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Payouts to young journalists have barely budged as contributions to the press association have soared. By Luke Mullins
President Obama addressed the White House Correspondents' Association dinner last May. Photograph by J.M. Eddins Jr.

Between taking selfies with John McCain and laughing along nervously with the President, attendees at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner- this year on April 25- settle into polite silence each year for the awarding of scholarships to young journalists. This feel-good segment is one of the ways the WHCA gets to call itself a 501(c)(3) charitable organization, as it was officially designated in 2004- that's after Ozzy Osbourne first showed at the Washington Hilton but before Stephen Colbert's roast of George W. Bush made the dinner a traffic-paralyzing national spectacle.

Pardon us for a moment, however, while we make like journalists and follow the money. As the event's profile has risen, contributions to the association have jumped- from 2009 to 2013, the take increased by 162 percent, to $532,555- but scholarship payouts have inched only 10 percent higher, according to the WHCA's tax filings. Put another way, the association spent almost 60 percent of its revenue on scholarships in 2009, but just 26 percent in 2013.

Some of the excess cash has gone to boost compensation of the group's longtime executive director, Julia Whiston- from $40,000 a year in 2004 to a still-modest $142,000- and to build up cash reserves. The association also says it has put $100,000 into an endowment for future scholarships since its last filing. The WHCA isn't in danger of violating the law- the rules governing 501(c)(3)s are so broad that a band of ghost hunters in Memphis qualifies. Nobody is accusing anyone of tapping corporate slush funds: The organization's major donors are media homers like Fox's Bill O'Reilly and Politico.

But its donations-to-payouts ration causes Ken Berger, until recently CEO of the watchdog group Charity Navigator, to frown. "It appears," he says, "as if the organization is more concerned with its own self-perpetuation than a selfless assisting of others in need."

Christi Parsons, a Tribune Publishing correspondent and outgoing WHCA president, submitted responses to written questions, saying the group aims "to support and advance the public's interest in the First Amendment, particularly the freedom of the press to report vigorously on the activities of the office of the President."

But even wrapped in First Amendment ideals, the WHCA is more akin to the American Bar Association than to the Sisters of Mercy. "It strikes me that the primary purpose is to promote opportunities for journalists," says attorney Bruce Hopkins, author of The Law of Tax-Exempt Organizations. "The charitable, educational part is more secondary than primary."

When such things are said about other charities, they risk alienating donors. That won't likely happen to the WHCA, whose fun dinner raises the bulk of its money. But as the event continues to attract more attention, and more cash, it may be time for the organization to act less like media clubhouse and more like the charity it purports to be.

Posted at 08:00 AM/ET, 04/22/2015 | Permalink | Comments ()
The executive begins a new term with no bigger problem than a budget hawk in Annapolis. By Miranda S. Spivack
Baker—in his Upper Marlboro office—wants Prince George’s County to be seen as the economic engine of Maryland. Photograph by Jeff Elkins

After taking office in December 2010, Prince George’s County executive Rushern Baker III could barely sleep. He had run three times for the job and had plans to make big changes in his first 30 days. Instead, Baker found himself up late, pondering a recent rash of homicides, trouble in the public schools, and a $77-million budget gap. Business leaders, whom Baker had counted on to revive the county’s flagging fortunes, instead greeted him with stories of shakedowns by his predecessor, Jack B. Johnson, who would soon go to prison for bribery and corruption.

One election cycle later, Baker no longer leads with the county’s troubles. “For the first time, people who would not have thought about Prince George’s at least pause. Then we can make our case,” he says. The turnabout has some in Maryland mentioning the term-limited Baker as the next Democratic candidate for governor.

First he has to survive the current administration in Annapolis. Baker’s most pressing projects depend on convincing new Republican governor Larry Hogan—who ran on an agenda of lower taxes and shrunken spending—to come up with funding promised by Hogan’s predecessor, Martin O’Malley.

As Baker’s second term got under way, the county executive talked about Prince George’s future—and his own.

The news coming from the governor’s office is all about budget cuts—those Martin O’Malley made before he left and now those likely to come from the new governor. How do you handle that?

The tools are very limited at the local level. The tax burden in Prince George’s is so high right now, we’re not looking to raise taxes. If the state cuts filter down to me, I don’t have tools to raise revenues. That forces us to prioritize. We have to start investing in the future. We’ve set up the Economic Development Investment Fund to attract businesses and get a larger commercial tax base here.

