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Spouses of council members share their stories
(Published January 17, 2000)

BY EMORY JULIAN MILLS
Staff Writer

Every four years, voters get a glimpse of D.C. City Council members’ personal lives as they try to portray themselves in the best light in order to garner votes. Maybe the "wife and kids" or even a family pet get trotted out for the public to see – here, as elsewhere in an election year -- that local politicians are people with whom the average citizen can identify.

While the politician gets the limelight, the partner stays in the background.

"In and of itself, being a spouse isn’t news," said Connie Ridgway, whose husband Phil Mendelson began serving his first term as an at-large councilman about a year ago. "I don’t know if people are that curious. We’re just ordinary people who happen to be the spouse of a council member."

Sometimes, though, a working spouse’s occupation can become newsworthy when the potential for conflict of interest exists. Such was the case last year for Councilman Jack Evans, D-Ward-2, and his wife, Noel, when she was one of two real estate hired by Georgetown developer Anthony Lanier’s Millennium Partners of New York to sell 230 super-luxury condominiums near Washington Circle in Ward 2.

The deal’s potential worth to the Evans household, according to a story in the Washington Business Journal, is $6 million. Recognizing the potential conflict, Evans told the Journal he recused himself from city council matters involving Millennium.

Aside from potential conflicts between the public’s business and personal business, politicians’ partners have extraordinary access in an advisory sense that might sometimes help shape a politician’s views or votes on issues.

In presidential politics, that’s a role often recognized in the nation’s capital – from Hillary Clinton to the likes of Nancy Reagan and Edith Wilson.

During a recent interview with the editorial staff of The Common Denominator, D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams acknowledged his wife, Diane, as one of his closest advisers. Diane Williams is employed as the chief financial officer for the Greater Washington Urban League.

But The Common Denominator met resistance from some city council members when approached about their spouses or partners. With some, the initial resistance faded to cooperation. Still, others -- such as Ward 6 Councilwoman Sharon Ambrose and her husband, Michael, and Ward 7 Councilman Kevin P. Chavous and his wife, Beverly – declined to be interviewed for this story.

Several council members and their spouses said the politicians’ spouses don’t need to be written about by the news media.

"Why should we?" asked At-large Councilman Phil Mendelson. "Most people when they’re on the job don’t spend time talking about their spouses."

***

Connie Ridgway met her husband, Phil Mendelson, in 1991 while on a Sierra Club hike in Rock Creek Park. They got married four years later.

Ridgway is a social worker and a licensed massage therapist with a home office in the District and an office in Virginia, where she works two days each week. She teaches qi gong once a week at Guy Mason Recreation Center in Northwest and also teaches ethics and workshops at a retreat center in Acokeek, Md., on weekends.

In March 1995, before her husband was elected to an at-large seat on the council, Ridgway successfully lobbied D.C. City Council to pass a law recognizing massage therapy as a profession and creating the five-person D.C. Board of Massage Therapy to oversee licensing. Previous D.C. laws, she said, did not recognize massage as a health profession.

"Our main concern was because there’s a stigma attached to massages, we wanted to make sure that whoever was on the board was aware of potential problems," she said.

During the late 1970s, Ridgway, who lived in Mount Pleasant before meeting Mendelson, was involved in an effort to prevent mass evictions of tenants in her building, Embassy Apartments at 16th and Harvard streets NW.

"Actually I did not know Phil at the time, but he was successful in keeping McLean Gardens from kicking out the tenants," she said.

Ridgway, a Detroit native, came to the District of Columbia as a senior at Penn State in 1978 as part of its Neighborhood Housing Services program while in her last quarter. She remained in the District after graduating and received her training in massage therapy at Potomac Massage Training Institute in 1986. Ridgway acquired her master of social work degree from Catholic University in 1993.

Mendelson said he and his wife make a good team.

"She’s very empathetic," he said. "She has a nicer smile than I do." Added Mendelson, "I try not to drag her to too many events."

Ridgeway and Mendelson live in McLean Gardens with their tuxedo cat, Orpheus.

***

Noel Soderberg Evans met her husband, Councilman Jack Evans, in Washington during the 1988 Democratic presidential primaries. The future Ward 2 councilman was working on the primary campaign for former Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill., while his future wife worked on the presidential campaign of then-Sen. Al Gore, D-Tenn. When the two met, she said, Noel covered corporate finance for Institutional Investment, a subsidiary of ABC/Cap Cities while Jack worked for the Securities and Exchange Commission. They chatted about securities, financial markets on Wall Street, and national Democratic politics.

