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Mendelson faces four challengers

(Published September 2, 2002)


Staff Writer

Phil Mendelson knows that some critics say his first-term performance as a D.C. councilman has been lackluster Ė that, other than his recent campaign to add the words "taxation without representation" to the Districtís flag, he hasnít found issues and legislation that resonate with the public. And thatís why he faces four challengers in the Sept. 10 Democratic primary for his at-large council seat.

But Mendelson dismisses the knocks.

"The rap against me is that I donít showboat the way other council people do," he said last week. "But Iíve been quietly effective, as opposed to loud and noisy."

He pointed to what he said were solid accomplishments in areas like improving the public schools and breathing new life into the cityís environmental health.

"I think people are really more interested in results," he asserted.

But Mendelsonís primary opponents werenít ready in recent interviews to grant him that kind of credit.

"Mendelson has not shown leadership on education," countered challenger Beverly Wilbourn, a Ward 4 resident.

Wilbourn, a housing lawyer, also said Mendelson has fallen down on effectively fighting for affordable housing in the city.

Mendelsonís other challengers echoed the claim that they could do a better job on the council.

Ward 4 resident Dwight Singleton hit Mendelson and other current council members for failing to sufficiently fund the Districtís public schools, and cited his own record as a current elected member of the D.C. Board of Education as proof of his public service .

Mahdi M. Shabazz, a Ward 2 general contractor who also launched a council campaign in 1996 but dropped out when he couldnít raise enough money, said he is campaigning this year on issues of child care for working families, better police protection for neighborhoods throughout the city and job creation.

And Ward 4 resident Al-Malik Farrakhan, who spent 21 years in prison for a robbery he claims he didnít commit and more recently has led a nonprofit organization that counsels ex-offenders, said his candidacy is highlighting not only criminal justice issues but also "taxation without representation" in the District and the impact of gentrification on black Washingtonians.

The winner of the Democratic primary will face incumbent Republican Councilman David Catania and D.C. Statehood Green Party candidate Michelle Tingling-Clemmons in the Nov. 8 general election. Catania and Tingling-Clemmons are both unopposed for their respective partyís nomination in the at-large race. Several independent candidates also are expected to vie for the two at-large council seats on the November ballot.

The need for changes in policy and funding in the public schools was stressed by several at-large council candidates.

"Weíve seen a lot of politicians who talk about education but donít follow through," Singleton said.

He accused the current council of failing to live up to its own spending benchmarks, in ignoring a congressionally mandated, council-implemented formula for per-student spending when drafting school budgets in recent years.

"Why canít the city council dole out the dollars to stop the hemorrhaging in the school system?" he asked, charging that the Districtís level of financial support for its schools compares badly with that in suburban Montgomery and Fairfax counties.

"School systems are only as good as the governments that support them," he said.

Singleton said he spearheaded, as chair of the school boardís committee on facilities, what he called an unprecedented wave of construction for the Districtís public schools.

"For the first time, we are finally building new schools," he said, citing new and additional building at Barnard Elementary School in Ward 4, Noyes Elementary in Ward 5 and other projects that are part of the current modernization drive. Critics have noted, however, that the building program is over-budget and behind schedule.

Wilbourn criticized the council for failing to reign in cost overruns in special education programs in the schools. "Runaway special education spending is bankrupting the school system," she said.

She said the District is currently fighting an expensive, losing battle in court over its special education programs.

"We need to get out of the courtroom and start providing these services in a way that makes sense financially," she said.

Mendelson said he has introduced "a performance-based budget plan for special-ed," which he said will bring current cost overruns under control within two years.

The Democratic incumbent also cited two other bills he has pushed that he said would help put the schools on a more solid financial footing.

One, he said, will make sure tax dollars earmarked for local schools actually get spent in the schools, not on administrative costs in the systemís central office.

The other bill, he said, for the first time would force the school system to submit to the council a detailed budget broken down school-by-school and department-by-department, allowing more effective oversight of school spending.

However, Shabazz said the schoolsí problems go beyond money. He called for bringing back corporal punishment for students.

"Discipline is badly needed," he said.

