In February 2001, Mayor Anthony A. Williams had identified a bright, young go-getter to come in and overhaul the city’s property-management department. But while serving as interim head of the agency, Timothy Dimond rubbed a few crucial business folks the wrong way, throwing his confirmation into doubt.
So Hizzoner descended from his plush penthouse perch and engaged in the kind of mano-a-mano politicking that he was known to despise. He visited councilmembers’ offices and made all the necessary assurances.
Here’s what brand-new Ward 4 Councilmember Adrian M. Fenty, who had been in office for barely a month, told the Washington Post at the time: “It’s the first time I’ve ever seen him walking around here.” The Post deemed Fenty “bemused” at the sight.
These days, if the District’s chief executive were seen making the rounds of council offices, pressing the flesh on behalf of a potential agency head, “bemused” wouldn’t even begin to describe the reaction. Flabbergasted, maybe. Shocked? Aghast? Incredulous?
Williams got his man. A crash program of hands-on politicking inside and outside One Judiciary Square led to a unanimous vote to confirm Dimond. One business honcho cited “the mayor’s extraordinary attention to this matter” in turning around the opposition.
Last week, Fenty didn’t get his woman.
Ximena Hartsock, plucked by Fenty from the school system to replace the mysteriously fired Clark Ray as parks and recreation director, became the first cabinet-level appointee in anyone’s memory to be turned down by the D.C. Council. The rejection came in the absence of any “extraordinary attention” from Hizzoner or his administration. And it reflects the near total collapse of interbranch relations in the city government, a state that threatens Fenty’s ability to govern for years to come.
To be sure, a unanimous vote in Hartsock’s favor was an impossibility by last Tuesday. Poisoned relations between the nominee and parks committee chairman Harry Thomas Jr. had already lost his vote. Ward 8’s Marion Barry, always looking for a chance to put Fenty in his place, was a natural ally. Those two turned a hearing on her nomination into a racially tinged farce a week ahead of the vote, a session replete with questioning of Hartsock’s immigration status and one witness referring to “Apartheid, Latin-style.”
Given the taint that Barry and Thomas had put on the process, you might have thought that they’d have alienated just enough councilmembers to secure Hartsock’s approval. But no.
Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, who had to that point voted in favor of every Fenty cabinet nominee, sided with Thomas, playing up the Fenty administration’s flouting of council directives. And Ward 7’s Yvette Alexander and at-largers Kwame R. Brown, Michael A. Brown, and Phil Mendelson followed suit.
It appears that neither Fenty nor his underlings made any effort to swing those votes. “You have to spend some personal time yourself working with the members, especially when there’s a difficult vote,” Gray says. “I really didn’t hear from anybody.” Adds Michael Brown, who says he hasn’t had a meaningful conversation with Fenty since he was elected a year ago, “All I can take from this is that it wasn’t that important to him.”
Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh also voted against Hartsock. In that lone act of civic dissent comes a dissertation on the political missteps of the Fenty regime.
Cheh represents a ward full of Fenty voters, and Cheh has been a reliable vote for Fenty in many areas, especially on his most precious issue: education. But over the past two years, relations between his office and the Ward 3 member have degenerated to the point that not even the last-minute injection of ugly racial politics, highlighted in a Washington Post editorial, could keep Cheh in his corner. And hers was a crucial vote: With Barry in the hospital, having Cheh’s vote would have meant a 6-6 tie on Hartsock’s disapproval, keeping her in her post.
Could Fenty have done anything about it? Well, let’s look at the short game and the long game.
The Short Game: Cheh says she took a call from City Administrator Neil Albert the weekend before the vote. “He asked me where I was on it,” Cheh recalls. “I said it’s a hard one for me.…All he said was, ‘Thanks, just keep an open mind.’” Then Cheh took a call from Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, who has essentially become Fenty’s chief legislative whip. Again: “He just said, ‘Where are you at?’ I just said, ‘I’m up in the air.’”
As for the mayoral Office of Policy and Legislative Affairs, Fenty’s in-house lobbyists: “I don’t communicate with them; they don’t communicate with me.”
Did Cheh just need some more stroking from the upper reaches of the Fenty administration? Not in her telling—a call from Fenty, she says, may not have made a difference. Which brings up…
The Long Game: Cheh has been the target of some of Fenty’s most arrogant, regal conduct over the past two years. Attorney General Peter Nickles and ex–City Administrator Dan Tangherlini clashed with her in ways seemingly calibrated to rankle Cheh’s professorial sensibilities. Not only have documents and executive branch witnesses been withheld from her oversight efforts, but it’s gotten pettier than that: Last month, Cheh had sponsored an informational meeting on speed bumps in her ward, and asked a transportation-department functionary to come to explain city policies. That person never showed.
Has all the hardball paid off for Fenty? Depends how much he cares about Ximena Hartsock.
