Get Well+Being delivered to your inbox every Monday Morning.

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 ()
He tried to block same-sex marriage and medical marijuana, and also thinks DC should be part of Maryland. By Benjamin Freed


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 ()
Election Day can't come quickly enough. By Benjamin Freed

One of the more unpleasant things about Octobers in even-numbered years is the avalanche of campaign advertisements that fills up every television commercial break, and with a week to go, the din is as loud as possible. Now, the name of the Washington NFL club has been dragged into the heap, thanks to Ed Gillespie, the Republican nominee for a US Senate seat in Virginia.

Gillespie's campaign ran an ad on ESPN last night during the first half Washington-Dallas game. In the 30-second spot, Gillespie calls out his opponent, Senator Mark Warner, for not taking a stand on a Senate bill that aims to revoke the NFL's tax-exempt status if the league does not force Washington's team to change its name, a dictionary-defined racial slur against Native Americans.

"Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has a bill to force the Redskins to change their name," a grim narrator says. "Mark Warner refused to answer if he supports the bill or not. Why won't he fight the anti-Redskins bill? Why won't he answer the question?"

Gillespie appears, eagerly saying he'll oppose the bill, which was introduced by Senator Maria Cantwell, a Washington state Democrat, in September at a flashy press conference, but hasn't received any other attention until, well, right now. But one of the reasons that Warner hasn't staked out a firm position on Cantwell's bill might be that he already made his feelings known in May when he declined to sign a letter from Reid and nearly every Senate Democrat to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell about the controversial team name. (Tim Kaine, Virginia's other Democratic senator, didn't sign it either.)

But the biggest sign this ad might have been a waste of time for Gillespie, who trails Warner by 11 percentage points in Real Clear Politics' average of the most recent polls, is that team owner Dan Snyder doesn't need a new friend in the Senate. He's already got one in Warner, to whom he and his wife, Tanya, both gave the maximum contribution of $5,200 last December, according to Federal Election Commission records.

Perhaps Gillespie can cut his final ads on whether Colt McCoy deserves another start following Washington's upset win over the Cowboys last night.

Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.

Posted at 09:27 AM/ET, 10/28/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
A new poll shows Bowser only four points ahead of her opponent. By Harry Jaffe
Can Bowser hold on to her lead? Photograph by Flickr user crystalndavis.

DC’s mayoral race is tightening.

A new poll by veteran DC pollster Ron Lester shows Democrat Muriel Bowser four points ahead of Independent David Catania in the November 4 general election. Bowser comes in at 34 percent to Catania’s 30. Carol Schwartz, also running as an independent, came in at 16 percent. Nineteen percent of those polled were undecided.

Lester’s poll is significant for a number of reasons. He’s among the District’s most experienced pollsters—he's worked for major candidates including Vincent Gray and Marion Barry—and he’s known for precise, accurate polls.

Lester’s poll runs counter to the NBC4 and Washington Post’s September poll that showed Bowser leading by 17 points. The poll, with Marist, was taken from a random digit dialing sample. Lester polled 500 likely voters in a sample split between 48 percent black voters, 47 percent white, and 5 percent Latino.

Lester’s poll tracks the results of a recent poll by Economic Growth DC, an independent business group, that showed Bowser up by eight points. Lester's poll, commissioned by Karl Racine, a candidate in the attorney general’s race, shows Racine running second among four other candidates.*

For the mayoral race, the poll reveals that Bowser’s numbers are stagnating, in part because she’s not participating in the race in a robust way. Meanwhile, Catania’s attacks are taking hold and cutting down her support.

Bowser campaign manager Bill Lightfoot declined to comment before seeing the poll.

“It’s in line with our poll,” Catania aide Ben Young tells Washingtonian. “It shows David surging.”

Not exactly. Catania’s numbers have also held relatively steady, hovering around 30 percent.

“Bowser’s support has eroded, and that must be troubling for her camp,” says Chuck Thies, a political consultant who ran Vince Gray’s unsuccessful campaign to win the Democratic primary. “But Catania is just inching up. Can he eclipse her in the limited time left in the race? Inching up is not a path to victory.”

Lester’s poll revealed a surprising aspect of Carol Schwartz’s support. In her fifth run for mayor, the veteran District politician runs second among African-American voters, which hurts Bowser more than Catania.

In racial terms, Bowser is stronger among black voters, at 42 to 19 percent over Catania. That support holds among African Americans over 60. Bowser is strongest in wards east of the Anacostia River and maintains a slight lead in white neighborhoods in the District’s northwest wards.

Karl Racine—a veteran attorney who’s managed Venable, a major law firm, and worked in the Clinton Administration—polls second behind Paul Zukerberg in the District’s first election for attorney general. Backed by ample campaign coffers and the Post’s endorsement, Racine still has an edge.*

Lester declined to comment on the poll.