Noel Evans also worked on the 1984 Mondale campaign. She was responsible for handling the logistical arrangements of the campaign—lights, microphones, transportation for the press, having telephones available for reporters to call in stories immediately, making sure hotels were ready.

Noel earned her bachelor of science degree in psychology in 1979 from the University of Santa Clara and her master of arts degree in broadcast journalism in 1975 from American University’s journalism and public affairs program.

In 1998, when Evans ran for mayor, Noel worked as a campaign volunteer in Ward 3 for her husband. She participated in fundraisers, knocked on doors, made phone calls, and campaigned at various Metro stops including Van Ness. She added that she did not work on her husband’s staff.

The Evanses live in Georgetown with their triplets, Katherine Elizabeth, John Kedrich and Christine Marie and their golden retriever, Kayla.

***

Councilwoman Kathleen Patterson, D-Ward 3, and her husband, Dale Leibach, met after Patterson, a graduate of Northwestern University’s journalism school, arrived at the Kansas City Star in the early 1970s. They got married in 1975.

Leibach said he left the Star in 1976 to work on an unsuccessful Missouri congressman’s campaign. He and Patterson moved to Washington in early 1977 after she became part of the Star’s Washington bureau and he received a position in the Carter administration’s press office.

Leibach worked there for four years before moving to the Washington office of Ford Motor Co. and doing a brief stint at a pension firm. He also worked in 1984 as a press secretary to Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.

Leibach has worked since 1991 at the public relations firm formerly known as Powell & Tate, which merged on Dec. 17 with Shandwick Public Affairs.

They have two children: a daughter, Gillian, 12, a seventh grader at Alice Deal Junior High School, and a son, Patrick, 15, who is a 10th grader at the Maret School. They also have two pets.

Leibach said he attends some Ward 3 events with Patterson but he remains largely uninvolved because of his demanding work schedule, his interest in national rather than local politics, and the demands of raising two children. He said his introduction to life as a public official’s spouse came in Patterson’s 1994 campaign, when their home phone rang from 6 in the morning until after midnight.

***

Councilman Vincent B. Orange Sr., D-Ward 5, met his wife, Gwendolyn, in 1982 while the two were graduate students at Howard University. He was studying law and she was pursuing a masters degree in special education. The two have been married for 16˝ years.

"She’s active in everything I do in Ward 5," said Orange, who added that Gwendolyn passed out school supplies at a fish fry on Bay Street NE and has attended his town meetings.

Gwendolyn, who teaches at H.D. Woodson Senior High School in Northeast, said she liked attending community events with the councilman and added that her parents -- a community activist and a New York City policeman -- emphasized civic involvement while she was growing up.

The Oranges have three children: Vincent, Jr., 15; Paul Wesley, 11; and Jannie Elizabeth, 3. They live in North Michigan Park and attend Metropolitan AME Church.

***

Crystal Palmer met Councilman Harold Brazil Jr., D-At large, in 1985 at an event for bringing baseball back to the District. Palmer, the director of the D.C. Office of Motion Picture and TV Development, is a native Washingtonian who grew up in Southeast. She attended Payne Elementary, Sousa Junior High School and Woodrow Wilson Senior High School. She received her bachelor’s degree from American University in television and film and also received a master of business science in finance and management.

Palmer and Brazil, who live on Capitol Hill, have two children: Harold III, 7 ˝ , and Brittany, 3˝, who attend Capitol Hill Day School.

***

Council Chair Linda Cropp said she met her husband, Dwight, in 1969 while she was a student teacher of social studies at Eastern High School and he was her supervisor in his fourth and last year of teaching at the school.

"We were both into education and that is what drew us," said Cropp, who added that she took over her husband’s room when he left teaching.

Dwight Cropp, a lifetime D.C. resident, grew up in far Northeast and Southeast Washington. After teaching at Eastern, he served as a U.S. Office of Education Fellow as one of 20 people selected annually to work on urban education projects. Cropp served in the D.C. government from 1970 until his retirement in May 1990 as special assistant to council chairman Gilbert Hackman, executive assistant to school superintendent Hugh Scott, executive secretary to the D.C. Board of Education, Secretary of the District of Columbia under Marion Barry, and director of intergovernmental relations. In December 1990, he went to work at George Washington University as a part-time professor of public administration. He served as the associate vice president of government relations at GWU from 1992-1996 and became a full-time professor in 1996 or 1997. He teaches one undergraduate class and four graduate classes.

The Cropps, who live in Crestwood, celebrated their 33rd wedding anniversary last Nov. 29. They have two children -- Allison, 27, a part-time senior at the University of the District of Columbia, and Christopher, 25, a management intern at Giant Food – and a mixed breed dog named Emmy.

Copyright 2000, The Common Denominator