Com­pli­cated pol from a by­gone era

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - PER­SPEC­TIVE BY MARC FISHER

Se­nior Ed­i­tor Marc Fisher, a three­decade vet­eran of The Wash­ing­ton Post, spent con­sid­er­able time with H.R. Craw­ford. These are some of Fisher’s in­sights.

In 30 years as a re­porter, I’ve wit­nessed politi­cians tak­ing or giv­ing big wads of cash three times, and two of those were in Florida, where such a sight is about as un­ex­pected as sun­rise.

The third time was in H.R. Craw­ford’s of­fice in South­east Wash­ing­ton, in 2004, when the long­time D.C. Coun­cil mem­ber, who died Fri­day, handed a thick en­ve­lope stuffed with cash to Effi Barry, the for­mer wife of long­time Mayor Mar­ion Barry.

There was, Craw­ford hur­riedly as­sured me, noth­ing il­le­gal about the trans­ac­tion. The city’s for­mer first lady had fallen on hard times, and he was just help­ing her out, the way he helped out a lot of peo­ple around town.

Mrs. Barry, so el­e­gant and smooth in her prime, looked ter­ri­ble — gaunt and pale, she would die three years later — and she was clearly sheepish about

tak­ing the money. But this was part of her weekly rou­tine, and Craw­ford was not dis­pleased about hav­ing a re­porter from the lo­cal pa­per wit­ness his act of gen­eros­ity.

“I’m kind of a god­fa­ther to a lot of folks,” he told me, and he meant the term in all its con­no­ta­tions. Craw­ford was an elected of­fi­cial, a real es­tate de­vel­oper, an op­er­a­tor, a fixer, a man about town — the kind of pol that barely ex­ists any­more, at least not out in the open.

The way Craw­ford worked, he didn’t es­pe­cially mind when crit­ics and re­form­ers pointed to him as an ex­am­ple of how gov­ern­ment ought not op­er­ate. He be­lieved, as his some­time-ally and some­time-ri­val Mar­ion Barry did, that the best politi­cians should have a de­cent dose of Robin Hood to their work, tak­ing from the rich to give to the poor, even if that meant break­ing some rules.

So Craw­ford was a re­porter’s dream. He loved to tell sto­ries about get­ting around fed­eral rules to get apart­ments built for his con­stituents east of the Ana­cos­tia River. He copped to break­ing some laws to get home­less peo­ple off the streets. He rel­ished tak­ing me to build­ings he’d got­ten built and knock­ing on ran­dom doors to get first­hand tes­ti­mo­ni­als from ten­ants about how he’d changed their lives for the bet­ter.

It’s also true, how­ever, that each time I wrote about Craw­ford, I’d get calls from peo­ple who’d had very dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ences with him, and when I vis­ited some of those peo­ple in their apart­ments, they told tales of how he’d threat­ened to evict them for speak­ing out against him at ten­ants’ meet­ings, or how he’d made prom­ises he hadn’t kept.

Con­fronted with such sto­ries, Craw­ford would rail against the “thugs and lowlifes” who van­dal­ized his build­ings or ter­ror­ized his good ten­ants.

He was a com­pli­cated man in a job that didn’t al­low for a lot of nu­ance. He got in trou­ble re­peat­edly through­out a ca­reer that spanned the en­tire his­tory of self-rule in the Dis­trict. Pres­i­dent Ger­ald Ford fired Craw­ford from his post as as­sis­tant sec­re­tary of Hous­ing and Ur­ban Devel­op­ment in 1976, af­ter Craw­ford was ac­cused of seek­ing con­sult­ing con­tracts from hous­ing agen­cies that got fed­eral money from HUD, which would be at the least a con­flict of in­ter­est.

But the Jus­tice Depart­ment’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion of that al­le­ga­tion ended with no ac­tion, and Craw­ford would wave off ques­tions about that chap­ter of his life just as he did any num­ber of other con­tro­ver­sies: “Be­ing black con­di­tions you for those kinds of things,” he said. “I write it off as ex­pe­ri­ence.”