Sahbazz said he also has a plan for reforming troubled schools, involving re-training of teachers and principals.

On environmental issues, Mendelson pointed to what he said were several accomplishments during his first term.

He said he sponsored legislation to protect and extend the cityís dwindling tree canopy and created subsidies to encourage individuals and businesses to buy alternative-energy vehicles. And he defended his often-uphill efforts to pass measures to improve air quality as the councilís representative to the regional Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

"At least Iím pushing them," he said.

Mendelson said his continuing environmental efforts include increasing the number of natural gas-powered buses in Metroís fleet and getting the District to subsidize a change to natural gas-fueled taxis in the city.

He also re-affirmed his strong opposition to allowing a re-play of this yearís Grand Prix auto race at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium, which nearby residents said was intolerably noisy.

"The Grand Prix has got to be cancelled," he said. "Iím hoping the Sports Commission will get the message Ė but if not, then the sports commission needs to be re-configured."

At a recent candidatesí forum, Wilbourn stopped short of calling for the cancellation of next yearís road race. But she said that "outside interests canít come in without control by D.C. residents."

Wilbourn also said that rapid gentrification in Shaw, LeDroit Park and Columbia Heights is one of the biggest challenges facing the city.

"We know we are pushing people out," she said.

During an interview, she said she would work to bring together housing funds from different city development agencies to give the city more leverage in keeping housing prices down.

"We need to use housing funds more effectively," she said. "Pool funds from the [public] housing authority, the Department of Housing and Community Development, and the National Capital Revitalization Corporation to write down the cost of apartment buildings and keep rents down," she said.

Such combining of resources could also be used to help subsidize second mortgages for current, longtime homeowners, she said.

"We need to keep the middle class in the city, as well as low-income residents," she said.

Farrakhan, too, spoke out about the ills of gentrification, but had less to say about what to do about them.

"Elders are being tricked out of their homes by tax matters," he said. "Black Washingtonians are being moved out of the city by low wages and high rents."

When asked about his proposed solutions, he declined to expound them, saying, "Iíve found out that people in D.C. will steal your thoughts Ė pretty soon youíll hear somebody onstage using your ideas."

Farrakhan emphasized that a nonprofit organization he founded, Cease Fire, has aided more than 200 ex-prisoners returning to the District.

"And all but three have gone on to college or some kind of work career," he said.

Shabazz said he would work to improve working parentsí access to child care.

"A lot of people I know canít afford child care," he said. "Girls canít find jobs because they canít find a place to place their children."

He also said he would work to increase police patrols, especially in high-crime areas.

"I see them sitting in 7-11," he said. "I want to see them out on the streets."

Asked to highlight his chief accomplishments on the council, lone-Republican candidate Catania said, "Itís hard to pick among a number of equals," but said his efforts to encourage home-buying in the District and to increase police deployment in neighborhoods are important.

"Only 41 percent of District residents own homes, as compared to over 60 percent in most cities," he said. "That leaves too many people vulnerable to market forces."

The city needs to "incentivize home-ownership," he said. He pointed to the Home-Start program and other legislation he sponsored that makes owning a home more affordable for D.C. residents.

Catania also asserted that studies he commissioned in 2000 have recently led to the Metropolitan Police Department beefing up staffing at neighborhood police substations.

Statehood Green Party candidate Michelle Tingling-Clemmons was director of the D.C. agency that oversees distribution of school lunches and other meal programs until her firing earlier this year after she objected to how the agencyís overseers were ordering the agencyís funds to be spent.

"There are too many managers in this city with only political experience," she said.

She said her experiences running a D.C. agency gives her a real-world credential other candidates lack. "Iíve actually had the rare experience of running a D.C. agency," she said.

After noting that she is the parent or step-parent of eight children, two of whom are still attending D.C. public schools, Tingling-Clemmons called for restoration of an all-elected school board.

She also said the council needs to set up its own means for measuring citizen satisfaction with government operations.

"There ought to be an independent vehicle for determining customer satisfaction, outside of the mayorís office," she said.

Copyright 2002, The Common Denominator