Sen. Richard Durbin is an Illinois Democrat of progressive tendencies. He believes in social progress and the notion of government helping people solve problems. Which is why Durbin is at a loss to understand how a 13-member D.C. Council with a Democratic majority would embrace a tax-cut package of nearly $300 million while city agencies and services need overhauling, open-air drug markets do a booming business and rats are still having the time of their lives.
Of course, in the true spirit of home rule, how the city spends its own money should be none of the senator's business. But Durbin has made the city his concern because he's the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the District's budget. Besides, it's kind of personal with him.
Durbin's been mugged on Capitol Hill and had his car broken into. He doesn't think our town is all that safe. He wants us to spend our budget surplus fighting crime, fixing schools and stuff like that. So he's at war with the city's tax-cut-loving Democratic leadership.
He might also be miffed that council members, kicking off their tax-slashing orgy, put themselves under the tutelage of Republican tax-cut champion and vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp -- the man who did his best to derail the reelection of Democratic President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.
Alas, Sen. Durbin doesn't appreciate the aspirations of our elected leaders -- the Rodney Dangerfields of Washington politics. They're so in need of respect that they'll harvest head pats from wherever they can get them, including from Kemp, the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial page and the city's privileged classes.
Unlike Durbin, however, the subcommittee's Republican chairman, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, gets it. She recognizes our politicians' cravings. The subcommittee's Republican majority approves of the council-led tax cuts.
But lest our legislators get swollen noggins from those senatorial pats on the head, Hutchison also thinks they pay themselves too much for part-time work and that their salaries should be cut. (Which goes to show Kay Bailey Hutchison ain't all bad.) But she's red hot for the tax cuts. For good reason. They're an achievement only dreamed of in GOP congressional circles.
And the local secret of success? Credit the council's wily junior Republican, David Catania. Matter of fact, the Republican National Committee should proclaim Catania Republican of the Year. His conversion of council Democrats to the ways of GOP tax-cut orthodoxy (aided and abetted by Ward 2's rightward-leaning Democratic council member, Jack Evans) was masterful. Who would have thought so many local Democrats would end up cheerfully aping Republican tax-cut apostles Dick Armey, Tom DeLay and the policy gurus in conservative think tanks?
If Speaker J. Dennis Hastert knows what's good for him, he'll find a way to sign Catania as a House GOP consultant. When it comes to co-opting approval-starved Democrats, Catania's the man.
But Catania and his supporting cast couldn't have done it without the mayor and council Chairman Linda Cropp. It helped that the tax-cut proponents had to do battle with a mayor who sails through life sporting a Mad Magazine Alfred E. Newman smile ("What, Me Worry?") and behaving as if he doesn't know his own mind. Williams got used as a political punching bag.
Even Ward 3's politically ambitious council member, Kathy Patterson, audaciously lights into him on campaign finance violations as if he were a cauldron of corruption. This is the same Patterson who used to quake in her boots at thinly veiled racial barbs hurled her way by former Ward 5 council member Harry Thomas and ex-mayor Marion Barry. But Tony Williams she fears not. Neither does the rest of the council. Which is why he got rolled on tax cuts.
And Cropp? Catania and company did her in too. But it was gently done, because she's, well, so nice. So nice and deferential to aspiring council members hailing from high-turnout wards who are secretly plotting to get her job -- so nice to council colleagues who drop dimes on her every miscue -- so nice and taken in by anyone who makes believe she and the council are hot stuff.
"You should be honored that the Republic of China respects your council so much," Cropp told me a few days before she and eight council members -- taking up where Marion Barry left off -- jetted off to the Far East, all expenses paid by the Taiwanese government.
So to the bewildered Sen. Durbin, here's the explanation as to why Republicanism succeeds in a city dominated by Democrats. The tax-cut strategy worked because, at bottom, the council's Democrats don't have much of a governing philosophy, except self-preservation and an overarching desire to look good at a politically naive mayor's expense. David Catania and his neocon sidekick, on the other hand, knew what they wanted. And they prevailed.
And that, Sen. Durbin, is why the District government is not in the hands of your party but rather is controlled by what can be described only as a motley crew of Republicrats constantly searching for love.
The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.