Washington socialite and arts patron Judith Terra has lived in D.C. for almost 25 years.
She’s posed for countless photographers at black-tie fundraisers for worthy national causes. She’s mingled with heads of state, ambassadors, and a president. One columnist labeled Terra “D.C.’s Grande Dame of the Arts.”
City politics haven’t made it onto her busy social calendar. “I’ve never worked for any candidate in a city election,” Terra says. “Never.”
Now Terra is a local booster—or at least a local-politician booster. She’s using her A-list fundraising contacts to fuel the mayoral ambitions of Ward 4 Councilmember Adrian Fenty.
By her own account, she met Fenty and
his wife, Michelle Fenty, “quite by accident” during a 2004 party thrown by one of her
new neighbors. Terra had recently moved from her longtime home in Georgetown into
a mansion named White Oak in Fenty’s
“I was at the party and was introduced to a most attractive couple,” she recalls.
Terra was hooked by what she calls Fenty’s “charisma” and his “willingness to listen to everyone.” She offered to raise money for his Ward 4 re-election bid. Later, she suggested White Oak as a venue for a mayoral fundraiser.
“I don’t mean this to sound grand,” Terra says, “but there are just times when you come across individuals...that you know are destined to do great things. I felt that way when I met Martin Luther King Jr. in 1960. He just walked into the room and mesmerized the room. And Adrian is very much that way.”
Terra, 61, invoked the same comparison before some 300 guests from the back porch of White Oak at a July 28 Fenty fundraiser. Aware that drawing parallels between a young municipal politician and an immortal figure in U.S. history is something of a stretch, she apologized for putting such expectations on her candidate.
Yet the civil-rights theme has had a certain rainmaking effect. Fenty estimates that Terra’s White Oak event brought in about $35,000—a big chunk of the $213,458 he raised in the first two months of his campaign. The Terra haul was topped only by the $55,000 raised at a large-donor breakfast hosted by Fenty’s finance committee, according to the candidate.
Since he first took aim at then– Ward 4 Councilmember Charlene Drew Jarvis in 2000, Fenty has preached a populist platform of elevating the interests of typical residents over the city’s elite. That’s why Terra is such a catch for the mayoral aspirant. Alongside such usual suspects as Barney Circle activist John Capozzi and veteran gadfly Terry Lynch, Fenty can trot out a bona fide Washington boldface name who serves wonderful finger foods in her opulent mansion. “Judith Terra has lived in the city for a long time,” says Fenty. “She knows a lot of people and is steering the people she knows toward the campaign. She’s a volunteer at the end of the day.”
Terra offers Fenty more than just money and prestige. With his rich neighbor on board, the mayoral aspirant can lay claim to a bipartisan campaign at his Sept. 10 kickoff. Terra, after all, is a Republican in the Democratic-dominated District. “I hope this doesn’t sound awful, but I’m a Republican primarily because I was married to two Republicans,” she says.
Her second marriage, in 1986, to the late industrialist, arts patron, and Republican fund-raiser Daniel Terra, gave her a front-row seat at a revolution.
Daniel Terra’s fortune stretches back to the 1930s, when he invented a chemical component used in the flash-drying of printing ink. The process drastically reduced the time required for slick-paper magazines to pass through high-speed rotary printing presses. The abundant proceeds enabled Daniel Terra to become one of the foremost collectors of American art.
When he wasn’t buying or promoting art, he was raising huge amounts of money for Republicans. Daniel Terra’s list of rich friends took him to the top of the national Republican fundraising world.
In 1980, he served as the national fundraising chairman for then– presidential candidate Ronald Reagan. The $21 million he reportedly delivered to the winning campaign was rewarded by a grateful president: Reagan named him the first and only U.S. cultural ambassador at large.
A few years after the appointment, pictures of the ambassador on the society pages began to include his “friend,” Judith Banks.
The guest list for their high-society 1986 wedding included former Attorney General Edwin Meese III and Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger.
The Terras shuttled around the world promoting American arts for Reagan. They also ran the Terra Museum of American Art in Chicago and another American-art museum in Giverny, France.
Through her travels, Judith Terra has become something of an expert on leadership.
On Reagan: “Of course, President Reagan was the best I’ve ever seen,” she says. “He was just a very, very nice man...and he had the strength that comes with a strong set of convictions.”
On Fenty: “The most important thing for me is that Adrian can be a good leader,” she says.
