of opponents before Catania, Thorpe showed up at the March 7 ANC 2C meeting looking confident and fierce in a black Nehru jacket and pants with an accompanying black hat.
In contrast, fellow ANC commissioners Alexander Padro and Lydia Goring (both of whom testified against Thorpe at Catania's hearing), looked more like the problem than the solution. Not that the reform-mined commissioners' effortssuch as establishing an office and phone and fax service for the ANCaren't laudable. But the pair spent 45 minutes trying to remove Thorpe's editorializing from the minutes of the ANC meeting held in March 2000. Thorpe smiled widely throughout the exchange.
"Isn't this something?" Shaw resident Shirley Lawhorn whispered to her friends as they sat in the audience. "It's a waste of time to come to something like this."
Even Catania, who attended the ANC meeting that evening as a follow-up to his hearing, was caught up in the clownish display of local governing. After Catania was recognized by Chair Lawrence Thomas, Padro refused to let him speak at first, so the at-large councilmember stood waiting 15 minutes for the commission to finish up old business.
The wait almost made the councilmember ill. "I'm slipping," Catania told the audience when he finally had the chance to speak. "I'm hypoglycemic, and when I haven't eaten, my sugar goes down.
"I wish I had brought something to eat," Catania admitted, somewhat embarrassed. Residents started scrounging through their bags and coats. A boxed orange juice emerged from the crowd. A bag of Cheese Nips soon followed.
Developers interested in getting the ANC's stamp of approvalsuch as Norman "Chip" Glasgow, formerly of Wilkes, Artis but now with Holland & Knightalso painfully endured the road to reform. In the slow-motion dynamic of the meeting, Thorpe played up his anti-gentrification gospel to the crowd.
"What people are doing is looking at all the land we have in ANC 2C," warned Thorpe, "and what they're doing is steamrolling us in terms of economic development. We're not gettin' no ownership of these properties."
No matter that Thorpe ended up giving his yes vote to the two projects under consideration. In the end, Thorpe walked triumphantly around the room. He shook hands, kissed many women in the room, and pranced around when asked about the charges hurled at him like rocks in the past few weeks.
"Y'all can't beat me," Thorpe responded gleefully, jumping up and down, before landing to hug a constituent. CP