Grandma's Hands: Real Ethics Reform in DC

Grandma's hands clapped in church on Sunday morning. It's a line from an old Bill Withers song, and it always reminded me of Grandma Maggie. She had the roughest hands, burned from cooking, calloused from working the hospital night shift, worn from raising her kids and then her grandkids. But, they were loving hands too, proud hands, and tender. I learned a lot about life from Grandma Maggie as I worked with her two granddaughters over the course of many years. Despite having earned her rest, Grandma Maggie was struggling to be a mother again after the violent death of her daughter. She had an old story, one of migration from the South and a new life in the city. Her hands built the District, as did the hands of my mother-in-law Thurma. Her hands wrote papers at McKinley Tech, aced exams at Howard Medical, and held stethoscopes to the chests of DC children. Her circle of friends, "the Village" as they called themselves, joined with thousands of other Washingtonians and built schools, parks, courthouses, and communities. And, 47 years ago today, they all voted in a presidential election for the first time. It was a small spark in the darkness of our denied self-rule.

Over the decades, our faith in the democratic process has been tested. Today, it is shaken. The ethical failings and accommodating silence of many of our elected leaders have become too much to bear. It is a crisis created by politicians who care more about self-enrichment than public service. It has grown through crooked contracts, hidden earmarks and legislation, unreported bribes, shell company campaign "bundling," misappropriations, influence peddling, unregulated corporate dollars, political slush funds, and conflicts-of-interest too numerous to count. Our government has become a gatekeeper for the privileged rather than an advocate for the people.

We need comprehensive ethics and campaign finance reform and enforcement, not the bare minimum to mollify the public. We need to clean this money out of our local politics. We need full disclosure of all business relationships between the Council and the private sector and real consequences for ethics violations. We need to close the loopholes that allow corporate dollars to pour into elections. We need to abolish the Constituent Service Funds that dole out personal favors and finance thinly-disguised electioneering rather than offer actual community assistance. We need to replace corporate-financed transition committees with modest, publicly-funded entities and we need to ban Councilmembers from holding outside employment. The citizens of the District deserve elected representatives who work for them alone.

This past year, the DC government has dishonored the long history and hard work of its citizens. Rather than resort to cynicism and apathy, let's drive the agenda for change. We are all responsible for rebuilding that sacred bond between the government and the governed. Ethics reform must not simply touch the edges of the problem -- it must be transformative. Forget the career politicians. It's in our hands now.

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