My two years as a politician

Sam Smith – In 1974, a liberal Minnesota congressmember, Donald Frazer, manged to sneak into DC’s home rule bill for elected advisory neighborhood councils. We became the second city in the country with them.

Washington DC’s advisory neighborhood commissions would represent a unique counter-trend in American politics, away from a century-long growth of political institutions isolated from constituencies, city governments made unwieldy by consolidations and rising population, a ballooning federal government intruding increasingly into local affairs and the development of regional agencies controlling such matters as transportation and sanitation, transferring the local franchise to a new elite of administrators and planners.

In 1816, Columbus, Ohio had one city councilman for every hundred residents. By 1840 the figure was one per thousand; by 1872 it was one per five thousand; one hundred years later it was one per 55,000. Before the neighborhood commissions, the lowliest elected official in DC represented 90,000 people. The new neighborhood commissioners represented 2,000.

By contemporary American urban standards, having a politician represent only 2,000 people was a radical idea, although Jefferson thought that about one pol for every hundred voters was about right. Two centuries after it all began many would still find the thought that democracy could be trusted to people to be a scary one. Traditional politicians found it worse. Neighborhood commissions were, they grumbled at city hall, “another layer of bureaucracy,” and the papers picked up the theme, ignoring the obvious points that neighborhood commissioners weren’t bureaucrats at all, and they didn’t get enough money to establish a bureaucracy if they wanted to, and in fact were able to spend less per capita on their neighborhoods than some of the more conventional politicians spent per voter on their campaigns.

My own career as a commissioner got off to a rocky start. On election night, after spending most of the day at the polls, I decided to go down to the Sheraton Park Hotel and watch the count. My wife said to me, “Don’t you think you’re taking this a little too seriously?” But she was holding a Sunday school teachers’ meeting and I figured that if she was going to be tied up with the spiritual, I could attend to the temporal a while longer.

So I drove down to the Sheraton Park Hotel, took a couple of escalators to the catacombs where the count was underway and chatted distractedly with some of the other candidates who were also waiting for word of victory or defeat. Finally the sheet with the morning results for my district — familiarly known in those parts as 3CO7 — turned up. My opponent had slaughtered me 75 to 11 in the morning count.

Since I had counted some 35 people coming to the polls before two PM whom I had personally encouraged to vote, I was apparently on the way to one of the most humiliating defeats imaginable. At least two dozen people had smiled pleasantly at me, murmured encouragement and then gone in and voted for my opponent. I had — with flyers, coffees and telephone calls — organized the neighborhood against me. My opponent had barely campaigned.

I found Norval Perkins, the affable head of the Board of Elections. and tried to explain why a candidate with only 13% of the vote wanted a recount. He was noncommittal but added my district to his growing list of requested recounts.

Meanwhile I found the table where the evening ballots were being counted. Something was wrong. I had won the evening count 93 to 26. I checked each ballot. It was true.

I found Norval again. He tried to soothe me: “Maybe, Sam, you just have more evening friends than morning friends.”

I preferred to soothe myself. Even with the wrong count I figured that I had won by three votes. Later, local election wizard Al Gollin would explain to me that it was statistically improbable to have more evening friends than morning friends.

I found the table where my recount was going on. I had indeed won, but, as I had come to suspect, all my ballots had initially been given to my opponent. I went to have a drink at a friend’s house.

I had never paid much attention to the counting. It always seemed like the most boring end of the business and besides there seemed to be enough people involved to prevent anything bad from happening. Now at last I knew what politicians meant when they warned: watch the count.

Out in the neighborhoods, the new commissions met with enthusiasm in some quarters and indifference in others. Some of them deserved the enthusiasm, some the indifference, but I didn’t have much chance to check out which was which among the thirty-six commissions around the city. I was too busy with my own.

It began the morning after the election. Congressman Fred Rooney, who lived in my district and had taken a paternal interest in my electoral efforts, was on the phone: “This is Rooney up on Highland Alley. Why hasn’t my damn trash been picked up?” A professional politician was taking me seriously. A good start, I thought. I spent much of the day trying to find out why the congressman’s trash hadn’t been collected but the number downtown was always busy or unanswered. The next morning I checked my constituent’s driveway. The cans were gone.

