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Imagining if Redskins fans showed up at the first Thanksgiving. By Benjamin Freed

Staffers in the Condé Nast subscription department might want to be on the lookout next week for cancellation requests from Ashburn, Virginia thanks to the December 1 issue of the New Yorker, which features a bold, Thanksgiving-themed criticism of the Washington NFL franchise by cartoonist Bruce McCall. The image, though festooned with burgundy-and-gold regalia, takes a hard shot at team owner Dan Snyder's repeated intonations that the team's name connotes "honor and respect," even though the term is otherwise defined as a slur against Native Americans.

"It should have been quashed a long time ago," McCall says on the New Yorker's website. "We did everything to the Indians that we could, and it’s still going on. It seems crude and callous."

Football fans are conflicted about the term. A poll released yesterday found that while 72 percent of people do not think the team should change its name, four out of five would not call Native Americans "redskins" to their faces.

Posted at 04:14 PM/ET, 11/21/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
One of Washington's most popular radio stations switched to its all-Christmas music playlist today. Good grief, it's not even Thanksgiving. By Benjamin Freed
Too soon! Photograph via Shutterstock.

As Washington's fifth-most listened to terrestrial radio station, WASH-FM 97.1 reaches a broad audience of office drones and car occupants with its adult-contemporary programming. Like any commercial radio station that plays an uninspired mix culled from Billboard charts of the last three decades, it's relatively easy to ignore in a music environment that includes personal electronic devices and streaming services, but less so at the end of the year.

Starting this morning, as it does in mid-November every year, WASH switched over to an all-Christmas format, clobbering its listeners' eardrums with jingling bells and shmaltzy yuletide crooning six days before Thanksgiving. It's Christmas creep run amok, yet again. Heck, there are some lazy households that still haven't taken down all their Halloween decorations.

WASH's programming manager, Kenny King, didn't return phone calls seeking an explanation for his station's annual format change, but he didn't really need to—the reasons behind it are obvious. The station's owner, iHeartMedia, puts Christmas music on about two-thirds of the pop stations it owns throughout the country for at least a month before December 25 because it makes bank. "Our streaming numbers grew by over 20 percent the first two days and our ratings are always top of the ranker," Steve Geofferies, an iHeartMedia executive, told the Arizona Republic after one of the company's affiliates in Phoenix made the switch last week.

By comparison, WASH's November 21 changeover is a lighter offender. That Phoenix radio station queued up its holiday hits on November 13. But both stations pale next to Wildwood Crest, New Jersey's WEZW, which started its Christmas playlist on October 17, two whole weeks before Halloween!

Five or six weeks of warmed-over standards and contemporary covers of, well, the same standards might juice a radio station for a year-end ratings blitz, but it's also the most blaring symptom of the Christmas steamroller. We long ago gave up any hope that stores would wait longer than the day after Halloween to go deep on the Christmas decorations and holiday "sales." Fine. Good on you if you can get your shopping done before Black Friday, but nobody benefits from hearing the same soundtrack on repeat from now until Boxing Day.

Look, I've got nothing against Christmas music—objectively or religiously—and I write this as a Jewish guy who agrees with Brian Wilson's assessment that A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector is one of the finest pop albums ever crafted, regardless of season. Is there a more joyous expression of loneliness in the history of recorded music than Darlene Love singing "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)"? No. But I don't want to hear it in the middle of November.

The other problem with the all-Christmas format, though, has no temporal fix. This holiday season marks a full 20 years since the last new veritable hit found a slot in the usual rotation. Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas Is You" is right up there with Love. Since Carey, though, the only "new" Christmas songs to work their way onto commercial radio are garbage-factory covers of decades-old tunes that survive on nostalgia. Sorry, Blake Shelton and Mary J. Blige, you're not going to out-croon Nat King Cole on "The Christmas Song." The Crystals' version of "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" is the only one we need; Bruce Springsteen's should be tossed in an E Street dumpster. And before anyone accuses me of only dissing chart-topping artists, let me add that Sun Kil Moon's Mark Kozelek can get bent with his album of standards, too. Yoko Ono and the Flaming Lips just released a cover of "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)"; there's none of Ono's or Wayne Coyne's trademark weirdness, just a bad attempt to imitate John Lennon's hopefulness. Bob Geldof recently assembled his famous friends to re-record the already execrable charity single "Do They Know It's Christmas" and managed to make it even worse; it cycled through WASH's broadcast during the composition of this article, followed by a version of "Santa Baby" by Taylor Swift, who is no Eartha Kitt.

