Imagine turning on Hot 99.5 and getting blasted with Nelly and Jennifer Lopez. Going to the Uptown and seeing My Big Fat Greek Wedding on the marquee. Turning on the news and hearing about Enron this and WMD that. Reading this column and seeing boldface names like Scott Bishop and Peggy Cooper Cafritz.
That’s what opening a D.C. Council inbox is like these days. “It’s like the Twilight Zone—all of a sudden all of the e-mails say ‘Save Klingle Valley’ again,” says one Wilson Building wag.
That’s right: The Klingle Kraze, that astoundingly inconsequential third-rail issue of District politics, is back.
A short refresher for the ignorant: Klingle Road NW once connected Mount Pleasant with Woodley Park, swooping under Connecticut Avenue and shaving valuable minutes off of certain crosstown trips. In 1991, stormwaters took out a section of pavement, and a cash-strapped District chose to close a 0.7-mile portion of the road rather than repair it. Over the following 12 years, a debate raged over whether to reopen the road to traffic or convert it to a more enviro-friendly use. The back-and-forth over a short stretch of road often featured accusations of racism and classism.
Finally, in May 2003, D.C. Council Chairman Linda Cropp inserted money into the budget to rebuild Klingle Road. Though then Mayor Anthony A. Williams opposed rebuilding Klingle, Cropp’s maneuver was essentially veto-proof. The council voted to endorse the move 8-5, and $5.7 million was budgeted to fix the road, which was originally estimated to reopen in 2007. That was that.
But in politics, old issues never die; they just await implementation.
Klingle Road, like many D.C. issues, isn’t entirely a local proposition. The money that Cropp set aside came out of federal transportation funds, which the District gets a certain amount of each year. The city can choose which projects to spend those dollars on, but the feds have to approve an environmental-impact study before work can proceed. And that’s where the holdup has been.
The city’s transportation department completed a draft version of the environmental study back in June 2005, but the feds have requested repeated changes and additions to the document. The latest estimate for the report’s approval is well into next year—an unusual delay likely attributable to the fact that road foes will probably challenge any final report in court.
Enter Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and a new brand of infrastructural autonomy. To hell with the feds, he says: In his fiscal 2009 budget plan, he proposes, with the backing of Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, to spend $2 million in transportation department funds to kick-start Klingle construction. (The federal money will be spent—and probably already has been spent—on other city road projects.)
Including that line item in his budget proposal, however, means Fenty’s given his former colleagues a chance to fight the same old fight all over again—this time with more than a few fresh faces. So now, a legislature that includes only five of the 13 members who originally voted to rebuild Klingle Road will have the chance to delay and possibly kill the road’s reconstruction.
And it’s given the usual suspects a chance to recycle their old talking points. On Friday, a handful of Klingle Krazies showed up to testify at a budget hearing held by Graham, helping to push the hearing’s adjournment to 11:30 p.m. And then there’s all those e-mails flooding the council.
A mere smattering of the rhetoric being bandied about:
Says Jim Dougherty, Sierra Club member and longtime road foe: “This is just pork barrel. This is like the ‘Bridge to Nowhere’ in Alaska, except that had a legitimate function.…I think it’s a complete boondoggle and a waste of money.” His compatriots’ main new argument is that the estimated cost of fixing the road has gone from less than $6 million to double that and maybe more.
Says Laurie Collins, longtime road backer: “Get over it, move on, find something else to invest your time in. Save something actually worth saving.…We went through a fair and democratic process, and we won. Take your little balls and jacks and go home.” Besides the sleeping-dogs-should-lie argument, Collins and her comrades are pushing Klingle Road as a matter of home rule, saying that the federal dawdling is trampling the District’s self-determination. To speak of another political football: The entire 18-plus-mile Intercounty Connector in Maryland, she points out, was approved by the feds in less time.
But even couching Klingle in civil-rights terms might not be enough to save Fenty’s line item.
LL’s done a back-of-the-envelope tally and come up with the following count (allow him to indulge in the hyperbolic labels this debate knows so well):
• Four Rapacious Enviro-Pillagers: Graham, of course, is solidly for spending the $2 million, as is Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser (her take: “The council has spoken on the issue…let’s go already”). At-Large Councilmembers David A. Catania and Carol Schwartz both voted to build in 2003.
• Seven Bleeding-Heart Tree-Huggers: Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh is probably the most strident anti-road vote at this point. In her corner, she’s got Ward 7 Councilmember Yvette Alexander, who says that since the affected portion of Klingle is wholly inside Cheh’s ward (barely), she’s following her colleague’s lead. Ward 5’s Harry Thomas Jr. says he’s in the same boat.
Ward 6 Councilmember and greeniac Tommy Wells is a road-hater, natch. At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson and Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans both previously voted not to build.
Then there’s Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray.
