Out of America: Cosmetic job fails to save mayor's face

Click to follow
The Independent Online
WASHINGTON - Let me start with a question I am quite unqualified to answer. What is the going rate for a make-up by a professional? The dollars 35 ( pounds 24) reputedly paid by Pamela Harriman, that grande dame of Georgetown, before she left to become American ambassador in Paris? Or maybe dollars 50 is a more realistic price. Who knows, perhaps even dollars 65 for a facial is not excessive, if the job is well done.

Personally, I haven't a clue, and in the great sweep of global news, from Bosnia, Middle Eastern massacres and CIA moles to the ice wars of Nancy and Tonya, the debate is trifling. But here in the capital of the free world, it's been on the front pages for days.

Last week the Washington Times, baiter of all things Democrat, revealed that our once- esteemed mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly had spent dollars 14,650, or dollars 65 an hour, for the services of a make-up artist called Julie Rodgers-Edwards. The first dollars 5,000 came from the city budget. The second contract for dollars 9,650 runs until September and will be paid out of fees paid the city by the local cable TV franchise, whose 'public affairs' Channel 16 is little more than a round-the-clock hymn to the activities of Ms Kelly. But since our subscriptions keep the TV company going, we taxpayers are bankrolling all this cosmetic activity. As a rule, the fuss would not matter much. By today's standards of political debate - including such nuggets as Bill Clinton's dollars 200 haircut on Air Force One - 'Powdergate' (as it is already known) would normally be a one-day wonder. But two considerations put a different complexion on things, if you will excuse the pun.

Firstly, Ms Kelly's term comes up this year. Her problem is not the Republicans, fortunate to win 20 per cent of any DC vote, but the opponents she will face in the all-important Democratic primary, the real mayoral election. Second, there is the small matter of the dollars 300m deficit in Washington's dollars 3.4bn budget, which has forced Ms Kelly to propose to omit dollars 230m of pension funding in 1994-95 - though not her own state-funded beauty treatment. Her rivals are having a field day. As for the hapless Ms Rodgers-Edwards, she can only and entirely correctly lament how she is 'a pawn in a greater game'.

Alas, it is a game of our poor mayor's making. She came to power in 1990, promising to wipe the slate clean after the disgrace of her unscrupulous predecessor Marion Barry, whose 12-year reign ended when an FBI sting operation caught him smoking crack cocaine in a hotel bedroom. But Ms Kelly has slipped into a purely political trap of her own. In the local government of Washington DC, Congress calls the shots that matter. Constitutionally deprived of the substance of power, she has sought refuge in its trappings. Her 24-strong security detail rivals a president's. The lavish redecoration of her 11th-floor office includes bullet-proof glass in the windows, though there is no evidence Washington's criminal community has taken to helicopters. And now, we learn, a contracted personal make-up artist.

On serious issues her record has been dismal. Ms Kelly's proposal that the capital introduce gambling casinos to raise money has sunk in a sea of derision. Last year she requested authority to call in the National Guard to make Washington's streets safer - only to be told by the White House not to meddle in matters above her station. She even seems to have lost Washington its remaining source of civic pride, the Redskins. The football team will move to suburban Maryland as soon as a new stadium is built. Not quite the stuff of which triumphant re-election campaigns are built.

But her main failure has been the budget. Over the years Mr Barry built up a giant patronage machinge, so padding the city payroll that, of Washington's 590,000 inhabitants, 46,000 are full-time public employees, as many as required by Chicago, with a population nearly five times larger. Maintenance of this bureaucracy has all but bankrupted the city whose taxes already are among the highest in the country. Ms Kelly has talked loudly about sacrifice, but only nibbled at the problem. The overstaffed offices of the DC administration have a nostalgic Muscovite feel; so too do the untended potholes that adorn DC streets.

Forlornly, Ms Kelly persists with the campaign to have Washington become the 51st state. One day perhaps, when pigs have wings, that will be so. In the meantime Marion Barry waits for his chance. Where else but Washington would a convicted felon aspire to become mayor?

Last year he won back a seat on the city council. Half-rehabilitated, just remarried and still blaming the city's woes on racism by its white minority, he calculates that if the field is split, the loyalty of all those public employees he created could return him to power. There is just one problem. Ms Kelly's staff have unearthed proof that Mr Barry too on occasion employed a make-up artist, at dollars 65 a throw. Anyone for a facial?