*This post has been updated from a previous version.

Posted at 11:17 AM/ET, 10/06/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
Why all local politics in Virginia have become national. By Harry Jaffe
The race between Barbara Comstock and John Foust, left, has been waged over, or by, old friends and enemies like Clinton, Gingrich, McAuliffe, and Begala. Photo-Illustration by Gluekit. Photograph of Comstock and Foust by Tom Williams/Newscom; Clinton by Benoit Tessier/Landov; Gingrich by AJM/Landov; McAuliffe by Kevin Lamarque/Newscom; Begala by Carrie Devorah/Newscom.

For more than a year, one name has trumped all others in Virginia politics: Hillary.

Hillary Clinton’s first test,” was how Politico characterized Governor Terry McAuliffe’s campaign last summer, suggesting it was merely a dry run for the consultants, pollsters, bundlers, and other moving parts of Hillary’s 50-state 2016 vehicle. Or as another website asked: Is McAuliffe “nothing more than Hillary’s stalking horse?”

Now comes the congressional race in Virginia’s 10th District, in which the Republican candidate, Barbara Comstock, a flame-throwing conservative Republican state delegate, embellished her primary win by bashing the Clintons and vowing to “get to the bottom of the truth in Benghazi.” Meanwhile, Comstock’s opponent, Fairfax County supervisor John Foust, is getting help from ’90s-era Bill Clinton aide Paul Begala, who’s been issuing poison tweets about Comstock.

Virginia’s politics isn’t being stalked; it’s been kidnapped.

The increasingly national flavor of the Commonwealth’s local elections is partly a function of its DC suburbs. McAuliffe, Comstock, and Begala—as well as GOP strategist Ed Gillespie, running for the US Senate against Mark Warner, and Newt Gingrich, a longtime supporter of Comstock—call Northern Virginia home.

When they run for office, they end up squaring off against old federal-level foes. As an aide to Representative Frank Wolf in the early 1990s, Comstock made her name investigating the Clintons. She triggered the minor scandal known as Travelgate and had a hand in Filegate and Monicagate. “It’s as if these old Beltway grudge matches are being rehashed where so many of these players now live,” says David Wasserman, with the Cook Political Report.

Another reason national politics has intruded is that Virginia increasingly looks like the nation. Once “solid South,” the state has become a bellwether. “There’s no better laboratory,” says a Democratic Party operative.

The 10th District is Virginia in microcosm. Spanning the urban-oriented enclaves of Fairfax and the apple orchards around Winchester, it leans left on its eastern end and squats solidly Republican in the west. The area in between, around Dulles and the exurbs of Leesburg, bulges with Asian and Hispanic newcomers. “If you want to take the temperature of the country,” says Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, “this might be a good district to pick.”

Those demographics mean the fight for the district’s seat will produce more partisan heat than its constituents bargained for. The Democratic and Republican congressional campaign committees have set aside more than $2 million each to contest this small scrap of battleground.

But the 10th’s political diversity may guarantee residents the local election they deserve. Already, Comstock has ditched her anti-Clinton rhetoric to appeal to moderate suburbanites. “I’m a doer and not interested in continuing these fights,” she told Washingtonian.

Foust is still trying to stick Comstock with the GOP’s entire ’90s tally—“She spent four years and over $80 million to investigate the Clintons and found basically nothing,” he says—but to win in November, he’ll also need to address jobs, health care, and traffic.

Not that he’d refuse if Hillary showed up to campaign for him. Says Foust: “I definitely would welcome that.”

Find Harry Jaffe on Twitter at @harryjaffe. This article appears in the October 2014 issue of Washingtonian.

Read More

Posted at 11:00 AM/ET, 09/29/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
The local politician on his goals, marijuana in DC, and the time Ann Coulter was mean to him. By Hallie Golden
Photograph courtesy of Majors.

If DC’s mayoral race has been a bit drab so far, don’t blame Bruce Majors. The Libertarian candidate for mayor brings humor and an enthusiasm for libertarianism—which began with his introduction to the writings of Ayn Rand when he was in ninth grade—to the race. Majors, a realtor by day, saw that steadfast devotion pay off two years ago when he garnered more than 16,000 votes in his first political campaign. (Mayor Vince Gray won with 97,978 votes.) Major’s haul was more than enough votes for the Libertarians to become an official party for the first time on a DC ballot.

Majors is running again, spreading the Libertarian philosophy along the way—“Let people do what they want, and then address a problem if there is one,” he summarizes—and touting the fact that his party is the fastest growing in DC. We chatted with him about his positions and his goals as an underdog candidate in the mayoral race.

What does your party want to achieve?