The new governor has raised doubts about the Purple Line, which promised to bring people and money to the county. What do you expect will happen?

Maryland has always been divided. In Prince George’s, Montgomery, and Howard counties, the rail system is the lifeblood of economic development. The same with Baltimore. If you’re in a rural area, you want more roads. But there’s a really credible argument if you are a businessperson.

What’s that argument?

If the idea is to grow Maryland’s economy and provide jobs, you want the Purple Line. Just building it is going to create jobs, then the stops become the hubs we want to attract business. If we want cybersecurity businesses to grow up around Fort Meade, the workers have to be able to get to the airport, or downtown, or to the Pentagon. What makes our proposal to relocate the FBI building to Prince George’s stand out is that we already have transit there.

Before November’s election, Maryland promised to pay nearly a third of the cost of a new regional hospital in Largo. So far, Governor Hogan hasn’t signaled whether he intends to go forward with the state’s full $200-million share of the project. What’s the fate of the hospital?

I think the hospital is safe. It’s important for the hospital to go forward, for health reasons, and to jump-start downtown Largo. And the deal we put on the table is pretty much the same deal the last Republican governor offered the county.

This is where having a governor who grew up in Prince George’s will matter. His father had to deal with the hospital situation when he was county executive.

Baker (above center) tours Central High School in Capitol Heights in 2013 with Prince George’s schools chief Kevin Maxwell (left). Photograph by Michael J. Yourishin

One of your mentors, former county executive Wayne Curry, made building the middle class a priority. One key to that is the public schools. How is your campaign to attract middle-class students going?

Look at the number of first-generation Americans who are doing well in our school system. Some of our brightest students’ parents are originally from Africa, South America, India. The diversity shows there are great opportunities. And there are real opportunities for the county to connect in emerging economies like India and China.

We also have one of the fastest-growing Hispanic populations—I’m very pleased that for the first time we have two Latinas on our school board. We know we have a majority of the Nigerians in the Washington area. We’re looking at things, like housing availability, that we have to have in order to keep a robust middle class, and those who are moving into the middle class. It has been a hallmark of Prince George’s that we are not too high and we are not too low. We have balance in terms of economics and demographics.

Speaking of housing expenses, Anacostia—one of the areas of the District closest to Prince George’s—is gentrifying quickly. How are you handling those who are being pushed out?

We’re looking at what the District is doing to revitalize, and we’re making sure we match them from College Park all the way down to the Red Line and the new development around Catholic University. What you’re seeing in the District is an opportunity for us to reenergize our nodes in Prince George’s. We’re putting a lot of energy into spurring development into New Carrollton, Mount Rainier, and Suitland. I think that is going to be a hot area. And we’re spending money and resources to turn around areas such as Glassmanor, Oxon Hill.

It will be interesting to see how regional cooperation will work. All of us have to understand we are in this together. If people are priced out of the city, the same thing could happen in Montgomery and Prince George’s. People easily could be priced out of Mount Rainier in the next few years.

So you have a lot of big questions to settle in the next four years. What was the biggest accomplishment of your first term?

The biggest thing we did was ethics reform. Had we not put the bill in, the legislature would have put something in and we’d have a fight over what reform looks like. You don’t want someone else doing it for you. You want to admit to the world, “We know we have issues.”

A lot of people would say your biggest accomplishment was the drop in crime. How did that happen?

We sat down once a week for six months with Sheriff Melvin High and State’s Attorney Angela Alsobrooks, the police—all these folks. Police chief Mark Magaw had the summer crime initiative. It was a long-term strategy, and it was persistent. The police are going beyond policing, working with social services and the health department.

Is there anything new about the way you’re going to go about the next four years?

We asked all our directors and deputy directors to start thinking about programs that are sustainable so the next administration doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel. Stuff around health, connecting social services and family services, doing innovative things about aging in place. I asked everyone to work from 2020 backward, so that once we walk out the door in 2018, there’s demonstrative evidence of what we were thinking.

What does your political future hold, seeing as you’re term-limited?

This will surprise you—I’m focused on making Prince George’s the best it can be. I think the county is the economic engine in the Washington region. I am so blessed to have a job I wanted really bad.