Despite some of my colleagues' best efforts, it's unlikely that any of the little-heard, but innovative takes on Christmas tunes will find their way into the mainstream holiday rotation. We'll have years more of the latest chart-toppers' attempts to cover the classics while new, gutsier takes on the holiday never get a chance at achieving real seasonal cachet. Lots of people are familiar with Jimmy Fallon's "I Wish It Was Christmas Today," which recurred on Saturday Night Live throughout the 2000s; far fewer know Strokes frontman Julian Casablancas turned it into a legitimate song. The rappers El-P and Killer Mike, who perform together as Run the Jewels, released "A Christmas Fucking Miracle" last year. It's more goofy than festive, and, sure, too vulgar for terrestrial radio, but it's maybe the best Christmas-themed hip-hop track since Run-DMC's "Christmas in Hollis."

In 2010, the Baltimore duo Beach House released "I Do Not Care for the Winter Sun," an appropriately lo-fi track for the bleakest time of the year. It's a nice break from the usual, bell-laden songs of the season, but I do not care to hear it—or any other holiday song, mainstream or obscure—before December, and neither should you. If you're considering tuning your radio dial to WASH-FM, consider this your pre-holiday intervention.

Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed. Find some of his favorite Christmas songs on this playlist, but hold off listening to them for a couple weeks.

Posted at 02:48 PM/ET, 11/21/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
The GOP is ascendant in Maryland and Virginia, but a new progressive bloc on the DC Council could take advantage of a relatively weak mayor to become the driving force of District politics. By Harry Jaffe
Bowser, lower left, may watch as Silverman, Allen, Grosso, and Nadeau steer District politics. Illustration by Tim Bower.

The DC Council has lately gotten a reputation as a relatively safe, generally competent body, where the greatest risk is that a hearing might drone on too long.

It wasn’t always so. From the early days of home rule, the council was better known for activism than for fiscal rectitude. There was Hilda Mason, an at-large member who championed a 1982 initiative to make DC one of the first cities to ban nuclear weapons. In 1989, council chair David Clarke hitched himself to a carriage laden with 375 pounds of carrots to protest the abuse of carriage horses.

Between stunts, the same council passed strong rent control and the most stringent handgun ban in the nation at the time, and it charged the District with providing emergency shelter to anyone who needed it.

Now that outspoken, activist style of politics is set to make a comeback. On Election Day, DC voters sent three left-leaning council rookies—Charles Allen of Capitol Hill’s Ward 6; Brianne Nadeau, representing rapidly gentrifying Shaw and Columbia Heights in Ward 1; and at-large member Elissa Silverman—to join sitting populists David Grosso and Kenyan McDuffie and the reliably liberal chairman, Phil Mendelson. The newcomers promise to make the council the boldest and most progressive the city has seen in a generation.

Allen cautions that he and his freshly elected colleagues aren’t the idealists of old. “We are much more pragmatic,” he says. Like their forebears, the new crop is expected to pursue achievable goals: more mass transit to reduce traffic and more affordable housing as part of a resolution to the resurgent homeless question.

But they’ll also consider measures that Mason and Clarke could only have imagined. Silverman, late of the left-leaning DC Fiscal Policy Institute, has pushed for outlawing corporate campaign contributions; Allen and Nadeau say they’ll entertain at-large member Grosso’s proposal to disarm DC’s police—a notion that would be dead on arrival in the current council. “Some might call me a radical for suggesting this,” Grosso says, “but I just want to change the conversation.”

