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Representative Andy Harris says he’s worried about teenagers’ health. He’s also gunning for a House leadership job. By Benjamin Freed
Harris. Photograph via Facebook.

DC Council member and mayoral candidate David Catania marched into the Capitol Hill office of Representative Andy Harris Friday morning, demanding to know why the Maryland Republican is so keen on derailing DC’s marijuana decriminalization law. It’s possible it was more campaign stunt than policy plea: With the House out of session, Harris was back home on the Eastern Shore, with only  a skeleton crew left to handle Catania. 

But after Catania’s visit, Harris’s staff issued an email statement in response to the Catania’s visit.

“When David Catania announced his candidacy for DC mayor, he said, ‘We need to talk about how our kids are ready to succeed.’,” Harris’s statement reads. “Really? Was he serious? Passing marijuana decriminalization bills for teenagers is not the way to lower DC’s shamefully high rate of drug abuse among teenagers.”

But Harris’s office didn’t stop there. A couple hours after Catania’s visit, Harris’s press secretary, Erin Montgomery, e-mailed reporters again, claiming that decriminalization won’t unclog the judicial system, as some advocates say. Harris’s office checked to see how many people DC currently has locked up for marijuana-related offenses.

“As of yesterday, there were 0.5 percent of persons (less than 1 percent) at DC [Department of Corrections] incarcerated on marijuana-related offenses, none of which were purely possession-related offenses,” Montgomery wrote. “The offenses for which they were incarcerated were possession with intent to distribute or distribution.”

But the DC Council took up marijuana decriminalization last year because of a massive racial disparity in arrests and prosecutions, not incarcerations, a fact that makes a one-day head-count of the city jail a flimsy statistic at best. 

Nearly 75 percent of people convicted of a single count of marijuana possession in DC last year were given probation instead of jail time, according to the DC Sentencing and Criminal Code Revision Commission. But those verdicts still leave dark marks on citizen’s records that can lead to lifelong difficulties in education, housing, and employment prospects. And, with blacks being arrested for possession as much as eight times as often as whites despite no racial difference in the rate of marijuana use, the socioeconomic rationale for decriminalization is even clearer.

In a phone interview about Harris’s statement, Montgomery retreated to her boss’s accustomed medical argument about pot and kids instead. “As a physician, father, and lawmaker he’s going to protect children,” Montgomery says. She says Harris has not discussed the decriminalization measure with any DC law enforcement officials.

In his statement, Harris also called Catania’s visit a “campaign prop,” but according to Catania’s chief of staff, Brendan Williams-Kief, Catania is not the only one strutting for the cameras here. Harris, says Williams-Kief, is trying to whip up his own campaign to take over the Republican Study Committee, an influential group of socially conservative lawmakers in need of a new chairman with its previous leader, Representative Steve Scalise, becoming House majority whip.

“If there’s any kind of stunt going on, it’s Representative Harris jumping on a red-meat issue as he’s seeking a leadership post,” Williams-Kief says. 

Messing with DC seems to be a prerequisite for the study committee chair. One of his rivals for the post is Representative Louie Gohmert, a mouthy Texan who in 2011 introduced a bill that would have permitted members of Congress to carry concealed handguns around town.

If so, Harris has his leadership campaign off to a good start: In trying to gut the decriminalization law, he’s earned the enmity of WAMU host Kojo Nnamdi, who singled out Harris in a preview of today’s installment of The Politics Hour.

“We welcome Representative Andy Harris, not to the show, but to the ranks of bottom-feeding, low-life, dictatorial, bullying, outside interlopers,” Nnamdi said.

Lump that in with Council member David Grosso calling him an “idiot” earlier this week, and Harris might have Gohmert beat.

Posted at 03:58 PM/ET, 06/27/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
A Maryland representative says he plans to block the District's plans. By Benjamin Freed
Photograph via Shutterstock.

This was expected: A member of Congress is going to try to derail the District’s marijuana decriminalization law by introducing an amendment blocking its implementation.

Representative Andy Harris, a Maryland Republican, says he’ll attach his amendment to the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations bill, an annual piece of legislation which authorizes funding for, among other things, the District’s budget, Roll Call reports.

Mayor Vince Gray signed the decriminalization legislation into law in March, but because Congress gets 60 working days to review laws that affect the District’s judicial system, it will not take effect until mid-July. Harris’s amendment would not techincally overturn it, but it would prohibit the District from using either federal funds or its own local revenue to decriminalize marijuana. (The District’s budget, while approved by the DC Council, is still subject to federal review.)

