It’s a cardinal rule of politics: If you’re in office, and you do something for someone, make sure to let the whole world know. It’s why governors plaster their names on highway-construction signs and why senators add their names to major legislation. It also explains light-blue T-shirts that, last summer, were more pervasive than Nats jerseys on D.C.’s streets: “Mayor’s Conservation Corps,” they read.
The message: The District’s chief executive—that would be Mayor Adrian M. Fenty—was the man responsible for taking thousands of otherwise bored kids and giving them something to do. Passersby who saw Conservation Corps kids clearing up trash would know that the mayor was beautifying the city. And parents of teenagers would know that the beautification also came with a paycheck, accessible via ATM cards distributed to the young employees.
Unfortunately, another demographic got that message, too: muggers.
Payday robberies were a prevalent concern in government e-mails obtained by Washington City Paper. The e-mail exchanges reached the highest levels of the Metropolitan Police Department and the District Department of the Environment, which despite the mayor-centric T-shirts, actually oversees the Conservation Corps.
In mid-August, one DDOE worker sent an e-mail to then-Director George Hawkins reporting the latest on the robbery problem: “We had a young man jumped and beaten at Backus [Middle School] a few minutes ago and two beaten at Riggs LaSalle [Community Center] 20 minutes. All were targeted because it is payday and they are wearing their blue shirts.”
The DDOE worker reported that they had offered to relax the T-shirt rule after the incident. But that offer was based on the assumption that teenage employees would happen to be carrying around spare T-shirts—an assumption that didn’t pan out. “In both cases MPD responded,” the worker states in the e-mail. “We ask youth to remove their shirts when leaving the site but most do not have an extra shirt.”
The August robberies followed a July 30 incident in which several Conservation Corps kids were mugged at gunpoint during their lunch hour at the Kenilworth-Parkside Recreation Center in Northeast. The kids had been paid the previous day. According to an e-mail by a DDOE worker: “Money stolen and they took one boy’s shoes. Police have been called but have not yet responded on the ground at the site (a helicopter has flown over)...Recommended that we communicate to staff and kids to remind them not carry cash after pay days.”
The day before, July 29, produced two more violent attacks at Merritt Middle School, located at 5002 Hayes St. NE. According to a DDOE workers’ e-mail to Hawkins: A youth “was robbed during lunch time. He was choked by some young men and walked back from McDonalds; and taken to an alley. They took his [paycard], which he called and cancelled.” Another kid had been allegedly threatened, telling his supervisor that “guys from the neighborhood were planning to jump him when he left work.”
The DDOE worker went on to report in her e-mail “that two young men in masks were waiting in the back of Merritt school for MCC members. One [Summer Youth Employment Program] participant was chased by two young men from the neighborhood.”
MPD Assistant Chief Diane Groomes can recall five robberies involving summer job program youth—not including the victims who refused to cooperate with law enforcement or who were merely threatened. “It is an issue,” Groomes says.
Hawkins, who now runs D.C. Water, thinks the number of robberies could have been twice that. Indeed, violence was a constant subject among e-mail traffic between SYEP personnel, Groomes and other District officials. “It became one of my highest priorities,” Hawkins explains. “We wanted to be as assertive and proactive as we could to resolve these issues. I used to ask every day about it...It was very high on my radar, one of the highest things for the program.”
Most Americans may not think of fresh-faced teens when they think of government patronage work. But ever since then-Mayor Marion Barry turned the D.C. government onto the seasonal-hiring business three decades ago, the summer jobs program has become every District mayor’s favorite patronage tool.
The legacy helps explain why Barry continues to win re-election from the city’s poorest ward. Take away all the happy talk about cleaning the environment or giving kids a sense of direction, its basic economic logic still holds up. At a recent D.C. Council hearing, Department of Employment Services Director Joseph Walsh Jr. summed up the SYEP’s virtues thusly: “It helps D.C. right now. It means summer youth workers can provide essential financial support for themselves and their families at a time when so many are struggling to make ends meet.”
It’s no surprise, then, that the jobs-for-kids effort was taken up with gusto by Fenty, who’s facing his own re-election contest this fall. Fenty expanded the program from 12,000-plus young workers in 2007 to 19,000 in 2008. Last year, some 21,000 District kids collected a city paycheck for picking up trash, attending summer school, and manning lifeguard chairs at rec center pools. The majority of these kids may not be eligible to vote in the September primary, but their parents are.
In return for the $1,100 a young worker may bring home in exchange for less than two months worth of work, Fenty gets a summer-long public relations campaign, with the 5,500 T-shirted staffers of his Conservation Corps serving as the program’s most visible beneficiaries.