“Well,” I said when I reached him at his Capitol Hill office, “I see we got your trash problem cleared up.” He never asked me who we were. I had followed one of the first rules of politics: exploit serendipity.

Fred still calls me Commissioner or Commish. Another rule of politics: make people feel good. Years later, he also told me that he had once received a call from a woman in a small town in his district wanting to know why her trash hadn’t been picked up. “Have you called the sanitation superintendent?” Rooney asked. “No,” the lady replied. “I didn’t want to bother him, so I just thought I’d call my congressman.”

My second problem was not so simple. Several homes had been flooded. The culprit was a conduit that fed water from a public playground near a row of houses. At issue, it quickly became apparent, was the question of whose conduit it was: the city’s or the property-owners’. The city staunchly maintained that it was the property owners; I, as District Seven commissioner, just as staunchly mintained it was the city’s and that the government should pay for the damage.

To win I needed proof, which unfortunately was lost in the mists of history; City Hall merely needed to say no. The letters flowed back and forth, lawyers were visited, engineers appeared. I alerted the press to what I called the “Macomb Street Flood Disaster Area,” but nothing happened, except for the cracking of walls and sinking of foundations. I recalled that Richard Neustadt had spoken of the power of the presidency as being primarily the power to persuade; I was quickly learning that the power of a neighborhood commissioner was entirely the power to persuade.

The neighborhood commissions were established at the same time Congress gave DC the right to elect a mayor and city council. The prospective candidates for these offices had not taken kindly to the prospect of home rule being distributed to others other than themselves and had campaigned quietly to have the commission section removed from the home rule legislation

The enabling legislation was quite broad, but in coming up with the operating rules the council and the mayor managed to restrict the commission’s powers, denying them the right to sue the city, to act in concert with city funds, or to incorporate.

For someone who had long argued that urban neighborhoods should be granted semi-autonomous powers, I found the law excessively timid, but consoled myself with the thought that for once people in the colony of DC were ahead of the rest of the nation in something: we were the first major city with elected and funded neighborhood commissions. Besides, the commissioners were elected by single-member district and, if they acted with political sagacity, they could make their knowledge and influence in these small districts a base of unlegislated power. They could become, in effect, non-partisan precinct leaders, unbeholdened to a machine or to the politicians at city hall. The ward and at-large officials had not had time to develop precinct machines of their own and, with working neighborhood commissions in place, it might become difficult. Still I argue that our first task was to kick the “A” out of ANC so that we were no longer advisory.

In our ward, the representative on the city council seemed to understand this from the start and instead of trying to control the commissions, worked with them, using them as an information source and constant referendum on ward opinion. Perhaps she saw that lurking behind the commission idea was a principle eloquently laid down by Chicago’s Vito Marzullo, 25th Ward Alderman, in an interview with the Chicago Sun Times:

I ain’t got no axes to grind. You can take all your news media and all the do-gooders in town and move them into my 25th ward, and do you know what would happen? On election day we’d beat you 15 to one. The mayor don’t run the 25th ward. Neither does the media or the do-gooders.. Me — Vito Marzullo — that’s who runs the 25th Ward and on election day everybody does what Vito Marzullo tells them.

The prospect of 300 neighborhood Vito Marzullos telling people in their districts how to vote in ward and citywide races is a disturbing one to traditional politicians. Fortunately for them, the neighborhoods and their commissioners failed to recognize and use this political potential.

Besides, when you’re a working politician you don’t have much time for theory. Back on 34th Place, they wanted parking stripes. I took a poll of the street to make sure, then petitioned the Department of Transportation. No problem. The parking stripes appeared. Score one for neighborhood government.

