Take Our Politicians—Please!

Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

One night in October 2001, Anthony Williams stopped by the pharmacy counter at the CVS on Dupont Circle.

He’d been mayor for nearly three years by then, but to the woman behind the counter, he was just another guy with a copay. “Phone number, please?” she asked. (I was in line and let him cut in front of me, figuring he had better things to do than wait.) When he tried to give it to her quietly, she asked him to speak up. “Look, try not to tell everyone,” Williams pleaded. “Is that in 202?” she replied. The rest of the line started chuckling. “So your last name is Williams?” she asked. Eventually, a supervisor arrived and recognized the mayor, who got his prescription and left, trailed by a bodyguard.

Oh, for the days of an anonymous chief executive.

Sure, Tony Williams had his flaws, like all politicians do. (There was that whole “failing to qualify for the primary ballot” thing during his 2002 re-election campaign.) But if four years of Adrian Fenty and two years and counting of Vince Gray have taught the District anything, it’s that maybe it’s not so bad having a dorky guy with a bowtie run the show.

Fenty, who came into office with the enthusiastic backing of every precinct in the city, almost immediately set out attacking anything resembling a political bridge with a flamethrower. By the time he lost, resoundingly, in the 2010 election, voters were telling pollsters they liked the direction of the city and the policies he’d put in place (except for his school overhaul, of course), but they just couldn’t stand the guy. And yes, Washington City Paper endorsed him, but even we couldn’t do it without calling him a jerk.

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Gray, meanwhile, arrived in the Wilson Building with a mandate to make the District’s government more respectful of its citizens and more responsive to the human concerns that Fenty couldn’t quite bring himself to feign interest in. But Gray has been under federal investigation since a few months into his term, and now the rumors about what the FBI is digging up are so loud that before Gray could head to China for an economic development trip, he had to publicly deny he had imminent plans to resign.

And those are just the mayors. On the other floors of the District’s illustrious city hall, we’ve had a councilmember who stole $350,000 earmarked for poor kids, a D.C. Council chairman who pleaded guilty to felony bank fraud and a misdemeanor campaign finance violation, another councilmember’s chief of staff who accepted illegal gifts from the taxicab industry, and legislative sessions that devolve into tears over who gets the ceremonial title of chairman pro tempore.

It is, as the slogans always put it, time for a change.

Political wags love to speculate about an outsider swooping in to win whatever the next election is, and this year is especially ripe for that sort of thing. That’s why you’ll see buzz about folks like Metropolitan Police Department Chief Cathy Lanier or U.S. Attorney Ron Machen running for mayor in 2014 (or sooner, if Gray doesn’t finish his term). Some have never stopped pining for Williams, whose mug graces our cover this week.

But a police chief or a senior appointee to the U.S. Justice Department—never mind a former mayor—aren’t exactly total strangers to the world of D.C. politics. Maybe what the District really needs are true outsiders—people who would never in a million years actually consider running for office, either because they’re smart enough to know to stay far away from politics, or because their real talents lie elsewhere.

Until that happens, here are our fantasy endorsements of people who aren’t running for mayor. Do they even want the job, should it become available? Who cares? The beauty of daydreaming is the details don’t matter. So we’ll trust that anyone who makes good patatas bravas could also make good public policy. Or that leading D.C. United to first place could translate into leading the D.C. Council to new heights. For a few moments, at least, we’ll imagine what the city might be like with different folks in charge.

And then we’ll wake up and get back to shaking our heads at the foibles of the people we’ve got.


George Pelecanos

Bad news, Washingtonians: If Noodles & Co. gets it way, the District could soon have a second branch of the ever-expanding pasta-and-dehydrated-meat chain. Between that and the impending Ward 5 Costco, Washington is turning into Pentagon City. There’s only one man who can take us back to the bad old good old days: mystery writer and future mayor George Pelecanos.

From his books, it’s clear that Pelecanos knows what made this city great: funk, Len Bias, and vigilantism. On his first day in office, he’ll settle the future of Reservation 13 by bulldozing it into a giant pick-up basketball court, leaving enough room for late-night showdowns between well-meaning but drug-addled private investigators and Deep South psychos.

Any amateur campaign manager can see that Pelecanos has broad appeal. His fondness for ex-cons with hearts of gold as protagonists will serve him well with the District’s estimated 60,000 formerly incarcerated residents; his work writing some of The Wire’s best episodes will be irresistible to gentrifiers.

