While seven people have served as the chairman of the D.C. Council from the advent of home rule in the District in 1973, only one has been a woman: Linda W. Cropp, who played a defining role in helping the District emerge from the 1990s financial crisis and laid the groundwork for the economic revival in the city which occurred before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
Cropp presided over the council from 1997-2007. Before rising to the top of the city’s legislative body, she served as a Ward 4 member of the D.C. school board (1980-1991) and on the council as a Democratic at-large member from 1991-1997.
While U.S. Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) has been credited by political historians as the first Black woman to reign over a legislative body as the speaker of the California General Assembly from 2008-2010, it could be argued Cropp accomplished that feat a decade earlier, leading the D.C. Council, a legislature that performs the duties of a municipality, county and state.
Cropp said when her colleagues elevated her to the chairmanship of the council in 1997 due to the death of David A. Clarke, the District functioned under a quasi-federal agency called the District of Columbia Financial Responsibility Management Assistance Authority, known informally as the D.C. Control Board.
“When I became chairman, our primary goal at that time was to get rid of the control board,” Cropp said. “The people I served with at that time were extremely dedicated to representing their constituents and looking out for their best interests. We were the independently elected representatives of the people. We worked hard while the control board was in power. As a matter of fact, when we submitted budgets to the control board, I don’t think they made any major revisions of what we did. If they did, it was only one percent.”
During Cropp’s tenure, the District’s prison — Lorton Reformatory — and the D.C. General Hospital, the only public comprehensive medical facility close to neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River, closed as a result of the city’s need to balances its finances by order of the control board. The control board suspended its activities on Sept. 30, 2001 when the District achieved its fourth consecutive balanced budget.
Cropp said during that time, the District had many challenges other jurisdictions didn’t have.
“People must remember D.C. deals with issues as a city, county and state,” she said. “Also, our residents are sicker and poorer. Unlike other cities, we don’t have a suburban area to support us. Philadelphia, for example, has its suburbs in Pennsylvania to support its programs but we don’t. In D.C., we had to pay for our prison and Medicaid program, and other cities didn’t have to do that.”
With the control board held off, Cropp said, she worked with her council colleagues and D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams to bring economically viable residents and businesses to the city.
“Even as far back as 1991, when I came onto the council, the city was losing its tax base,” she said. “We needed new businesses and people to come into the city to shore up its finances so that we could take care of those who were needy. I remember as a school board member in the 1980s, there were only three restaurants downtown in the immediate area of where we met to conduct our business. Plus, we had large areas of land in the city that weren’t bringing in any revenue for the city. However, because of our work, there were restaurants everywhere in the city before the pandemic set in.”
Cropp has received some credit for bringing major league baseball back to the District primarily through the building of Nationals Park in Southeast.
“We wanted to bring baseball back into the District but not to be stuck with the entire costs of building the stadium,” she said. “I think in the end we came out with a better deal for the city. A lot of people criticized me for standing by the city so hard back then. However, my critics on the baseball deal didn’t live in the city but the suburbs.”
In 2006, Cropp opted to run for mayor instead of seeking reelection to the council. She lost to Adrian Fenty in the Democratic Party primary, and then decided to retire from politics.
Cropp said the present majority-female D.C. Council “is encouraging” and encourages women, especially African Americans, to pursue a career in politics.
“I would like to see more Black female leadership at all levels,” she said. “Even though in D.C. we have a female representing the city in Congress, as the mayor and the majority of the council, we always need more. I encourage young Black women who want to get into politics to move fast and strong.”