“I had hoped that D.C. was in good company with the 17 states that had decriminalized marijuana before the city did,” DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton says in a press release. Among those 17 states is Harris’s. Governor Martin O’Malley signed a law in April that removes criminal penalties for possession of ten grams or less of cannabis.

The District’s decriminalization law replaces criminal penalties for possesson of less than one ounce with fines of $25. It was passed, in part, to alleviate a grave disparity in the marijuana arrest rates between black residents and white residents. Black residents are eight times as likely as white residents to be arrested for marijuana, even though the rate of use is even between the groups, according to an ACLU study published last year.

Harris’s office did not return requests for comment. But while he says he doesn’t like his home state’s newly relaxed stance on small-time pot possession, he seems eager to futz with the District’s.

“The Constitution treats the District of Columbia and Maryland differently,” he tells Roll Call.

But Harris may be living in a pipe dream. Even if his amendment clears the Appropriations Committee and the House at large, it would still need to clear the Democratic-controlled Senate and be signed by President Obama to take nullify DC’s decriminalization effort.

Posted at 06:02 PM/ET, 06/24/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
With the arrival of Julián Castro to head up HUD, he and his twin, Joaquín, a congressman, will be in the capital at the same time. Here's how to tell them apart. By Rebecca Nelson
Julián and Joaquín Castro. Photograph by Kevin Dietsch/Upi/Landov.

Julián Castro

  • Older by one minute. First to run for office, winning a San Antonio city-council seat in 2001, with the activist Castro matriarch, Rosie, as his campaign manager.
  • Accepted to Yale Law, but because Joaquín didn't get in, both brothers—Stanford grads—decided on Harvard.
  • Julián "has always been the more quiet, more serious," Rosie told Vogue last year. "Joaquín likes meeting people and trying something new."
  • Third-term mayor of San Antonio, HIs foreign-sounding name and stirring keynote at the 2012 Democratic National Convention have invited comparisons as "the Hispanic Obama."

Joaquín Castro

  • Elected to the Texas legislature in 2002; after ten years, won a US House seat.
  • Education is key for both. Joaquín focuses on getting poor students through college, Julián on funding full-day pre-K in San Antonio.
  • Since Joaquín's 2013 marriage to Anna Flores, who works for a San Antonio tech firm, Julián's wedding ring [he's married to Erica, a schoolteacher] is no longer the giveaway.
  • Says Joaquín: "When I was in San Antonio, probably ten times a day they called me mayor, so I'm hoping he gets some of that in Washington."

This article appears in the July 2014 issue of Washingtonian.

Posted at 10:45 AM/ET, 06/24/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
They’re really tired of all the criticism of Washington’s NFL team. By Benjamin Freed
Virginia State Senator Chip Petersen, a big fan of the local NFL team. Photograph by Flickr user VCU CNS.

Several Virginia state legislators are taking a bold stand against what they see as a federal incursion against one of their state’s best-known companies. Meet the Redskins Pride Caucus, a club of delegates and state senators united in defense of Washington’s NFL team, which was stripped last week of its federal trademark protections because its name is, in the words of the US Patent and Trademark Office, “disparaging to Native Americans.”

Well, State Senator Chap Petersen and Delegates Jackson Miller and David Ramadan have had enough of what they call “inappropriate involvement” by the federal government in the ongoing conversation about the Washington team’s name. In a press release, they also say their new caucus is dedicated to “providing a voice” for fans and season-ticket holders; supporting the franchise as a business, which is headquartered in Ashburn; and supporting “commercial freedom” and intellectual property rights.

But the top priority appears to be defending a team name that, as its many critics point out, is defined by most dictionaries as a racial slur against Native Americans. Petersen, a Fairfax Democrat, is especially sensitive.

“As with so many recent opinions in the twilight of the Obama era, this one reeked of political correctness, i.e. the Orwellian principal that all viewpoints matter but some matter more than others,” he wrote on his blog following last week’s trademark ruling, which the team is appealing. “Ironically, the most disparaging sports names—‘Yankees,’ ‘Fighting Irish,’ ‘Canucks’—continue on undisturbed. Because insulting a group without a historic grievance is considered no insult at all.”

For the record: Merriam-Webster defines “yankee” as a native of New England or northern United States and “canuck” as a person born and raised in Canada; neither is defined as offensive. The origins of “fighting Irish” are apocryphal, ranging from a large number of Irish-American student-athletes at the University of Notre Dame to the appropriation of widespread anti-Catholic sentiment at the end of the 19th century. The Washington NFL team’s name comes from an attempt by original owner George Preston Marshall’s attempt to “honor” coach William Henry Dietz, whose claims of Native American ancestry remain disputed.