Someone will have to rein in his plans to spend the city’s rainy-day fund on sawed-off shotguns and vintage Parliament LPs, but oversight is what D.C. Council is for. Yes, his books sometimes stumble with long build-ups and fizzling anti-climaxes. But couldn’t we do with a little less excitement?


José Andrés

Chef and restaurateur José Andrés may not be a U.S. citizen (the Spaniard has a green card), but the mastermind behind Minibar is one of D.C.’s biggest cheerleaders. Andrés has restaurants across the country, but the District is his true love (OK, and jamón, too). And like a great mayor should, he promotes the city every chance he gets.

If food brings people together, Andrés is a four-star uniter. Surely our local politics would be less divisive around a giant paella pan. In addition to the flautas he would inevitably pass around at D.C. Council meetings, Andrés could bring some much-needed fresh perspective. The man makes liquid olives and serves chicken croquetas in plastic sneakers; surely he has some out-of-the-box ideas on education reform.

It won’t hurt that Andrés has friends in high places. He’s schmoozed with the Obamas at the White House and worked with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on a clean-cookstoves initiative in developing nations. He’s lectured at Harvard University, sits on the board of the Foundation for the National Archives, and was named by TIME as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

The only downside? He’s already interested in running for office in real life. “Maybe one day I’d like to be in politics,” he told the Wall Street Journal in October. “I’d love to be a mayor.”


Harriet Tregoning

Forget Tommy Wells. The grand dame of livable, walkable D.C. is Harriet Tregoning, who has steadily pushed a smart-growth agenda as head of the Office of Planning. D.C. is growing, its demographics are changing, and the wants and needs of its residents are shifting. Bikes, public transit, and walking aren’t just for those who have ditched or dieted on their cars: They’re significantly cheaper than driving. For people who can’t afford gas, registration, and upkeep, a dense D.C. with a robust network of transit options, with well-spread-out amenities like rec centers and grocery stores, is a D.C. that’s possible to live in.

Tregoning’s office already has an enormous impact on the way District residents get around and live their lives. On historic preservation decisions, she’s got the power to rebut other officials (much to the chagrin of the Committee of 100). She’s worked in Maryland government, too. And as the ultimate master of the soon-to-be-released new zoning code, she knows the minutiae of the city down to the legality of curb cuts. Sometimes, she even drives.

Plus, she rocks a silver trench coat like no other government official.

Of course, unlike others on this list, Tregoning already works in D.C. government—and unlike the other people on this list, she’s already made enough enemies in influential pockets of the city to keep her from ever winning a real election. That’s too bad. Kwame Brown’s fully loaded Lincoln Navigator cost taxpayers about $2,000 a month. That’s the price of a fully loaded Brompton, Tregoning’s folding bike of choice.


Ben Olsen

American voters reliably embrace former athletes—Bill Bradley, Steve Largent, Kevin Johnson, Dave Bing. Ben Olsen should be no different.

After Olsen joined D.C. United in 1997, the midfielder garnered more individual on-field bona fides than anyone this side of the 1991 Redskins: He was Major League Soccer’s Rookie of the Year, was named most valuable player during the team’s 1999 championship, and played in both the Olympics and the World Cup. After several severe ankle injuries slowed his trademark tenacity, he bowed out as crowds boasted of his lionhearted demeanor. (And all of these athletic accomplishments actually happened. We’re looking at you, Michael A. Brown.) Since retiring, Olsen has shifted seamlessly into management, pushing United into first place not long after the worst season in team history. Vince Gray probably wishes he could command such executive prowess.

Plus, he’s already a real Washingtonian. Olsen’s long been a visible resident of Shaw, and his local political intangibles are mighty solid. Columnists love him. He’s performed weddings and won a “Humanitarian of the Year” award in 2003, so he’s got an in with church-going voters. Olsen’s wife teaches at a public school, so he can certainly connect with the District’s education-obsessed family set. Myopic little twits will bask in the 35-year-old Olsen’s fancy of U Street NW bars, not to mention his interactions with the likes of Bryan Weaver. Olsen’s name even once adorned one of the holiest signs in the city. Publicity stunt or not, you’ve got to be somebody who matters to take over Ben’s Chili Bowl.


Barack Obama

Ideally, Barack Obama would not be available for this job any time before Jan. 20, 2017. But once he is—or if thanks to some Angela Merkel-driven mishap with the world economy, Mitt Romney moves to D.C. next year—why not keep him around town?

There would be some drawbacks, yes: His daughters go to the private Sidwell Friends School, which is a little off-message for a local pol, and, yeah, there’s the small matter that he’s legally a Chicago resident. (Though who better to lure ex-transportation honcho Gabe Klein back from the Windy City?)