He was proud and he was elo­quent, he could be warm and he could be icily of­fi­cious. He loved to tell sto­ries about al­lies and en­e­mies alike, and he fan­cied him­self an unofficial mayor of black Wash­ing­ton.

In pri­vate, he had great con­tempt for Barry, the city’s dom­i­nant pub­lic fig­ure for most of Craw­ford’s ca­reer. Craw­ford sneered at Barry’s pop­u­lar­ity, call­ing him a phony and a crook.

But it al­ways seemed to grate on Craw­ford that Barry had achieved the leg­endary sta­tus of “mayor-for-life,” in the clas­sic for­mu­la­tion, while Craw­ford re­turned af­ter his coun­cil ser­vice to life as a land­lord and de­vel­oper.

H.R. Craw­ford was a jumble of con­tra­dic­tions, a big, bold pres­ence in a small city where pol­i­tics played out more in­ti­mately in the neigh­bor­hoods than in the mar­ble cor­ri­dors on Capi­tol Hill. Craw­ford set out to build af­ford­able hous­ing for Wash­ing­to­ni­ans who’d never owned any­thing in their lives, yet his grand plans of­ten in­cluded push­ing fam­i­lies out of homes they’d had for decades. He promised poor peo­ple he’d make home­own­ers of them, yet far too many of the units he built ended up in the hands of peo­ple who had po­lit­i­cal, per­sonal or fi­nan­cial con­nec­tions to him.

In 2004, I went with Craw­ford to Kelsey Gar­dens, a run­down apart­ment com­plex on Sev­enth Street NW that he man­aged. He was try­ing to per­suade the ten­ants to move out so a re­de­vel­op­ment plan could move ahead. His pitch to the ten­ants was that they’d get a chance to come back when the new build­ing was erected, this time not as renters but as own­ers.

Many ten­ants weren’t buy­ing the ar­gu­ment. The build­ing was in aw­ful shape, the neigh­bor­hood was vi­o­lent and scary, and the ten­ants wanted some­thing bet­ter. But this was home, and they were stay­ing put.

“I’m kind of a god­fa­ther to a lot of folks.” H.R. Craw­ford, a long­time D.C. Coun­cil mem­ber, real es­tate de­vel­oper, fixer and man about town who died Fri­day at 78

Michelle Lit­tles, then vice pres­i­dent of the com­plex’s ten­ants as­so­ci­a­tion, told Craw­ford that she didn’t be­lieve him when he promised that she’d be able to move back into the re­de­vel­oped project.

Craw­ford con­ceded that some peo­ple wouldn’t be al­lowed back, but he said she’d be fine. It’s the bad ac­tors who wouldn’t be let back, he said: “You don’t want those peo­ple here.”

Lit­tles wasn’t buy­ing that line. She had a good deal, and she was stick­ing with it.

Af­ter we left Lit­tles’s place, Craw­ford con­ceded to me that most of Kelsey Gar­dens’ ten­ants would never get to move into the mixed-in­come project planned for the site.

“You wouldn’t want a lot of them back there,” he said. “Look, we made too many mis­takes by crowd­ing peo­ple into the ghetto. Now, this town is boom­ing. You have to dis­perse these [bad word]-ing crews. You can’t clus­ter and stig­ma­tize peo­ple any­more. And this black man has the same right to de­velop as any white de­vel­oper. This city is ex­plod­ing, and sites like this can’t just be low-in­come any­more.”

More than a decade later, that block is in the heart of a high-priced, hy­per-gen­tri­fied Shaw. Some peo­ple got rich, and some peo­ple got moved away. Craw­ford got his job done and made his money. Some peo­ple saw that as a cry­ing shame. H.R. Craw­ford saw it as the way of the world.

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