Petersen, Miller, and Ramadan are also cheesed by a May 22 letter from 50 Democratic US senators to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, urging him to persuade Washington owner Dan Snyder to change his team’s name. The team responded with a “#RedskinsPride” Twitter campaign, which backfired miserably.

But besides a bunch of local politicians giving themselves another platform to gripe about perceived federal overreach, the new caucus also gives the Washington team to trot out its recently hired lobbyists. According to the Associated Press, representatives from McGuireWoods passed through the Virginia State Capitol with bags of burgundy-and-gold team swag for interested lawmakers.

Posted at 05:31 PM/ET, 06/23/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
More than two months after losing the Democratic nomination, Gray is still frosty about his party's choice. By Benjamin Freed
Photograph of Gray by Flickr user chesbayprogram. Photograph of Bowser by Flickr user crystalndavis.

Since winning the Democratic mayoral nomination on April 1, Muriel Bowser has held many events featuring her fellow party members, including primary opponents like Jack Evans, Tommy Wells, and Vincent Orange. She’s even won the support of Marion Barry, who earlier this month pledged his support to help Bowser “kick David Catania’s ass,” as the mayor-for-life said at a fundraiser.

But there’s one prominent local Democrat Bowser still hasn’t convinced: current Mayor Vince Gray, who in an interview Thursday morning on NewsChannel 8 again declined to endorse her.

“I haven’t come out with any public statements as of yet,” Gray said when host Bruce DePuyt asked if the mayor is ready to line up behind Bowser.

Gray and Bowser shared an uncomfortable hug at a “unity breakfast” three days after the primary, and while Gray said he has met with Bowser several times since then, Gray’s statements today suggest she hasn’t made much of an impression since beating him on April 1 by 10 percentage points.

“I really want to hear what her vision is on the future of our city,” Gray said today. Apparently, 15 months of campaigning and debating by Bowser still leaves details to be desired.

Gray also called recent mayoral entrant Carol Schwartz a “credible candidate.” He didn’t endorse either Schwartz or Catania, both former Republicans, but fully embracing Bowser sounds a long way off, too.

“If I was Gray, I’d never endorse Bowser,” says Chuck Thies, a Democratic consultant who served as Gray’s motor-mouthed campaign manager. “How can any legitimate politician endorse an empty suit?”

Gray suggested in his TV segment that he might get off the fence eventually. “Ms. Bowser and I have met on more than one occasion,” he said. “There’s no doubt we’ll talk about this.”

Posted at 12:28 PM/ET, 06/19/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
Looking for the perfect echo chamber in which to settle down? Try this questionnaire that matches partisanship with neighborhoods. By Benjamin Freed
Photograph by Flickr user ep_jhu.

A Pew Research Center survey released this month says that as the United States becomes increasingly partisan, more people try to live with areas with politically like-minded residents. Liberals prefer more urbanized, pedestrian-friendly areas, while conservatives show preferences for suburban and rural expanses.

While it’s easy enough to pick out red states and blue states, it can get a bit trickier at the neighborhood level. Not anymore. Research firm Clarity Campaigns has created a questionnaire determining where a person should live based on their politics, down to the Zip code.

The tool, based on voter file information, asks users seven basic questions about their political natures, including party identification, positions on gun control and abortion, and religious attendance. Although Clarity Campaigns is a Democratic firm, the results—at least for the Washington area—are startingly accurate. For instance, if someone looking to live in the District selects the obviously liberal responses—more gun control, higher taxes—to all seven questions, the questionnaire returns Zip code 20009, which includes communitarian enclaves like Mt. Pleasant.

Say you attend church often and favor restrictions on abortion and you get sent to 20057, the Zip for Georgetown University—think rectories housing Catholics priests.

A pocket of Alexandria is the most liberal-friendly zone in Virginia, while in Maryland, that distinction goes to Zip code 20912, also known as the People’s Republic of Takoma Park. Turn the dials all the way to the right in Maryland, and you land on a sleepy town in the state’s far western panhandle called Accident.

Try it out below and see if you need to put your house on the market to satisfy your politics.

Posted at 02:41 PM/ET, 06/17/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
Mayor for Life attempts to polish his legacy while delving into salacious detail about his checkered career. By Harry Jaffe

Pray for Marion Barry. He’s headed to New York Tuesday for the release of his autobiography, Mayor for Life: The Incredible Story of Marion Barry, Jr. Judging by the treatment he got Monday from the New York Post, the Manhattan scribes are going to feast on our former mayor.

