Residents fear a return to D.C.’s notoriety

June 11, 2011

Trash is being picked up. Streets are being swept. Building permits are being issued. Swimming pools opened on time. D.C. is paying its bills.

Despite an unprecedented spate of scandals that has threatened to undermine the credibility of the D.C. mayor’s office and the D.C. Council, the District government is, by and large, meeting the expectations of its residents, according to interviews across the city.

But those residents also agree that they are embarrassed by the behavior of their elected officials and have a nagging fear of going back to the bad old days, when Congress seized control of city agencies after its leaders amassed a $722 million budget deficit and drove its credit rating to junk. Violent crime was rampant, and the city was the butt of a national joke.

It emerged from six years of federal control on stronger fiscal footing, but now many wonder whether the new ethical lapses could undermine the progress.

Last week was particularly difficult for the city’s leaders. At a D.C. Council hearing investigating his administration, Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) was called a “crook” by a man who was a fringe candidate in last year’s mayoral race and who has repeatedly said he was paid by Gray’s campaign staff to bash then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D). Gray has denied wrongdoing.

Prosecutors revealed that they were going after council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), whose chief of staff had pleaded guilty in federal court to accepting bribes and lying to investigators. Graham has not been accused of any wrongdoing.

The city’s attorney general on Monday accused council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) of funneling city money to groups he controlled, using the cash for golf outings, a ballpark suite and a $69,000 Audi sport-utility vehicle. Thomas has said he will be “vindicated.’’ And on Friday, city campaign finance authorities charged Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown’s 2008 campaign committee with failing to report hundreds of donations and expenditures worth $270,000. Brown has stressed that all funds were accounted for and were spent on campaign-related expenses.

Although the practical consequences have been slight, the residents say, the recent drumbeat of scandal has tarnished the city’s image and fueled a deep anxiety about its future.

“My life really hasn’t been impacted at all,” said James Lovely, 74, who lives in Thomas’s ward. But, he adds, “I’m disappointed. . . . It certainly doesn’t look good. It doesn’t feel good to see all of this happening. What’s so bad about it is that they are hurting the city, really hurting the city, not just hurting themselves.”

Others expressed concern that a decade of growth that transformed the city’s neighborhoods, improved its services and raised its global stature could come to an end.

More pointedly, some wonder whether the city is headed back toward the state of crisis in the period that included Mayor Marion Barry’s 1991 drug arrest and the 1995 congressional takeover of city government.

“In the early ’90s, you had a similar feeling, but back then you had much more of a crisis atmosphere of financial degradation,” said Max J. Brown, a former top aide to Mayor Anthony A. Williams, who led the city from 1999 to 2007.

The District’s economy is relatively robust. The city has balanced its budget for 16 straight years, and Gray has made “fiscal stability” his paramount concern.

Brown said that Williams and Fenty helped build a foundation for economic growth and good government during their combined 12 years in office. “We’re chipping away at the foundation,” he added. “The question is, how thick is that foundation?”

Julius W. Hobson Jr., a consultant with deep roots in the city, said the surfeit of scandal is unprecedented.

“We’ve never been in a position where we’ve had this many people [in scandals] at one time,” he said. “We’re into a situation now where there’s so much out there that’s so bad, it’s going to be hard to recover from this.”

Federal intervention?

Lovely, a retired salesman who lives in the North Michigan Park neighborhood, said he is most concerned that the scandals will tempt Congress to plunge back into the city’s affairs — an anxiety shared across the city.

“What they don’t understand is that the federal government, they could come back and want to take over again,” he said, referring to the financial control board that managed city affairs from 1995 to 2001. “They can take control just like that. All because of the things that are going on now.”

Andrea Wolfson, who was walking her dog on Georgetown’s brick sidewalks, said the scandals “play into the hands” of those in Congress who might involve themselves in city management.

“It doesn’t give a good impression when there’s corruption scandal after corruption scandal, and that’s a really negative perception when we’re fighting for representation in Congress,” said Wolfson, who has lived in the city for six years and works at an environmental organization.

Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), a former Republican who maintains closer ties than other city politicos to GOP leaders, said he is not immediately concerned about congressional intervention.

“I have not sensed a great desire on the members of Congress to get involved in these issues, candidly,” he said, adding that key leaders he has met with have shown “no appetite” for turning the city’s ethical lapses into political hay.

That said, Catania added, “To state the obvious, these serial scandals have not elevated the esteem in which we are held.”

Gwen House, 44, an office manager from Brookland, said that she, too, was concerned about the effect the scandals are having.

“I don’t really think that these politicians think we’re paying attention,” House said during her lunch break Thursday. “I guess they think, ‘Hey, people have gotten away with it for 40 years, so why not me? It’s my turn.’ . . . I just feel as if this crowd makes it hard for us as Washingtonians to move forward, for us to get past all of the bad times from when I was growing up.”

Having the last laugh

Some residents see the recent headlines as a bit of a political vindication in light of last year’s mayoral election — which pitted Fenty, who portrayed himself as an aggressive, no-holds-barred reformer, against Gray, a native Washingtonian who pledged to pay more heed to neglected constituencies.

Fenty supporters had warned that switching to Gray would set the city back to the Barry years.

Katie Schank, a 31-year-old iPad-toting graduate student, said in a Starbucks in Columbia Heights that while Fenty’s leadership style wasn’t always agreeable, his agenda was more successful, with a focus on schools, parks and transportation.

“I haven’t seen anything new from Gray,” she said. “How long can we stay standing still until we start sliding backwards? If all our energy is focused on damage control and [officials] have to give council time to the rantings of Sulaimon Brown in all his sunglassed glory, how can they sit down and seriously start doing things?”

Frustration with the results of the last election also resonated across town, where Tracy Clausen and a few dozen other members of the D.C. Bocce League had gathered in Georgetown’s Rose Park.

“I think Gray is bringing D.C. back to the time of Marion Barry,” said Clausen, 23. “People criticized Fenty for bringing in his cronies, but his cronies were educated professionals. Gray’s are overpaid, underqualified jokes.”

Forgetting history

The message from several Washingtonians interviewed Thursday to their leaders was simple: You should know better. The responses reflected a concern that some council members were forgetting the city’s difficult recent history.

William Parker, a former truck driver from Congress Heights, said he was concerned that both Kwame Brown and Thomas were old enough to remember how long it took the city to get back on solid footing after the days of federal control. Both Brown and Thomas are scions of political families.

“What all of this shows me is that these younger politicians, they are not understanding the last 25 years of history in this city,” said Parker, 59.

While virtually every resident interviewed said the quality of city services hasn’t suffered with the city’s reputation, former D.C. Council member Kevin Chavous wondered how long that will last.

“City services might be working very well,” said Chavous, who represented Ward 7 from 1992 to 2004. “But this will clearly have an impact at some point on governing, because it’s a major distraction.”

Staff writer Isaac Arnsdorf contributed to this report.

Mike DeBonis covers Congress and national politics for The Washington Post. He previously covered D.C. politics and government from 2007 to 2015.
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