Terra has never shied away from the limelight or causes she believes in—no matter how offbeat. In a June 5 USA Today story, Terra was featured as a customer of a Georgetown company that plans funerals for people before they die. According to the story, the photos Terra laid out for the planners to included in her funeral video montage include poses with Reagan and former House Speaker and Republican revolutionary Newt Gingrich.
Though a neophyte on the D.C. political scene, Terra is acquainted with big-city politics. After her husband’s 1996 death, Terra’s idea to move his art collection to the District was blocked by Chicago’s political establishment, which wanted to keep the collection in the Windy City. According to press accounts, Terra was accused of coveting her husband’s collection to boost her standing in Washington society.
The fight dominated the Chicago society pages. Among those who opposed the move to D.C. was the wife of Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. “The whole thing taught me a lot about corruption,” Terra says. The collection stayed in Chicago.
After her husband’s death, Terra also learned that political connections only go so far. She requested that Daniel Terra be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. That was a stretch for a former ambassador at large with no military background. Her request was denied.
Fenty isn’t concerned about Terra’s political lineage. He doesn’t even care that, barring a change in her voter registration, she won’t be able to cast a ballot for him in the 2006 Democratic primary. Fenty says he wasn’t even aware of her political background when they hit it off at his neighbor’s party.
“Just like most times, you don’t ask someone what party they are in when you meet them for the first time,” he says. “The Judith Terra I know loves the District of Columbia and wants it to be a model city.”
And Fenty welcomes her enthusiasm for the his campaign. “You saw how many people were at the fundraiser,” he says.
Terra brushes aside suggestions by some longtime D.C. fundraisers that her support for Fenty is just another clever way for a socialite to make a bigger splash on the District black-tie circuit.
“You would not work on a D.C. mayoral campaign if you were worried about getting in the society page,” Terra says. “It is much too tough, and there are too many serious issues.”
And she’s proud of the one early political advantage she’s helped hand to her candidate: “He’s raised more money now than anybody else.”
CONSTITUENT DISSERVICES OFFICE
Before its summer recess, the D.C. Council held a hearing on the perils faced by those serving in D.C.’s lowest elected office. The idea is to protect those who serve on advisory neighborhood commissions (ANCs) from those who threaten or attack them; commissioners are frequently engaged in attempts to kick drug dealers off street corners or remove addicts from vacant buildings.
Next time, the council should consider legislation to protect the commissioners from overzealous bosses.
The D.C. government’s personnel manual states that supervisors in city agencies “are encouraged to excuse employees who have been elected Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners, without charge to leave, to participate in...functions which take place during duty hours.”
But John Wallace, who runs Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ Office of Community Affairs, has decided the ANC policy doesn’t apply in his shop. After one commissioner on his staff, Kathy Henderson, testified on the ANC-protection bill, Wallace fired off a June 13 e-mail to his 11-person staff.
In it, he stated that “[a]ll staff of the office of community affairs will no longer provide testimony—verbal or written—to the city council,” in a policy that will be “effective whether you are on government time or personal time.”
Wallace also ordered that “[n]o administrative, sick leave, or annual leave will be granted for the purpose of testifying before the city council or any District government entity.”
Wallace, who came to the office after serving as director of information technology for the D.C. Department of Insurance, Securities, and Banking, says the policy draws a line between activities being undertaken on behalf of the mayor and those initiatives done under the ANC banner.
“I wanted to make sure the line was clear and distinct,” he says, adding that his employees “have no problem with the policy.”
That may be true now that Henderson has been transferred to the Office of Youth Rehabilitative Services. Her departure leaves one ANC member in his office: Ward 8’s Jacque Patterson. Patterson did not return calls seeking comment.
Henderson says the blanket ban on testifying before any government entity not only violates the city’s employment guidelines but also infringes on her duty to carry out the work her constituents elected her to do.
“I was moved because I choose to represent my citizens,” Henderson says. She declines further comment because of undisclosed administrative actions that are now pending over the matter. Henderson says the recent transfer is her fourth move to a new department in her five-year city-government career.
John A. Wilson Building sources say Henderson met with the mayor on Aug. 1 about Walker’s policy directive. The mayor’s office could not confirm the meeting.
Gottlieb Simon, executive director of the city’s Office of Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, says Wallace’s blanket directive amounts to a ban on allowing commissioners to work in the Office of Community Affairs. He says there are even bigger problems with Wallace’s barring certain types of political activity. “This is a prohibition that applies during business hours but also during off-duty hours. That would raise constitutional issues,” Simon says.
Those concerns are no deterrent for Wallace. His e-mail concluded, “Any violation of this policy will be grounds for termination from your position.” —James Jones
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