Mayor Anthony A. Williams did not welcome the news that a group of activists is trying to persuade his chief of staff, Abdusalam Omer, to run for the Ward 2 D.C. Council seat occupied by Democrat Jack Evans.
The day after the story appeared in The Washington Post, Williams (D) issued a statement to try to put the draft-Omer movement to rest--and apparently to try to salve the mayor's occasionally tense relationship with Evans (D), a critic on the council. Opening a news conference on the city's readiness for year 2000 computer problems, Williams said:
"I want to make it clear that none of my staff is or intends to run for political office in the District of Columbia.
"Our focus is to have a good working relationship with all the District's elected officials at all levels of government.
"We have the utmost respect for our congressional representation, the members of the council and the advisory neighborhood commissioners. . . . My administration will spend the next three years concentrating on doing what the electorate expects: to help the District achieve its full potential and become the vibrant city we know it is destined to be. The Williams administration is committed to supporting a healthy democracy in our city, and that means respecting the different roles for elected and appointed officials."
Omer said he has no interest in running against Evans, who has clashed with Williams on several issues this year. Last spring, Evans was a force behind the D.C. Council's push for a huge tax cut package that Williams did not want; more recently, Evans spurred the council to reject a plan Williams devised to pay for union workers' bonuses. Evans, who has held the Ward 2 council seat since 1991, lost to Williams last year in the Democratic mayoral primary.
"I'm not interested in running for an office," said Omer, who visited Evans on Monday and told him as much. "I'm not even thinking about it. I have a very nice job. I would not change anything in the world for this job. I have an opportunity to help this mayor and do things for the nation's capital, and I'm having a ball."
But those involved in his draft campaign said they expected Omer to say that. As a government official, Omer is not allowed to be a candidate for elected office unless he steps down from his job.
The activist group trying to recruit Omer includes people who were on a committee that drafted Williams, who until three weeks before announcing his campaign last year was denying any interest in being mayor.
This committee hopes Omer follows the same pattern.
Brazile, Pushing Gore's Bid
Why would the campaign manager for the front-running Democratic presidential candidate call up three members of the D.C. Council to register disappointment at not getting their support?
Because the campaign manager, Donna Brazile, a D.C. resident and former aide to Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), is incredulous that local Democratic officials are not supporting her candidate, Vice President Gore.
Council members Sharon Ambrose (Ward 6), Kevin P. Chavous (Ward 7) and Kathy Patterson (Ward 3) are planning a news conference next week to announce their endorsement of Bill Bradley, the former New Jersey senator, to be the Democratic Party's nominee in next year's presidential race.
Each confirmed that they had gotten a telephone message from Brazile, a Capitol Hill resident who has relocated temporarily to Nashville, where Gore moved his campaign headquarters.
Ambrose said she decided last spring to support Bradley. "I think he's thoughtful," she said, adding that Bradley's performance in recent debates has reaffirmed her belief in him. "I like his stands on campaign finance and his health care plan. He's willing to say that if things don't work out for the funding of his health plan . . . we might have to raise taxes. I think that's honest, and I think people would be willing to pay a little bit more in taxes for health care."
Chavous said he was attracted to Bradley's candidacy because "he has a way of thinking out of the box on issues such as health care and education." Chavous, chairman of the council's education committee, said his own efforts to improve D.C. public schools have shown him "conventional approaches to education are not working."
Brazile has argued that Bradley, unlike Gore, never co-sponsored legislation supporting statehood for the District. Chavous argued that what is important is that Bradley "clearly supports sovereignty for the District, and he will have more to say about that as we get closer to the D.C. primary."
And while he considers Gore also to be a friend of the District, Chavous said he was "still smarting" from the Clinton administration's D.C. bailout plan of two years ago, which resulted in the city losing its annual federal payment in exchange for the U.S. government picking up the cost of some programs, such as the courts and prisons.
Chavous, who played basketball in college, said he was not influenced by Bradley's prior career as a hoops star at Princeton University and with the New York Knicks.
Still, he added, "it will be nice to have a president in the White House who can dribble with his left hand."
A Diatribe on Charter Schools As if there weren't enough wrangling over issues involving the schools under their control, D.C. public school officials continue to pick fights with the fast-growing and independent public charter school movement.
First, School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and her staff angered an existing charter school and parents trying to organize two new ones by questioning their right to meet on D.C. school property and to lease the school buildings they want.
Then, last week, D.C. schools board of trustees Chairman Maudine R. Cooper held a news conference--her first on a schools issue in recent memory--to brief reporters on several "critical issues."
Not the school system's still-sagging test scores. Not the payroll problems that have left hundreds of school employees short of cash just before Christmas. Nothing, in fact, to do with the 146 public schools that Cooper oversees as head of the Emergency Transitional Education Board of Trustees.
Instead, Cooper delivered a diatribe of questionable accuracy about the city's 31 charter campuses and their supposed impact on "educational reforms in the D.C. public schools."
Cooper--whose main job is directing the Greater Washington Urban League--and her fellow trustees have no control over, or role in, charter schools.
But they obviously have realized that the publicly funded, independently run institutions are increasingly competing with their schools for students and, therefore, tax dollars.
Among other things, Cooper claimed in a "fact sheet" that charters "are not aligned or integrated with the reform agenda of the D.C. public school system," without pointing out that it is precisely the difficulty of improving that system that is fueling the charters' rapid expansion.
And she questioned, without citing any evidence, the integrity of the process outlined in the city's three-year-old charter law under which an existing public school can convert to charter status. A school must gather signatures from two-thirds of its parents and teachers in support of such a change.
"Is the process to vote for a conversion fair and open to all?" Cooper's fact sheet asked. "What protections exist to ensure that the voting is transparent and carried out with integrity?"
Cooper's fact sheet did not provide any answers. Cooper was on vacation this week and could not be reached to elaborate.
But in a statement issued at the session, Cooper said--again without evidence or explanation--that an effort by Paul Junior High School in Ward 4 to convert to charter status "will take us down the road to an officially sanctioned, tiered system, not unlike a resegregation process . . . that divides our community and favors one of God's children over another."
Her divisive rhetoric obscured her main point: that if enough current and future parents in the Paul neighborhood want to remain in the public school system, the new charter and a traditional school could easily share the Paul building at Eighth and Oglethorpe streets NW. Those fighting for the conversion initially wanted the building all to themselves.
A final, strange note about the news briefing: Cooper was joined by D.C. Board of Education member Robert G. Childs (At Large), who ran the board's chartering panel last year and had been considered a friend of the movement.
Childs could not be reached early this week to explain why he chose to appear at Cooper's news conference.
Staff writer Debbi Wilgoren contributed to this report.