The Republicans who mind the city from Capitol Hill may see to it that such ideas amount to mere talk. But with an untested incoming mayor in Muriel Bowser, who one council member says “is going to have a hard time lining up the seven votes she needs,” the progressive bloc is likely to be not just the loudest voice but the one everyone has to listen to.


This article appears in the December 2014 issue of Washingtonian.

Posted at 12:00 PM/ET, 11/21/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
Chalk it up to "fan blindness." By Benjamin Freed
Photograph by Flickr user Kevin Coles.

The latest poll about whether people think Washington's NFL team should change its name to something that isn't a dictionary-defined racial slur showed, once again, that a vast majority does not, even though most people would not use the word "redskin" in conversation with Native Americans.

The survey, conducted in August by business research firm ORC International, was sponsored by the Oneida Indian Nation, a New York tribe that has been leading a campaign against the Washington team's name, and goodness Mfg., the advertising agency that created the "Proud to Be" commercial that aired during the NBA Finals in June. While four out of five of the 1,020 people surveyed said they would not call a Native American a "redskin," 72 percent are comfortable with the football team of the same name. The survey attributes this split to "fan blindness."

"Fans are clinging to the mascot because of blind loyalty even though they feel that 'redskin' is an offensive term," the study reads.

The poll also found significant generational gaps surrounding the term's perceived offensiveness. Half of respondents between 18 and 34 years old said the word was offensive without being reminded that major dictionaries define it as a derogatory term, compared to 34 percent of people 35 and older. But reading a dictionary does not move public opinion about the NFL team that much; only 13 percent of respondents informed of the defintion of "redskin" changed their minds about whether the Washington franchise should get a new identity.

"Our study proves how important context is to behavior," D’nae Kingsley, goodness Mfg.'s head of integrated strategy, says in a press release. "On one hand, group mentality makes people think using the r-word is okay. But on the other hand, when a person comes face to face with a Native American, it’s not."

Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.

Posted at 11:06 AM/ET, 11/20/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
We try hard to wrap our minds around the latest internet ranking. By Benjamin Freed
Photograph via Shutterstock.

Forbes, the business magazine and silly ranking farm, says Washington is the fifth-smartest metropolitan area in the United States, when measuring the percentage of the local population with at least a bachelor's degree and the increase in college-educated residents.

According to Forbes's data, 48.7 percent of people in the Washington-Alexandria-Arlington area have at least four years of higher education, a jump of 6.2 percentage points over 2000, or a 45-percent increase in the college-degree-wielding population. While our share of residents with college degrees is higher than the top four metropolitan areas, those regions finished higher in Forbes's rankings thanks to their higher growth rates of college graduates. First-place Boston, where 44.8 percent of people have bachelor's degrees, experienced an 8.8 percent increase from its tally in 2000. Padding out the top five are Pittsburgh; San Jose, California; and Grand Rapids, Michigan.

But just why is Washington smarter than 376 of the 380 metropoltian areas Forbes reviewed? Chalk it up to the "boomtown" phenomenon, writes Forbes ranker-bot Joel Kotkin.

"Another big employer of educated people is government, and with Washington in expansion mode over the past decade, it’s no surprise that our nation’s capital features in the top 10—twice," he writes. "The proportion of the population of Washington-Alexandria-Arlington that is college-educated has risen 6.2 points to 48.7%, the highest concentration in the nation, on the back of a 45% increase in the raw numbers."

So when you go home next week and your Fox News talking point-spewing uncle berates you for wallowing in the crapulence of the nation's capital, at least you can tell him you're statistically more intelligent. Unless, you know, he's from Boston, Pittsburgh, Silicon Valley, or central Michigan.

Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.

Posted at 04:58 PM/ET, 11/19/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
He tried to block same-sex marriage and medical marijuana, and also thinks DC should be part of Maryland. By Benjamin Freed

Chaffetz.