If opportunities open up, they open up. If I can help contribute to making the state better, then I will probably run for something else. If there is someone more talented, I will do as I did in the last campaign and support those I believe in.

Most of the new candidates you supported in the most recent county election lost their races, including your son. What does that say about your remaining political clout?

I made a commitment to support candidates I thought would make a difference—regardless of whether they could win or not. The majority of them will be in public policy in the future. I wanted to help them meet the public. That’s what happened to me. It gave me a chance to get out there and make my mark.

What have you learned in your first four years in office?

Change is hard. In the words of JFK, it’s a lot different making campaign speeches than making policies. You’re so eager, so sure you have answers and that people will accept what you say as gospel. When they don’t, you’re shocked. And you find out that some ideas you had weren’t the best way to govern.

For me personally, the biggest thing was the amount of stress. I gained a tremendous amount of weight.

How much?

Thirty pounds. My doctor was concerned, my blood pressure was up, I couldn’t sleep. It was [former Prince George’s county executives] Wayne Curry and Parris Glendening who said, ‘Take a day, and don’t let them take that from you.” I started running with the police cadets. It took me six months to get down to a healthy size.

Training with police cadets in 2012. Photograph by Prince George’s County Police Television Studio

Now you’re training for the Boston Marathon.

I wanted to run the Army Ten-Miler before I was 55. I had promised my dad I would. When I couldn’t get in, a police officer gave up her spot. Then a guy I know said, “How would you like to run Boston?” For my 56th birthday, I received an invitation. I thought it was a joke, quite frankly. But I am doing it.

This article appears in our April 2015 issue of Washingtonian.

Posted at 09:00 AM/ET, 03/31/2015 | Permalink | Comments ()
Apologizing for being a jerk didn't work out for Fenty. By Benjamin Freed
The jerk store called, it's running out of us. Screenshots via YouTube.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel faces an unexpected runoff vote in his bid for a second term, and in his first big move ahead of the April 7 finale, the former White House chief of staff is offering a message that might sound familiar to District residents.

"I can rub people the wrong way, or talk when I should listen," Emanuel says in a 30-second ad that started playing in the Windy City this week. "I own that. But I'm driven to make a difference. When politics stood in the way of a full-day kindergarten or tougher gun laws, I charged ahead."

Emanuel's famously profane, hard-charging political style contributed to what his team expected would be a walk to another four years in office becoming a nail-biter that he could actually lose. About four-and-a-half years ago, then-DC Mayor Adrian Fenty did the same thing. In August 2010, with polls showing him plummeting against DC Council Chairman Vince Gray, Fenty cut an advertisement attempting to apologize for his own brash demeanor.

"I know I've made mistakes," Fenty said in the minute-long spot. "Going forward, I'll learn from them, and be more inclusive."

Fenty's ad wasn't a simple message of "I'm a jerk, and I'll be nicer in the future." It was wrapped around a not-very-veiled suggestion that a vote for the other guy was a vote for the "bad old days" of high crime rates, shoddy city finances, and federal control board oversight. Emanuel's current ad is a bit more dour than Fenty's—the Chicago mayor delivers his mea culpa in a single take in a placid living room, compared to Fenty's mix of action shots and newspaper headlines—but it hits the same beats: Vote for me, or the city will fall.

"I'm not always going to get it right, but when it comes to Chicago and Chicago's future, no one's going to fight harder," Emanuel says.

But urging voters to go with the jerk they know instead of the challenger they don't is far from a safe bet. DC's voters in 2010 didn't find Fenty's message sincere, and sent him packing by a seven-point margin just a few weeks after the ad started airing. Emanuel is presenting his hangdog act with a bit more time to spare, but he's still skirting awfully close to the edge of political sincerity. There's no guarantee that, like Fenty, Emanuel won't wind up being seen as backtracking or full of lame excuses.

It's very rare for a big-city mayor to apologize for being a jerk and not get punished for it. The strategy worked for Philadelphia Mayor John Street in 2003, who despite a first term that brought lower crime rates and higher property values, was hampered by his reputation for having a "prickly personality." Although popular in Philadelphia's black neighborhoods, Street's cool reception in white precincts nearly tipped the contest to Republican challenger Sam Katz. Street's solution? His campaign, advised by future Barack Obama mastermind David Axelrod and future Fenty consultant Tom Lindenfeld, ran a commercial featuring an appearance by a well-known Philadelphian named Bill Cosby.