So let’s try a little harder situation: the traffic on 34th Street, a secondary arterial that divides our neighborhood with a steady flow of suburban commuters. It goes right by our elementary school and every so often a child gets hit. One morning a car jumped the curb at 34th & Newark, ran right over the spot where the mercifully absent school safety patrol should have been standing, bounded off a stone wall, back across the street and into a neighbor’s elegantly aging Volvo. Distress at the corner; anger. Then the next day another accident. The now not so elegantly aging Volvo was struck again. I checked with the school safety police officer who produced a computer printout that showed there had been about two dozen accidents at that and near-by corners in the past year. Called up Transportation. Met two engineers early one morning at the corner. They produced a chart that showed (at least it did to them) why traffic could not go slower than 30 miles an hour in a fifteen-mile-per hour school zone. More letters, including one to the director of the Department of Transportation in which I pointed out there have been 26 accidents in the past year in just four blocks of 34th Street. More accidents. A call from the chair of our commission’s transportation committee saying that the Transportation Department had reviewed its files on the situation and decided the corner was not sufficiently accident-prone to warrant action. Hung up the phone and went on errands. Couldn’t get across 34th Street. The corner was blocked by an ambulance and two smashed cars. Neighborhood government, I thought, means using your eyes instead of your files. Score one for the old way.

On another occasion I found myself embroiled in a battle with the National Cathedral over a piece of beloved community land that the Episcopalians owned and wished to sell to for a Bulgarian embassy. This telegram from fellow commissioner Kay McGrath and myself — sent to the Right Reverend William Creighton, bishop of the nation’s capital — shows that we were willing to stop at nothing, including the anathematizing of an Episcopalian bishop:

“Emergency meeting of Rosedale neighbors unanimously tonight called on you to honor agreement made with this community to consult prior to changes at Rosedale. Your present negotiations without such consultation are viewed as a breach of faith . . . “

Creighton agreed to a meeting, the first round in a lengthy battle that was eventually won by the community. During the session, the bishop said he had sensed an undercurrent of anti-Eastern European sentiment in the neighborhood. I rose to the defense of my people, telling the bishop in my best Al Sharpton manner that his comment was outrageous and that, besides, I had found that Bulgarians had generally treated me better than Episcopalians. He did not raise the charge again.

During my term on our neighborhood commission, I was asked to deal with a city-caused flooding problem that severely damaged three homes, an alarming number of accidents along 34th Street, the lack of proper signs on other streets, the need for parking stripes and curb improvement at several intersections, a surfeit of trash can-toppling dogs, a controversy over a tennis backboard, an attempt to sell seven acres of open space for a use repugnant to the community, plans for a new community park, the potential closing of a neighborhood school, land use proposals by the city government, the community’s effort to come up with its own neighborhood plan, the relocation of a post office, speeding police cars on side streets, the expansion of the Sheraton Park Hotel, problems caused by Metro construction, the lack of snow removal during last winter’s storms, the resurfacing of a public basketball court, the granting of the eighth liquor license in a one block stretch of Connecticut Avenue, a dispute over the use of a community garden pot, the proposed introduction of a hospital in our community, changes in flight patterns that would increase aircraft noise, the construction of a new addition to a neighborhood schools, the influx of litter, noise and illegal parked cars due to the opening of “Star Wars” in our neighbored and a teen age rapist roaming our streets.

As time went on, I stopped trying so hard to be an ombudsman. It was a role my constituents expected of me, but both they and I tended to forget that as an individual I had little more power than they. When I called to get the ice cleared off an alley, my complaint was merely added to the list of other citizen calls. There were a few exceptions, but only when the commission acted as a body did we make any impression.

We were handicapped by the prohibition on taking legal action. But when the alcoholic beverage commission ignored our insistence that seven liquor licenses were enough on one block of Connecticut Avenue, we decided to challenge the prohibition. We sued the city as ten individual commissioners and the court gave us standing.

When the commissions were being established, a citizens coalition had met to propose regulations. At one meeting someone suggested that the rules require that the city give the opinions of the commission “great weight.’ A lawyer asked the legal meaning of the phrase. I replied, “Damned if I know, but let’s put it in and find out.”

