Sharon Ambrose (1939-2017)

photo: Andrew Lightman

Think of Sharon Ambrose when your children splash in the fountains at Yards Park. Applaud her while you cheer at a Nationals game. Discover her reflection in the magnificent glass edifice of Arena Stage. Recall her rapier wit which lit up the DC Council dais much as the modern streetlights flood the busy nighttime sidewalks of historic Barracks Row. Remember her beauty while enjoying the gardens surrounding the carefully renovated Hill Center.

Ward 6 is the house that Sharon Ambrose built.

Chicago Roots
Sharon Patricia Ambrose was born on the South Side of Chicago to Charles and Margaret Connelly. The eldest of three, she grew up in the Irish neighborhood of Englewood. “In our house, the order of respect was God, the pope, the cardinal, and Mayor Dick Daley,” said her younger brother, Terry Connelly, in a 1997 Washington Post article. This is where Sharon developed the strong commitment to social justice and civic responsibility that would drive her political career.

“I think the first political experience I ever had was campaigning with my grandfather, door to door, for Adlai Stevenson,” Sharon said in a 2013 interview for The Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project with Harriet Rogers. Sharon’s father was a Democratic precinct captain in the Daley political machine. It was this formative experience, growing up the daughter of a “Chicago ward heeler,” that would later serve her well.

Sharon was educated in the city’s Catholic school system, then attended St. Xavier University, graduating in 1962. While at St. Xavier’s, she joined the debating team and visited neighboring universities for competitions. During one such visit she was glimpsed by a student named Michael Ambrose, who found her enchanting. Later that day they had coffee. “When I first met her, I knew that this would be someone I would want to marry,” he recalled. “She was the first woman who had ever made that impression on me. Sharon had brains, beauty, and charisma. The power of her personality not only attracted people to her, but was persuasive. She was charming and influential.”

Sharon and Michael married after she graduated. In 1964 they moved to Alexandria, Va., after Michael secured a prestigious federal internship in DC. “Virginia was still a very segregated place,” Sharon recalled in her Overbeck interview. “Brown v. Board of Education had been decided in 1954, but the Alexandria school system was still basically a segregated school system, de facto segregation,” she explained. “We wanted our kids’ first school experiences to be in an integrated school situation.” One evening, Sharon and Michael had dinner with friends who lived on the 800 block of G Street SE. Looking around, they fell in love with Capitol Hill. It appeared to be the perfect integrated neighborhood in which to raise their children. They rented an apartment on the 400 block of Sixth Street, just a block and half from their eventual home.

From School Yard to Council Chamber
Soon after moving to the Hill, the Ambroses became concerned about the issue of gentrification. They joined other residents to form the Capitol Hill Action Group, which helped elderly residents maintain and remain in their historic homes. It was also where Sharon met Betty Anne Kane, her close friend and later boss.

Sharon became involved in her children’s new schools, teaching GED classes at Friendship House while they attended preschool there. Then she became active in the Brent Parent Teachers Association and later at Peabody. She was involved in the founding of the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop (CHAW), which was organized to provide arts enrichment to Brent students.

As the District moved toward Home Rule with the advent of an elected School Board in 1968, Sharon became more interested in city politics. Drawing on her Chicago roots, she served as a precinct coordinator in Marion Barry’s 1971 campaign for an at-large seat. In 1974 Ambrose worked on Betty Anne Kane’s successful at-large School Board candidacy as well as the campaign for another friend for the Ward 6 Council seat.

Kane hired her as a part-time research assistant at the Board of Education.

“Sharon had a keen sense of people,” explained Kane. “She could size people up. She was no-nonsense. She was a terrific organizer. She also brought a keen sense of social justice to her job.” One example, she recalled, was when Sharon pressed to extend the school lunch program over the summer months. “It was the right thing to do to satisfy the needs of the people we were serving,” Kane stated.

Kane won the Democratic at-large seat on the DC Council in 1978 and hired Sharon as her chief of staff. “I had to very quickly learn the legislative process,” Sharon recalled in her Overbeck interview. “I was not an attorney. I had to learn how to read the DC Code and get very quickly up to speed. And, of course, Betty Ann wasn’t an attorney either. She was an academic and her field was English, like mine.”

