When she knocks, it's just 'Michelle'
Sometime this summer, you might answer a knock at your door to find Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee standing there, ready to tell you what a swell job Mayor Adrian M. Fenty has done.
But if she follows the legal advice she's received, she'll introduce herself as plain old "Michelle Rhee," without "Chancellor" or any other mention of her role as head the District's public school system. That's because the Hatch Act, the federal law that regulates political activity by D.C. government employees, bans the use of official titles or positions while campaigning.
Speculation about Rhee's role in the Fenty campaign began to build after her first-ever appearance in the annual Capital Pride parade earlier this month. She told my colleague Mike DeBonis that she wanted to send the message to same-sex couples that the D.C. public schools were welcoming places for their children. She toted a homemade rainbow flag reading "DCPS SUPPORTS ALL KIDS AND ALL FAMILIES!"
Exactly what plans the Fenty campaign has to deploy Rhee are unclear. Spokeswoman Helen Hare took the question Friday morning, but hasn't responded. She would undoubtedly be an asset--even if an untitled one--in areas of the city where her school reform efforts remain deeply popular.
Rhee said in an interview that she has not had a detailed discussion with the mayor's campaign about her role, but that she expected there to be one.
"I have communicated to the campaign office that I would imagine that at some point I would like to do volunteer work, going door to door. But I don't have any firm plans," she said.
Besides, she added, "I have a wedding to plan," referring to her Sept. 4 date with Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson. She said that much of whatever disposable time she had was going toward the yet-to-be-finalized guest list.
The Hatch Act offers a series of dos and don'ts for Rhee. She can attend fundraisers, but can't solicit money or be listed as a sponsor or host. She cannot invite subordinates to political events or otherwise suggest that they attend. She can make speeches, distribute literature and so forth, as long as she is not "on duty."
So when exactly is someone who routinely answers e-mails after 1 a.m. "off duty"?
"I think that even though I send e-mails late at night, most people would consider that to be off the clock," she said.
One Democratic operative close to Rhee said the campaign needs to be cautious about appearing to politicize her, and that too much overt politicking would tarnish her independent image. The other reality is that there are areas of the city, many of them east of the park, where she's just as unpopular as Fenty.
"This is one of these situations where the best thing she can do is be is be a good ambassador for reform and progress," the operative said. In other words, to keep working on the schools, and especially to make sure they open smoothly on Aug. 23, three weeks before the primary.The beginning of the school year, combined with the final days of what is shaping up as a difficult re-election campaign for her boss, is why she is putting off her honeymoon and returning to the District right after the wedding.
"I thought it would be weird for me to be gone during that time and I didn't want people to be speculating about that stuff," she said.
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