Why did you become such a supporter of DC when your predecessors from Northern Virginia were not?
Joel Broyhill was part of the business community out there, but he was Old South. He was born down in Hopewell. They called him the Republican wing of the Byrd machine. He was there during the civil-rights era, and he voted against those bills. Stan Parris also loved to beat up on the city.
When you run a local government like I did in Fairfax, it changes your perspective. And I got a regional view as president of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. I saw that the destinies of DC and the suburbs were actually intertwined. They weren’t averse to each other. I also was generationally very different.
I was handed a hot potato as chairman of the DC subcommittee when the city was in financial trouble. I talked to everybody about it, and we were able to figure out a way through it. I was the guy who introduced the financial-control-board bill and held the hearings and took the hits, but I had a lot of help and a lot of advice.
Had Eleanor Holmes Norton decided to hot-dog this thing for the city, it would have been ugly and nasty, with much different results. But she wanted to be constructive. Even Mayor Barry did. He knew he was going to lose power. My Republican leadership didn’t know what to do with the city. They gave me leeway to try to make some decisions that would work.
DC elected a different brand of leader in Tony Williams and now Adrian Fenty. These guys are taking on tough issues. They’re not just sitting around issuing press releases. They’ve stepped up to the plate.
What’s your biggest disappointment for the region?
Not getting DC voting rights through and, frankly, not having the Bush administration embrace it. I talked to the President about this. I don’t understand how you can think democracy in Baghdad is important and spend hundreds of billions of dollars on it and deny democracy in the nation’s capital. I understand the politics, but there are some things to me that are above politics. So I’m very disappointed. If President Bush had gotten behind this bill, it would have been marvelous. A great legacy for him.
Will it pass now?
I think in the next session, with Democratic majorities in Congress and Obama in the White House, DC will get a vote in the House. If DC were a Republican town, the Republicans would be screaming for a vote for DC, and the Democrats would be opposing it. Partisanship drives a lot of decisions that are made here. I was chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee twice, so I know how to be partisan. But I think when it comes to legislation, when it comes to passing laws, it’s time to get this done. When the election is over, we should be grownups and try to work together.
Your biggest accomplishment for the region?
I think the Metro bill we just got through. That will be $1.5 billion over the next ten years. We’ve got local matching funds. We’ve got federal representation on the Metro board. We have an independent inspector general for Metro. All of which were needed. Also money for the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. Closing the Lorton prison was huge. Widening Route 123. Obviously, the DC control-board bill was important. DC College Access has helped thousands of kids from DC go to college at any of our nation’s public universities because they pay in-state tuition. Also, getting dental and vision benefits added for federal employees.
How has DC changed?
Back in 1979, when I was elected to the county board, nobody went to downtown DC. We didn’t have a baseball team. The hockey team and the basketball team were out in Prince George’s County. You did have the Redskins downtown if you were lucky enough to get tickets. It was a place becoming a hollowed-out shell.
Today downtown DC is vibrant. You’ve got the convention center, the Caps and Wizards, New York Avenue. There’s investment coming back in. It’s all redeveloping. We passed special tax breaks for enterprise zones. We gave first-time homebuyers a tax credit. The residential areas are coming back. The District has finally had a couple of mayors who understand economics. I think the city’s a very exciting place right now.
Why was DC in such bad shape?
The untold story of the 1980s is that it drove the black middle class out of the city to Prince George’s County. Marion Barry came in and taxed the heck out of people and redistributed income. As a result, you had a huge poor class, a very wealthy class, and almost no middle class. I think there was a 15-year period where they didn’t even open a new grocery store in the city. It lost its bond rating, and the place collapsed economically.