Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Write-in Anthony Williams? How to vote in the DC primary election, what to do if Mayor Gray isn't charged by election day

The 2014 DC Mayoral election race has been in turmoil since the beginning because of the overhang of allegations that Mayor Vincent Gray conspired with Jeffrey Thompson, a DC power broker and (now former) government contractor, to run an off-the-books (and therefore illegal) get out the vote campaign for the 2010 election.

Early last week, Thompson admitted his guilt in court  ("Jeffrey Thompson's guilty plea reveals a plot that subverted D.C.," Washington Post) and since then there has been lots of writing in the local media, especially the Washington Post, and the Washington City Paper about Mayor Gray's involvement, which he continues to deny ("D.C. Mayor Gray Denies He Knew of Illegal 'Shadow Campaign," WUSA-TV).

As much as I am against corruption (e.g., the past blog entries "More on DC ethics and corruption: intrinsic vs. extrinsic behavior" and "The system of corruption: when you don't understand "systems", of corruption or anything else, you don't understand outcomes," among others), at some level I just look at this as jockeying between factions of the local growth coalition ("If you don't know urban political theory, it's likely that you don't understand local land use: St. Louis: DC; etc.").

So I am not surprised, except for the amounts of money involved and the brazenness ("U.S. Attorney: “What You Learned About Today Is Only the Tip of the Iceberg," Washington City Paper).

The real problem is that the 2014 Mayoral primary doesn't give us many good candidates.  And the two biggest issues for me are vision for the city and the future--based on a commitment to urbanism and an expansion of sustainable transportation modes especially Metrorail--and the ability to manage the Executive Branch of government and achieve high quality operations on the part of the various agencies.

I have pointed out in past blog entries that candidates because the city is overwhelmingly one party, have the luxury of not having to define a real platform ("New Year's Post #1: Defining mediocrity up and the 2014 elections in DC").

I read an article in the New York Times about Malaysia, "Amid Search for Plane, Malaysian Leaders Face Rare Scrutiny," which opined that the country is weak in terms of governmental capacity and skill because the political oligarchy there is insular and mediocre.  I think the argument is extendable to DC for similar reasons.  From the article:
Malaysia’s governing elite has clung to power without interruption since independence from Britain almost six decades ago through a combination of tight control of information, intimidation of the opposition and, until recently, robust economic growth...

The government is accustomed to getting its way, and the crisis surrounding the missing plane is holding officials accountable in ways unfamiliar to them, Ms. Ambiga said.

Malaysians have come to accept that their leaders don’t answer questions,” she said. “When you are not seriously challenged in any meaningful way, of course you get complacent and comfortable."
Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Councilmember.  Councilman Tommy Wells is the only Councilmember untainted by connections to Jeffrey Thompson, but he has his own machine connections and happens to be white.

Greater Greater Washington blog has endorsed Tommy Wells ("For DC Mayor: Tommy Wells") and I think it's likely he would hire better agency directors than the other candidates.

But I do wonder if he could pull off the governance element.  I don't think he's been successful in articulating a walkability-placemaking agenda beyond his ward, and I am not impressed that he caved on Height Limit issues, although he has taken the right position with regard to the redevelopment of the Hine School site, and has been a strong supporter of Eastern Market and a pedestrian-focused street closure on weekends in front of the Market, in the face of continued opposition by the indoor vendors, which says something as does the fact that he chose to run for mayor in a manner that requires him to give up his Council seat if he doesn't win--none of the other Council incumbents (Evans, Bowser, Orange) are in a similar position.

While I think it is theoretically possible for a white candidate to win as mayor even though the demographics for a white candidate won't be favorable for another 8 years or so ("DC's complexion is changing. Will the next mayor reflect that?," Washington Post; "Detroit voters elect 1st white mayor in 4 decades," Associated Press) if they are very special, he isn't that candidate.  (David Catania isn't either by the way, except maybe as a default.  See "DC Council member David Catania launches independent run for mayor" Post).

Jack Evans, Ward 2 Councilmember.  If you figure that a white candidate can't win, that means Jack Evans is out too (photo at right from the Washington City Paper), and he is not on my list anyway, because he is too much the candidate of the Growth Machine and hasn't addressed a variety of issues that he should have (such as proper oversight of DC's Office of Tax and Revenue) during the more than two decades he's been on Council.

Vincent Orange, formerly Ward 5 Councilmember, currently Councilmember-at-large.  I've never been a fan of Vincent Orange, as bright as he is, because his vision for the city is much more suburban and car-centric than mine and/or is misguided like the push to bring the Washington Redskins football stadium back to the city ("Councilman wants to see 'superdome' complex at RFK," WTOP radio).

