The Graham Legacy
- Written by Jose Sueiro
- 0 comments
I met him at the Whitman Walker Clinic sometime in the spring of 1997. In typical fashion he had contacted our Spanish language newspaper to ask if we were interested in writing a story about the work of Whitman Walker. They had already opened the Elizabeth Taylor annex across 14th St. three years earlier. Jim had been in the news and was becoming something of a celebrity in the city. The profile of WWC had been heightened and financially they were in the best shape of their 15 year history.
It was quite a tour de force. Jim was obviously brilliant, you could tell that right away, even before you knew he had been a Supreme Court clerk and mingled with some of the finest political minds of the country. He could rattle off statistics, successes and accomplishments at will, had a keen sense of political strategy and a charming demeanor that put one off guard. He was interested in lifting his profile with the Latino community of DC and spoke about the work that WWC was doing along those ends.
Our relationship grew over the following year until in July of 1998 I had a curious phone call from him. He invited me to lunch at Lauriol Plaza, ate a vegetarian meal of rice and beans, and told me he had decided to run against Frank Smith for City Council. He asked for our support. I told him we were flattered he would ask and he proceeded to cajole me into writing an editorial in both English and Spanish endorsing him. I told him that six weeks out from the primary was a bit early for an editorial endorsement and he insisted he needed the endorsement right away. His reasoning was he wanted to build momentum and knew I would produce a well written editorial he could use to prod others to follow up. Jim was always good at flattery and always knew how to push people's buttons so they would do his bidding. We were the first publication to endorse him. He'd seen our editorial on David Catania who'd just run in a special election for City Council. My newspaper, 'La Nacion', was the first District publication to endorse both openly gay candidates, Graham and Catania. David copied our editorial on luminescent paper and posted it across the city.
The story is significant because years later Jim would repeatedly deny it ever happened. I helped Jim raise money over the years and would repeat the story in public and he would always deny it causing me considerable embarrassment and plenty of arguments. One evening, late in his tenure after all was said and done, he phoned me. I will never forget where I was at that moment. It was during a Cuban art exhibit at the Venezuelan Embassy. I took the call and, interspersed with a few nervous giggles of laughter, Graham proceeded to sheepishly admit that having gone through his old files the anecdote was, indeed, correct. Jim would rarely admit an error and hated to lose an argument, but he swallowed his pride and admitted something that had been a major source of friction between us over the years. Go figure!
In the 1998 City Council election Graham put together a coalition of Gays, Latinos and the liberal white vote on the west end of the ward. Adams Morgan was gentrifying at a rapid clip. Jim gambled this coalition could beat Frank Smith who was supported in the still heavily African American precincts east of 16th St. Later on, in casual conversations, Jim would suggest that he won because of the support from 5 precincts - the 3 in AdMo and 2 in Mt. Pleasant. My precinct (25) in Adams Morgan traditionally had the highest number of voters in the Ward. Precinct 25 went heavily for Graham. The '98 election was a turning point in the political history of the city. Not only were the gay and Latino communities exercising new found political clout, but the District was moving away from a dominant African American political establishment to a more diverse leadership. Anthony Williams was to win election 2 years later with support primarily from the west, white side of the city.
In his prime on the Council, Jim was the tail that wagged the dog. Because of his deal making skills and political savvy, virtually nothing got done at City Council without Jim's imprimatur on it. But what Graham relished most were his constituent service obligations and he was superb at them. Over the years it seemed he was everywhere; festivals, parades, ANCs, tenant meetings, answering complaints and appearing at emergencies throughout the Ward at all hours of the day and night. His hearings were legend and more than one 'bad guy' among the powerful would regret appearing before him. Jim was a practical progressive, a conundrum of sorts. Watching his hearings was like a day at the opera. Always impeccably prepared he could be ingenious, instructive, cutting, conniving, menacing, friendly and always surprising and entertaining. He had a keen sense for the dramatic. At times he was cruel and cutting to his employees and even friends, but he was aware and self conscious of his demanding and arrogant reputation. He could be quietly and remarkably fair and generous as well. Always acutely aware of his image he frequently fought with the press.