We want to replace the current paradigm with one where everyone makes choices about their own lives, their own bodies, and their own children. I’m sure occasionally there will be a case where somebody’s doing something and you will have to step in and do something about it, but don’t manage them from the very beginning.

Tell me about your stance on the marijuana referendum.

We spend too much money putting people in jail for that. I don’t smoke marijuana, but I do have a balcony, and I’ve teased my friends who do smoke that I’ll grow three plants on my balcony so they could come to DC, buy me dinner, and I’ll give them some. But I won’t sell it to them.

How would you handle development?

We’ve got a lot of people moving to DC with a lot of money who are driving up the price of housing because it’s so restrictive. One of the ways it’s restrictive is that buildings can’t be more than ten stories tall. If you could build tall buildings that created huge numbers of housing units, I think the rents wouldn’t be going up as quickly.

How would you decrease unemployment in the District?

I want to get rid of lots of regulations that keep people from getting jobs. For example, DC has regulations on hair braiding [that say] you have to go to cosmetology school and get a full-scale license. I have a feeling there’s a lot of stuff like that that nobody ever thinks about looking at because they only affect a small number of people.

How is your fundraising going?

We’ve probably raised $7,000. About half of it’s from me, and, unfortunately, that’s probably all that’s going to come from me this year.

As an underdog, how will you measure success on election day?

Our minimum level of success is getting 7,500 votes to maintain permanent ballot status. That’s really the reason we’re doing this. We definitely don’t want to have to go back to petitioning, and we do want to raise all these issues.

What do you do besides politics?

When I’m not running for office, I like to make jokes. I have some really great jokes about our campaign, but I can’t make any of them because I’m supposed to be running a serious campaign.

In 2010, you said you want to be the gay, slightly less conservative Ann Coulter. Is that still true?

That was kind of a joke. I’ve since met Ann Coulter, and she was mean to me. I showed up at her book signing wearing a “Majors for Mayor” pin. In comes Coulter. She turns to me and grabs my button. I was slightly terrified. She’s looking at me like, “What’s this?” All I could say was, “It’s a local candidate.”

Posted at 01:41 PM/ET, 09/25/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
The former governor of Virginia and his wife were charged in January on 14 counts of taking gifts from the CEO of a nutritional supplement manufacturer. By Benjamin Freed
Bob McDonnell, as seen in Johnnie R. Williams's Ferrari. Photograph via US Department of Justice.

Former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, were found guilty Thursday in federal court for illegally accepting cash, luxury goods, and vacations from the chief executive of a nutritional supplement manufacturer in exchange for promotion by the state government.

A jury in federal court for the Eastern District of Virginia found the McDonnells guilty after a five-week trial that exposed long-simmering rifts between the McDonnells and Johnnie R. Williams, the former CEO of Star Scientific, who lavished the McDonnells over several years in exchange for their promotion of Anatabloc, a tobacco-based supplement made by Williams's former company.

Bob McDonnell was found guilty on 11 corruption counts while Maureen McDonnell was found guilty on eight corruption counts plus one count of obstruction of justice. Both faced a total of 14 counts. The jury of seven men and five women took a little more than two days to deliberate more than a month of testimony and arguments.

The McDonnells were charged in January, just days after leaving the governor's mansion in Richmond. Many of the allegations against the couple stemmed from their former chef, who was profiled in the February issue of Washingtonian.

Among the trials revelations were images of Bob McDonnell cruising around in a Ferrari borrowed from Williams, testimony that Maureen McDonnell had an "obsession" with the businessman, and an argument by the defense that the McDonnells' marriage was too fractured for them to build a conspiracy to cover up Williams's largesse. In total, prosecutors say the McDonnells took over $200,000 in cash, clothing, jewelry, and vacations for pushing Anatabloc on everyone from state government underlings to Ann Romney, the wife of 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

According to the Washington Post, the McDonnells were visibly emotional after the verdict was announced. The former governor "sobbed throughout the proceeding" and stared at the floor as he exited the courtroom. The McDonnells will be sentenced January 6 and each face up to 30 years in prison.

While an appeal is already considered "inevitable," the verdict marks a low point for the McDonnells and Virginia politics at large. Once short-listed as a potential vice-presidential nominee, Bob McDonnell became the first governor of Virginia to be charged—and now convicted—of a felony.

UPDATE, 3:55 PM: "Of course we will appeal," Bob McDonnell's attorney, Hank Asbill, told reporters outside the courthouse.

McDonnell's downfall is so jarring to the Virginia political establishment, it's making his successor, Terry McAuliffe, a bit misty-eyed. "I am deeply saddened by the events of the trial that ended in today’s verdict, and the impact it has had on our Commonwealth’s reputation for honesty and clean government," McAuliffe said in a statement released by his office after the verdict. "Dorothy and I will continue to pray for the McDonnell family and for everyone who was affected by this trial."