Andy Shallal, restauranteur.  I just don't know what to think about Andy Shallal ("Busboys and Poets owner Andy Shallal makes unconventional bid for D.C. mayor," Post).  He is a long-time activist and local business owner, proprietor of Busboys & Poets, a multi-faceted very successful restaurant chain which has been opening locations in revitalizing areas.   One is coming to my neighborhood this year and I am very excited about it.  They have decent food that isn't too expensive (and I won't hold it against him that I used to get stomachaches after eating at his old restaurant Skewers, which was a block away from where I worked when I first moved to DC in 1987).

I got a laugh in the reporting from one forum where he was criticized for not opening a restaurant in Anacostia--his response was "developers pay me to open restaurants in their buildings" and the implication that there wasn't such money forthcoming in Anacostia.

His campaign has focused on urban inequality and the problems with the alleged reform program for the traditional school system and he says some good things.

But he's got a weak showing in the polls and is unlikely to make a viable showing.  Note that a brew pub owner, John Hickenlooper, became Mayor of Denver and is now Governor of Colorado ("John Hickenlooper's Road to Colorado Governor," New York Times), so maybe a restauranteur is a good enough option.

Muriel Bowser, Ward 4 Councilmember, endorsed by the Washington Post.  Of the non-incumbents we're left with Muriel Bowser, Ward 4 Councilmember--there are other candidates but they have no chance.

Unfortunately, in her time on Council she hasn't done much, has shown little leadership or generated much in the way of new ideas or vision despite Post columnist Robert McCartney's arguing to the contrary ("D.C. mayoral candidate Muriel Bowser has good ideas").

I haven't seen strikingly interesting ideas from CM Bowser.  And one of "her" "best" "ideas" in the campaign, "a Deputy Mayor for East of the River", is merely a bastardization of a long conversation I had with her legislative director about creating a "Marshall Plan" type program for Wards 7 and 8.

For example, one of my complaints about which I spoke with her directly, was with regard to legislation she introduced requiring slightly broader disclosure requirements for demolition applications.  But the law provided no remedies, meaning that additional notice is meaningless because citizens are afforded with no legal means for being able to act on the information (the only remedy in DC law to prevent a demolition is historic designation, which for individual buildings, must meet an extremely high bar in order to succeed).  So the legislation has no practical impact whatsoever.

As a constituent, in my experience dealing with her office--like her predecessor she has a reputation for great constituent service--they have never resolved any of the issues that I have brought to their attention.  So that doesn't win her much support from me.  But yes, she and her staff are out at virtually every community meeting.

Plus, to me constituent service is a great opportunity--complaints as indicators--to uncover structural and systemic problems, inefficiencies, and gaps in governmental operations, thereby providing a fount of information that can generate new understandings, hearings, new legislation, and changes in governmental practice.  It never appears as if a structural approach is part of their standard operating procedure.  They react the same way to the same complaint on a previously unresolved complaint as if the situation is entirely new.

She's articulate, tall, and attractive enough, so I can see her winning the primary--in fact I predicted this a few years ago when the allegations against Mayor Gray first surfaced--especially if charges are filed against Mayor Gray before election day, but I don't see much in the way of vision, I don't see a whole lot of potential in hiring good agency directors and letting them act, etc.

She's typical of someone who worked for government as an administrator and having a very circumscribed view of her role, more like a bureaucrat than a leader.  

Vincent Gray, the incumbent.  So that leaves Mayor Vincent Gray.  His biggest mistake was believing he needed Thompson's support.  Lack of support for Mayor Fenty was high in many quarters and Gray likely would have won anyway.

Of the candidates he's probably the smartest.  Although everything he's done proves that being smarter than Adrian Fenty isn't enough to be a good mayor, and you're only as good as your weakest element.

He doesn't have much vision (people disagree with me concerning the Sustainability Planning effort, which hasn't impressed me in terms of substance in execution), but he's been a decent enough administrator--I wouldn't claim that he's hired great agency directors and he's fired decent ones ("DC Government at-will employees need protections to tell the truth") and he hasn't fired bad ones ("DC 'fire' department continued")--but he has more vision than Muriel Bowser and I can't see her doing any better on the governance front.

So given the choices I have, and no filing of charges so far, I'm inclined to vote for Mayor Gray.

... or write-in Anthony Williams, who served as mayor from 1999-2006.



At 8:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not to burst your bubble, but Tony Williams is probably an even bigger enabler/proponent of the Growth Machine now that he is accountable only to members of the Federal City Council.

And speaking of write-ins, Williams never paid a nickle--as he said he would when Dorothy Brizill called him on it--to lawyer Mark Policy for the tens of thousands of dollars racked up over the petition scandal that ultimately forced him into a write-in candidacy. Policy was a major lawyer for GWU during the campus plan lawsuits against the city in the early aughts. Totally conflicted IMHO.