But none of that should hold him back. Obama’s already familiarized himself with the District’s restaurants. His wife, Michelle Obama, has started a farmers market. The guy rides a bike, goes to Georgetown Hoyas games, and brings Taylor Gourmet back to the office. All he’s got to do now is buy a two-bedroom condo in Columbia Heights for half a million bucks, and he’ll fit right in with the city’s fastest-growing voting bloc. Yes, we can, D.C. Yes, we can.


Ellen McCarthy

Few people have devoted as much of their lives to bettering D.C. than Ellen McCarthy.

She was there at the beginning of the revitalization of downtown, heading up the public-private D.C. Downtown Partnership in the 1980s—a precursor to the Business Improvement District now directed by her husband, Richard Bradley—that fought for housing in the dingy office district, allowing it to become the living neighborhood it is today. A Harvard University-educated city planner, she went into consulting, helping to pull off big projects like the conversion of the Georgetown incinerator into a movie theater.

McCarthy finally came into the public sector under former Mayor Anthony Williams, running historic preservation, development review, and neighborhood planning for the Office of Planning before moving up to director. Due in no small part to her influence, those years saw some of the biggest leaps forward in the city’s return from ruin, including the formation of a comprehensive plan by which all projects have been evaluated since.

Ultimately, McCarthy may have pushed too hard for her own good: While drafting a plan for upper Wisconsin Avenue, she ran afoul of powerful Ward 3 NIMBYs, who fought hard enough to stop the process cold. After Adrian Fenty was elected mayor, he didn’t reappoint her.

Lately, McCarthy has been cooling her heels at the law firm Arent Fox, sometimes weighing in behind the scenes. After a career spent at the highest levels of planning and development, could McCarthy muster the kind of popular touch necessary to win a political campaign? Maybe not. But as long as we’re talking fantasies, the city could use a whip-smart planner who knows the private world as well as the public in a position of real power.


Bo Menkiti

The best political candidates are the ones you’re not sure you want to run for office, since they’re already doing so much good where they are. That’s the case with Bo Menkiti, who’s built a powerhouse real estate firm over the past eight years that’s made more than $160 million in sales—all while keeping neighborhood revitalization foremost in mind.

Menkiti, 34, has an odd background for the real estate business. He grew up in Boston, went to Harvard, and did management consulting before becoming the chief operating officer of a national nonprofit devoted to helping low-income kids get to college. At the same time, he got his Realtor’s license and started selling houses full-time when he realized that it could help bring communities back to life.

Since 2004, the Menkiti Group has diversified into property management and development, focusing on the now-popular neighborhood of Brookland. He’ll buy and rehabilitate houses and apartment buildings as well as commercial storefronts that serve the folks who move in (Menkiti himself moved from Columbia Heights to Evarts Street NE). As the business has solidified, he’s popped up on nonprofit boards all over the city, and has been showered with accolades from business publications. More importantly, though, he understands how to supply housing for middle-income families: the ones who right now aren’t being served by luxury private developers or affordable housing, and who the city needs to hold onto in order to grow.

Over the last couple years, Menkiti faced perhaps the biggest challenge of his career: nuilding a four-story, mixed-use apartment building on Monroe Street near the Catholic University Metro station. The people directly around the site revolted, accusing Menkiti of destroying the character of leafy, low-density Brookland. Again and again, Menkiti showed up to community meetings, affably but firmly explaining why the building wouldn’t end the neighborhood as they knew it. The Zoning Commission agreed, and Menkiti will be allowed to bring in some of the best architecture, highest-quality restaurants, and most desirable housing that the neighborhood’s seen yet.

Sure, he’s making money off it. But developers will have to make money in order to build what the city needs, and Menkiti shows it’s possible. The kind of leadership that makes it happen would translate well to the Wilson Building.


Ian MacKaye

Ian MacKaye may not be naturally suited for retail politics, but at least the U.S. Attorney’s got nothing on him: The former Minor Threat and Fugazi singer is the most ethical man in D.C.

Over his 30-plus-year career in punk rock, MacKaye has built a résumé most politicians would envy: He’s been a consumer advocate ($5 shows!), a small business owner (Arlington-based Dischord Records), a dedicated family man (if you live in Mount Pleasant, you’ve seen MacKaye strolling with his kid on his shoulders), and a cultural treasure (perhaps second only to Chuck Brown). He’s a fiscal conservative (the record label is bare-bones) who pays a living wage, a philanthropist (he seeded the first album by OK Go’s Damian Kulash with a $2,000 loan), and his DIY business ethic squares with the archetype of the up-by-the-bootstraps American male.