One person for whom the McAuliffes can spare their prayers: Johnnie R. Williams, the tobacco-derivative huckster turned star witness who got immunity in exchange for his testimony.

Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.

Posted at 02:34 PM/ET, 09/04/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
Did Irvin Nathan use a staff meeting to endorse Karl Racine? By Harry Jaffe

Irvin Nathan. Photograph by Flickr user Doug Gansler.

It’s no surprise that DC Attorney General Irvin Nathan has little respect for Paul Zukerberg, one of the five candidates running for his job in the November election. Nathan, who, like previous attorney generals, was appointed to his post by the mayor, argued in court earlier this year to stop the 2014 attorney general election from going forward. Zukerberg, who had sued to force the election to go forward, beat him.

In an exchange that followed in the Huffington Post, Nathan wrote that Zukerberg’s brutal critique of past attorneys general's failings “suggests he is not worthy of the position he seeks.”

We also know Nathan is close to Karl Racine, a well-known attorney for a large law firm who’s challenging Zukerberg.

But according to three staff members in the Office of the Attorney General, Nathan has now sought to have a hand in a race he never wanted. During a staff meeting on July 9, a day before Racine formally announced he was running, witnesses say Nathan used a staff meeting to endorse Racine.

“He praised and recommended Karl Racine,” one of the three employees told Washingtonian, “and he asked us to support him.” None of the three staffers would talk on the record for fear of retribution.

If the statements are true, Nathan may have violated the District’s Hatch Act, which prohibits public officials from using their authority to influence elections while on the job.

Questioned about whether Nathan endorsed Racine, his office said in a statement Nathan noted that Racine’s “entrance into the race was a positive sign for the District and for the office’s interest in continued quality management due to Mr. Racine’s qualifications and experience managing a large law firm.”

Nathan's comments appear to have been a crucial part of the July 9 meeting and not an offhand remark during a political discussion. On June 27, Nathan sent an email to the OAG staff that he would hold two meetings on July 9 to discuss the election and its “implications for this office.” There are no audio or video recordings of the meetings.

The District's Hatch Act, rewritten last year as part of a broader ethics measure, hasn't been tested. But it bars a public official from using his “official authority or influence for the purpose of interfering with or affecting the result of an election.”

Nathan’s aides said it was “perfectly appropriate” for him to make his comments about Racine. They added that it would be inaccurate to say Nathan “has endorsed any candidate or encouraged staff members to support any particular candidate.”

However, one aide admitted that staffers might have drawn the wrong inference from Nathan’s glowing comments about Racine. Nathan was not available to comment.

Read More

Posted at 03:13 PM/ET, 08/28/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
At September’s candidate forums, expect Muriel Bowser to prod David Catania’s famous temper as he attacks her positions—if she risks any. For now, DC’s mayoral hopefuls require translation. By Harry Jaffe
Photograph of Bowser by Liz Lynch.

What Muriel Bowser says:

“I don’t run away from people asking questions.”

What she means: Watch me run away from questions to deprive my opponent of the microphone.

“I appreciated a very genuine handshake that [Vince Gray] offered to me this morning.”

What she means: The mayor and I revile each other.

“If you’re not married at 42, people think there’s something wrong with you. I date all the time. I am private, that’s for sure.”

What she means: No, I am not gay.

“I don’t think everything has to change in the government”

What she means: Hey, black voters who turned out my political mentor: I’m no Adrian Fenty.

“You’re not mayor until you are mayor.”

What she means: Quit worrying about my not seeming “mayoral.”

What David Catania says:

“It’s past time for the candidates of this race to engage in a public discussion about the future or our city.”

What he means: Help! Until Bowser agrees to debate, I got no game.

“A label alone never puts food on the table . . . never educates children, and it doesn’t provide health care.”

What he means: Because I’m running against a Democrat in one of the nation’s bluest cities, my only prayer is to convince DC voters to abandon their party.

“People understand that even if they don’t necessarily agree with me all the time . . . I roll up my sleeves and I’m serious about getting solutions.”

What he means: My hard work makes up for my embarrassing lack of civility.

“Let me be clear—I will not be seeking reelection as a member of the council. I am running for mayor of the District of Columbia.”

What he means: After 17 years, I couldn’t stand another term on the DC Council.

“The [Democratic] primary was about who shouldn’t be mayor, not who should be.”

What he means: I really wanted to run against Vince Gray.

What Carol Schwartz says “I just want you to take me a little bit more seriously.”

What Carol Schwartz means . . . Before I disappear again to Rehoboth.

This article appears in the September 2014 issue of Washingtonian.

Posted at 03:20 PM/ET, 08/26/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
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 ()