Turns out, there has been extraordinary attention paid to her confirmation, but only in retrospect. The next morning’s Post contained a quote from Nickles at his most demagoguerrific, saying, “I hope the community, particularly the Latino community, recognizes how shabbily she has been treated.” There was no recognition on Nickles’ part of how his own shabby treatment of the legislative branch might have influenced the vote.
Later that day, LL was invited up to DPR’s 16th Street NW headquarters for a late-afternoon chat with Hartsock.
LL arrived in Hartsock’s office just as a camera crew from the Spanish-language Univision television was leaving. At the door he met a pair of folks who ran DPR-affiliated sports programs heartily vouching for the Chilean native. And DPR communications director John Stokes handed LL a fat packet of documents, including dozens of letters of support from residents and community groups and agency employees (many of them copied to Cheh)—not to mention documents aiming to debunk just about every justification given on the council dais for rejecting her nomination.
Hartsock, in the interview, recognized what had happened: “It was not the merit,” she said. “It was a political vote.” She added that she had stumped for votes and was particularly surprised at the votes of Cheh and Kwame Brown. “All of them told me this is not personal. Even Harry Thomas told me, ‘This is not about you.’”
She went on to decry her treatment at Thomas and Barry’s hands at her confirmation hearing. Referring to the “Apartheid, Latin-style” comment: “I thought it was interesting that someone could even think that was acceptable. People laughed about it,” she said, adding, “When somebody makes the statement that I don’t understand the culture of black people…that’s a very strong message.”
“This is about the state of this city, what this city has gotten in this political environment,” she says. “I will go out, get another job. People will blink and forget about it. But what does that do for the city five years from now?”
That political environment, of course, is one of Adrian Fenty’s making. And with Gray and both Browns representing potential mayoral opponents, don’t expect the situation to improve much. Even beyond the 2010 elections, the status quo is likely to persevere: In 2007, Fenty campaigned hard for acolyte Muriel Bowser in her successful run to take the Ward 4 seat he vacated. Since then, he has shown no stomach for wielding his electoral clout in order to shape the D.C. Council to his liking. He’d rather just ignore it.
On Tuesday, Fenty declined to say whether he could have done more to get his parks-and-rec chief confirmed. He did say he had made calls to councilmembers on her behalf.
Albert said a little more on the matter: “I think we did all we could do. She had the full support of the administration.”
• An early award for most shameless politicking of the DCision 2010 cycle: To the Rev. Anthony Motley, spotted by LL on Sept. 30 at the Convocation for Marriage Equality, where virtually every gay advocacy organization in the city gathered to hear At-Large Councilmember David A. Catania announce the introduction of his same-sex marriage bill.
Motley, running as an independent for an at-large council seat (meaning he’s essentially taking on Catania), had yet to express an opinion on the matter at hand. And his presence that night did not reflect any change in that stance: “I support gay rights. I support civil unions,” he said to LL. But as to full marriage, “I haven’t made my mind up.”
Adding to the irony is that Motley is a constant presence at the side of Barry, who was famously the only councilmember to vote last spring against recognizing out-of-state gay marriages.
Motley said he showed at the meeting, which attracted some 200 folks, in order to “talk to some friends and weigh some considerations.” He came armed with plenty of palm cards playing up his community-organizer credentials.
“And I’m running,” he added, “so that’s why I’m here.”
• Make no mistake: D.C. Vote is in favor of statehood.
The District’s premier voting-rights advocacy organization last month voted to change its “vision” to make it clear that its preferred endgame involves making Washingtonians residents of their own state.
This, of course, was a matter of some doubt because no group has been more identified with the incrementalist approach, embodied in the single-vote-granting D.C. House Voting Rights Act. That bill, backed heartily by Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, has been mired in the House of Representatives since spring—a sad anticlimax to a three-year strategic gambit.
D.C. Vote’s executive director, Ilir Zherka, says circumstances prompted the move. “Basically, we always said very clearly we were for full representation,” says Zherka. “What’s new here is that we wanted to make sure that the end of the road for us is statehood, and not anything else—retrocession, any of those options.…With the bill where it is, we had to make sure we had that message out to our supporters now.”
The question of the hour has been, says board member and restaurateur Andy Shallal, “Where do we go from here?”
“Most people on the board probably felt angered at the fact that it was made clear that Congress could do this to the District so easily,” Shallal says. “It made people feel really uncomfortable with steps so incremental, so small that it would be very difficult to move forward.”
While LL might interpret the board’s move as further evidence of the DCHVRA’s impending demise, Zherka says his group continues to fight. He declined to get into specifics about its future, however. “We’ve got some time,” he says.
Timothy Cooper, a human rights activist and a chief critic of the incrementalist approach, says he’s pleased by the development. “I would accept that as progress,” he says. “There seems to be a gathering consensus that equal rights is the strategy to follow rather than the debacle of the single vote.”
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