MacKaye also has a solid record on The Issues: He’s for healthy lifestyles (“Straight Edge”) and renter’s rights (“Cashout”), and has no tolerance for sexual harassment (“Suggestion”) or disengaged leadership (“All These Governors”). Fine, so he can’t get through an interview without saying some form of the word “fuck.” Surely District residents would prefer an ethical potty-mouth over a baby-kissing crook.


Satan

Mayor Beelzebub’s platform would boil down to one promise: Make the rest of city’s pols look better. Steal $350,000 in youth programs? At least you’re not Satan. Don’t tell anyone when your chief of staff tries to hand you an envelope full of cash? Whatever, you’re not the devil. Did your campaign aides pay fringe candidate Sulaimon Brown, then lie to the FBI? Could be worse. Even when no laws are broken, D.C. councilmembers can be foulmouthed, backstabbing meanies. But with the right foil, i.e. the Prince of Darkness, they could look like angels.

An ancillary benefit: Running a $10 billion operation like D.C. government is a time-consuming chore. Maybe the devil would have his hands so full making sure the trash is being picked up on time that he’d be unable to evil it up elsewhere.


Michael Kaiser

Not for nothing is Michael Kaiser known as “The Turnaround King.” The president of the Kennedy Center got his plum gig after leading organizations like the American Ballet Theatre in New York and the Royal Opera House in London, ending massive deficits at both. Hate furloughs? Before Kaiser, the dancers at ABT were only working six months a year. Scoff at government waste? Kaiser argues for trimming bureaucracy while preserving an organization’s essential services. Want more public-private partnerships? Kaiser is a master fundraiser. Plus, he has tons of recessionary cachet: Kaiser published his book, The Art of the Turnaround, in September 2008, and has since become an in-demand consultant and lecturer at ailing arts organizations around the country. D.C. may be in decent fiscal shape; Kaiser’ll keep it there.

And now for the oppo dump, already familiar to readers of Kaiser’s head smack-inducing column for The Huffington Post: He delights in strawman arguments. He’s not interested in new models of arts management. He thinks the Internet is ruining criticism. He writes sentences like, “Younger people get virtually all of their information online, through news websites, social media and chat rooms.” And in addition to being a get-off-my-lawn kind of executive, he’s probably too expensive for D.C.: Kaiser’s salary is about $1 million a year.


Dorothy Brizill

Future Mayor Dorothy Brizill may be one of the hardest-working people in D.C.: The day after her house in Columbia Heights burned down in May, Brizill showed up at Turkey Thicket Recreation Center in Ward 5 to observe the start of early voting in a special election to fill a vacant D.C. Council seat—which is more dedication to an unpaid gig as the city’s self-appointed citizen watchdog than most people show to their full-time jobs.

A close reading of Washington City Paper and The Mail, the newsletter by Brizill and her husband, Gary Imhoff, will leave the distinct impression that we and they have very different ideas about what policies make the most sense for the District’s present and future. But this endorsement is about make-believe, so let’s leave disputes over zoning and NIMBYism aside. No matter what her politics are, Brizill has served D.C. well for years, hounding the government to make sure it and its officials are following the rules. Just ask Andi Pringle, the current mayor’s short-lived deputy chief of staff, whose out-of-District voting history Brizill dug up earlier this year. Or ask Adrian Fenty, whose administration clashed with Brizill so constantly she once accused him of trying to force her out of her home.

Now that she and Imhoff are trying to recover from the fire, Brizill needs something less time-consuming and less attention-demanding than being D.C.’s all-purpose good-government vigilante. Being mayor can’t be half as hard, can it?


Marion Barry, Vampire Hunter

If you believe in an infinite amount of parallel universes, then surely there exists—somewhere out there—a Marion Barry who is both the District’s greatest politician and a hunter of vampires.

Wait, someone already had this idea, you say? Whatever.

Barry’s biggest problem has always been that he’s heads and shoulders above the political competition. With no real rivals, he’s let his self-destructive tendencies get the better of him. But what if Barry frequently had to do battle with the undead, instead of with David Catania? What if his very life depended on his ability to drive a wooden stake through the heart of a bloodthirsty necksucker? Imagine the focus and dedication that would take. (Plus, Barry’s always been a night owl, so it’s a perfect fit.)

At that point, being mayor would be child’s play. No more loose women, no more drugs, no more reductive, race-based politicking. And imagine what a great cover being mayor of the District would be for a vampire hunter! You could show up anywhere, anytime around the city and always have a handy alibi. Vampires would have nowhere to hide. It’s a win-win: The citizens get a focused political genius who will govern fairly because he needs to hold onto office in order to continue hunting vampires, and we also get a blessedly Dracula-free D.C.