Congressional Republicans on Tuesday picked Representative Jason Chaffetz of Utah to take over the House Oversight Committee next January, succeeding term-limited Darrell Issa as the White House's chief inquisitor and—more importantly for Washington residents—the District's overseer on Capitol Hill.

While the House Oversight chairman's primary role is to grill executive-branch officials in loud, boisterous, sometimes inconclusive hearings—think the IRS, Obamacare, or Benghazi, to name a few of Issa's achievements—the committee is also charged with monitoring the the District, which can not spend its own budget without congressional authorization. And, all DC legislation is subject to 30 or 60 days of congressional review before it can take effect, a mostly uneventful inconvenience that becomes a nail-biter on certain hot-button issues, such as this year's marijuana decriminalization law.

The 47-year-old Chaffetz, about to start his fourth term, beat out a couple of members from Ohio, including arch-conservative Jim Jordan (who last year tried to overturn all of DC's gun laws), but Chaffetz doesn't exactly have a spotless record of his own when it comes to the District's affairs. He hasn't chimed in on decriminalization or marijuana-legalizing Initiative 71, which was approved by 69 percent of DC voters, but it's worth looking back on his record of meddling with DC:

Chaffetz tried to block the District from legalizing same-sex marriage.

Back in January 2010, Chaffetz, then a freshman trying to bring his Utah wholesomeness to the nation's capital, introduced an amendement seeking to overturn the District's legalization of same-sex marriages, even though he knew it would be a fruitless effort. "It's going to be exceptionally difficult because Democrats have us outnumbered by large amounts," he told the Salt Lake Tribune. Sure enough, Chaffetz was overwhelmed, and his bill was quashed before it even got to a committee vote. Today, even Utah issues marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Chaffetz tried to block the District from legalizing medical marijuana.

They never rose to Andy Harris-level theatrics on the issue, but Chaffetz and Jordan teamed up in June 2010 in an attempt to block DC from finally putting into effect the medicinal cannabis law its residents approved in a 1998 ballot referendum. Like his marriage amendment, Chaffetz's strike at medical marijuana did not pick up much energy in a majority-Democrat Congress.

Chaffetz wants DC to become part of Maryland.

Maryland is a fine state, but if Chaffetz's wishes came true, it would also include the swath of land we currently know as the District of Columbia. When the Republicans took control of House in the 2010 elections, Chaffetz was briefly a contender to take over the House Oversight subcommittee that, at the time, oversaw DC affairs. (Issa reorganized the subcommittees to put the District directly under his purview.) In a Washington City Paper profile, Chaffetz floated his belief that not only is the statehood cause a losing one, it's unconstitutional.

"It’s our nation’s capital and the Constitution deals with it in a unique way," he said. "Washington, DC, is not a state. My proposal is stronger than Eleanor Holmes Norton’s proposal, because I’d like to see it retroceded back into a state."

The last time any part of DC was retroceded to a state was 1846, when the southwest corner on the far side of the Potomac was given back to Virginia and became Arlington.

UPDATE, 12:18 PM: In a statement, Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton "congratulate[s]" her new potential adversary. "The new chairman has already visited the ranking member’s district, and considering the committee’s jurisdiction over DC matters, I will shortly invite him to visit the District, which is even closer," she says. But that might not bode well for the District, considering the ranking Democrat on House Oversight, Elijah Cummings, hails from Maryland, and we already know how Chaffetz feels about the DC-Maryland border.

Posted at 10:43 AM/ET, 11/19/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
Every week, we’ll pick winning photos to showcase on our website.
Photograph via Shutterstock.

November is a month that's all about tradition. Think Thanksgiving (and/or Friendsgiving), the Black Friday rush, the ubiquity of Christmas carols on every radio station. But let's be honest: The most important tradition is the one in which guys can stop shaving for charity. In honor of Movember—which seeks to raise awareness about men's health issues such as prostate cancer—we want to see the best upper-lip adornment you have to offer. Not growing one? Milk mustaches, fingerstaches, and the stick-on variety are also acceptable.

