Kevin Chavous, on a Spinning Record
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 26, 1998; Page D1 Kevin P. Chavous spoke with measured words that seemed almost deferential, a tone that belied the tension of the moment as he confronted schools Chief Executive Julius W. Becton Jr. and a phalanx of top deputies from the D.C. public schools.
Chavous made only an oblique reference to "the crisis" schools had opened three weeks late, leaving 78,000 schoolchildren and their parents at loose ends through September.
Only once did Chavous chairman of the D.C. Council's Education Committee come close to criticizing the embattled former Army general, gently chiding Becton for not being more forthcoming with the public.
"We really feel the entire process," Chavous said, "has to be opened up far more than it has been."
The hearing a year ago stands at the heart of Chavous's public record. It is a record now under scrutiny as the Ward 7 D.C. Council member is among the leading candidates in the Sept. 15 Democratic primary election for mayor, a record that supporters champion as long on passion for schoolchildren and neighborhoods and that critics deride as short on accomplishment and hard work.
"Had it not been for these hearings that we held," Chavous said in a recent interview, "all the actions of General Becton and his senior staff would have been done behind closed doors, which would have been preferable to them, in the still of night, away from public light."
Beyond education, Chavous has been a moderate on fiscal and social issues, taking his place among the council's Young Turks in 1995 to help defeat a $40 million real estate property tax increase and support a series of new limits on welfare.
In early 1995, he also was among the first elected officials in Washington to call for creation of a review board to oversee city finances. He envisioned a seven-member panel under local control; after Congress created a financial control board independent of the District government, he became one of its most vociferous critics.
Chavous ranks a number of neighborhood initiatives among his most important legislative accomplishments, including sponsorship of a citywide moratorium on new liquor licenses for takeout beer stores, a bill authorizing the towing of abandoned cars off private property, and legislation empowering the courts to remove tenants and homeowners from properties where drugs are being sold.
He voted against the proposed $685 million convention center at Mount Vernon Square, citing concerns about its cost, and he voted against a proposed theme park on Children's Island in the Anacostia River this year because of opposition from environmentalists and nearby residents one of eight votes on environmental issues that helped him receive an A rating from the Sierra Club.
Another of those pro-environment votes was his opposition to the proposed Barney Circle Freeway. He takes credit for "single-handedly" killing it by insisting upon council review of the first construction contract, which went down in defeat.
"I've always been involved with a lot of these quality-of-life areas we've had hundreds of people involved in cleanups, or we've put together a basketball league for kids, or we did the adopt-a-street program with churches and schools," Chavous said.
Chavous's constituent service and his oversight of public education have generated controversy. Critics argue that Chavous often has convened hearings too late to do any good, that his visibility in Ward 7 has been low and that his leadership on education and neighborhood issues has been weak.
"He could have been more aggressive, there's no question about that," said Mary Levy, counsel for the education advocacy group Parents United, staking out a middle ground between Chavous's strident critics and his ardent supporters in assessing his education record.
Assessing Chavous's record in Ward 7, civic leader Paul Savage is far less circumspect.
"The man is going on six years [on the council] if he's delivered anything to Hillcrest or anywhere in this ward, you tell me and we'll both know," said Savage, a retired federal employee who is involved in the campaign of a leading Chavous opponent, Anthony A. Williams.
Savage contends that the heavy demands of Chavous's private law practice have detracted from his performance on the council.
Financial disclosure forms Chavous has filed with the D.C. government since his election to the council in 1992 show that the most he has earned from Cadeaux & Taglieri, a small plaintiff's firm specializing in personal injury and medical malpractice, was $161,660, in 1994, and the least was $105,000, in 1996, with compensation averaging $131,000 a year.
Chavous dismisses Savage's criticism and that of other Ward 7 detractors as political.
"I have represented my ward with distinction, honor and integrity," Chavous said. "With all those detractors out there, none of them can say that I'm lying, cheating or stealing. And each and every one of them knows, in their heart of hearts, when they called on my office, we've responded."