“The cracked-out life of Marion Barry, the original Rob Ford,” the Post headline blared, referring to the crack-smoking mayor of Toronto.

Barry’s 336-page memoir is, as expected, a paean to himself. He paints himself as the heroic African-American leader battling the white power structure for the good of his people, rather than a promising politician brought low by his abundant human frailties, among them weaknesses for women, cocaine, and cognac. 

According to the Washington Post’s Mike DeBonis, Barry describes how, early in his career, he organized fellow black newspaper carriers at the Commercial Appeal in Memphis to demand the same perks as white carriers. He led students at LeMoyne-Owen College to protest a trustee who defended Memphis’s segregated bus system.

Barry congratulates himself for getting District teenagers off the streets in his summer jobs programs (whether they were paid or not). He describes how he elbowed aside white businessmen to force African Americans into city contracts, failing to mention that the same white businessmen financed his political campaigns.

The book, written with novelist Omar Tyree, glosses over the corruption that cropped up among Barry’s closest aides and his more recent problems with federal prosecutors for neglecting to pay taxes. 

Instead, says DeBonis, Barry provide intimate detail about how a young woman introduced him to cocaine. He describes how the white powder went “straight to my penis.”

“What happened next?” Barry writes, according to DeBonis. “I had sex with her.”

At the time, Barry was married to his long-suffering third wife, Effi.

The book’s combination of legacy polishing and salacious detail makes Barry’s step into literature a curious move. If, as Barry claims, he wants to get past the infamous 1990 drug bust at the Vista Hotel, why give headlines to the New York press?

In Dream City, which I wrote with Tom Sherwood on the birth of DC’s political system and Barry’s rise to power, my co-author and I covered some of the events Barry relates in his new book. I want to set the record straight on a few important facts from the time that Barry seems to avoid.

• Barry says federal investigators alerted reporters to the Vista Hotel, where Barry was videotaped smoking crack. Sherwood was first on the scene. Neither he nor his station, WRC Channel 4, had been tipped off before the bust.

• Barry says the city was helpless to combat the crack epidemic that engulfed DC in the late 1980s. In fact, he ignored cops who warned him the city was unprepared for the coming of crack. Rather than support the police, he starved their budgets, which left the District more vulnerable to the drug wars that brought homicides close to 500 a year. And he was addicted to the drug.

• The former mayor, who now serves as Ward 8 council member, continues to give the FBI credit—or blame—for investigating his drug use and setting up the sting at the Vista Hotel in 1990. It was two DC cops, Albert Arrington and Jim Pawlik, who ran the painstaking investigation that gathered evidence for the bust. They brought Rasheeda Moore, his former lover, to DC to lure him into the room and encourage him to smoke crack.

• Arrington was the first lawman to reach Barry in the hotel room. Like Barry, he’s the son of sharecroppers. Arrington doesn’t show up in Mayor for Life.

Posted at 06:04 PM/ET, 06/16/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
The former DC Council member officially kicked off her long-shot campaign and denied accusations she’s a “spoiler” candidate. By Benjamin Freed
"I want to be mayor," Schwartz said after filing her candidacy. Photographs by Benjamin Freed.

“Being out of political life five and a half years, people call me and say they miss me,” said former DC Council member Carol Schwartz, fresh from officially entering the mayoral race.

Schwartz, 70, out of local politics since January 2009, resurfaced Monday when she suddenly announced her intentions to wedge herself into the contest between Muriel Bowser and David Catania. Press and other politically interested people had gathered to learn why she had decided to make a late, long-shot bid.

Catania’s campaign has explained her unexpected candidacy as a spoiler. Schwartz, a former Republican like Catania, was at odds with him during her final years on the Council, and close to Bowser.

“Oh, please,” Schwartz told reporters Friday. “I think it’s petty and distracting.”

When pressed again, Schwartz said she has no comment on either of her opponents. She also said she still lives primarily in the District, though she did admit being out of office allows her to spend more time in her homes in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, and Florida.

As a candidate, Schwartz seems to still be fleshing out her positions after six years in the political wilderness. “I love seeing the boomtown,” she said about DC’s present economic growth. She also says she’d try to enhance the city’s “inclusionary zoning” rules, which require developers to reserve units in new developments for low- and moderate-income families. She also says she’d keep DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson in place—a position Bowser also staked out this week—but veers into her past advocacy for magnet schools when asked about the redrawn school boundaries published this week.

By running as an independent Schwartz is also giving herself an added burden of collecting 3,000 valid signatures from DC voters by August 6. She could have avoided the task if she had been the DC Republican Party’s mayoral nominee, as she was four times in the past. But she says she left the GOP last December.

