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Is the fight at the DC arts commission about race or the hustle?

DURING the recent kickoff for his mayoral campaign, Ward 8 DC Council member Trayon White led his supporters in a chant: “We are going to take our city back. We are going to take our city back.”

It was a dog whistle as loud as any offered by former President Donald Trump and his supporters. The only difference is that White is Black. Nevertheless, he seems just as determined to instigate division and animus among the electorate. He is not alone.

Increasingly, many DC officials and civic leaders are exploiting serious and legitimate concerns about racial equity or income equality for their own personal benefit. They are playing the race card by advancing misleading information or deliberately offering inflammatory comments while quietly pimping the plight of poor and vulnerable people.

Residents can expect more of the same during this political season. Hurling accusations of an alleged attempt to silence strong Black women, 11 of the 13 DC Council members took the extraordinary step earlier this week of voting to overrule Chairman Phil Mendelson’s decision not to advance the nomination of two controversial appointees: Cora Masters Barry and Natalie Hopkinson.

Barry and Hopkinson were part of a quartet of Black women Mayor Muriel Bowser re-nominated to the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. Mendelson had the Committee of the Whole vote on confirmation of only two of the four, smoothing their way back onto the arts commission. Citing insider reports about disruptive, nonconstructive behaviors that included their deployment of the race card, he refused to do the same for Barry and Hopkinson.

Not holding a public hearing on the nominations was a strategic error. He might have reduced the opposition — or at least invalidated a key criticism — by doing so. He still could have exercised his prerogative as committee chair of not advancing their nominations.

At-large Council member and mayoral candidate Robert White introduced a discharge petition, a rarely used procedural gambit that usurped Mendelson’s authority as a committee chair. Ward 8’s Trayon White joined him, and Ward 5’s Kenyan McDuffie, a candidate for DC attorney general, offered his strong support. Ward 1’s Brianne Nadeau, Ward 6’s Charles Allen, at-large member Anita Bonds and at-large member Elissa Silverman also approved the measure; they are all running for re-election. Ward 7’s Vincent Gray, Ward 4’s Janeese Lewis George, Ward 2’s Brooke Pinto and at-large member Christina Henderson are not running in 2022 but rounded out the support.

Mendelson is running for reelection; he, of course, did not support the revolt. Neither did Ward 3’s Mary Cheh, who voted “present” on White’s initial motion but did subsequently vote to approve the two nominees.

“We ordinarily don’t use a discharge petition to wrest control from a committee chairman,” said Cheh, who also noted during the debate that she has served on the council for 15 years and had not seen such action. She is running for a fifth term in 2022.

In any legislature, the chairperson has the power of the gavel and the power to decide what legislation comes to the floor. Mendelson isn’t the only person to exert that control. During Adrian Fenty’s term as mayor, he and then-Council Chairman Vincent Gray had a weeks-long standoff over nominees to the Board of Trustees at the University of the District of Columbia; they eventually reached a compromise.

Cheh said the discharge “undercuts the committee’s work and compromises [its] integrity.”

Most important, she offered that — regardless of race — if “anyone is unsuitable for a position, say it.”

Just because the person being rejected is Black doesn’t mean it’s all about race. Sometimes it’s about the quality and tone of leadership. Further, there is a difference between being qualified and being suitable for a position.

Hopkinson and Barry may have impressive resumes and sizable fan bases. However, in my view neither is well-suited for an agency that is struggling to stabilize its mission and operation after intense fighting, instigated in no small measure by Bowser’s previous power grabs. Following Mendelson’s leadership, the council came to the commission’s rescue, establishing it as an independent agency with a current budget of nearly $40 million — a substantial increase over its budget in previous years.

Commission insiders have said Hopkinson’s and Barry’s interactions, including their comments at meetings and elsewhere, have exacerbated tensions as the agency has sought to right itself while advancing a new strategic plan that includes ensuring greater funding equity for small arts organizations and individual artists of color.

When I worked at the arts commission in the 1980s, I helped draft the guidelines for the geographic grant program designed to ensure more artists and arts organizations east of the Anacostia River received funding. Dealing with arts equity was important then, and it’s important now.

However, should we make enemies of our colleagues and neighbors as we move to address the problem?

