There used to be a well trod path that connected Washington's business community with the people on Capitol Hill who could get things done for it - law governing parking lots, tax breaks, zoning regulation, taxi rates.
Now the path is overgrown with weeds, and since a measure of home rule came to Washington in 1975, new links are being forged between the city's businessmen and government - this time a locally-elected City Council.
So when a group of apartment house owners wanted to fight rent control, they hired Robert B. Washington Jr., a private attorney who is a close friend and political confidant of Council Chairman Sterling Tucker. Washington also heads the District's Democratic State Committee and is a former chief counsel and staff director of the House District Committee.
Washington is one of a handful of local lawyers - most of them black and all of them with personal and political ties to the largely black upper echelons of the city government - who are representing business interests on local matters.
James L. Hudson, a campaign vice chairman for Mayor Walter Washington is one of them. So is Jerry A. Moore III, whose father is a member of the City Council and who is a manager of the Metropolitan Washington Board of Trade's legislative bureau. Del Lewis, a former administrative aide to D.C. Del. Walter Fauntroy, now lobbies for Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. and Sharon Pratt Dixon, the Democratic National Committee woman for the District who is a former teacher at Antioch Law School and wife of Councilman Arrington Dixon, has been hired as a lawyer by Potomac Electric Power Co. (Pepco). Larry Williams, another politically-connected black lawyers, represents the liquor dealers.
"Those black lawyers have a better social and business relation with the City Council," said Thomas Owen, president of Perpetual Federal Savings and Loan, the city's largest, who maintains his own ties with the Council the same way his father Thorton, Perpetual's chairman, has close ties with the heads of the Senate and House District Committees.
Clarence Arata, executive vice president of the Board of Trade who is white and lobbies among city officials, believes black government officials "respond better to black spokesmen than to whites saying the same thing."
City Councilman David Clarke (D-one), a lawyer himself, noted that many businesses send a black vice president or attorney with their white president to appear together before the City Council.
"I don't think it is more effective" to have a pitch made by a black spokesman, said Clarke, one of two whites on the 13-member Council.
Nonetheless, said Robert Washington (who is no relation to Mayor Washington), there appears to be a feeling among major corporations doing business with the District government that "there is an advantage to give business to the black partner" of big law firms.
"A good black lawyer," he added over luncheon in the Federal City Club, "offers great potential for getting clients."
"It's a growth industry for black attorneys," added Arata.
That is far cry from what it used to be for black lawyers in Washington. As recently as 20 years ago there were no black partners in major law firms (three still are only a handful), and black lawyers scraped together a meaguer practice from low-paying criminal cases and whatever business they could cadge from wealthy blacks, most of whom preferred white lawyers.
For many black attorneys in the days of strict segregation in the 1940s and 1950s, law was by necessity a hobby, and they drove taxis or worked for the government in order to put bread on the table.
During that period Washington's city government was dominated by Congress. The three appointed commissioners had little power - one recalled that as recently as 10 years ago he was able to spend his morning doing crossword puzzles in ancient Greek - and there was no D.C. delegate on Capitol Hill.
The man to recokon with was former Rep. John McMillan, the staunchly conservative South Carolina Democrat who ruled the House District Committee with an iron fist and fiercely protected both the city's largely white business community and the interests of the suburban commuters whose congressmen also served on his committee.
The home rule charter changed all that. "No longer could we go up to the hill, see John McMillan, have a drink with him and get what we wanted," said a Connecticut Avenue attorney with strong ties to local business interests.
The city's lawyers learned the hard way that things had changed when the Council imposed a professional tax aimed at getting income from people who earned their money here but lived in the suburbs. The lawyers unsuccessfully tried an end run around the Council to Congress, which has veto power over Council actions.
"When the legal industry itself failed with respect to the professional taxation fight, it learned its lesson," said Clarke.
"That sent a strong signal that we had better redirect our efforts," added a lawyer who keeps close watch on local government for the D. C. Bar Association.
"Ten years ago those same lawyers could have gotten the City Council - if it had existed then - reversed."
The lawyers weren't the only people caught shot. Thomas Owen, the young president of Perpetual, found that the heads of the city's 14 savings and loan institutions - the major sources of funds for real estate transactions - had no contacts among the Council members. Nor, he said, did the members of the Council know them.
He arranged a reception for the incumbent Council members before last year's election at his father Thorton's home in the Foxball Road area with top officials of the savings and loans there.
"It is important for the city that the Council get to know the people who are the business community and visa versa," said Owen.
The meeting was more than a "getting-to-know-you" session. It provided financial support for the Council member's hard-pressed re-election campaigns.
Earlier the Board of Trade invited members of the council to a luncheon with its executive committee - again to allow both groups to get to know each other and again producing campaign funds for the political candidates.
The Board of Trade also hired Robert Washington's well connected firm Danzansky, Dickey, Tydings, Quint & Gordon - as lobbyists. That partners include Stephen I. Danzansky, son of Giant Food's Joseph Danzansky who made a name for himself as a civic leader in bridging the gap between whites and blacks.Tydings is former Maryland Sen. Joseph D. Tydings.
But Robert Washington - who followed the traditional path of bright young lawyers from a Hill committee post the House District Committee to a partnership to a law firm where he specialized in matters that often came before his committee - attracted the bulk of the firm's business with the D.C. government.
He lobbied on behalf of Good Humor and the Board of Trade. He escorted District landlords to explain their position on rent control to the editors and reporters of The Washington Post.
When ATE Management and Service Co. of Cincinnati wanted an $800,000-a-year contract to run bus service for Metro, it hired Washington, whose friend, City Council Chairman Sterling Tucker, is a member of the Metro board.
ATE president Philip J. Ringo said at the time that Robert Washington's friendship with Tucker "was by no means the determining factor" in his decision to hire that law firm. "The Metro campact is a complicated legal document and we needed a firm that would give me a sounding board," he said.
The Metro board later rejected ATE's bid deciding to continue to handle bus operation itself.
In July 1976, Washington went head to head against James L. Hudson to get the potentially lucrative job as counsel for any bond issues the District might float.
Hudson, a former campaign vice chairman for Mayor Walter Washington, won that bout.