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The San Diego Union-Tribune.

Source: San Diego Union-Tribune. 15 November 1998, pp. B-1, B-2.

Cunningham’s waterfront crusade

Local congressman steers cash toward his D.C. neighborhood

By Dana Wilkie and Marcus Stern

Kelly C: Home away from home: Rep. Randy 'Duke' Cunningham lives on the yacht Kelly C when he's in Washington, D.C.
LINDA SPILLERS/Associated Press
[click to enlarge]
Home away from home: Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham lives
on the yacht Kelly C when he’s in Washington, D.C.

WASHINGTON — One of your San Diego-area congressmen is on a crusade to spiff up the waterfront.

But it’s not the waterfront you may think.

Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham last month helped secure $3 million of federal money to refurbish an aging marina and fish market in his Washington, D.C., neighborhood — the area along the Potomac River where he lives on his yacht, the Kelly C.

The Escondido Republican says he was merely fulfilling his duties as a member of a House subcommittee that decides how to spend federal money in the District of Columbia. It’s not, he says, because the beautification project would benefit an area he calls home when he is working in the nation’s capital.

“The speaker (Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga.) said he wants to make D.C. a shining city, and so I said, ‘OK, . . . I want to clean up the waterfont’ . . . not for Duke Cunningham. I haven’t got a nickel invested,” said Cunningham, who for the past couple of years has docked the 65-foot Kelly C along the city’s southwest waterfront.

Cunningham’s boat is berthed at the Capitol Yacht Club, where the congressman pays $350 a month to tie up his $200,000 home away from home. He bought the three-stateroom yacht from Rep. Sonny Callahan, an Alabama Republican who designed the craft and was a charter member of the “Sea Caucus” — a small group of House members who live on boats along the Potomac.

Cunningham’s chief of staff, Patrick McSwain, calls the craft a “Flat-bottom houseboat.”

The congressman calls it “kind of a river boat.”

The yacht club’s dock master, Kelvin Lee, calls it “huge,” and says it’s one of the biggest yachts on the club’s property.

Just steps away from the members-only club is a collection of aging buildings housing several seafood vendors. Next to that is the rundown Washington Marina, which sits on old pilings and is home to dilapidated dinghies. It’s something of an eyesore to the more posh yacht club and its neighbors — such as the Gangplank Marina, where Cunningham anchored the Kelly C until six months ago.

“I walked down there and almost fell into the dock,” said Cunningham, who insists he is doing the bidding not just of Gringrich, but of Virginia and Maryland congressional members who want the waterfront fixed up.

“It’s dangerous. I looked and there was an electric wire that was bare, that was hanging very close to the water.”

Tenants at the marina and fish market say it will be easier to get bank loans to improve the properties if the District of Columbia, which administers the federally owned land, awards them 30-year leases. The tenants had five-year leases until recently, when the city put them on month-to-month rental contracts.

Perhaps, says Cunningham, this will be the impetus the waterfront needs to someday evolve from a place of weathered wood to to a glitzy hangout for tourists and the after-work crowd.

“Have you been to San Francisco and their fish-market area, or down . . . in San Diego?” Cunningham asked, noting the rejuvenation inspired by downtown’s Horton Plaza. “That’s what I want the whole area to be.”

And so Cunningham last months slipped into a spending bill $3 million to pay for a study on how to improve the properties. Cunningham made the funding, which will also pay for some initial improvements, contingent on the District of Columbia giving the tenants long-term leases.

For years, the district government, which has no voting representation in the House, has objected when Congress dictates how the district can spend federal money, which makes up the bulk of the city’s funds.

Cunningham insists he is doing no favors for his waterfront neighbors, or for any campaign contributors. Nor, he says, is he motivated by the desire to spruce up the area he calls home. He said he purchased his boat about three years ago, before he was on the Appropriations Committee that has jurisdiction over congressional spending.

Cunningham’s two years on the powerful Appropriations Committee have not been without benefits for San Diego.

The congressman makes regular announcements of federal money he has secured for San Diego’s shipbuilding industry, local law enforcement and transportation projects. Recently, he noted that he steered $13 million to the San Diego Area Water Reclamation Project and nearly $230 million for fusion energy research, a top priority of San Diego’s research community.

San Diego transit officials, however, were a little unhappy when the Appropriations Committee recently sliced in half the amount it originally planned to spend on San Diego light-rail projects.

Cunningham says he got $1 million for a northern San Diego County water treatment plant, $3 million for an environmental research center at San Diego State University and $1 million to rebuild the aging San Diego children’s convalescent hospital in Linda Vista.

In Washington, Cunningham contends, new leases for the marina and fish-market tenants could pave the way for more development along the waterfront. In fact, an association of waterfront businesses and residents hired consultants to create plans for turning the entire area into a theme mall of shops and restaurants similar to San Diego’s Seaport Village.

“It’s supposed to be a more festive, open-air, brass-and-glass sort of deal,” says dock master Lee, noting that surrounding businesses fear they may suffer when 4,500 employees of the Environmental Protection Agency move soon from a nearby office building.

District officials are uncertain if the federal government would help pay for this larger development.

But Cunningham sees the $3 million that he helped direct toward the waterfront as an encouragement to “other businesses to come in there and develop the whole area with private dollars.”

“I think that’s good,” the congressman said. “As a matter of fact, I’ve taken it on as a crusade.”

The neighborhod around these Washington, D.C. seafood shops could be upgraded with the aid of federal funds.
LINDA SPILLERS/Associated Press
Renewal: The neighborhood around these Washington, D.C.,
seafood shops could be upgraded with the aid of federal funds.

Union-Tribune staff writer Gerry Braun and library researchers Erin Hobbs and Anne Magill contributed to this story.

Copyright © 1998 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.

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