My only hope is that Ron Machen's comment about the Thompson motherlode being "just the tip of the iceberg" indicates he is going to root out the rest of the sleaze in DC politics and government. There is plenty of it.

At 8:55 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I didn't say that Anthony Williams was squeaky clean, just that he's a better candidate, warts and all, compared to the current lot.

At 10:33 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

I don't think the prosecutors have much of a case against Gray on whether he knew about "shadow campaign." Not that I even understand whether the "shadow campaign" is illegal. It is a reporting and coordination issue. They got Thompson on reporting but very unclear whether Gray was also coordinating.

And in terms of the real fraud -- pervasive Medicaid over billing and whether Gray cut a sweetheart deal -- they apparently have very little.

I'm pretty disturbed by a US attorney trying to take out an elected official by press conference, and not by indictments. If they have what they say they have, it isn't that hard to get a bill through grand jury.

I agree Gray is the best of a pretty weak lot. Wells has even less charisma and little saavy.

The general election will be interesting. Who knew that electing a black president would lead to potential overthrow of black rule in the District.

At 1:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"As a practical matter, a federal grand jury will almost always return an indictment presented to it by a prosecutor. This is the basis for Judge Saul Wachtler's famous saying that a prosecutor can get a grand jury to “indict a ham sandwich.”

So I would agree with Charlie that perhaps Machen doesn't have enough to prosecute Gray--although there is always a possibility that a grand jury is about to be empanelled on the matter.

What's that old aphorism about politics and sausage-making... a messy business that most folks don't like watching.

At 2:14 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I guess it's the natural outcome of political atrophy. I don't see it as related to the election of Obama, just that a sclerotic political and governance system and culture runs out of gas eventually, when it lacks the ability and capacity to innovate and respond to new conditions.

I am arguing similarly on a neighborhood listserv--in ward 4 so there is a lot of support for Muriel Bowser, who is called "pragmatic."

I see her as doing not very much. It has nothing to do with her being 41 and "young" rather it's more about just not having much of an idea about what to do or a desire to make the community better in substantive deep ways.

maybe pragmatic means not doing much.

At 2:19 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Yes, the "state" has all the advantages in grand jury proceedings.

I can't claim to be an expert but did spend a few months on a grand jury, but a local, not a federal grand jury.

That being said, returning an indictment is a lot different from having to pull together a trial, and then getting a guilty verdict on top of that.

I lack the knowledge base not being a lawyer to adequately handicap the strength of likely charges.

I had a different reaction from Charlie, thinking that the Thompson plea was the sign of an advance on Gray. But maybe Charlie is right, that it was a "suasion" action designed to get Vincent Gray to bow out of the race, because of the possibility of an indictment hanging over his head, but not really knowing.

I think though that he would know, because an indictment would be in the works for sure if a grand jury has been hearing possible charges vis-a-vis Gray specifically, and he would have to know about it in all likelihood.

At 3:22 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

well to argue in the alternative, there was some sort of smoking gun in the DC archives on the medicaid stuff, and only after January when the AG allowed access could they move forward their case.

Then you make an offer to Thompson and he is able to leverge the timing to get a sweet heart deal. You don't have time to get him in front of the grand jury, but you're doing it right now to get an indictment before the primary.

I can find that plausible, but it strongly suggests that any case against Gray is basically Thompson's word alone, and who is a jury more likely to believe?

I also find it likely that the end result will be a plea by Gray on a failure to file. Not a huge offense.

At 4:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's an excellent primer on Grand Juries.

Gray seems to have taken up the gauntlet and slapped back, but it may just be bravado. He could also be self-justifying since these politicians use so much double-speak/mumbo-jumbo/winking and nodding in these situations specifically to cover their butts. Gray is not a stupid guy--don't know about all of his guilty associates--and I can't imagine that he would have let himself get set up by Thompson.

As I said above, I'm hoping that Machen is just getting warmed up. If anything, DC's situation since it was cited in "Corrupt Cities" (published 2003) has deteriorated, and nothing is going to change until the system--not the individuals "running" it--change. The voters need to accept nothing less but I'm not holding my breath.

At 5:10 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

i have an email later a blog entry in 1/2010 making the point that the "anybody but fenty" people were missing the point, that they were focusing on the cogs but not the "gears" (or system) and that replacing Fenty with someone else wouldn't really change anything substantively.

We need a lot more change than just "the people." Many of the faults are accentuated by how the government is set up through the Home Rule Act, with too few checks and balances and other structural defects in the system.

At 12:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You and I have had this dialogue--sans the Home Rule Act--for some time now, and for the most part we agree that it isn't the players (politicians and their ilk) but the game (structure) that is the problem.

The missing element is accountability and that is not something you can legislate. Both Gray (and Fenty) took action as CMs to make things more transparent but that came to a halt once they hit the mayoral suite.

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