Posted at 04:12 PM/ET, 03/06/2015 | Permalink | Comments ()
What three decades as Washington's most powerful gay man taught Barney Frank about our city. By Sasha Issenberg
Barney Frank at the Oak Room in New York’s Plaza hotel earlier this year. Photograph by Christopher Lane.

When Barney Frank entered Congress in 1981, the 40-year-old Democrat already had an exit plan: He would leave his seat at age 75. That alone made him a rarity on Capitol Hill—a career legislator with no designs on executive office or interest in cashing out as a lobbyist. When he declared his homosexuality to voters and the media in 1987, Frank—only the second openly gay member of Congress—became another kind of outlier. “I’m used to being in a minority,” he quipped after the 1994 Republican takeover of the House. “I’m a left-handed, gay Jew.”

The city Frank arrived in was very different for gays and lesbians than today’s Washington. It was a place whose bygone rules and rituals Frank describes in his memoir, Frank: A Life in Politics From the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage, published this month. But his status never held him back. By the time he retired in 2013—two years early—he was the top Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee and had his name on the primary regulatory response to the 2008 financial collapse.

Frank was also a formidable voice on gay issues. If anything, his remove from the power culture granted him license to be himself: an outspoken, often sarcastic critic of entrenched interests, political and cultural. “Even if this bill becomes law tomorrow, it will still be legal to call me a fag,” he once said in a caucus meeting about hate-crimes legislation. “I just wouldn’t recommend it to anyone in the banking business.”

Here Frank talks about his memoir and navigating Washington as an insider and an outsider.

Frank kisses his husband, Jim Ready, at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. Photograph by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

You write that it was easier to be a gay elected official in Washington than in your years as a state legislator in Boston.

When I got to Washington, it was a safe place for a lot of gay men because so many people—particularly in the political world—were away temporarily from their homes. It was very common for men in Washington not to have spouses with them.

So there was less suspicion about you?

The political culture was similar to what Switzerland must have been like during World War II—a lot of spies who were enemies elsewhere but who understood they needed a resting place. In Washington, we all held each other hostage. There were gay people, people cheating on their spouses, people who drank too much—Washington was a place where politicians kept each other’s secrets out of mutual interest.

Tom Foley. Courtesy of Wikicommons.

Do you see a difference between those who came out as sitting congressmen, as you did, and politicians who have been openly gay their entire careers?

In many ways, we were angrier. We had led lives of self-denial and self-deprivation. We were more isolated, maybe more distrustful of the broader community. Those who didn’t go through this closeted adult period feel more comfortable dealing with others in a friendly way rather than in an adversarial way.

You threatened to out closeted colleagues, first in 1989 when the Republican National Committee seemed to insinuate that Democratic House speaker Tom Foley was gay. (1)

I threatened to do it twice, in cases where the Republicans were using “gay” as a weapon. But I had a dual role: I was a gay advocate but also a member of that institution, and I needed to have good relations.

You write that as a gay advocate, you were sometimes dismissed as “too culturally restrained to be a gay leader.” You tell the story of trying to stop a provocative performance at the 1993 March on Washington. (2) Now gay politics seems to have moved in the other direction. You call its priorities “incorrigibly bourgeois.”

The agenda has always been very unradical. We wanted the same legal rights as every other American. But even on behalf of the mainstream agenda items—get married, join the military, et cetera—there was a tendency to use self-defeating tactics.

There is a left/right difference here: People on the right tend to be grateful to be Americans. When they think things are going well, they say, “America is a good country that has gotten it straight.” On the left, there is more of a tendency to be critical of the whole structure. That’s why when the Tea Party gets angry, they all go out and vote. When Occupy gets angry, they don’t.

Frank’s memoir is out this month.

A criticism of lefty activism in general runs through the book. At times it reads like a psychological diagnosis, that liberals too often want to do what makes them feel good.

What I was saying is if you are feeling too good about it entirely, that’s probably a sign you’re not engaging the enemy enough.

How about the financial-reform legislation that bears your name—the Dodd-Frank Act? Do you think the big banks will be successful in undoing parts of it they don’t like?

I’m fairly optimistic. They only succeed when they go below the radar, and now they’re in full view. They are being correctly blamed—although not exclusively in our society—for the financial crisis. The public is angrier at them than I can ever remember the public being angry at a sector of American business.

