Fried green tomatoes, corn-meal-crusted catfish fingers and crispy, fried-chicken livers all were on the menu last Thursday at what had to be one of the strangest local political fund-raising events in the District in years.
The fete at Georgia Brown's Restaurant in downtown was in honor of Rep. Ernest J. Istook Jr., the deeply religious, anti-gay Republican congressman from Oklahoma, who serves as chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on the District.
Outside, there were the protesters you might expect, condemning Istook's support of a ban within the District's fiscal year 2000 budget on spending for abortions, health care for domestic partners and the clean needle program intended to prevent the spread of AIDS.
"Send Istook home," one placard read. "Chairman Istook: A Kinder Gentler Assassin of Home Rule," said another.
What was surprising was the crowd inside the event. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) was there, so too, were council members Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4) and Phil Mendelson (D-At Large). Missing were the only two Republicans on the D.C. Council--Carol Schwartz (At Large) and David Catania (At Large)--who issued a press release just before the cocktail party began, denouncing the budget Istook had supported and declaring they would boycott the event.
"We reject the efforts of certain members of our party to impose their narrow parochial views on the citizens of the District of Columbia," the Catania-Schwartz statement said. "We are hopeful that our party will again return to its philosophy of respecting local rule rather than an overly intrusive federal government."
The party confusion does not end there.
The organizer of the reelection benefit was Kerry S. Pearson, a longtime District activist who claims to have raised more than $10 million for political candidates over the years. He's worked with Evans, Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp, then-council Chairman David A. Clarke, Mayors Sharon Pratt Kelly and Marion Barry and onetime mayoral candidates Harold Brazil and Kevin P. Chavous, both of whom are also on the council.
Notice anything consistent about this list? Yes, they are all Democrats. So how did Pearson end up collecting about $40,000 in checks to help reelect a conservative Oklahoma Republican to Congress? Pearson, a registered Democrat, and many of the other Democrats in attendence, had their explanations.
Istook, they said, has proven to be quite flexible when it comes to the District's budget. He spent hours on the phone with Williams, Cropp and others during the budget process this spring and summer to come up with a package--at least on matters related to city finances--that both the city and Congress could support.
For that reason, even though Istook backed the so-called "social riders" that Williams describes as "disgraceful," it was appropriate to back his reelection effort.
"These riders notwithstanding . . . overall I think he did a good job with the bill," Williams said. "It's important to maintain a variety of relationships. . . . He's chairman of an important committee."
Added Pearson: "His personal style is so much different from the previous people who held the post," referring to Rep. Charles H. Taylor (R-N.C.), who did little to hide his disdain for District officials.
Williams, as well as Evans and Mendelson, each also noted that although they attended the event, they did not make contributions.
"I forgot my checkbook," Mendelson said.
Evans said, "Regardless of his views on certain social issues, which I do not agree with, it is important to have a dialogue."
Many prominent members of the District's business community did not forget their checkbooks. Among those in attendance were John T. Schwieters, chairman of the Greater Washington Board of Trade and the managing partner of the Washington area Arthur Andersen accounting firm; A. Scott Bolden, former president of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce; Stephen D. Harlan, a former member of the D.C. financial control board and chairman of H.G. Smithy Co., a real estate firm, and Albert R. "Butch" Hopkins Jr, president of Anacostia Economic Development Corp.
Bill Lecos, senior vice president for policy at the Board of Trade, said that he has found Istook to be "very sincere," and that city leaders and Democrats in the District, "have to deal with the realities of the social-political agenda of the majority party."
Istook, of course, welcomed the support. He noted in a recent interview that despite his conservative views, he has worked in his first year as chairman of the District panel to prevent new riders from being added to the budget.
"I try to be as respectful as can be," he said of the city budget. "We needed to focus on the things where we were together, rather than focusing on things where we might differ."
The explanation did not satisfy the small group of demonstrators, who walked a picket line at the restaurant's entrance on 15th Street, while the drinks and finger food was served inside.
"There is nothing to celebrate here," said Wayne Turner, organizer of last year's initiative to legalize marijuana for certain medical purposes--a measure that Istook and other House Republicans voted again this year to block from going into effect.
As the fund-raiser drew to a close--and Mayor Williams sneaked out the restaurant's back entrance--Turner noted that he has a new understanding of District politics.
"Backbone knows no party designation."
Job Filled After Long Search
As city government jobs go, the post of zoning administrator is one of the more important ones.
The zoning chief supervises investigations into property owners who build porches or other additions without permits and businesses that illegally set up shop in residential areas.
For the last four years in the District, that job has been vacant.
The Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, which is responsible for zoning matters, proudly announced its new hire this week. Michael D. Johnson, a former chief of zoning in Prince William County is the District's new zoning administrator.
It may seem like a modest accomplishment--just filling a job--but it was celebrated by Lloyd J. Jordan, the department's director.
"The hiring of a zoning administrator was one of my top priorities upon becoming director of this agency," said Jordan, who arrived in his post in July 1998. "With the explosive interest in the District of Columbia's commercial and housing market, the zoning division was greatly in need of an expert administrator to ensure that growth continues in a managed and reasonable manner."
Johnson, who worked in Prince William from 1991 to 1998, also previously spent five years in Aurora, Colo., working in a housing code enforcement agency and the city manager's office. He has a master's of public administration from the University of Colorado at Denver and an undergraduate degree from Metropolitan State College in Denver, according to his resume.
The department also has filled a second important code enforcement-related post. The agency has appointed what it calls its first historic preservation inspector--Toni Williams-Cherry--who will patrol city historic areas to identify illegal construction on historic structures, the department said.
She spent the last two years as a trash inspector with the D.C. Department of Public Works. She has 12 years of experience with the city, also having served as a typist and a public affairs assistant. She has attended local colleges but does not have a degree.