Patronage Persists in D.C.

By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 11, 2009; B01

Robert Adams, a contractor who lives in Southeast Washington, tells of a friend who found jobs for four relatives at the D.C. Public Works Department. Another friend, a District police officer, helped a brother get hired by the city, Adams says.

So what's wrong with D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) using taxpayer money to hire his girlfriend as a consultant?

Absolutely nothing, Adams said. In fact, he expects government officials to take care of their friends and family, and he sees no harm as long as "they aren't hurting nobody. It's all about who you know, whether you've got the experience or not," said Adams, 53, sitting on his porch in Congress Heights. "That's the way the world works."

For more than a decade, District leaders have sought to reverse the government's long-standing reputation for dysfunction, a reputation fueled in part by periodic revelations about top officials rewarding friends with jobs and contracts.

Yet, even as mayors have campaigned on promises to tighten hiring practices, and District lawmakers say they employ and recommend only the most qualified workers, patronage persists. It is a tradition stretching back to before home rule, when members of Congress used the city's bureaucracy as a hiring hall for their constituents.

"I tried to clean it up, and we made a lot of headway," said former mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), before volunteering that he engaged in the practice. "No one is without sin, and by no means has this been completely corrected. You have to constantly fight it."

As long as mayors and members of Congress and even presidents have hunted for votes, patronage has been practiced in cities and counties far and wide, almost regardless of reform efforts. President John F. Kennedy's appointment of his brother Robert as attorney general triggered charges of nepotism. In New York, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who made his reputation as a corruption-busting prosecutor, found a place for his cousin's wife and at least two other relatives in city agencies. Chicago's attempts at reform remain a work in progress: A court-appointed monitor recently concluded that patronage hiring endures in city agencies.

To encourage more rigorous hiring practices, D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's administration has stepped up employee evaluations and added specific goals to its job postings. Yet Fenty (D) has been criticized for trying to hand out jobs to cronies. He nominated Lori Lee, a close friend of his wife's, to be chairman of the Public Service Commission, then withdrew her name after government watchdogs objected. He ended up appointing Lee to one of two other seats on the panel instead.

The mayor also tried to name a fraternity brother to the board of trustees at the University of the District of Columbia, a nomination he withdrew after more criticism.

Barry's granting a contract to then-girlfriend Donna Watts-Brighthaupt revived memories of controversies that tarnished his mayoralty. But Barry was defiant about the hire, saying he would do it again because it is legal. "Unless the law changes, why not?" he asked.

Watts-Brighthaupt's hiring, as well as grants Barry made to not-for-profit groups, prompted D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) to launch an investigation. Barry also has been the target of criticism from some colleagues, including council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), who called the episode a setback for a government trying to "change the culture to emphasize merit and appropriate skill sets and less personal relationships and familial ties."

"It places us in a position of retreat at a time when we have been working to restore the working of government and our image," said Catania, who said he has never hired a personal friend in his office or recommended one to a city agency. "Personal ties account for less than they did 10 years ago. But I'd be lying if I said they no longer still matter. We're not immune. We're not dissimilar to other jurisdictions. There's no such thing as an entirely clean government."

Council member Kwame Brown (D-At Large) said elected officials "shouldn't be out hiring your girlfriends or your boyfriends or your partners. I haven't run into anyone in the city who finds that acceptable."

A survey of the council reached 11 of 13 members, and they told The Washington Post that they had never recommended a relative for a city government job. All said they had not hired personal friends in their offices. Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5), 48, said he had three aides he has known since his teens and early 20s. He hired them because they were qualified, he said.

Four council members, including Gray, said they had recommended friends for jobs in District agencies, in each case because they thought that the candidates were suitable. Gray's spokeswoman, Doxie McCoy, said the council member "has imposed no influence on any decisions nor expected such persons to be treated any differently from other applicants."

Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) said she once hired the son of former council member Kathy Patterson because his educational background made him the right person to focus on environmental issues. "He was excellent," Cheh said.

In Barry's ward, residents said they are not surprised when they learn that a politician or agency official has hired friends. "It's not the way it's supposed to be, but that's the way it is," said Dorothy Franklin, 75, a retired dry-cleaning presser. "This one got a cousin or their niece in there. We've tolerated it."

Franklin's tenant, postal worker Bridgette Cobb, 49, said that a couple of years ago, when she thought about trying to become a parking meter attendant, a District official told her, "You can apply, but if you don't know anybody, you won't get hired." Barry is far from the only politician to hire a friend, Cobb said. "You don't think all of them aren't doing it?"

On the other side of the city, Jack McKay, a Mount Pleasant community leader and a retired physicist, said he assumes that favoritism in government hiring "is pretty commonplace. It's perfectly possible that the person hired under these conditions does a reasonable job. If it's a ghost job, where they don't show up for work, that's another matter. But I don't think that goes on here."

Mary Boyle, a spokeswoman for Common Cause, a nonpartisan reform group, said such views can undermine the democratic process. "People should expect their government to bring in the most qualified," she said. "When people get cynical, that leads to them not participating."

In the District, nepotism and cronyism have surfaced periodically. In the 1980s, the son of then-council member H.R. Crawford (D-Ward 7) got a job at one agency, then moved to another despite grumblings about his performance. In the 1990s, nearly a quarter of new Housing Authority maintenance workers were fired after officials found that they had relatives at the agency who had recommended them for the jobs.

As an associate school superintendent in the early 1970s, Dwight Cropp, husband of former council chairman Linda W. Cropp (D), said his office would receive calls from congressional staffers "who'd want certain people hired for certain positions -- teachers or custodians or higher. I'd say, 'Have them apply,' and six chances out of 10, they'd get hired if they were not totally unprepared. It was a culture."

Cropp, who served in District government from 1969 to 1990, including as a senior adviser to Barry, said that culture, a legacy of congressional control of the city, "continued under mayors Walter Washington and Barry. Sharon Pratt Kelly tried to change it, but she wasn't very successful."

Patronage hiring and its offshoots might seem unavoidable in a city where government is the predominant industry. In many cases, members of the same family might end up working for different agencies after navigating the application process with no special favors. "It's not like it's a huge city where you can go deep into an applicant pool," said Joyce Ladner, a former member of the District's congressionally imposed financial control board.

Police and fire departments across the country are known for attracting generations of the same families. Elective office often becomes a family business as well; consider the Kennedys, Bushes, Clintons and Cuomos.

In the District, school board member William Lockridge's uncle Calvin also served on the board. Council member Kwame Brown is the son of Marshall Brown, a political consultant who has worked on local and national campaigns. Council member Michael Brown is the son of Ron Brown, the former commerce secretary, although his roots did not keep him from losing mayoral and council races. And council member Thomas is the son of former council member Harry Thomas Sr. (D-Ward 5).

Thomas acknowledged that entering politics was easier because of his father. Yet he also said, "It's tough being a political family and being a political son."

"Because of who your parents are, you should be a certain way," he said. "You're held to a different standard, whether you like it or not."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company