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  • D.C. Elections Special Report

    Reinventing Politics |  Forward Into the Past | Bright Lights

    By Colbert I. King

    Paths to Power
    SHE WAS MOM AWAY FROM HOME, the woman with the warm smile and firm hand who introduced me to the world of cloakrooms and chalk and graham crackers and milk. She taught me the Pledge of Allegiance, and how to appreciate an autumn leaf and not be afraid of going to school. She was my kindergarten teacher at Stevens Elementary School. Her name was Miriam Lee.

    Miss Lee never married, but her extended family embraced every black child who lived within blocks of Stevens in the 1940s, '50s. And I was one of her favorites.

    My parents ran into her at the Safeway years after I had finished college. Hearing I was married, Miss Lee wanted the scoop: what my wife was like, where she was born, her schooling and family background. Stevens kids never left her mind. However, with a growing family of my own, I – to my regret – didn't reciprocate. I lost track of her until I read a story in The Post a few years ago concerning her last days on earth. Protector and nurturer of thousands of young people, Miss Lee died at 92, destitute, without a shirt on her back.

    She was in a nursing home, penniless, because she had entrusted her monthly pension and Social Security checks to a family friend – D.C. Board of Education member R. Calvin Lockridge – who was charged with using the money for something other than her care. At Lockridge's jury trial for theft and tax evasion, the prosecutor said Miss Lee had been reduced to wearing sheets because she "literally had no clothes."

    Lockridge was found guilty of stealing more than $20,000 of Miss Lee's money and jailed for 10 months. Miss Lee, who had devoted her life to schoolchildren, was led to ruin by another longtime associate of the D.C. public schools.

    If the city had an Elected Officials Hall of Shame, Lockridge would be a charter member. A loud, antics-loving political figure, he made D.C. voters look like they had lost their minds. Calvin Lockridge – who sucker-punched the president of the D.C. Teachers Credit Union in an elementary school hallway during a credit union election. Lockridge – whose buddy and school employee was convicted on drug distribution charges after getting caught driving Lockridge's car in New Jersey with cocaine in the trunk. Lockridge – who, in a tense moment during a board meeting that ran past 3 a.m., grabbed a fellow board member by the throat and put his knuckles in the choking colleague's ear until the school superintendent came to the rescue.

    Paths to Power
    How, you may ask, can a city that is home to some of the best educated and most affluent people in the country, including an upwardly mobile black middle class, elect characters like Lockridge? It's the kind of question District residents grow sick of hearing. But it's one that can't be ducked. When it comes to buffoonery in the cause of public service, and behavior that keeps home rule hanging by a thread, the District of Columbia has produced more than its share of bad actors. For example, a prominent space in the Elected Officials Hall of Shame must be reserved for Lockridge's choking victim, Frank Shaffer-Corona.

    Another product of District democracy, Shaffer-Corona distinguished himself in ways too offensive even for the elected school board, which ended up censuring him for allegedly misusing the board's long-distance telephone lines.

    People still scratch their heads over how a Howard University dropout, ex-finance agency collection manager, seller of chimney cleaners and community activist could get himself elected to the D.C. school board. But that Shaffer-Corona did in 1977, and there he stayed until 1981, when the voters finished him off at the polls. While on the public payroll, however, he managed to get on the city's last nerve.

    QUICKLY OUTGROWING PAROCHIAL CONCERNS, such as educating children, he used school funds to pay his way to Cuba so he could give a speech to a "Youth Against Imperialism" rally. He trekked to Beirut to engage the Palestine Liberation Organization in an exchange of views, again courtesy of the school budget. No cause was beyond his reach: Unimpressed with the efforts of President Jimmy Carter and the international community, Shaffer-Corona spent $1,900 in school funds on long-distance phone calls to Iran in a one-man show to free American hostages.

    When last heard from, in 1989, Shaffer-Corona was down in D.C. Superior Court, pleading guilty to the theft of funds. Well, he didn't actually steal the money. A bank mistakenly deposited $31,000 in his account. Discovering the largess, Shaffer-Corona withdrew with it and his girlfriend to Mexico for the mother of all spending sprees. By the time the law caught up with him living south of the border, where he was making a go of it as a fugitive, more than $20,000 of the bank's money was long gone.

    We've seen it all in this city. From a D.C. Council member who punched out his staff aide during a Christmas toy giveaway as constituents, including children, watched in amazement (Harry Thomas, D-Ward 5), to a council member who refused to leave a constituent services office for months after her defeat, until the city changed the locks (Nadine Winter, D-Ward 6). Said the protesting Winter, to no avail, "I have squatter's rights."

