Jim Graham peers at the antique mirror in the hallway of his Adams Morgan apartment to sculpt the bow tie that has been a signature of his 16 years on the D.C. Council.
He has begun thousands of mornings with this mirror. On this day in mid-December, he is preparing for his last council meeting as a city lawmaker. The fabric he has chosen for the final knot is a tightly woven rainbow.
“To represent the diversity of Ward 1,” he quips.
In his final weeks in office, Graham is still struggling to accept his defeat in last spring’s Democratic primary, a loss he attributed to a corruption scandal that he says tarnished him unfairly with the very residents he was instrumental in bringing into the city. The newcomers who filled the apartment and condo buildings he championed in his ward were the voters who turned him out of office. He wonders, painfully, how he will be remembered after he is gone.
Graham was the council’s second openly gay member, arriving in 1998, a year after at-large council member David A. Catania. Graham had made a name for himself as an impatient activist, leading marches and directing the Whitman-Walker Clinic — now Whitman-Walker Health — during the height of the city’s AIDS epidemic.
On the council, however, it became Catania, who was first elected as a Republican and later became an independent, who led the charge for marriage equality, medical marijuana for AIDS patients and a host of other LGBT priorities.
Graham took another path, becoming the master of small-bore constituent services. In the District’s then-decayed Ward 1, along U Street and north into Adams Morgan and Columbia Heights, no issue was too small for the ubiquitous politician.
After a homicide or drug bust, Graham would be on the scene — whether at 2 p.m. or 2 a.m. But he also would show up for a broken trash can, an inattentive landlord or just a dead rat.
Graham became famous in a cluster of the city’s soon-to-be up-and-coming neighborhoods for spending hours each day personally attending to residents’ concerns. He would show up on doorsteps, answer every e-mail, tap city discretionary funds for a constituent’s electric bill or back-rent payment and hold the hands of senior citizens as they labored to navigate city bureaucracy.
“David is a master strategist who can figure out how to get a major bill passed or a budget approved,” Graham said of his longtime political rival. “Constituent services was my cup of tea, definitely, and being able to see small changes but multiplied many times over helping people. This is what I like to do.”
The tunnel vision on residents in his ward launched Graham on two crusades, the first aimed at rebuilding blighted neighborhoods and the second at preventing gentrification from harming his constituents. Each helps explain why Graham’s office is a mess of packing boxes on this day, and why he is being forced to leave before he would like to.
Graham wanted to bring retail and residential development to his ward, to defeat the drug and street crime that flourished in the abandoned buildings and empty lots of U Street and Columbia Heights. He also sought to protect longtime, often low-income residents who could be easily pushed out as development pressures intensified.
Championing the residents of run-down apartment buildings that lined 14th and 16th streets NW two or three miles north of the White House, Graham pushed through laws to strengthen tenant rights, including giving residents the power to stay in their homes when owners wanted to sell and even to organize and purchase buildings from delinquent landlords.
Graham also re-energized the District’s rent-control laws, which city reports have credited with keeping thousands of low-income residents in their homes as prices in downtown Washington have skyrocketed. He worked to ensure that some of the tax revenue generated by the development boom would fund housing subsidies and assistance for those who otherwise could be priced out.
Graham leveraged his council role and two terms as the city’s representative to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, the board that governs Metro, to push development projects in his ward that would reshape entire neighborhoods. One of the most notable was the complex near the Columbia Heights Metro station that boasted the city’s first Target, along with a Best Buy and other stores.
It was Graham’s involvement in another project that triggered his downfall. In 2008, he was accused of offering to support a businessman’s bid for a D.C. lottery contract if that businessman would abandon an attempt to redevelop a different Metro-owned property.
A city ethics board concluded that Graham wanted to steer the Metro project to a political contributor. And a Metro investigation found Graham had improperly intermingled his council and board responsibilities. Graham called it big-city, sharp-elbow politics and said he had the District’s health in mind by trying to keep a businessman who was tied to a U Street business plagued by violence out of a prominent city development effort.
Graham was reprimanded by his council colleagues last year and stripped of his power to oversee District liquor licenses and alcohol issues as head of the Human Services Committee.
The political fallout doomed his bid for a fifth council term.
In a low-turnout Democratic primary, Graham’s political machine — the tenant groups and apartment buildings full of low-income residents who had anchored his three reelections — was stymied in part by a newly arrived population of younger voters ready to give challenger Brianne Nadeau a chance.
“She ran around calling me a crooked politician. I don’t blame her — she used the ammunition she was given,” Graham said in his office, where more than 30 silver-plated shovels from groundbreakings in his ward hint at the transformation he oversaw.
Somewhat ironically, Nadeau’s support came mostly from the relatively affluent 20- and 30-somethings who had flooded into the apartments and condominiums that Graham helped create.
“Through it all, he cared about us. He always cared about us,” said Renee Floodwright, a tenant leader at Urban Village, a mixed-income apartment building in Graham’s ward.
At Graham’s final council meeting, he and Catania — who gave up his council seat this year to wage an ultimately unsuccessful campaign for mayor — were presented with crystal bowls by their colleagues.
Catania said the fact that Graham’s legacy is talked about in terms of his ward and not just his sexual orientation shows how far the two — and the city — have come.
“It used to be ‘David Catania, gay council member,’ or ‘Jim Graham, gay council member.’ That’s gone . . . and that’s remarkable,” Catania said.
Now, the council will for the first time in 17 years have no openly gay members.
It also won’t have the man in the bow tie who helped transform Ward 1 — and who sometimes, these days, wonders if anyone noticed.
“I know that the reason I lost the election was that a lot of the newcomers thought I was corrupt,” Graham says in his council office, too absorbed in his thoughts to notice that one of his beloved Shih Tzus, Mad Max, is defecating on a pad placed on the floor for just that purpose.
Graham primarily blames a series of critical editorials in The Washington Post for his ballot-box defeat. “They forever changed the way many people viewed me in the city, even though my mantra is, ‘No law broken, no crime committed, no money taken,’ ” Graham said. “I know I have been victimized in some ways, but I don’t want to come across as the victim.”
Graham hopes the city will remember him by looking at his ward, especially the U Street corridor, Petworth and Columbia Heights, from 14th Street to Georgia Avenue.
“It was empty lots, chain-link fences, nothing going on,” Graham said. “It’s hugely different now, even though nobody remembers it. I have to stop and remind myself.”