We did and the term made its way into the official regulations. It was on these grounds that we sued the city. It wasn’t easy for me. The new Irish pub, whose license we were challenging, was in my district. So was the home of one of the owners and his lawyer. But so were the 150 people who signed a petition in opposition to the license.

I wrote the lawyer suggesting that the owner appear at the next meeting of the commission, that perhaps we could work things out. The lawyer told the owner not to come. Thus I found myself opposing, on my constituents’ behalf, one of my deepest held beliefs: that an Irish pub is a good thing. We eventually won in what became a landmark case. The court said the city could reject a commission’s advice but had to put in writing its reasons for doing so, answering point by point each argument. This seemingly weak requirement has altered the politics of development and licensing, because, when you come right down to it, the city often has a difficult time putting in writing logical reasons for what it does.

A new hearing was held on the beverage license and it was granted. We had lost the battle while winning the war. As far as I was concerned, however, we had really won twice because the commissions were now more powerful and I could start using the pub.

My main function on the commission was as chair of the education, recreation and agriculture committee. (This latter role I had assumed after I discovered that we had over 200 garden plots in the commission area – more arable land, I claimed, than any other commission in the city)

My biggest problem was The Wall, a 17-foot high, 40-foot long cinderblock apparition that suddenly turned up on the Hearst playground, obstructing the view of the softball fields for the people across the street. The wall and accompanying fence and asphalt playing surface was, we learned, a tennis backboard area that the recreation department had built with funds from the federal Bureau of Outdoor Recreation. The department, however, had not consulted anyone before doing so.

Within a few days, over a hundred signatures had been collected from the immediate neighborhood demanding the removal of the wall, fence and asphalt. Not only was it unsightly, but the neighbors complained the fenced-in area would block a favored sledding slope.

Word soon drifted back to us at the commission that if we would vote to tear down the wall, the recreation department would have it down in 24 hours. This was stunning news and an opportunity for constituent-pandering that we could not pass up. We voted to tear down the wall and it fell shortly thereafter.

At this point, the tennis players became organized. They presented us with a petition with over a hundred names demanding that the wall be put back up. Meetings were organized, proxy votes collected, and venom volleyed across the community’s court. I attended one session that included representatives of the warring factions as well as a sizable delegation from the recreation department; the session lasted four hours and solely concerned the backboard. It was painful and tiring. But out of it came a compromise. Tennis players and neighbors would go along with a soundproofed wooden backboard, situated at a ninety-degree angle from the offending monster — with no fence around the playing surface so the kids could still sled, if with more difficulty. Everyone gave up something but when the matter came to the commission for a vote, with it was a petition signed by over 100 tennis players in support of the compromise. I couldn’t recall from my observations of more significant city controversies an occasion when people had actually petitioned for a compromise.

I retired with my fellow commissioners for our usual post-meeting reflections at the Zebra Room. I was happy. Not just because a compromise had been worked out, but because perhaps a few more people understood how differently things happen if they are decided by the people directly concerned. Downtown, the sheer use of political power was standard operating procedure; in a neighborhood it doesn’t work.

I’m glad we saved that open space, that the recreation department agreed to build the new wall in the right place and of the right materials, that Hearst School got a reprieve from being closed, that we were able to help get the city to reopen a food stamp office it had precipitously closed, that the curbs have been cut back down the block so you can turn the the corner without running into the oncoming traffic, that we would be getting a new neighborhood park, that we were able to fund a community-drafted long-range neighborhood plan, that we perhaps helped slow the flood of development, that we were able to buy textbooks for our schools when the downtown system ran out of money, and that the planes from National Airport won’t be flying over our neighborhood.

And I was also glad to have participated in a politics that was conscientious, unassuming and productive, the kind you get when you keep politicians within walking distance of their constituents. The kind you get when pressure is neighbors demanding you vote against a license for an Irish bar when you’d rather be in it, when a special interest group is a bunch of irate tennis players, when you know you’ve made a mistake because the guy across the street tells you, and when the whole business is treated not as a career for a few individuals, but an institution for everyone. And I have to admit that I was especially glad, after just two years, to have my successor, the Honorable Gary Kopff, assume responsibility for these pleasures.

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