Correction: Due to a reporting error, this story originally misstated the year Anthony Williams ran for re-election. It was 2002, not 2004.

Our Readers Say

Now that LDP is gone, can we retire the term "NIMBY" from City Paper articles? If nothing else, it's tired and overused.
Correction: Fenty lost in the 2010 PRIMARY. He wasn't on the ballot in the election.
@ poop:

Primaries are still elections.
When the Ward 3 NIMBYs stop derailing good projects, the City Paper can retire the term.

Two points:

1st: Shouldn't the Ian MacKaye button should read...This is NOT an Ian MacKaye button?

2nd: Ben Olsen's press avail will take place exactly 15 minutes after his DCJCC basketball game.
The best of Williams is we all still run into him on Metro, at coffee shops and around the city and he's still a gentleman. Fenty wasn't horrible, he was just arrogant. He got squashed for appointing Michelle Rhee to head the schools and because she demanded results it turned into a mini race-war. I think that really showed the ugly side of the DC electorate--race before results, like it was 1960 all over again. Then we got Vince Gray. Aside from pulling every political trick (legal and otherwise) to get elected, he seems to have no clue how to govern. It's like we don't want to continue our success. Nevermind property values have skyrocketed. Nevermind crime has plummeted. Nevermind schools got better. Bring back the dealers and streetwalkers to Logan Circle or else! Seriously, wtf are people thinking. I agree, bring back the technocrats!
YO MAD MIKE I'M DOWN FOR BARRY OBOMBER AS MAYOR AND HIS SWEET LEFTY JUMPER TO TICKLE THE TWINE AT ONE OF OUR SUMMER LEAGUE BLACKTOP GAMES.

BUT SLIM YOU NEED TO PUMP YOUR BRAKES ON ALL THAT KLEIN REDUX SHIT!
BEEN TO THE CHI LATELY???
RAUM LET THAT CLOWN GO CRAZY WITH THE FUCKING ROAD STRIPING TRUCK AND CONFUSING ASS BIKE LANES.


YO JM STOP WHINING AND WEAR IT AS A BADGE OF HONOR!


I'M VOTING FOR ANYONE WHO IS NOT NAMED CATANIA, EVANS, WELLS, FENTY, ORANGE AND SEWERMAN!


DAVEY JOHNSON FOR MAYOR.
LOL, even as a joke, David Schwartzman still can't get an endorsement from the Citypaper.
Anthony Williams' primary debacle was in 2002, not 2004.
@JL, uhm, Fenty was both horrible and arrogant.

I agree w/u on the race war thing. So many whites became disgusted w/the idea that blacks didn't support Fenty as they did (overwhelmingly) during his first campaign.
No love for Kojo?

And hell, how about Bryce Harper - or does he live in the vast wastelands (NoVa)?
Doesn't Pelecanos live in Silver Spring? Bryce Harper lives in Pentagon City
"Some have never stopped pining for Williams..."

Yeah, well, tell them he's back and much more powerful than before. And, probably the thing that makes him happiest, he doesn't have to deal with the public as the new head of the Federal City Council.

Not a city, not a state. Just a dump.
can someone explain to me seriously what was so bad abt fenty? he by all accounts was an incredible effective policy mayor, he presided over the turnaround of the city, demographic wise...yet all i hear is 'well he was an asshole.' he was the mayor not prom queen.
@Jon from Silver Springs:

What was so bad about Fenty wasn't his competence or ability to get things done, his personality (e.g., arrogance, aloofness, etc.) is what did him in. I would agree that he was an infinitely better mayor than Vince Gray but, along with competence and effectiveness, there are some folks who also appreciate a little kindness and humanity as well from their elected officials.
wow. we get to pretend we give a rats ass re harriet for mayor and where harriet is watching fire works for the 4th? slow day at CP or more of the GGW, saint wells worship the fine editors at CP are know well known for?
Dorothy Brizill told me she'd like to see Barney Frank settle in DC and run for mayor.
M:MADDEN ----- just read your article ~ at least the Anthony Williams section my mother sent me....!!! To paraphrase Joni Mitchell ~ "don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got 'til it's done"....!!! Anyone who would come back is certifiable....!!!
Howdy! This post could not be written any better! Reading this post reminds me of my old room mate! He always kept talking about this. I will forward this post to him. Fairly certain he will have a good read. Many thanks for sharing!
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