Do the banks wield influence in Washington differently than other industries?

What is different is there’s no organized opposition to them. We had a crisis because their lobbying was so successful that we went 20 to 30 years without adopting new rules. The financial situation began to change in the 1970s and ’80s, with new money coming in and technology. In a healthy situation, new rules would have been adopted for securitization and derivatives in the ’90s.

They have been less powerful recently because we got rules, and now they’re trying to fight their way back.

Have you been approached to become a lobbyist?

No, I made it pretty clear that I wouldn’t. I get paid to make speeches, including to some financial institutions, but I have not gotten paid to do anything on behalf of any private entity. I lobby the administration, and some in Congress, on behalf of policy positions I’ve always had.

Do you think you would be a good lobbyist?

I couldn’t do that. I’m incapable of doing things I don’t believe in or arguing things I don’t believe in. And I get impatient with people. I’m a very good strategist and tactician, but if I had to be nice to people all day in trying to get them to do me favors, I’d suck.

Your impatience sometimes expresses itself as humor. You cite an example where one of your quips was taken out of context by Fox News. (3) Has it become more complicated for politicians to use wit or humor?

In some ways, there’s more of a market for it, because it’s easier to get in the press by being very unfair to somebody else than by being talked to thoughtfully. And humor is often unfair.

Your book demonstrates your consciousness of the press. There are a few instances where you disclose private exchanges—but, you note, only because they had already been reported elsewhere.

There is an implicit promise when you engage in private negotiations that you won’t reveal them. Legislating cannot happen without privacy—you cannot have negotiations in public. So there was a sense of obligation to other people, but also I don’t want to destroy the capacity to achieve results.

So your publisher knew you wouldn’t be delivering a tell-all?

It’s a tell-some. I’m a firm believer that your moral obligation is to tell the truth and nothing but the truth. But nobody tells the whole truth all the time.

Sasha Issenberg (sashaissenberg@gmail.com) is working on a history of gay marriage.

Interview, annotated: 1. In 1989, the Republican National Committee put out a memo titled “Tom Foley: Out of the Liberal Closet,” which Frank called a “seedy” campaign to insinuate the then House speaker was gay. When Frank threatened to retaliate by outing closeted gay Republicans in Congress, the Foley rumors ended.

2. Frank was scolded by a group of soldiers after he interceded to stop them from performing a campy kick line at the gay-rights march. In his memoir, Frank writes: “Nothing could have been more devastating to our argument that LGBT people would blend comfortably into the military than a photo—or worse, a video—of these guys lined up not to march but to emulate the Rockettes.”

3. At a 2009 town-hall meeting in his district, a woman upbraided Frank for supporting what she called a “Nazi” health-care-reform bill. “On what planet do you spend most of your time?” he blustered back. “Ma’am, trying to having a conversation with you would be like trying to argue with a dining-room table.” Fox News played clips of Frank’s rejoinder but deemphasized the woman’s sign showing Obama with a Hitler mustache.

This article appears in the March 2015 issue of Washingtonian.

Posted at 08:00 AM/ET, 02/26/2015 | Permalink | Comments ()
Mike Miller has run Maryland's Senate for nearly three decades. But with a newbie GOP governor, he's never been more powerful than he is now. By Miranda S. Spivack
The shadow governor knows: Miller faces reporters in Annapolis. Photograph by Patrick Semansky/AP Photo.

Shortly after Election Day eight years ago, Thomas V. “Mike” Miller, president of Maryland’s State Senate, said his just-won tenth term in the General Assembly would be his last. The then 63-year-old Democrat was worn out from tangling with Republican governor Robert Ehrlich and still haunted by criticism for having contacted judges ruling on a 2002 legislative redistricting plan. Miller soon thought better of stepping down. Announcing his 2014 run, he told reporters that his wife “would just as soon I was down here instead of bothering her.”

Larry Hogan, Maryland’s new Republican governor, may soon recognize the feeling. A newbie to elective office, he faces a rejuvenated Miller, who, backed by veto-proof Democratic majorities in the Senate and the House of Delegates, wields nearly untrammeled power. Some observers call him the shadow governor.

“I’m not sure I would say ‘shadow,’” laughs Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III.

Miller insists his leadership is bipartisan and laissez-faire. “I govern like a jockey on a horse,” he says. “I’m very loose on the reins.”