I don’t doubt reports that the answer to that question for Barry and Hopkinson often was yes, notwithstanding commission chair Reggie Van Lee’s stated support for the two nominees. There are myriad reasons for concern, including whether commissioners are engaging in self-dealing. Barry voted in two consecutive grant cycles to fund her organization, the Recreation Wish List Committee. In her defense, Hopkinson tweeted earlier this week that commissioners “don’t manage grants” and vote “blind” as to the specific recipients. But wouldn’t Barry have known that her own organization was up for a grant?

A spokesperson for the agency, responding to my email, confirmed that advisory panelists who are not commission staffers “review and score” applications without knowing the names of the applicants and using pre-established criteria. Panelists are required to “recuse themselves from review of any application that presents a personal or professional conflict of interest (or the appearance of a conflict of interest).”

The panel makes its recommendations to commission staffers who then present them to the commission. Ultimately, the arts “commissioners must approve all grant awards and funding amounts; funding decisions are not determined by CAH staff,” added the spokesperson.

Commission sources also said that Barry has been lobbying for the agency to use its money to place a new mural of her late husband on the side of the building at 441 4th St. NW, known as One Judiciary Square before its designation one year ago as the Marion S. Barry Jr. Building in honor of the former mayor. There already is a statue of Barry outside the John A. Wilson Building.

Should the DC inspector general or the DC Board of Ethics and Government Accountability open an investigation into whether Barry violated the city’s ethics laws, rules and regulations?

Barry is famous for using the government to prop up her organization. When she first established the Wish List using funds left over from her husband’s inauguration, she pledged to use private donations to build a tennis and learning center in Southeast. She raised only $400,000, however. Then-Mayor Anthony Williams’ administration persuaded the council to provide nearly $5 million of taxpayers’ money for the project. She has been at the public trough ever since — $18 million during Gray’s mayoral administration; $13 million from Bowser.

A member of Barry’s board with whom I spoke earlier this week argued that the city provided that money for needed improvements to the recreation center. “She works hard for the organization and raises private funds.”

I saw Hopkinson at work in May 2019 during the fight over the relocation of Benjamin Banneker Academic High School. The site of the former Shaw Junior High School had been selected by residents in that community for a new middle school. As a key organizer, albeit one operating largely behind the scenes, Hopkinson helped get Banneker relocated to the Shaw site. She and her allies drove students and parents into a frenzy, asserting that gentrifiers — another dog whistle — were blocking the education of Black children. In fact, the children who would have gone to a new Shaw Middle School were also predominantly Black. The fight was ugly and divisive.

McDuffie offered that he relied on Hopkinson in his work around go-go-music, pushing it as the official music of the District. An author and adjunct professor at Howard University, Hopkinson has become the go-go queen; she helped lead the pushback against a corporate decision to silence music blasting from a Shaw storefront that sold cellphones, which led to the formation of the “Don’t Mute the Music” movement that has morphed into a “Don’t Mute” anything movement. That group, led by activist Ron Moten, sponsored a “Don’t Mute Black Women” rally the day before the council’s vote on the arts commission. Moten has his own history of getting public funds for a worthy cause and then using it for his own purposes.

Who is a “public servant”? Who is a “community activist”? Who is angling for space at the public trough?

Unsurprisingly, people who were critical of Mendelson sought to paint him as being against strong Black women — yet another dog whistle. I have followed Mendelson’s political career since he was first elected as an at-large legislator. I have not always agreed with his policies or proposals. He was, however, one of the early members of the city’s political progressive caucus, and has never engaged in discriminatory behaviors or supported programs and policies deliberately designed to privilege only whites over any other residents.

As the racial discussion ensued in the council early this week, I thought, who are these people expressing so much concern about the plight of these two Black women? Have they, particularly at-large Council member and mayoral candidate Robert White, offered any assistance to the half-dozen Black women homeowners on Talbert Street SE who have been fighting against a city-financed developer for four years after construction flaws caused the building to be uninhabitable? Has Trayon White made any demands of the Bowser administration to make these women financially whole? After all, they are in his ward.

Maybe council members are only willing to genuflect before or help certain women — women who can bring them votes in the upcoming election.

a version of this article was first published on

Photograph: Cora Masters Barry; Ron Moten, Natalie Hopkinson courtesy

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