June 8, 2012

Shoes are dropping pretty fast in these D.C. scandals.

Harry Thomas Jr. Felon.

Kwame Brown. Felon.

Two campaign aides to Mayor Vincent Gray. Felons.

Unfortunately for our city, what we have here is a centipede of corruption. There are more shoes to drop.

U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen Jr. says his primary goal is rooting out public corruption in the District. He says the Gray campaign “deceived” the voters. Machen is doing his job.

What now are the citizens to do?

What will our politicians still in office do?

And a growing concern: What might Congress do?

In 1995, a worried Congress and president created a financial control board to save the city from bankruptcy — and from itself. It worked, though many people resented the loss of what limited local control the District is allowed. City finances now are the envy of many other governments, but there is a rumbling fear that Capitol Hill could nonetheless again tighten the reins, sabotaging autonomy, or even move to appoint a receiver, should things get worse. And by worse, let’s be clear, we’re talking about the possibility of Gray being charged and forced from office.

The local drama in the nation’s capital could bleed into the national campaigns. Conservative Republicans in the House may feel compelled to pounce for political gain, and Democrats — already facing a stomach-turning environment nationally — aren’t likely to rush to defend the District. President Obama, who seems to be much more aware of our restaurants than our lack of voting rights, might start canceling his reservations.

Perhaps more important, additional guilty pleas would shake confidence not only on the Hill but also on Wall Street, with major implications for a key mayoral decision: Gray must decide soon whether to reappoint Natwar Gandhi as the city’s independent chief financial officer. Whatever Gandhi’s negatives, he is well regarded on Wall Street, and a mayor under a cloud will have to tread carefully to avoid giving Wall Street a reason to reconsider the city’s credit ratings. Given such concerns, Gray and the D.C. Council also would be wise to move quickly to staff up the new ethics committee to be headed by former city attorney general Robert Spagnoletti.

And unfortunately, racial concerns are simmering.

This is not the widespread city corruption of the 1980s, which divided residents depending on whether they saw then-mayor Marion Barry as corrupt or harassed. But race is never far from the surface of city politics. Last week, as Brown scurried through a reporters’ gauntlet, a D.C. resident angrily came up to an NBC4 camera to ask why no white politicians had yet been charged with a crime. It does little to soothe such feelings to point out that the U.S. attorney is black, that his principal deputy, Vinnie Cohen Jr., is black and homegrown, and that U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. — their boss — is black.

To me, though, there is a bigger issue: What will residents do to reclaim their town’s dignity and image?

Too often, many local residents act like passengers on a plane, content to sit down and ride out any turbulence. Will that be the case once again? The recent Ward 5 special election to replace the jail-bound Thomas appeared to be a positive step, with qualified candidates who didn’t shy away from ethics issues, but it’s too early to tell. One positive sign: An energetic citywide group is gathering signatures to place an initiative on the fall ballot that would ban corporate contributions to local campaigns. Although corporate money will no doubt find other ways into campaigns, residents at least are taking action that the D.C. Council wouldn’t take.

On Wednesday, the sitting 12 council members will convene to pick a temporary chairman who will serve until a special election — probably to be held on the same day as the Nov. 6 general election. Elected officials and citizen groups already are weighing who will run for chairman and who will wait to see if there will be a special election for mayor. Whether we like it or not, we’re all in campaign mode now.

In talks I give around town about D.C. politics, I usually end on this note: “Local Washington is only as good as the people active in it.” This is the heart-wrenching question raised by all this: Just how good is local Washington? We’re about to find out.

The writer is a political reporter for NBC4 and the co-author of the 1994 book “Dream City” about the history of D.C. politics.