But he also knows how to get his way. In 2012, as legislators worked frantically to finish the state’s $37-billion budget, Miller forced an adjournment, unleashing a series of punishing automatic cuts. The maneuver impelled then governor Martin O’Malley to call two special legislative sessions to pass a budget and approve a casino to be built near Miller’s boyhood home in Prince George’s County (and close to his family’s food-and-beverage distributorship).

“He was down, flat out on the canvas,” recalls Brian Frosh, Maryland’s newly elected attorney general and a state senator for much of Miller’s reign. “The next thing you know, his hand is being raised by the referees.”

And that’s when a fellow Democrat was governor. After Ehrlich took office in 2003, Miller tightened the reins, refusing to confirm Ehrlich’s environment secretary. There were bitter tax fights. Ehrlich was a one-termer.

Miller recognizes that Hogan’s victory represented a cry for change. But he says, “There are issues we’re not going to budge on—education, health care, the environment.” He is less likely to make a stand for the planned Purple Line linking Bethesda to New Carrollton.

Miller says he and Hogan have been speaking frequently. “He was just here today,” Miller said a few weeks before Hogan’s inauguration, adding, “Neither of us had on ties.” They’ve chatted about the $700-million budget shortfall and about cabinet picks and other appointees.

Frosh thinks the two can avoid all-out war: “Hogan will figure out what he has to do to keep the peace.” But Miller’s aim, the attorney general says, will likely be the same: “He’ll be looking for a way to elect a Democrat the next time.”

Miranda S. Spivack (spivackm@gmail.com) is a veteran political reporter in Washington.

This article appears in the February 2015 issue of Washingtonian.

Posted at 09:33 AM/ET, 01/22/2015 | Permalink | Comments ()
Barry had an unprecedented chance to help his poorest and most loyal constituents. His record shows he let the opportunity escape. By Harry Jaffe
Marion Barry sits for an interview about his autobiography, Mayor for Life, last June. Photograph by Tom Williams/Getty Images.

Former DC mayor Marion Barry famously promised to help “the last, the lost, and the least”—a noble mission and one still sorely needed in the District, where nearly a fifth of the population lives in poverty. Now that Barry’s epic funeral observances are over, it’s fair to ask: Did he make good on his promise?

Just the second mayor after home rule was granted in 1973, Barry did much to define the office as we know it. His idea of being mayor included opening the government—and its jobs and contracts—to the region’s long-marginalized African-American community, shifting a share of power to a growing black middle class. His summer-jobs program provided first employment for thousands of DC residents. Not least, he encouraged the redevelopment of downtown DC, spurring a vibrant urban scene that put money into a lot of pockets. He showed a genius for dealmaking and problem-solving.

But it’s questionable whether Barry really benefited the poor. Midway into his first term, the 1980 Census put DC’s poverty rate at 18.6 percent. Two decades later, the percentage of District residents living below the poverty line had increased to 20.2. Barry had been mayor for 16 of those 20 years, accruing power without extending it to the neediest.

It’s only fair to note that the mayors of other big cities battled endemic unemployment during that time without solving it. But Barry enjoyed a unique opportunity in urban America: The capital city’s economy was not Detroit’s. Revenues from a downtown commercial real-estate boom further fattened government coffers. And there was a DC Council that Barry could bend to his will.

Instead, the former civil-rights leader neglected the institutions he inherited. He failed to give the police the tools they needed, and he watched as a crack epidemic drove homicides in the city from 200 in 1980 to 472 in 1990. By that time, he was addicted himself.

In his last ten years, the poor became his sole charge as the councilman for Ward 8. He consoled them and gave them hope, but poverty, homicides, unemployment, and infant mortality in his ward remained the highest in the city.

Anacostia is poised for transformation. In another decade, poverty and joblessness there will drop. Its prospects began to improve only as Mayor Anthony Williams and Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton drew federal and local agencies to its blighted areas. Disgusted by the shameful state of DC public schools, Mayor Adrian Fenty took them over and started reform.

Will Barry’s “least and lost” survive gentrification crossing the Anacostia River? It’ll be up to his successors to determine whether those Washingtonians will thrive or be pushed out.

This article appears in the January 2015 issue of Washingtonian.

Posted at 08:30 AM/ET, 12/23/2014 | 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 ()
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 ()