D.C. Council Chair Phil Mendelson on Tuesday temporarily withdrew from consideration a bill that calls for the ceremonial naming of a street on Capitol Hill for the late Richard Rausch, a prominent gay Democratic Party activist and advocate for LGBT rights.
Mendelson withdrew the Richard Rausch Way Designation Act of 2017 from a scheduled vote by the Council’s Committee of the Whole after Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6B voted to oppose the bill at a Dec. 12 meeting in which one of its members cited a book written by the former owner of a gay male escort service that claimed Rausch was a client of the service in the 1980s.
Rausch died in 2007 of complications associated with pneumonia at the age of 71.
While in the hospital two days before his passing friends said Rausch was making phone calls to generate support for the election campaign of former D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, a gesture that friends and political associates called a testament to Rausch’s dedication to the causes he believed in.
In a letter to Mendelson informing him that it voted 10-0 to oppose the street naming bill, the ANC made no mention of the escort service matter. It said its opposition was based on procedural grounds, noting that neither the Council nor the city agency in charge of street namings notified the ANC or residents of the street about the pending bill until six months after it was introduced and after a public hearing was held in September.
“ANC 6B recognizes the significant contributions by Mr. Rausch, at both the local and national levels, in advancing Democratic Party principles and advocating for important causes,” the Dec. 18 letter states. “However, it is the view of the Commission that there was a lack of community support for the Bill due to insufficient notice to the ANC and thus to the neighbors on the 200 block of 2nd Street, S.E. prior to a hearing on the bill,” the letter says.
Earl Fowlkes, president of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, the city’s largest local LGBT political group, and chair of the Democratic National Committee’s LGBT Caucus, said he is sympathetic to the ANC’s concern about a procedural breach that prevented it from learning about the Rausch bill earlier in the process.
But Fowlkes said he was concerned that the book alleging that Rauch may have been an escort service client was brought up at the ANC meeting, saying such an issue was irrelevant to Rausch’s career of more than 40 years as a human rights advocate, Democratic Party activist, and champion for LGBT equality.
When told that ANC commissioners stated at their Dec. 12 meeting in which they voted to oppose the Rausch bill that the escort service matter was not a deciding factor in their decision to oppose the bill, Fowlkes said, “So why bring it up? If it’s not a deciding factor, why mention it?”
According to an audio recording of the ANC’s Dec. 12 meeting, which the Washington Blade obtained, ANC 6B member Jennifer Samolyk raised the issue of a reference to Rausch in a 2015 book by gay former escort service operator Henry W. Vinson called “Confessions of a D.C. Madam: The Politics of Sex, Lies, and Blackmail.”
“I did some research into Mr. Rausch,” Samolyk told her fellow commissioners. “And I’ve also talked with some neighbors. And Mr. Rausch was a client of the D.C. Madam,” she said. “And at the height of the scandal she lived with him at that 2nd Street address.”
When contacted by the Blade on Tuesday Samolyk acknowledged she may have misunderstood an excerpt of the book she read online to incorrectly assume that the “D.C. Madam” referred to in the book was a woman.
In his book, Vinson says he described himself as the D.C. Madam in his role as owner and operator of the city’s largest male escort service. He states in the book that he became friends with Rausch and asked Rausch if he could stay at Rausch’s apartment after D.C. police raided his house in the city’s Chevy Chase section in 1989, where he operated the service, and sealed the house as evidence in a case police said involved illegal prostitution.
Vinson told the Washington Post at the time that his operation was strictly a dating service and did not involve prostitution.
In the ANC’s audio recording of the Dec. 12 meeting, Samolyk and other commissioners said they did not want to dwell on the escort service angle alleged in the book, saying they should base their opposition to the street naming bill based on what they called a flawed procedure by the Council and city that failed to notify the ANC about the existence of the bill in time for it to submit a response prior to the public hearing.
At least two ANC members, who couldn’t be identified from the dialogue on the audio recording, said they also opposed the bill because they did not believe Rausch was a significant enough public figure to merit a street to be named after him.
“I looked him up and I read a Post bio,” said a male commissioner whose name couldn’t immediately be identified. “It didn’t rise to me to the level, even without the Madam thing, it wasn’t clear this was somebody that influential,” he said.
Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) told the Washington Blade that Mendelson withdrew the bill at his request following his learning of the opposition by the ANC and residents of 2nd Street, S.E. where the ceremonial name of Rausch would be placed should the bill be approved by the full Council.
Allen noted that the failure to notify the ANC and residents of the neighborhood about the bill was due to a typographical error on the bill that incorrectly identified the street to be designated as Richard Rausch Way as the 200 block of 2nd Street, S.W. He said that up until the time the mistake was discovered the official notifications went to the wrong place.
“So I asked if the chairman would pull it off the agenda today so we could spend a little more time working on this,” Allen told the Blade in a Dec. 19 phone interview. “But the bottom line is I’d like for us to find a way to honor Richard and his many, many contributions,” Allen said. “And so basically today’s action kind of pulled it off the agenda for a vote today so we can spend more time working on it.”
The bill’s author, Council member Anita Bonds (D-At-Large), introduced the measure on May 2. Nine of Bonds’ Council colleagues, including Allen and Mendelson, signed on as co-sponsors. All of the witnesses that testified at a Sept. 20 public hearing on the bill expressed support for the measure.
In its letter of opposition, ANC 6B members said they would prefer that the Council adopt a procedure for vetting ceremonial street namings, including the Rausch proposal, similar to the procedure now used for vetting ceremonial namings of city alleys. According to the letter, that procedure involves obtaining petition signatures from nearby residents and input from residents and the ANC before an alley naming proposal is formally proposed.
“In addition, the Commission noted that, on a practical level, adding another sign on a block already filled with other signage could lead to more confusion,” the letter says. “While ANC 6B welcomes Council recognition of Mr. Rausch, as was done in 2005 with Mayor Williams’ proclamation of Nov. 11, 2005 as ‘Richard Rausch Day,’ we do not believe that the proposed bill for symbolically renaming the 200 block of 2nd Street, S.E. is appropriate at the present,” the letter concludes.
Fowlkes said he takes strong exception to claims by some ANC members that Rausch isn’t a significant enough figure to merit a ceremonial street naming for him. He described as “absurd” the claim by the ANC in its letter that adding the ceremonial sign “Richard Rausch Way” to 2nd Street, S.E. would create confusion in the neighborhood.
“There are dozens of these signs all over the city,” he said. “And no one complains. No one’s confused. And it’s bizarre. It’s unfair,” he said in referring to the ANC’s opposition.
“And hopefully they will correct themselves because of the typographical error and they will be able to vote on this again,” Fowlkes said. “It will be interesting. If they come up with the same conclusion the second time, then we have to look a little deeper at the motive.”
“Essentially what we’re doing is hitting the pause button a little bit,” Allen told the Blade. “So basically we’re just waiting to bring it back to the Committee of the Whole,” he said. “It gives us time to have a conversation. And in my best case scenario to work with the ANC and ask can objections be overcome and what are the ways we can make sure we honor Richard Rausch.”