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Native Intelligence
Cropp-Smith ties are 'troubling'
(Published October 17, 2005)

By DIANA WINTHROP

D.C. City Council Chairman Linda Cropp has spent almost all of her adult life in public service. She has been part of the D.C. political scene for more than 25 years – first as an elected school board member who became the board’s president and then as a member of the city council and, finally, as its chairman.

Now, she is campaigning hard on her experience in city politics to become mayor.

Jeff Smith, elected last year as the District I (which encompasses Wards 1 and 2) member of the school board, is a 30-something, soon-to-be father who campaigned hard on improving public education. By all accounts from his colleagues on the board, Smith is a hard-working, ambitious school board member. It is hard to imagine that the school board job is a part-time position paying only $15,000 annually.

Recently, Cropp hired Smith as a policy adviser for her mayoral campaign. Smith said he is an adviser on more than education issues. His fee as an independent contractor (as are many campaign positions) is unknown at this time, until the campaign includes it on its next financial disclosure report, but the job has raised questions among supporters of both Cropp and Smith.

In Smith’s case, some of his school board colleagues are somewhat forgiving – pointing to his youth and inexperience. In Cropp’s case, the buzz is less forgiving since Cropp’s campaign manager is Phyllis Jones, a veteran secretary of the city council.

One lawyer called the Smith hiring "very troubling" – especially since the city council votes on the school board’s budget. Another was more forceful, saying he saw it as a "conflict of interest." He believes the law says you can’t take money from someone (in this case, the council chairman’s mayoral campaign) who votes on how you spend money as a Board of Education official.

Smith, who is an articulate supporter of Cropp, says he sees no legal or ethical problem with his paid position in Cropp’s campaign. Cropp and her campaign officials did not respond to repeated attempts to contact them for comment.

Smith’s acceptance of money as an adviser to Cropp appears troubling, at best. The Cropp campaign’s decision to hire an elected official over whose official duties the council chairman exercises a level of control is an ethical question – if not a legal one – that really presents some problems.

In Cropp’s case, there is no excuse.

BOY, IS POLITICS REALLY LOCAL IN THIS RACE: Sam Brooks, the 20-something Democrat and native Washingtonian who impressed voters in the citywide race to knock off Harold Brazil for an at-large council seat last year, received kudos for his grasp of the issues in neighborhood forums, despite losing the race to Kwame Brown.

As a resident of Ward 2, there was talk of him challenging Jack Evans for the Ward 2 seat in 2008, but his admirers don’t have to wait four years. Brooks, who until recently worked for Ward 4 Councilman Adrian Fenty’s mayoral campaign, has announced he is running for the Ward 3 council seat currently held by Kathy Patterson. Brooks’ campaign Web site drives home the point of his Ward 3 roots, including his Forest Hills home and his graduation from Maret, a private high school in Ward 3.

Brooks is not the only person considering a run for the Ward 3 seat, to which Patterson will have to forgo re-election as she campaigns to seek the council chairman’s post. Woodley Park Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Nancy MacWood is expected to announce she is running, as well. MacWood is no novice to community issues. She chairs one of the city’s more active ANCs and her husband, Bob Brandon, is chairman of the Ward 3 Democrats.

Brooks may be young, but he impressed enough residents to raise a large amount of money for a novice in a citywide race last year. Despite leaving his job with Fenty in early October, Brooks said he is still a big fan and is optimistic that they both will win in 2006.

"TECHNICAL" PROBLEMS: A few days ago, at this writing, Wall Street indicated it would withhold a much-needed bond rating on the baseball stadium bonds unless the city council approved some tax-related changes in the stadium legislation it passed at the end of last year. If not approved, those changes – being termed "technical" by some city officials – have the potential to derail the stadium deal.

It seems someone, either on the council’s staff or in D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi’s office, screwed up the agreement reached amid much controversy last year, though the mistakes purportedly do not affect the council’s decision to approve the initial stadium legislation.

Am I the only person asking why mistakes were made? As a D.C. voter, am I asking too much?

Council Chairman Cropp, who controls the gavel, is downplaying the mess. But now that the council is in its campaign mode, we could be back to the beginning on negotiating for Major League Baseball to play in D.C.

If the needed changes really are merely "technical," rather than substantive in nature, why is there a problem at all?

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Diana Winthrop is a native Washingtonian. Contact her at diana@thecommondenominator.com.

Copyright 2005 The Common Denominator