- The Washington Times - Friday, August 25, 2000

If ever there were a gang intent on self-sabotage, it's Mayor Anthony Williams' administration. Every time the group has a decent, winnable plan ready to implement, it shoots itself in the foot. Nowhere is this more evident than with school reform.

Listening to trusted, though misguided advisers, Mr. Williams abandoned his effort to win control over a smaller, all-appointed D.C. Board of Education. He opted for a compromise with the D.C. Council, which allowed for a nine-member, partially elected, partially appointed board. He put his political capital behind the "hybrid." He won a narrow victory but not before being cited by the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance (OCF) for violating city laws. He decided to appeal the OCF's ruling, polishing the perception of him as the ethics mayor unwilling to apply ethical standards to himself. Now, Mr. Williams has abandoned former at-large council member William Lightfoot, the man everyone had expected to be his choice for school board president. Instead, the mayor has decided to support Peggy Cooper-Cafritz.

"In not jumping at the opportunity to support a Bill Lightfoot presidency, the mayor squandered another major opportunity," said one council member who requested anonymity. "On this issue he has shown himself to be without honor or shame. He has shown he is not serious about improving schools, and that he is politically insecure.

"I don't understand why he has so seriously dissed several of his important friends," the council member added.

Mr. Lightfoot stood with the mayor, along with civic leaders and several former and current elected officials, when Mr. Williams began his initial push for control of schools. Later, Mr. Lightfoot served as chairman of the organization, created mostly by the mayor, that campaigned for passage of the "hybrid."

Government sources say Mr. Lightfoot had asked the mayor to settle by Aug. 16 whether he would support a Lightfoot candidacy. Initially, the mayor had decided to endorse Mr. Lightfoot. But then some in Mr. Williams' camp worried that the former two-term council member could be a serious contender in any future mayoral race. Which means that the "education mayor," like a true politician, decided to look out for himself first and not the children in the city's public schools.

Mr. Lightfoot was the only independent in the District's political history to win office. He was elected in 1988 with 27 percent of the vote; the highest contender was Democrat John Ray with 45 percent. Mr. Lightfoot was an extremely popular, hard-working legislator. In 1994 he was thought of as the man to beat Marion Barry. But concerned about the potential for a nasty, class-tinged battle, Mr. Lightfoot never launched his campaign. He retired from office in 1996, but still maintains enormous goodwill throughout the city.

Administration and council sources say Mr. Lightfoot reassured Mr. Williams he would not run against him. But that wasn't enough. The mayor decided to back the cultural grande dame wife of Conrad Cafritz, scion of the venerable Cafritz family, which like other such families controlled the fate of the city for many years before Congress allowed the District to elect its own local leaders. The mayor's wife, Diane Williams, reportedly will serve as the campaign's treasurer, and Ward 8's Philip Pannell will serve as its co-chairman. Mrs. Cooper-Cafritz's coming out party is expected to be tonight at the Ward 8 Democrats' Red and White Ball, where she purchased three tables.

"The mayor and Peggy share the same vision for the future," said Abdusalam Omer, the mayor's chief of staff. "She will be good for our children and our schools. Also, she raises the bar for others who want to run for office."

Founder of the Duke Ellington School for the Arts, former chairman of the D.C. Commission on the Arts, and one-time Barry supporter, Mrs. Cooper-Cafritz has a long history of community involvement. But few education activists know her as someone who has spent time in the trenches, except when her pet project Ellington School has been at stake. She also currently is a member of the Board of Trustees of the University of the District of Columbia. Some critics and supporters say she is an elitist, who is contentious, demanding and autocratic, but who gets things done. Having worked with Mrs. Cooper-Cafritz, I can say her reputation as tough and tenacious is well-deserved. While she may be a good and honorable woman, she is no Bill Lightfoot.

Even before Mr. Williams arrived on the political scene, Mr. Lightfoot was advocating the kind of changes that Mr. Williams now claims as his own creation comprehensive, integrated service delivery; parental training; children's trust fund; schools as community hubs; full-service recreation centers and a more professional, smaller school board.

"[He] would have been an excellent leader on school issues," said council member Kathy Patterson. "[He] would have brought forward other strong candidates and put a real mark of importance on this process."

If the mayor had any smarts, he'd keep Mrs. Cooper-Cafritz at UDC and invite Mr. Lightfoot to enter the school board race. But no one has to wait on Mr. Williams to get on the right track. People who want real education reform should let Mr. Lightfoot know they want him in the race, and then they should work hard at getting his name on the ballot. The deadline for qualifying petitions is Aug. 30. It's still not too late to put children first.

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