    One elected official is even a repeat offender. Mayor Marion Barry's former wife, Mary Treadwell, who did time once before on a federal fraud conviction, is off to jail again for stealing $10,400 in city money while she headed her local advisory neighborhood commission.

    And speaking of the mayor, thanks to him and the present Mrs. Barry, the District of Columbia is probably the only jurisdiction in America to have a chief executive and first lady with his-and-hers criminal records. His for a drug conviction, hers for second-degree theft.

    In some respects, the quality of individuals seeking public office today is just as borderline as when Lockridge and Shaffer-Corona made their bids 20 years ago.

    In last December's special election for an at-large council seat, voters were offered a choice of: a recycled Democratic council member who had been defeated as council chairman many years earlier and hadn't been heard from since; an unknown Democrat who had been in the city for all of 17 months; a Republican advisory neighborhood commissioner in office for only a few years; and a Socialist Workers Party candidate whose campaign included the theme that Cuba should be a model for America and that the United States was too tough on Saddam Hussein.

    Even the electorate couldn't stomach that weak field: Only 7.5 percent of the voters bothered to vote. But turnout generally – a quarter-century after home rule's arrival – has become increasingly tepid. To understand that problem – and the low quality of political leadership – consider the people eligible to enter D.C. voting booths today.

    The 20-year exodus from the city has cost the District plenty, and not just in terms of lost jobs and tax revenue. The District also has been losing residents with the wherewithal to contribute time, talent and treasury to this city: its middle class. They are the people who worry about schools, taxes, their families and home values, and therefore tend to regard voting as a serious civic responsibility.

    And their departure has left the city weakened – saddled with political parties bordering on dysfunctional, office-seekers beholden to narrow slices of the city, and a voting bloc of disproportionately poor, less-educated residents who are most susceptible to the activist turned self-serving politician – the kind of candidate who, at bottom, exploits community adversities for his or her own political advantage.

    Add to that the ability of this kind of "leader" to scare off potential rivals by ruthlessly invoking class differences and making blatant appeals to fear and racial loyalty, and it becomes easier to understand why the District's political class is collectively second-rate, and singularly unequipped to deal with the complex social, political and economic problems confronting the city.

    THE DISTRICT'S LEADERSHIP DEFICIT has not yet been fatal to home rule. It has, however, retarded the development of the kind of officials and institutions needed to save, if not more fully promote, self-government. Moving the District to the point where it has a cadre of citizens who can both get themselves elected and efficiently manage a multibillion-dollar government enterprise will require a transformation in the way in which this city looks at politics and the expectations it has of its leaders.

    There are several keys to deepening the city's political culture and producing a higher grade of contenders for elective office.

    For starters, a public school system that turns out graduates who can't read, count well or think critically is an abiding threat to home rule. If education is an important contributor to voter participation and turnout – and it is – then the public school system has fallen down on the job. A national capital that produces well-trained, high-achieving students will soon have a well-informed electorate – the bedrock of democracy. So the first step is in the classroom.

    Residents must also begin selecting their leaders from among candidates who hail from a solid financial base. The days of electing people whose council or school board seat represents the first steady paycheck they've ever seen must end. That means residents will have to start searching for candidates with records of success in business, law, public administration, education, or experience in managing large enterprises. The District government, even with downsizing and operational efficiencies, remains a wide-ranging, high-priced undertaking. It can no longer afford to be led by unprofessional or unbusinesslike politicians.

    Getting there will require applying tougher criteria to the field. The candidate blessed with – folk wisdom – and a union with "the community" may be well suited to some activities. But a different set of tools is needed to deal with the liquidation of deficits or to decide which investments in technology, new skills and economic development will benefit the District's work force over the long haul.

    Of course, future District politicians must continue to connect with people on a personal level if they hope to win office. That comes with the territory. But meeting the community's needs and aspirations will demand a new breed of political leader who not only relates well to people across the board, but also appreciates the working of short-term and long-term capital markets, the need to sustain a viable tax base, the critical importance of maintaining investments in public education, and the relationship between revenue and spending.

    Those lessons were lost on Lockridge, Shaffer-Corona, Thomas, Barry and the like. Home rule's survival depends on their being learned by a new political class.

    Colbert I. King is a member of The Post's editorial board.

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    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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