The D.C. Council’s Tuesday breakfast meeting was barely underway when one member accused his colleagues of hypocrisy for considering a tax increase even though some council members had failed to pay their taxes on time. He then cursed at a member who objected to his comments. A 20-year council veteran also tossed an expletive and later declared that this was the “worst council” he has ever served on.
This wasn’t how Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D) envisioned the council’s return to business after its summer recess. In an interview Friday, he dismissed suggestions that the council was unraveling over ethical questions about several members, himself included.
“We are coming back fresh,” he said.
Instead, the frustrations and tensions that have been evident since the new council was seated in January seem to be growing, raising questions about whether the city’s legislative body will be able to function effectively. With criminal investigations or ethical questions hanging over five of the 13 members and half of the council seats up for election in seven months, some members expect things to get worse.
The D.C. Council, like any political institution, has always had to navigate rivalries, turf tussles and big egos, but members acknowledge that ethical issues, particularly the U.S. attorney’s investigations involving two members, including Brown, have put extra stress on their ability to work together.
“We are losing our moral authority to govern between the ethical lapses and hypocrisy,” said David A. Catania (I-At Large). The council voted 7 to 6 to pass the tax increase.
Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) said she is increasingly frustrated about the damaged reputation of the city’s government because of the controversies, in both the council and the office of Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D). “I don’t think anybody can be happy that the city is being dragged through the [news media] on a weekly basis,” Bowser said.
Although Brown has played down the effect of the turmoil, several members have said they don’t expect the mood in the John A. Wilson Building to improve until the U. S. attorney’s office concludes its investigations of Brown and council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5).
‘A cloud over the council’
Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who with 20 years on the dais is the longest-serving member of the current council, voiced the frustrations of several members when he said: “The ongoing investigations involving some of the members hopefully will be concluded in a quick time frame because as long as they’re ongoing, there is a cloud over the council.”
Privately, council members say trust and respect is all but gone; before Tuesday’s outbursts, members had been uttering insults behind each other’s backs, with the chairman as a frequent target. Racial tensions also have flared anew, as some have complained that black members’ ethical behavior has been scrutinized more intensely than whites’.
Brown last week argued that disagreement among the members was normal. “People have been shouting at each other since Dave Clarke, John Wilson,” he said, referring to the chairmen of the D.C. Council during the 1980s and 1990s.
“Back in the day, they used to throw down,” Brown said. “They would be cursing on the dais, fighting each other.”
Little did he know that he would be refereeing a similar fight Tuesday, in a conference room with the photos of the previous six council chairmen overlooking the oval table around which the members sat.
It started with a proposal by council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) to raise taxes on wealthy city residents. Catania, noting that at least two members had failed to pay their taxes on time, called the measure hypocritical. Mendelson quickly responded that he didn’t think it was appropriate for Catania to bring up his colleagues’ personal behavior as part of the debate. Before Mendelson could finish his sentence, Catania shot back, “I don’t give a shit what you think.”
Brown pleaded for order, but Evans, another opponent of a tax increase, snapped at Mendelson, calling his objection “bullshit.”
A couple of hours later at the council’s formal legislative session, Brown struggled to maintain control during three hours of debate on the tax increase, as members bickered over who got to talk first, who was recognized and whether the council’s rules of debate were being followed.
Evans unsuccessfully tried to push through an amendment to scrap the proposed tax increase. In response, Mendelson accused Evans of being “reckless and cynical.”
After the meeting, Evans declared: “This is the worst council I’ve ever served on in my 20 years on the council.”
Facing ethics inquiries
Since the beginning of the year, when the council was seated, at least five members have faced ethical scrutiny: