Complicated pol from a bygone era
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.