Chavous acknowledges that the competing demands of his law practice and his political career have required "a juggling act" that contributed to his missing seven of 133 council sessions during his 5½ years in office.
In late May, Chavous missed a daylong hearing on the convention center, a week before the council's first vote on the issue, because he was in Las Vegas celebrating his wedding anniversary. When the council gave final consideration to the convention center at a special session in June, Chavous was in court for much of the day, missing the debate and votes on amendments, but he arrived in time for the final vote.
Chavous said he has never missed back-to-back sessions and thus has never missed voting on legislation enacted into law, since every bill is voted on twice at successive sessions.
"Clearly, being a legislator and having a law practice is taxing," Chavous said. "But that's what public service at the municipal level should be about. I believe in citizen legislators. I believe it is more beneficial to the average citizen to have people in these offices who have other jobs. The reason for that is, they won't be as easily compromised by the trappings of the political job, and they won't feel compelled to do anything and everything to keep that political job."
Chavous won his first election in 1988, claiming a seat on the D.C. Democratic State Committee. But his first public exposure, that same year, came from representing the people of River Terrace, pro bono, in their fight to stop Potomac Electric Power Co. from expanding its power plant on the edge of the community.
By the time River Terrace and its young lawyer declared victory two years later, Chavous had become a fixture in the media, opining on home rule, the District's homicide epidemic and the tragedy of a fallen mayor imprisoned on a drug conviction.
When Chavous made his first run for the council in 1992, he made the same argument about three-term incumbent H.R. Crawford's chairmanship of the Human Services Committee that his critics now make of his reign as education chairman: "The biggest problem in the city is the committee Crawford oversees."
The argument resonated. Chavous narrowly beat Crawford in a four-way primary in 1992, winning 41 percent of the vote. He soon joined the council's Young Turks and announced, in early 1993, his opposition to further tax increases. But it was violence in the District's easternmost ward a melange of well-manicured middle-class enclaves and impoverished housing projects that thrust Chavous into the spotlight.
By October, after a 4-year-old girl was killed during a spasm of gang violence at an elementary school, Chavous had named a 20-member neighborhood task force on public safety a move he continues to regard as one of his most important acts as a council member.
"He was out front with the police department," said Rodney Stewart, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Ward 7. "When we had problems around here with thefts or break-ins or stolen cars or shootings or gun violence, he's the kind of person who stepped up. He's been very helpful, as far as I'm concerned, in my area."
Chavous easily won reelection in 1996 and soon was locked in an intense fight with council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3) for chairmanship of the Education Committee.
Patterson, a schools activist, questioned Chavous's commitment, saying the city's schoolchildren did not need "people who have recently discovered that good schools are good politics."
But Chavous pushed hard for the post, declaring public education the most important issue facing the city, and was ultimately awarded the plum chairmanship by then-Council Chairman David A. Clarke. He took over the committee in early 1997, just as Becton was assuming control of the school system. Becton, under siege, resigned in May.
For Chavous, chairing the Education Committee with the schools in crisis was the most important and difficult challenge of his political career.
How he fared is in dispute, although both his supporters and detractors agree that he was navigating uncharted waters with the school system suddenly being run by appointed powers who had little experience in urban education and almost no discernible interest in involving the public in making decisions.
"We had to fight and scratch and claw and push and prod," Chavous said, "to get [Becton] to be responsive."
Becton's unwillingness to cooperate with the council became most obvious a year ago, when he announced that schools would open three weeks late because roof repair work at dozens of schools could never be completed by the beginning of September.
Chavous's first oversight hearing on the fiasco didn't take place until after the schools finally opened in late September a delay that Chavous said was unavoidable and that his critics considered inexcusable.
Susan Gushue, co-chair of D.C. Parents and Community for Education, said she believes there was nothing Chavous could have done to get the schools open on time, given that he had the unenviable task of trying to oversee a school system whose boss had little interest in providing information and cooperating with the council.