Submit your photos by e-mailing photocontest@washingtonian.com or by tagging #WashMagPhoto on Instagram or Twitter. Please include where the photo was taken and your name with each submission. We’ll highlight our favorite photos on Monday, November 24.

Posted at 05:00 PM/ET, 11/18/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
Prosecutors are getting ready to indict the DC mayor, but they'll have a hard time proving it in court. By Harry Jaffe
Photograph via Flickr user chesbayprogram.

In the game of chicken between US Attorney Ronald Machen and his prey, DC Mayor Vince Gray, the prey seems to have the upper hand.

According to Mike DeBonis’s story in today’s Washington Post, Machen, pursuing Gray for alleged campaign-finance irregularities, offered the mayor a deal: plead to one felony count and avoid further prosecution.

Gray’s response: No dice.

It's worth noting that the offer was relayed through Gray's attorney, Bob Bennett, the mayor was not in the room. Bennett has steadfastly refused to allow Gray to speak to federal officials, a smart move in a case in which, as with so many corruption investigations, several people have gone down for lying to the feds.

Instead, Bennett and Gray are forcing Machen to prove his case on its own merits, in court. That puts Machen in the position of weighing whether he has enough to convince a jury. Does he?

“They apparently have not come up with the proverbial smoking gun,” says one defense attorney who has represented public officials in federal cases.

If neither the FBI agents on the case, nor Machen's prosecutors have not found an e-mail, a document, a recorded conversation, or other hard evidence that would convince a jury that Gray knew of the off-the-books campaign fund, testimony from witnesses that Gray knew of the dirty money amounts to hearsay.

Jeff Thompson, the alleged mastermind of the shadow campaign, fingered Gray for personally asking for his dirty cash in March when he pleaded guilty to illegally funneling more than $2 million to Gray’s 2010 bid and other political campaigns. That was good enough to get Thompson off with a relatively light sentence. But how would it sound to jurors if Thompson gets grilled on the witness stand by Vince Gray’s defense attorneys?

The pressure is mounting on Machen to show that his public corruption crusade has been successful. He’s scored guilty pleas from three DC council members and five of Gray’s campaign aides. But the probe is getting moldy as it completes its fourth year. Though he can extend his tenure, if Gray chooses to go to trial, the prosecutor might be passing the case on to his successor.

At this point that all adds up to advantage Gray.

Sources close to the case said Gray was also asked if he would consider pleading to a misdemeanor. His response: no dice.

Posted at 04:36 PM/ET, 11/18/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
A new plan will allow drilling in George Washington National Forest. By Emma Foehringer Merchant
George Washington National Forest. Photograph via Shutterstock.

In a revised plan released Tuesday for George Washington National Forest, as required by the National Forest Management Act, the USDA Forest Service reversed part of an earlier proposal that included a moratorium on hydraulic fracking. The new plan also uncontroversially set aside more land for timber production and increased wilderness area in the forest.

In 2011 the Forest Service suggested banning fracking anywhere in the 1.1 million acres of national forest in Virginia and West Virginia, which would have been the first such ban on national forest land in the country. However, after oil and gas companies objected, that plan was sent back for reconsideration. The Forest Service says the final plan, allowing drilling, aligns with the “mission of managing national forests for multiple uses.”

Ten local governments surrounding the forest have expressed concerns about the potential for fracking in the area, which contains the headwaters for the Potomac, Shenandoah, and James rivers. Currently, 2.7 million people in Northern Virginia and the District rely on water from George Washington National Forest for part of their drinking supply. In addition, the area is a direct water source for about 260,000 people around the Shenandoah Valley, according to the Associated Press.

The DC Water and Sewer Authority and conservation groups like the Southern Environment Law Center also cautioned against allowing fracking. "One of the country's most popular national forests is absolutely the wrong place for drilling and fracking," said the center on its website. "At a minimum, natural scenic and recreational areas should be protected from any drilling."

The Forest Service said Tuesday that “the plan reflects thousands of comments from the public, including local communities.”

