In a rare public rift, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton is annoyed with Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s administration over its testimony at a congressional hearing Tuesday on Occupy D.C.’s two encampments downtown.
During the three-hour hearing before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, several top administration officials expressed concerns about protesters’ health and safety conditions as well as the costs associated with nearly four-month old demonstration.
Paul Quander, deputy mayor for Public Safety and Justice, Police Chief Cathy Lanier and Health Director Dr. Mohammad Akhter largely reiterated concerns Gray expressed two weeks ago when he called on the National Park Service to remove protesters from McPherson Square.
But as the congressional hearing took on a partisan tone Tuesday, Norton (D) appeared increasingly disturbed that District officials appeared to be aligned with Republicans, who argued protesters are receiving preferential treatment from the National Park Service.
As U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Ca.), chairman of committee, and other congressional Republicans directed their questions to Park Service officials, Norton repeatedly grilled the District’s Democratic leaders.
“Chief Lanier, would you say Occupy protests have been predictable,” asked Norton, who was visibly frustrated. Norton was suggesting that the Occupy protests are similar to many other demonstrations in the District.
In an interview after the hearing, Norton said the Gray administration “played into the hands of Republicans.” She noted Gray and a majority of the D.C. Council had been quoted as saying they supported the protesters’ right to remain in the McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza.
“The responses here were not in keeping with the nuanced response of the mayor,” Norton said. “This testimony here, seems to me, did not reflect anything I have heard from the council and the mayor…They were far more balanced and understanding of what this town is. They know residents do not come up to them and say, ‘do something about the occupiers’.”
Norton said she particularly alarmed that Quander testified protesters have been “escalating” their actions. “There has been no escalation, just the opposite,” Norton said.
Gray administration officials were caught off guard by Norton’s reaction, but said they stand by their testimony.
“We believe it shows a proper deference to the First Amendment but also to the cities sanitation, health and public safety concerns,” said Pedro Ribeiro, the mayor’s communications director.
Quander declined comment on Norton, but also stood by his testimony.
“I can’t speak to what her thought process is,” he said.
Staff writer Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.