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Sexist Insults Aren't Shaking Cropp's Resolve

By Courtland Milloy
Monday, December 20, 2004; Page B01

As mayor of the District in 1992, Sharon Pratt had to negotiate a new football stadium deal with Jack Kent Cooke, the late owner of the Washington Redskins, who brought to the table a nauseating stench of sexism. A little more than a decade later, D.C. Council Chairman Linda Cropp is getting a whiff of the same for her part in the city's stalled stadium negotiations with Major League Baseball.

Cooke would address Pratt, then known as Pratt Kelly, as "dear girl" and "darling mayor." He even patted her on the rear after a breakthrough in one of their talks. Cropp has received e-mail from irate baseball fans that refer to her as a "fat black woman" and other insults, while some question her competence to do business in a man's world.

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Pratt never publicly cried sexism. And although Cropp has called the attacks on her "vicious," she has studiously avoided the s-word.

"The reason I don't talk about that is because I think it would diminish what I'm trying to get across -- that I represent the District, not Major League Baseball," Cropp told me. "If I talk about [sexism], then people will focus on that and not the message I'm trying to spread."

Pratt now runs a Washington-based management consulting firm that specializes in homeland security for urban areas. She told me: "You just can't afford to give [sexism] more power than it has. I think most women learn to manage it on a daily basis because it's always there. You just have to keep moving and deal with the basic issues that you are responsible for."

How ironic. As the women became more powerful, the more powerless they felt to outright challenge sexist behavior that not only holds many women back but also demeans them and discounts their successes.

"It's a double bind when women who have been elected to public office are discriminated against," said Karen O'Connor, director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University.

"They know that some people will see any complaint as a sign of ineffectiveness. They'll say, 'Oh, she can't play with the big boys,' or 'She can't take a hit.' If a woman in politics who wants to have a career trajectory allows her complaints to go public, she makes herself less credible in the eyes of many."

With the exception of a few high-profile sexual harassment lawsuits, which generate mostly prurient interest, the problem of sexism rarely gets a serious public airing these days.

"I thought to myself, 'The nerve of this man,' " Pratt said of Cooke's conduct. "It really took me aback. But I didn't go into a crazed scene." Instead, she kept her feelings pent up.

Not long afterward, Pratt refused to further sweeten the deal to keep Cooke from moving his team to the suburbs, declaring that she would not "allow our good community to be steamrolled by . . . a billionaire bully."

Her decision turned out to be in the best financial interest of the city. But the abrupt and unequivocal dismissal of Cooke suggested that Pratt had personally had enough.

Now it's Cropp's turn to suppress her emotional responses to the many sexist insults directed at her. But don't count on them staying pent up long. She believes, for instance, that when a city agrees to give away millions of dollars to billionaire baseball team owners in exchange for, well, not much, questions should be raised about the city official who cut the deal -- in this case, D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams -- and not the city official who thought the deal smelled fishy.

And she was stunned by sportscasters and commentators who, behaving as the literate equivalent of Ron Artest of the Indiana Pacers, rushed in a blind rage past the mayor and began beating up on her.

"Another reason I don't want to talk about it is because it's personal," Cropp said. "And what's personal is not going to make me lose sight of my public responsibility, which is to get a better deal for the city."

So far, Cropp's responses have been mild -- especially compared with what Pratt eventually told Cooke. But don't be surprised if the results are the same.

E-mail: milloyc@washpost.com

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