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Native Intelligence
Mayor puts CNN ahead of schools
(Published February 24, 2003)

By DIANA WINTHROP

"Chutzpah" is one of those words Americans have adopted because there is nothing in the English language that equates. Chutzpah loosely translates from Yiddish as "unmitigated gall."

During the past few weeks, Mayor Anthony A. Williams has been the king of chutzpah. Despite my heavy criticism in his first term, I accepted Williams' pledge that he had learned from his mistakes and that we would see a new and improved mayor in his second term.

Silly me for taking him at his word.

The first case of chutzpah occurred just after my last column was published Feb. 10, when I excoriated Williams for dissing two of his political appointees to the school board by ignoring their requests to meet with him to discuss the prospect of serving for a second term. As I reported, the terms of both Professors Charles Lawrence and Roger Wilkins expired in December, and the mayor ignored them. Not a call or "thank you for your service, but I am looking for replacements" absolutely nothing. Since they were ignored, both Lawrence and Wilkins sent letters asking not to be reappointed.

The Ultimate Chutzpah Award goes to mayoral spokesman Tony Bullock who, when questioned about the political debacle of losing two of the most preeminent scholars in the country, said the mayor was a busy man who had a lot of things to handle.

I can sympathize to some extent when Williams behaves like as ostrich over the need to fire bad appointees, such as former fire chief Ronnie Few, who was caught lying on his resume. It is embarrassing to make a misstep.

But one D.C. Public Schools official expressed shock over the mayor's treatment of Lawrence and Wilkins: "The mayor has always said education is his number one priority. As mayor, you are too busy to meet with two of your school board appointees? What's that all about? It is the stupidest damn thing I have ever heard." I couldn't express it better.

The next recent case of mayoral chutzpah occurred just a few days later when he chaired his annual budget hearing on education spending. The public hearing was heavily promoted as an opportunity for D.C. residents to let their mayor know how they feel about his spending priorities for the District's children.

When the hearing began at 4 p.m. on Feb. 13, 76 people had signed up to testify. The hearing room at One Judiciary Square was packed with not only the usual education advocates but parents and students, who dominated the witness list.

D.C. residents who wanted to attend the hearing but were unable told me they anticipated watching the public hearing live on D.C. Cable Channel 16. Since the mayor's office controls the channel, you can imagine the surprise of residents who tuned in to discover a rerun of "Reporter's Roundtable." Channel 16 had cameras at the hearing to record the roughly eight hours of testimony.

At about 9:30 p.m., the mayor announced that he needed to leave for 30 minutes but would return. Williams never told the residents why he was leaving. No one from his administration stepped in to replace him. One logical stand-in Deputy Mayor for Children, Youth and Families Carolyn Graham was not in attendance.

To characterize people as upset over the mayor's departure is an understatement. An interpreter brought by one Hispanic parent, who did not speak English, pleaded with the mayor to wait and let the man have his say because the interpreter couldn't stay until the mayor returned. The administration did not provide interpreters for witnesses.

Williams denied the man's request and left. He could have given the parent some of his time by asking him and his interpreter to walk with him to the car or better yet, ride with him, if he really cared.

Connie Spinner, the director of the State Education Office, was on the witness list but volunteered to replace the mayor in his absence. Hispanics are the fastest-growing minority group in the District, as well as the nation. English as a second language is one of the fastest-growing expenses in the D.C. Public Schools budget.

I finally saw a portion of the hearing "edited for television" on Channel 16. The look of boredom and disdain on Mayor Williams' face was evident. But the real act of chutzpah was his decision to leave dozens of D.C. residents who had waited for hours to have their voices heard so that he could do a live interview on CNN.

***

On March 4, the D.C. City Council is expected to unanimously approve a plan to change the date for the District's presidential primary to Jan. 13, 2004, to make it the first in the country. It has been characterized as a scheme to highlight the District's lack of voting representation in Congress. But for its prime sponsor, Jack Evans, it is an act of political opportunism.

Since the proposal was unveiled on Jan. 22, proponents have displayed how politically inept they are at winning support without angering friends. Their incompetence in this regard leads me to conclude that they are not serious.

Councilman Evans is a prime example. The council member's strategy to win support has included attacking some of the District government's powerful Capitol Hill friends, which is not the way any politically sophisticated individual wins votes. Evans called Iowa and New Hampshire where the nation's first presidential contests currently are held "God awful places" and the "boondocks."

If Evans had done his homework, he would have known that one of the District's best friends in Congress has always been Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin. Harkin, the ranking minority member on the Senate Appropriations Committee, was the only presidential candidate in 1992 to support statehood for the District. In the mid-'80s, Harkin also chaired the D.C. Appropriations Subcommittee and took a hands-off policy when it came to the District's budget. Since he was elected to Congress in 1974, Harkin has been one of the most ardent supporters of civil rights as well, but I suspect Evans has been too busy planning his next mayoral run to notice all of this.

As the legislation's prime sponsor, Evans has shown he is more interested in winning support for his 2006 mayoral bid than gaining support for the plan. If Evans were serious, he would have sought the primary change years ago.

According to John Ralls, Evans' chief of staff, the Ward 2 councilman has been thinking about changing the District's presidential primary date since 1988. According to other sources, Evans is so politically ambitious that he preferred to wait until proposing the change would give him the maximum political mileage.

Regardless of the outcome, Evans has placed himself in a win-win situation. Democrat Evans' name will forever be attached to any presidential primary date change plan. He will be known as the effort's leader and, even more important to the fair-haired council member, his name will be linked with a basic civil rights issue for D.C. residents: voting rights.

 

Copyright 2003, The Common Denominator