During his 2006 campaign for council chair, Gray won the endorsement of the local Sierra Club in no small part by pledging to reopen the Klingle Road debate. His opponent, then Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson, had a long and well-established pro-enviro record—she voted against reopening the road in the 2003 vote—but had the common sense to say enough’s enough. In a statement she released after Gray won the endorsement, Patterson said that she told the greenies that “the majority vote by the Council should be respected, and the road rebuilt.”
“I am sorry that the Sierra Club is focused on a single roadway in upper northwest instead of environmental issues that could have a positive impact on every D.C. resident,” she wrote.
So will Gray follow through on his pledge to the enviros and make sure the Klingle line item is struck? The Sierra Club’s Dougherty says that Gray “never committed [to stopping the road], but he said it sounded like a bad project to him.”
Looks like their endorsement paid off: Gray was traveling prior to LL’s deadline, but spokesperson Doxie McCoy says that “his position in opposition of reopening Klingle Road has not changed.”
• Two Spineless Wind-Twisters: LL can’t get a reliable read on Ward 8 Councilmember Marion S. Barry Jr.—though he opposed rebuilding the road as mayor.
LL is also going to count At-Large Councilmember Kwame R. Brown in this category, though he did say, “If you were to ask me if I am on board [with spending the $2 million], the answer would be no.”
But even that seemingly unequivocal answer comes with some equivocation. About what is possibly the most thoroughly aired issue in District political history, Brown says, “Clearly this is an issue that’s going to need a lot more airing.”
Perhaps, Kwame, another six months’ worth? That’ll get you through your re-election campaign.
To LL’s annoyance, there seems to be little sympathy on the council for the idea that, on Klingle Road, the District’s body politic has already spoken. Cheh, a professor of constitutional law at George Washington University, would of course be familiar with the concept of stare decisis in common-law jurisprudence, whereby judges are supposed to abide by settled law. But legislators, she says, are under no such obligation.
“It’s one of the strengths of a democratic system,” she says, adding that there’s “no equity here that’s been built up in favor of a prior decision. We are free to take a fresh look at it and correct a prior mistake.”
And what about Hizzoner? Is he smarting about the council’s willingness to revisit business thought to be settled a half-decade ago?
Fenty plays nice: “Having been on the council, I not only understand but respect the role of the council. We will give them all of the information they need to make the best decision, and we will most certainly live by whatever their final decision is.”
• A familiar face was seen roaming the Wilson Building halls last week pushing an unexpected issue. Ron Moten, youth advocate and founder of Peaceoholics, went door-to-door on behalf of the controversial $120 million lottery-contract bid submitted by Intralot, a Greek gaming concern, and local partners W2Tech.
Do David Wilmot and John Ray need to worry about some new competition in the city-hall lobbying ranks?
Nope, says Moten with a chuckle: “It wasn’t lobbying.”
“I got a whiff of what was going on as far as the contract,” he says, “and I was letting some of the councilmembers know as a citizen that, you know, this shouldn’t be personal and they need to make the best decision for the citizens of the District of Columbia.”
Moten says he’s a longtime acquaintance of Warren C. Williams Jr.—who, with his father, is the main force behind W2Tech. After the contract was withdrawn under fire by Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi earlier this month, Moten says he gave his friend a call. “They said basically that Jim Graham had a personal thing with them, and it kind of like got everything stirred up,” he says. “I looked at what they had on the table and what other people had on the table, and I thought it was a better situation.”
While Moten may have been working on his own behalf, he needn’t sell himself short on his lobbying skills. In a phone conversation with LL, he showed a masterful grasp of W2Tech’s talking points: “The people who had the last contract didn’t perform well.…[Intralot has] better technology and things of that nature.…You’ve got one company who has the 8-track players and you have another company who has the CD players.”
Then again, sometimes he didn’t: “Mr. Williams and all them, I don’t think they’re the best people in the world—I know them personally—but they’re not the worst, either.”
Moten knows a thing or two about catching the ear of the city’s political elite: In the past five years, Peaceoholics has gotten more than $3 million in city money. That doesn’t include $1 million that Fenty’s earmarked for the group in his fiscal 2009 budget plan.
Still, Moten says he isn’t charging for his services. “I operate off of principle,” he says. “I’m a street dude, but I operate off of principle, that’s what keeps me alive.”
• At an April 15 congressional hearing on the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton went on a somewhat bizarre tangent. Prompted by the subject at hand and news that the federal government had raised concerns about a chemical found in plastic bottles, she had a question for a panel of clean-water advocates: “Is it appropriate for people to use bottled water?”
After getting only puzzled looks, Norton then held up a bottle of the Deer Park water distributed to congressmen, staff, and witnesses. “Should these containers be eliminated?” she demanded, before continuing on the point for some time.
The only public official to get the message that day was Dan Tangherlini, city administrator and WASA board member, who had someone fetch him a cup of Rayburn House Office Building tap water to enjoy during his subsequent testimony.
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