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Native Intelligence
Is it time for Ambrose to go?
(Published November 29, 2004)

By DIANA WINTHROP

The whereabouts of Ward 6 Councilwoman Sharon Ambrose during the battle over the Major League Baseball deal has been a hot topic for Ward 6 residents. Both Robert F. Kennedy Stadium and the mayor’s proposed new stadium are located in Ambrose’s ward, yet the longtime council member has been absent from the debate.

Ambrose, who was diagnosed in the fall of 1998 with multiple sclerosis, has always had a reputation as a tireless worker. But she has been AWOL since her return from the mayor’s Far East junket in October. Rumors about her health have been rampant. Council employees say privately that she has suffered from a tremendous loss in weight, that she is down to 100 pounds or, as another employee said, 90. Her recent bout with the flu resulted in her hospitalization, according to some sources, while others say it did not. Many of her constituents – both admirers and critics – are not happy about the speculation.

The observations of Robert Nevitt, president of the Capitol Hill Restoration Society, are typical of those of many Ward 6 residents. Nevitt has been an active supporter of Ambrose, giving both time and money during her special election in 1997 and her campaigns for full terms in 1998 and 2002.

"I am personally fond of Sharon," Nevitt said. "She has done a lot for the ward over the years and it saddens me that people are left to speculate about her inactivity in recent months. It would serve her interests and ours if she and her staff were more candid about her circumstances."

Other friends and supporters unwilling to go on the record put some of the blame for the reticence on Ambrose’s chief of staff, Marge Francese, who has been speaking for the councilwoman during the past few months. Ward 6 residents have reported that inquiries to Francese regarding Ambrose’s whereabouts or health status have resulted in a range of responses from "she became ill with the flu in China" to outbursts at anyone who has expressed concern about Ambrose’s health.

Assessing Ambrose’s council performance is complicated, said one of her strongest supporters: "My assessment is she has shown great ability in the past and she has done a great job for our ward. It is difficult to point to things in recent times that she has done well. Recently, there are a lot of grumblings because of her disengagement on crucial issues, such as the stadium." This Ward 6 resident says that, on balance, he is in favor of the stadium proposal but has observed grumblings on the part of other residents, who are angry at the way she has handled the stadium controversy. He added, "My hope is she won’t run again in 2006. I suspect if she runs again, she will lose."

(At this point, the crowded roster of contenders includes District III Board of Education member Tommy Wells; the mayor’s former neighborhood representative, Leo Pinson; Ambrose’s 2002 Democratic Primary challenger, Keith Andrew Perry; Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Ken Jarboe; former Alcoholic Beverage Control Board member Ellen Opper-Weiner; ABC Board Chairman Chuck Burger; and former ANC 6C Chairman Robert Hall.)

Ambrose’s political career has its roots in her children’s PTA. And despite her nearly 20 years of experience in various staff positions for former at-large council members Betty Ann Kane and John Ray, even her most ardent supporters say she has never grown beyond her Capitol Hill neighborhood. This, they say, is why the stadium controversy is not that important to her. One critic said that Ambrose "has never comprehended the difficulties of people who don’t live in her world."

Ward 6 resident John Capozzi, a leader of the "No D.C. Taxes for Baseball" coalition, said he, too, has "heard tons of rumors" about Ambrose’s status: "First, it was she is running again in 2006, then it was she is not running again. I haven’t seen her in months. She has been unavailable since her return from China."

According to Capozzi, the coalition is dumbfounded at the council member’s inactivity on the issue. Her staff cancelled a meeting with them and has yet to reschedule.

Ambrose is counted among the votes on the council in support of the mayor’s public financing proposal for a new ballpark near South Capitol and M streets SE. Yet, the coalition has used remarks that Ambrose made in June 2003 on its literature opposing the stadium deal.

"If the deal was bad in 2003 [and, according to Capozzi, it is not much different today], how can Ambrose support the plan?" Capozzi asked.

Capozzi attributes the following words to Ambrose in 2003: "I have talked to very few people who think baseball is the top priority in the District of Columbia. Education, schools, yes; top priority baseball, not really. Would I like baseball back in D.C.? I would love to have baseball back at RFK, but I’m not prepared to raise taxes to build a new baseball stadium, not when practically every school but two in Ward 6 are falling apart. I am not ready to do taxes for baseball."

Capozzi said he is "still hoping she will vote against it, because a huge majority of people in the ward are opposed to the stadium deal. …Overall, I think she has done a good job. The ward has gotten better. She is certainly an improvement over our previous council member. However, things like the St. Coletta’s school land giveaway [Ambrose engineered the deal that gave away a prime parcel of land for $1] and the baseball stadium are infuriating."

Ambrose’s continued absences from community events and meetings have been palpable. Some of her critics have compared her to former Councilwoman Hilda Mason who, toward the end of her last term, was considered completely out of touch. Mason was said to damage her legacy by continuing to serve way beyond her prime, when she was unable to handle the job.

No D.C. elected official has ever resigned or stepped down because of illness, but some Ward 6 residents are suggesting that Ambrose do so. "Sharon’s legacy of hard work to improve the lives of Ward 6 residents would forever be remembered if she has the courage to step down," said one Ambrose admirer.

That may be too much to expect from a woman who will not be honest and open with her friends, or her constituents.

***

Diana Winthrop is a native Washingtonian. Contact her at diana@thecommondenominator.com.

Copyright 2004, The Common Denominator