Fracking injects a slurry of water, sand, and unknown chemicals into rock to release natural gas. Residents of Wyoming, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania have accused the practice of contaminating their drinking water.

In October, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission asked the Forest Service to prohibit fracking in the forest “until such a time as a full scientific and environmental review of the process is completed and the process can be demonstrated to be safe to the drinking water supply source in the headwaters of the Potomac River.”

An extensive EPA report on groundwater contamination from fracking is expected in 2016, a delay from an earlier 2014 deadline. The DC Council also submitted a unanimous resolution objecting to fracking in George Washington National Forest.

More than half of the forest's area overlaps with the Marcellus Shale, one of the largest sources of natural gas in the country. Though the forest service will allow horizontal drilling and fracking, it will still require special permit approval. Last revised in 1993, the new plan may be amended at any time.

Posted at 02:34 PM/ET, 11/18/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
A series of expensive misfires spoiled the model suburb's appetite for big, important projects. By Benjamin Freed
RIP. Conceptual rendering from Arlington County Government

With its efficient public transit, low crime rates, and high household incomes, Arlington is often held up as a model urbanized suburb. In part due to the Democrats’ dominance of the five-member county board since 1999, governing Arlington’s 227,146 residents has been an idyll known as “the Arlington Way.”

Then came the streetcar. An extended quarrel over a $333-million plan to build a 7.4-mile streetcar line down Columbia Pike came to a head this fall in the reelection campaign of John Vihstadt—the board’s only non-Democrat and a streetcar opponent. The vote became something of a referendum on the project and, in a sense, on the Arlington Way.

On Tuesday, board chairman Jay Fisette bowed to Vihstad's win, announcing Arlington will stop all spending on the streetcar project.

"I have come to the conclusion that the only way to move forward together is to discontinue the streetcar project," Fisette said. "Right now the level of discord is such that I haven’t seen for awhile. It keeps us from addressing other pressing needs in the community."

Arlington's reputation for consensus and savvy urban planning was born in the 1960s and ’70s when its leaders pushed Metrorail to put the Orange and Yellow lines underground and surrounded its new stops with high-density, mixed-use development rather than sprawl. (Contrast Fairfax, which ran the Orange Line along I-66 and doubled down on strip malls and unfriendly concrete.)

In recent decades, Arlington County has invested in rush-hour bus routes, allowed skyscrapers to bloom in Rosslyn while preserving the suburban character of surrounding neighborhoods, and imported DC’s Capital Bikeshare. All along, the board accommodated community activists and neighborhood associations.

The Way took its first hit from the 2008 recession. “This is a government town,” says Mary Hynes, a board member since 2007. “The government was a very reliable employer until the crash, sequestration, the shutdown. Now they’re nervous about investing in the future.”

Yet the smart-growth wish list continued to grow—a $1-million “superstop” bus hub on Columbia Pike, which opened last year; budget overruns on the ambitiously designed but poorly attended Artisphere cultural center; a planned aquatic park at Pentagon City, now shelved after projected costs exceeded $80 million. Public disgruntlement led to the installation of ex-Republican—now Independent—Vihstadt in a special election in April and his win on November 4.

Today's announcement that the county would shelve its plan for the Columbia Pike streetcar shows that decade of big-ticket projects with minimal payoff killed many residents' appetite for forward-thinking suburban planning.

But the streetcar's demise does not change certain demographic facts. The county is expecting 276,100 residents by 2040, according to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. Those additional people will need to be housed and provisioned and to move along Columbia Pike. By killing the streetcar, Arlington may save money in the short term, but it can’t afford to lose its nerve for big projects.

“Taking a jurisdiction that’s trying to plan for the future and making it one that’s paralyzed by inaction makes it a lot harder to move forward in other ways,” says David Alpert, editor of the urbanist blog Greater Greater Washington.

A version of this article appears in the December 2014 issue of Washingtonian.

Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.

Posted at 12:25 PM/ET, 11/18/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()