It has been a year or maybe two since the first incarnation of Mayor Anthony A. Williams -- remember his feisty reformer phase? -- faded from view. But until her departure last week, former press secretary Peggy Armstrong remained a tenuous link to that era when it seemed possible to turn one of the nation's worst municipal governments into one of the best.
Armstrong, 47, was the genial public face of an administration hell-bent on creative destruction of a massive and troubled bureaucracy. These officials were outsiders, and they were -- it is now clear -- not long for city government. Max Brown, Jim Wareck, Marie Drissel, Abdusalam Omer and others have moved on, replaced mostly by a new crop who have spent their entire careers in government jobs.
The administration has become arguably a smoother operation, but also less of a family affair now that the group that helped talk Williams into running for mayor and helped him get elected the first time is gone. Armstrong's departure has been taken particularly hard by some, both inside and outside the administration, because she seemed so doggedly and personally loyal to Williams, even after it was no longer clear that he was loyal to her.
The job of press secretary is a demanding one, with erratic hours and little gratitude. That's especially true in a city with an entrenched and often-cantankerous press corps, not to mention a mayor whose people skills are easily overtaxed.
Armstrong gave up the job as press secretary in May 2001 to take on a senior policy position, though she became something of an adviser without portfolio.
She still occasionally sidled up to reporters, seeking to cast the mayor in the most human and flattering light. And she did heavy lifting during the reelection campaign and after, penning much of his second inaugural speech and helping organize an administration retreat. But as her allies moved on, the power shifted. Few expected her to last as long as she did.
The final straw came when she was offered a one-way ticket to help with communication for the Department of Health, a job with many of the hassles and little of the glory of being the mayor's mouthpiece. She turned in her resignation last Thursday, and her final day was Friday.
Armstrong declined to talk publicly about the details as she departed, but the story is well-traveled, in part because she was seen in her final weeks and months as something of a test case. Surely, many thought, the mayor would not let her leave so ingloriously.
But he did, and Armstrong claims to be pleased as she looks for a new job with a much smaller organization than D.C.'s sprawling government. "It's time to do something else," she said.
Poison Pen Letter
In one remarkable letter penned last week, Corrections Director Odie Washington managed to insult D.C. Council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), who oversees his department, and raise questions about the administration's vetting process for its communications with the council.
The letter, dated March 28, is a reaction to a story in the Post the day before in which Patterson expressed amazement that the federal court had agreed to end its oversight of the D.C. jail. She called the jail "a total scandal" -- raining on a parade that prison officials thought they had coming to them after 32 years of litigation.
In case Patterson was at risk of missing the most inflammatory passages of the two-page letter, Washington kindly highlighted them:
"Your characterization of the jail as 'total scandal' the day after the release of the order terminating a 32-year-old court case was not only a malicious and vile insult to every employee of this agency, but to the U.S. District Court as well."
The other highlighted passage is this: "It is apparent that you are taking your oversight responsibilities to the extreme. Rather than offering constructive criticism, you engage in bias [sic], vindictive hyperbole."
A few days later, Patterson shrugged off the letter. "It might be an embarrassment for the mayor, but it's inconsequential as far as I'm concerned," she said.
That was, of course, moments after she had secured a 12-1 vote to restore some of the oversight once mandated by the court. She planned other, similar moves in the months ahead. Other council members, meanwhile, were aghast at the letter and sided with Patterson.
Administration officials acknowledged privately that no one reviewed the Washington letter before it headed straight from his desk to a powerful council member with a reputation for a long memory.
A Supreme Moment
Standing among the bigwigs of the Civil Rights movement on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court this week was lawyer John Payton, a former D.C. corporation counsel under Mayor Emeritus Marion Barry.
The court was considering whether the University of Michigan's affirmative action policies were constitutional, and arguing the case for Michigan was Payton.
"I think its spectacular to be able to argue a case before the Supreme Court that I care about, and a case that matters to just about everybody in this country," Payton said. "What we are doing is really important for all of the students."