by Mike DeBonis for The Washington Post

December 6, 2011

As far as the District’s local political spectacle goes, it’s awful hard to beat a Washington Interfaith Network “action.”

It’s bully democracy in the best sense, with politicians forced to stand in front of huge swaths of voters and answer simple questions with a yes or no.

Such was the scene Monday night at Metropolitan AME Church, where WIN held what it called its largest action to date, packing the historic downtown building to the rafters with an estimated 2,000 members representing dozens of churches, community groups and unions — perhaps the city’s best-organized political counterbalance to business interests.

Five D.C. Council members attended, and they were asked to make three promises: First, require “clawbacks” — that is, enforceable money-back guarantees — on publicly subsidized construction and development projects. Second, agree to spend $44 million out of any end-of-the -fiscal-year surplus to fund housing and jobs projects. Third, develop a plan by March to restore funding for affordable housing to pre-recession levels.

Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), Michael A. Brown (I-At Large), Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) and Vincent Orange (D-At Large) stood up and said yes, yes and yes.

No one in the group’s 15 years has shown up to a WIN action and said no to its agenda, focused on jobs and affordable housing.

So why has the District government dissed WIN in recent years? The politicos’ promises have unraveled, and some of its signature initiatives have gone unfunded or worse as city revenue dwindled after the 2008 financial collapse.

For instance, when legislators last decade took up a controversial deal to build a major league baseball stadium, it included in the deal, at WIN’s behest, promises of $450 million in library construction, neighborhood development incentives and schools funding. But what little cash has materialized has been used to cover general fund shortfalls rather than support bonds to build libraries and schools.

Or take the Neighborhood Investment Fund, which was supposed to take direct $10 million a year to worthy projects outside downtown. In fiscal 2010, that money went to support a mostly empty parking garage and council members’ personal earmarks.

What did WIN do about it? It showed up at the John A. Wilson Building for key budget votes, sure, but it also invited the same politicians to come back and make more promises, and members applauded when they did. That’s partly because WIN is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, faith-based group. It can do voter education, it can do voter drives, but it can’t directly go about throwing the bums out.

“We watched our public leaders make promises in the past that, when push came to shove, they were not able to fulfill,” said the Rev. Jeffrey K. Krehbiel, pastor of Church of the Pilgrims in Dupont Circle and one of five WIN co-chairs.

Putting some teeth behind the promises is not a new issue for the group. Five years ago, one clergywoman told a WIN crowd: “Read my lips. We are aware of the promises in the past that were made and not kept. We’re going to hold you accountable.”

That pastor, the Rev. Christine Wiley of Bellevue’s Covenant Baptist Church, also spoke Monday night. “We’ve reevaluated, we’ve regrouped and we’ve reorganized,” she said, and much of that was on display.

Speakers paid a lot of attention, for instance, to the pains made by Wilson Building politicos to please “Wall Street” bond raters and to the ongoing welfare of “downtown” at the expense of ordinary citizens. That may be standard rhetoric in city politics, but it was delivered with a special edge Monday in a location two blocks from the “99 percent” crusaders in McPherson Square, who are part of national movement that is resonating.

Krehbiel said the Occupy movement is helping to animate WIN’s adherents, but “we’re going about it with a different sense of how you organize and how you make change happen.” WIN’s methods come straight out of legendary organizer Saul Alinsky’s handbook: build relationships with power, get commitments, hold people accountable.

In WIN’s 15 years, the first two have never been a problem. Krehbiel now says WIN is serious about the third. “If we’re not seeing progress on these goals,” he said, “then we will work to agitate around any subsidized project before the council.” That extends, he said, to the interests who might benefit from the subsidy.

All of this stands to make things very uncomfortable for the politicians who make promises to WIN but fill their campaign coffers with donations from the business interests that the group says it will target outright.