"Once he figured out the only thing he could do was hold hearings, he started doing that," Gushue said. "He was always concerned and returned my calls. My feeling was there was no information he could get from the system and go forward with."
But Patterson said more vigorous council oversight could have kept the schools from opening late.
"I wish there had been earlier, more forceful and continuing oversight of the new leadership of the D.C. public schools monthly oversight, starting in February, on summertime contracting for school repairs," she said.
Patterson rejects the defense by Chavous supporters that he was stymied in his attempts to get information from the school system as a result of Becton's stonewalling.
"I can't tell you a specific piece of information that I've wanted that, one way or another, I haven't been able to get," Patterson said.
Other education activists voice doubts similar to Patterson's about Chavous's performance as Education Committee chairman.
Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century School Fund, an advocacy group formed to help the school system modernize its aging buildings, is ready to offer a judgment.
"He's had all these hearings but in terms of the work that's required to follow up, I don't see it," she said. "We still don't have structures in place that are preventing repeats of what happened last year. I've been unimpressed with the substance of what he's done. He's had the hearings, but I don't feel he's provided the leadership that we've needed."
Filardo also said she thought it was unfortunate that Chavous effectively fired Jim Ford, a staff aide who had run the Education Committee for years. Without Ford, Chavous's staff problem became critical when the aide who ran the committee's affairs, Courtney Gunter; the committee's counsel, Rose Musonye-Smith; and a staff assistant, Laurie Dalizu, all quit at the end of 1997. Sources on the council, who asked not to be quoted by name, said Gunter and Musonye-Smith expressed deep frustration with what they perceived to be Chavous's lack of commitment to the school system and his lackluster performance as committee chairman.
"He has an entirely new staff from when he started," Filardo said. "And a lot of the work on council is done at the staff level."
When Oyster Elementary School went to the council this year for legislation authorizing a multimillion-dollar bond sale to fund construction of a new building, Filardo said, "Chavous was supportive and we appreciated that, but the work was done by Patterson. The work that's actually required to modernize schools in the District is not coming from his office."
Patterson and other activists credit Chavous for overseeing development of a per-pupil funding formula mandated by Congress to form the basis of all future school budgets. The funding formula has also been critical in the development of charter schools, another reform pushed by Congress in which Chavous has expressed interest and support.
"He decided he was in favor of charter schools and started being helpful to us," said Michael E. Peabody, co-chair of a charter school advocacy group called Friends of Choice in Urban Schools. "We think his staff in this regard are helpful, heads-up people. So, generally speaking, I think he's done a pretty good job."
Chavous, responding to his critics, said he tried repeatedly to hold oversight hearings on roof repairs throughout last summer but was continually rebuffed by Becton. Ultimately, Chavous said, he was forced to wait for the council to return from summer recess in late September so his committee could vote to authorize an investigation which gave him subpoena power to force Becton to testify.
"When we did that," Chavous said, "that's when Becton finally showed up."
And losing his original committee staff, Chavous said, was not much of a setback. "Sure, there's a learning curve, but I think we have an excellent staff in place now," he said. "And I think we've done a good job in moving the agenda forward. We've had a lot of successes over the past year not just having hearings, but having hearings with results."
The irony presented by opposition activists in his home ward is inescapable. As Chavous campaigns on a promise to become "a mayor for every neighborhood," his own ward gave birth to a draft movement that enticed former D.C. chief financial officer Williams into the race.
"When his slogan is he wants to be a mayor for the neighborhoods, he's not even been a council member for our neighborhood," said Roscoe Grant Jr., a Williams supporter who chairs ANC 7B, which includes Hillcrest, where the draft Williams movement began.
Chavous dismisses his neighborhood critics.
"They have their own political agendas," Chavous said. "Each and every one of them would love to have my job. ... The best way to gauge how I'm doing in my ward is not to talk to people who obviously want to be council members themselves, but to go stand in the Safeway, or go stand in the subway, and ask people about Kevin Chavous. And I guarantee you, I'm doing well in my ward."
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