The year was 1969 and Richard Wallace Clark, a member of the Yale Urban Fellows Program, was assigned to learn about urban politics as a special assistant to Gilbert Hahn, then chairman of the appointed D.C. City Council.
"I saw a handful of people in Congress serving as overlords for nearly three-quarters of a million people," said Clark. "To me that was confusing, appalling and absolutely incredible."
In the years that followed, Clark, a soft-spoken man who is quick to smile, became a lobbyist, strategist and head cheerleader in the push for home rule. Now, the city in celebrating its 10th year of home rule, and the City Council -- elected, these days -- has selected Clark as its first liaison with Congress.
Clark, 43, had been the executive assistant to Council Chairman David A. Clarke since 1983 and will now monitor legislation sent to the Hill.
The states have had liaisons to monitor legislation for years, and Clark said it is especially important for the council to do the same because Congress must review all legislation adopted by the council.
The District government already has a lobbyist and liaison with Capitol Hill, Pauline Schneider, D.C. director of intergovernmental relations.
But Schneider is part of Mayor Marion Barry's administration, which is not always in agreement with the City Council on issues. So Clarke wanted to make sure the council is represented on the Hill, Clark said recently.
"Before, when it came to Capitol Hill . . . we were put in the passive role of having to respond to a request without having continuously monitored what was going on," said Clark.
But Clark acknowledged that trying to supply information to 13 council members may, at times, be a sensitive job. "It is viewed by some as a cutting-edge office," he said. "Some members have raised concerns because they don't want a buffer between them and Congress, because they want to carry out the relationship in their own way."
Nevertheless, some council members say that they expect Clark's role to help them with legislation.
"To monitor what goes on on the Hill is really a full-time job, and it is difficult for the staff to do on an ongoing basis," said City Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4). "The office will be helpful in bringing back information on our budget and federal programs that we need to keep track of."
Clark said that his approach to the job will also be influenced by what he sees as the District's overall objective: "To get a maximum degree of control over our affairs and equal representation in the U.S. Congress."
Clark readily says that seeing that the District gains greater independence has become his "lifelong commitment."
Since Clark graduated from Cornell University with a degree in economics, he has considered himself a champion of the underdog. The road to the District building began in Binghamton, N.Y., in 1963 when Clark became program director for the Binghamton Interracial Association, for which he developed and coordinated a program that provided educational training, psychological counseling and recreational activities for low-income families.
"My mission has been to provide some kind of social equity for all of God's people, those who by way of birth or by way of geographic situation have fewer advantages than others," said Clark.
Clark said he developed that mission out of a "feeling that I had to do this for my mother. I had to make her proud."
He grew up in a rural section of Pennington, N.J., where his father, Arthur (Dick) Clark, was a self-taught landscaper and his late mother, Winifred Clark, did day work for the parents of children who attended school with Clark.
Over the years, Clark has worked for so many self-help and social organizations that he characterized himself as a "nonprofit junkie." The District government has become another cause.
During the last 14 years, Clark has made home rule, voting representation and statehood for the District the center of many of his activities. From 1970 to 1980, Clark worked as a lobbyist for Common Cause and persuaded the organization to take on the fight for home rule. In 1970, he became the chairman of the Self-Determination for D.C. National Coalition, a job he still holds.
David Cohen, former Common Cause president who worked with Clark in the '70s, is convinced that lark will be effective in his new job.
"He was absolutely a critical player on the home rule effort," said Cohen. "He is also one who not only believes strongly, but he is a listener. The ability to listen is important. He was an effective lobbyist."
While Clark says he finds legislative work fascinating, he quickly asserts that he is not a workaholic, and he makes a point of mixing recreation with business.
He said that he met some of his best contacts not in congressional offices, but in the Capitol Hill softball and football league.