Former D.C. official Joseph P. Yeldell dies at 80


Joseph P. Yeldell, presiding over the Mayor's Cabinet in the Mayor's absence in June 1977. Yeldell, 80, a force-to-be-reckoned-with in D.C. politics for the last three decades of the last century, died April 15. (Bob Burchette/The Washington Post)
April 18, 2013

Joseph P. Yeldell, a force to be reckoned with in District politics for three decades as a council member and then as the holder of high administrative city of­fices under mayors Walter E. Washington, Marion Barry and Sharon Pratt, died April 15 at his home in Washington. He was 80.

The cause was heart ailments and diabetes. A family friend, Fred Perry, confirmed the death.

From the early 1970s into the 1990s, Mr. Yeldell took a variety of formal titles: director of the Department of Human Resources, assistant city administrator, director of the Office of Emergency Preparedness, general assistant to the mayor, chief of the Department of Employment Services. But his influence was said to have extended well beyond the bureaucratic boundaries of any single municipal agency. He never held elected office and twice he ran unsuccessfully for D.C. delegate.

He was charismatic, politically savvy and widely known as a troubleshooter; the city’s “Mr. Fixit,” ready and able to do favors, arrange jobs or solve problems for family, friends, constituents and people of power and influence. A senator once called him in the middle of the night to complain that his illegally parked car had been towed late on a Friday and impounded in a city lot that would not open until Monday. Mr. Yeldell made a phone call, and the senator got his car back that night.

“If you wanted something done in the District, you called Joe,” William Lucy, international secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, once told The Washington Post. “There were lots of other people you could call, but if you wanted it done, you called Joe.”

In 1978, when he was director of the city’s Department of Human Resources, Mr. Yeldell was indicted along with multimillionaire developer and parking lot magnate Dominic F. Antonelli Jr. on charges of bribery and conspiracy in the awarding of a $5.6 million lease by the city of an Antonelli-owned building.

Prosecutors had argued that in return for the lease of the Antonelli property, Mr. Yeldell, who owned a struggling travel agency and was unable to repay bank loans, had received financial assistance from Antonelli.

An original guilty verdict was overturned on appeal after it was revealed that one of the jurors had failed to disclose that her father had once worked for and been fired by Antonelli. Both men were acquitted in a second trial, which had been moved to Philadelphia after the widely publicized first trial in Washington.

Mr. Yeldell was a mathematics teacher at Coolidge High School in Washington and an IBM salesman before President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed him to the non-elected city council in 1967. Mr. Yeldell had announced his candidacy for the post in a telephone call to the Washington Daily News, and he asked readers to write letters of support and send them to the White House.

Joseph A. Califano Jr., then counsel to the president, once told The Post that Johnson “saw the piece in the paper and told me this sounded like the kind of guy that should be on a city council. He asked me to talk to him. I found him bright, articulate and interested.”

At the time, Mr. Yeldell was unknown in city politics. Barry, then a community activist, was widely quoted as saying, “Who the hell is Yellman?”

On the council, Mr. Yeldell was chairman of the personnel committee, which placed him in charge of hiring the secretaries and office staff for his colleagues. In that role, he began to build a constituency of city employees dependent on his patronage, a trend that would continue throughout his government career.

He cultivated a relationship with Mayor Washington, giving advice on ways and methods of dealing with the council, where, in time, Mr. Yeldell became known as “The Mayor’s Man.”

He ran for D.C. delegate in 1971, but after losing to the council’s vice chairman, Walter E. Fauntroy, was offered the directorship of the city’s Department of Human Resources, a 10,000-employee, $400 million budget, social service agency that controlled welfare payments, community mental health centers, food stamps, Medicaid and student loan programs.

By 1976, nearly every program and institution within the department had faced some criticism, been investigated or threatened with loss of federal funds. The Washington Star had published a story disclosing that four members of the Yeldell family had shown up on Department of Human Resources payrolls.

For periods in the Barry administration, Mr. Yeldell was an adviser and mayoral moneyman whose roles included arm-twisting of businessmen for financial contributions to city programs the mayor wanted to support. But the Barry-Yeldell alliance weakened over the years and collapsed in 1996 when Barry, acting through City Administrator Michael C. Rogers, informed Mr. Yeldell that he should take early retirement from his job as director of the city’s Department of Employment Services.

At a news conference, Mr. Yeldell charged that his ouster was the work of the mayor’s then wife, Cora Masters Barry, who, he said, had him on a short list of city officials she wanted fired.

Barry answered that Mr. Yeldell had committed an “unpardonable sin” by going public with his accusations. “Joe knows I’ve had some problems with him for some time,” Barry said. “I wanted to do it quietly. . . . When people get fired, they go away quietly.”

Joseph Phillip Yeldell was born in Washington on Sept. 9, 1932, the ninth of 13 children. His father was a railroad porter and church deacon.

In 1950, Mr. Yeldell graduated from Cardozo High School, where he was a champion orator. During his high school years, he competed in oratory contests with Fauntroy, with whom he would later serve on the council. He served in the Air Force, graduated from D.C. Teachers College in 1957 and received a master’s degree in education from the University of Pittsburgh in 1961.

Survivors include his wife of 55 years, Gladys Johnson Yeldell of Washington; a daughter, Joi Yeldell of Washington; two sisters, Josephine Chandler and Juanita Williams, both of Washington; and four grandchildren. A daughter, Gayle A. Yeldell, died in 2009.