Working in conjunction with prominent Washington D.C. attorneys and the District government, the local advocacy organization D.C. Appleseed issued its latest brief this week which seeks to find a proper balance between post-Sept. 11, 2001, security needs and open access to public space in Washington.
The issue is timely, the research is critical and objective and the changes sought are systemic. In essence, it’s the type of project that has become the bread and butter of D.C. Appleseed since the organization first took root in Washington 10 years ago.
In the past decade, the D.C. Appleseed Center for Law and Justice — one of about a dozen city-based Appleseed centers across the country — has led the way for public advocacy organizations in the District and and is currently involved in projects ranging from national security to voting representation.
“D.C. Appleseed is not unique in being a public interest advocacy group, but in some ways the breadth of our agenda is unusual. We are in the midst of almost every public issue going on” in D.C., said Walter Smith, who has been executive director of the organization for the past two years. “We pick projects based on what we think are some of the most pressing issues facing the nation’s capital.”
D.C. Appleseed advocates for issues in a variety of ways, ranging from investigating problems and issuing recommendations (such as in the District security and access issue) to initiating lawsuits (such as in the current effort to sue Congress for the District’s right to institute a commuter tax). The group also develops commissions to create legislative strategies and has earned a reputation as a fierce lobbying organization.
This might seem like an incredible amount of work from an organization that has only six paid staffers and a budget of around $500,000 a year. But according to Smith, the real strength of D.C. Appleseed comes from the incredible amount of pro bono work that District law firms donate to the group.
“We receive the equivalent of several million dollars every year in pro bono work,” said Smith, who pointed out that his 25-member board consists of 20 lawyers from some of D.C.’s top firms. In any given year, 40 to 50 area lawyers will do pro bono work for the organization.
“We usually have at least two different firms doing work for any given project,” Smith said, noting that the group currently has nine active projects.
Sheldon Krantz, a partner at Piper Rudnick who was named by the D.C. Bar Association as the pro bono lawyer of the year this past summer, is one local lawyer who spends a lot of time doing work for D.C. Appleseed — so much so that he recently decided to join the Appleseed board.
“I’m familiar with Appleseed nationally and I think D.C. Appleseed has been uniquely successful in its willingness to take on tough issues and attract all the law firms it has,” Krantz said. He added that the level of support the organization receives also stems from the distinct culture of volunteerism that exists among D.C. lawyers and law firms.
“I do think the pro bono involvement of D.C. law firms is higher than in, say, New York,” said Smith, a lawyer formerly at the firm Hogan & Hartson who previously worked as the deputy corporation counsel for the District government. “This is a town where people care about both the federal government and local government working better, and a lot of lawyers come here because that’s their passion.”
And although D.C. Appleseed often points out the shortcomings in local law and government, the organization has also cultivated a great deal of respect among both District and federal politicians.
“It’s an interesting relationship,” said D.C. City Council Chairman Linda Cropp (D). “Sometimes we work with them, sometimes their projects are to find what’s wrong with D.C. government. … But we have to try to get the good, the bad and the ugly, get it all in, and then make a conscientious decision of what is the right approach.”
One of the strengths of D.C. Appleseed, said Cropp, is its ability to pick specific issues and focus on them in a way that the city government can not. “A lot of things come at us at once and it spreads our resources … sometimes we don’t have all the capacity to do all the research with one particular issue.
“Whether I agree with everything they say — and I have not — I think they hit the target 80 percent of the time,” she said.
That working relationship allows D.C. Appleseed to work in conjunction with the city on projects such as cleaning up the Anacostia riverfront and at the same time criticize the city, like it did last fall when it issued a report citing problems in the allocation of resources for special education in the District school system.
“In many ways it’s a tribute to the city that agencies understand that D.C. Appleseed and law firms are going to be independent and reach their own assessments. At the same time there is a willingness to work with professionals who are out in the community and care about the city,” Krantz noted.
And while Smith and his group will spend this week issuing their report on District security and public access and appearing in U.S. District Court to sue for the city’s right to institute a commuter tax, the group is also always looking for new issues to take on. Smith said that just a few weeks ago, the group was approached by the Washington AIDS Partnership to undertake an investigation to assess what District government is and isn’t doing to help Washington residents with AIDS.
“All our projects are related to making this nation’s capital a place we can all be proud of,” Smith said. “This is a country that prides itself on being the best in the world, and we need a capital that is the best in the world, too.”