In late 1999 addressing the new Mayor elect Anthony Williams I wrote an opinion piece published in the Washington Post with recommendations on what to look for in a new Latino Affairs Director. I sent the article to Jim first as a courtesy. Nevertheless, the piece had nothing to do with him nor was he mentioned. The feature was published with highlighted inserts which I didn't write added by the Post staff portraying Jim in a negative light. The bolded inserts had little or nothing to do with the purpose of the story. Jim and I had a falling out over that. It was my first inkling of the problems the Post had with our Councilman. Years later there would be a further incident with a Post writer where Graham used confidential information I provided him to threaten the reporter over negative coverage. He was not above using you for his benefit and his indiscretion bordered on the unethical. We had our trust issues!
Regardless, we remained allies and friends throughout. The Latino community adored Jim. He visited El Salvador on a number of occasions and would often times begin his speeches in pretty good Spanish. He was always supportive on immigrant issues, one of our truest friends on the Council. He nurtured our personal relationship constantly and his loyalty remained steadfast through our contentious episodes. He came to my building when I was President of the tenant organization, secured funding for our facade project and actively lobbied for the tenant office we fought for so long. He supported a great many projects I worked on over the years and I'm grateful to him for that!
The Councilman participated in various encounters at my apartment building over the years. He assisted the tenant association in our first attempt to purchase the building; recommending lawyers, non-profit funders and suggesting funding strategies. Later, in another failed attempt to take control of our rental building, he actually testified on our behalf at an administrative hearing. Developers and apartment building owners hated him. No one at City Hall knew housing law as well as he did and his efforts to maintain affordable housing had no parallel at City Council. He is primarily responsible for pushing through reforms of the housing law in 2006 that saved rent control and affordable housing. He diligently fostered the Oscar Romero Cooperative to completion on Mt. Pleasant. He instigated the creation of the Office of the Tenant Advocate that without Jim would never have come to fruition. At one time or another he supported/encouraged/assisted every non-profit housing advocacy group in the city; Manna, CNHED, Carecen, Housing Counseling Services, LEDC, Park Morton tenants, Columbia Heights Village, etc., etc. He was a friend to tenants all along the 14th St. corridor and preserved thousands of affordable housing units in the Ward. I worked with him when the Office of Tenant Advocate was created and helped set up the office until the arrival of a permanent Tenant Advocate to the position. It was quite an experience!
However, my most enduring memory of working with Jim was on the Park Road facade project. Jim was proud of his role in bringing the Columbia Heights shopping center to 14th & Park Road. As part of the arrangement, the developer created a community fund that Graham immediately distributed to community groups far and wide. I was drawn into the settlement by 23 small business owners who owned businesses adjacent to the new shopping center along the south side of the 1400 block of Park Road. At that time the street was infamous for the drug dealing that went on, the large immigrant communities that inhabited the apartment buildings on the north side, the horrible streetscape that included metal bars, steel grates, broken steps and busted sidewalks, boarded up windows and a homeless shelter right in the middle of the block. The 23 business owners who had their shops and offices on the block were all African Americans and immigrants from El Salvador, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Vietnam, Spain, Pakistan and more. They felt left out of the upgrade to their neighborhood and petitioned Jim for help. Thus began a three year $1.5 million street facade project, the largest ever at the time. I watched closely -and learned- as Graham finagled support, twisted arms and coerced agreements to finish the deal. But I'll never forget how Jim disarmed the group at our initial meeting. As we entered his office, having ignored us until then, he quickly looked up and said; "Well where have you guys been all this time". Suddenly we were on the defensive and it wasn't his fault. It was masterful!
There is an indelible legacy Jim Graham has left our community. There isn't a block in Ward 1 that doesn't have some permanent improvement, some item or detail that has been changed forever because of his efforts. From affordable housing to pocket parks to improved schools and Recreation centers, Jim had his hand in all of it. There were times the ideas seemed to gush out of him like a Peter Pan fantasy and plenty of times where he failed, but there wasn't one major development in the Ward over the past 16 years that he didn't influence one way or another. Jim lived for his job and his constituents.
I'll miss the yellow Volkswagen convertible with the Ward 1 license plate and the grinning, bow tied Councilman cavorting around surveying his principality. I'll miss the erudite public comments, the playful joyousness of his appearances. I'll miss his pervasive presence and the strong, progressive ideas he brought to the table. I'll miss his dominance at City Council, his shrewd and cunning political and negotiating skills.
The famous Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca once penned a poetic eulogy to a brave and bold bullfighter who died in the ring. The final couplets are appropriate here:
"It will be a long time, if ever, before there is born [a District Councilman] so true, so rich in adventure. I sing of his elegance with words that groan, and I remember a sad breeze through the olive trees."