“I’d been thinking about it the last several years, watching the party move further and further away,” Schwartz said. “When Eric Cantor is considered too liberal? That’s a statement in itself.”

The Carol Schwartz-mobile, double-parked.


After Schwartz finished taking questions, she said she was headed over to Anacostia to begin collecting signatures and hopped in her beige Jaguar sedan decked out with bright yellow “Carol Schwartz” signs. In previous campaigns, Schwartz rode around in a yellow Pontiac Firebird convertible with the top down because, she said today, “it lets people know I’m accessible.”

The Firebird may come out later this summer, but for today, Schwartz decided it would be more “mayoral” to go with the Jaguar.

“I decided today I’d be a little more reserved,” she said.

Posted at 01:40 PM/ET, 06/13/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
Michael D. Brown says he’s “tired of being ignored” as a glorified statehood activist. By Benjamin Freed
Michael D. Brown admits being a "shadow senator" doesn't get results. Photograph by Benjamin Freed.

The list of candidates seeking the at-large DC Council seat currently held by mayoral candidate David Catania keep growing. The latest entrant? Michael D. Brown, a figure known to keen followers of the District’s political nitty-gritty, but probably not as well to the average voter.

Brown—not to be confused with jail-bound former Council member Michael A. Brown—is one of the District’s “shadow senators,” elected to lobby for DC statehood on Capitol Hill. But it’s an unpaid and largely forgotten job, facts that Brown finally admitted when he made a surprise appearance Friday morning at the DC Board of Elections to pick up ballot-access petitions.

“I’m tired of being ignored,” says Brown, who’s held the shadow position since 2007.

Instead, Brown says he realizes he can be a much more effective—and better compensated—advocate for statehood from a Council seat. (Outside of his thankless advocacy role, he makes his living in the direct-mail business.)

“We should have one Council member dedicated to statehood,” he says.

He may not be a household name, but Brown says many voters know him thanks to his 2010 Council bid against Phil Mendelson. Mendelson, fearing voters would confuse his opponent with then-Council member Michael A. Brown, plastered the city with fliers featuring photos of Michael A. Brown endorsing him, beside a photograph of Michael D. Brown.

"Phil Mendelson, God bless him, spent $250,000 convincing people there's two of us," Brown says.

There’s one more thing Brown needs to do to run for Catania’s seat: drop his lifelong Democratic Party affiliation to satisfy the DC charter’s requirement that two of the Council’s four at-large seats be held by non-majority parties.

“I’m an independent Democrat,” Brown says.

Incidentally, that’s how Michael A. Brown, who held one of the non-majority seats when he was on the Council, used to describe himself.

Posted at 12:48 PM/ET, 06/13/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
David Catania reported raising $553,000 since March 1. Bowser hauled in a lot more. By Benjamin Freed
Photograph via Shutterstock.

A candidate’s initial fundraising report is a good test of a campaign’s viability, and judging from the $553,000 he has raised for his mayoral bid, according to reports made public last night, DC Council member David Catania seems legit.

But there’s legit, and there’s established. Democratic nominee Muriel Bowser raked in nearly $869,000 over roughly the same period, and has accumulated a war chest twice as large as Catania’s.

Here’s how Bowser and Catania’s financials look:

Bowser: $858,643 raised; $720,323 on hand

Bowser has more than recovered her cash reserves after spending furiously to bump off Mayor Vince Gray in a crowded April 1 Democratic primary, including $100 election-day payments to hundreds of canvassers listed as “consultants.” Of the $858,643 she reported, Bowser pulled in $740,820 of it since the primary. She has also not spent much, consistent with her strategy of ignoring Catania until the general election ballot is set in August. Since winning the nomination, she’s been able to draw on the support of the national Democratic Party. One of her first contacts after the primary was Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

Catania: $553,358 raised; $350,707 on hand

With Bowser planning to avoid engaging with him until fall, Catania, who declared his candidacy March 12, has been spending heavily get his campaigng up and running and to plaster the town with light-blue signs bearing his name. About 27 percent of Catania’s fundraising total came from the $146,865 he transferred from an exploratory committee formed last December.

Catania’s campaign manager, Ben Young, says he is not surprised to see Bowser so far ahead in the money game.

“She will have more money,” he says. “The establishment candidate always will.”

Young is also unfazed by Carol Schwartz’s sudden entry into the race, saying that Schwartz, who left the Council in 2009, will be unfamiliar to the city’s voters, about one-quarter of whom have registered in the past five years.

Posted at 11:55 AM/ET, 06/11/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()