Kane and Sharon reformed the city’s insurance system. They transformed its retirement program from defined benefits to defined contributions, putting the city on better financial footing. Sharon ran Kane’s successful reelection efforts in 1982 and 1986. In 1990, she helmed Kane’s unsuccessful effort to unseat Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), which sidelined both from politics. Sharon was hired by At-Large Councilmember John L. Ray (D) in 1991 and worked on his unsuccessful mayoral bid. When Ray left the Council in 1996, incumbent Ward 6 Councilmember Harold Brazil (D) chose to bid for Ray’s at-large seat. Ambrose put herself into the 1997 contest to replace Brazil, competing in a pack of 11 candidates.

Sharon took to heart the advice of her political mentor, Ted Gay. “Identify your followers, get out the vote, hope everybody else forgets (to vote),” she said in a Washington Post interview. She won with 2,888 of the 11,640 votes cast.

Former Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson (D), who served on the Council with Sharon, believes that she had an enormous institutional effect. “Sharon was a very big part of professionalizing the legislature,” observed Patterson. “One of the things you could measure over time was the depth and quality of committee reports. There got to be a bit of rivalry between my staff and hers over the quality of our committee reports. She fostered a quality of excellence in council work.” Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans (D) agreed: “Sharon would remind you of your high school English teacher. She was stern and fair. She did not suffer fools.”

Council Chair Phil Mendelson (D) described her as “one of the best councilmembers, if not the best. She knew how to thread the needle on difficult issues. She was both compromising and uncompressing, recognizing the value of reaching a solution, but holding then firm to her positions.” He added, “I learned from her example.”

The Eastern Market Peace Treaty
While Sharon had a significant impact on her colleagues, she worked to greatest effect in her beloved Ward 6. As a new councilmember in 1998, she faced a ward riven by disagreements over the future of historic Eastern Market. “The Capitol Hill community was committed to the idea of saving the market,” recalled Brian Furness, a community activist and member of the Capitol Hill Restoration Society (CHRS), “but there were huge divisions, often quite bitter, about how to save it and over what should be its eventual use.” Tensions were also rising among the growing flea-market, produce, and South Hall merchants over space and resources. There were disputes over management and finances. The flea market operated illegally on public space.

A group convened by the CHRS had been meeting to craft a solution, said Furness, and had come to agreement on a set of principles that could solve all the outstanding problems When Sharon came into office she charged Esther Bushman, her legislative director, with developing legislation for Eastern Market, which Sharon saw as suffering “demolition by neglect.” Months of meetings and discussions eventually incorporated the principles established by the CHRS committee into a bill. When the bill was referred to the DC Council’s Committee on Government Operations, Sharon whipped votes for her proposal. “Her 16 years of council experience made her a major force,” Bushman said. “Everyone knew and respected her.”

The legislation passed in 1999 and was “a prime example of using the art of compromise to get something accomplished,” said Donna Scheeder, chair of the Eastern Market Advisory Committee. Remarked Ellen Opper-Weiner, lawyer, neighborhood activist, and member of the CHRS committee, “It unified Eastern Market. It never would have passed without Sharon’s support and aid.”

“Sharon’s legislation established a governing structure and secured dollars in the budget on an ongoing basis. As result the District had the funds to rebuild the market after its tragic fire in 2007,” stated Bushman.

Sharon then moved to the improvement of the District’s oldest retail corridor, Barracks Row. In 1999, she assisted Linda Gallagher in the creation of Barracks Row Mainstreet, an organization dedicated to the redevelopment and historic preservation of Eighth Street SE from the Eastern Market Metro plaza to the Navy Yard. In partnership with Congresswoman Norton, Sharon helped fund the redesign and rebuilding of this historic commercial corridor including new plantings, pavement, lighting, and sidewalks. “You have to flood it with light,” Sharon one remarked as chair of Committee on Economic Development, “so that people would feel safe.”

Fashioning a Modern Ward 6
On the Council, Sharon recognized an opportunity to literally reshape her ward, whose convoluted boundaries – set according to the 1900 census – extended across the Anacostia River to include the neighborhoods of Historic Anacostia and Fairlawn, as well as Kingman Park on the northeast side. “I did some horse trading with Jack Evans,” she recalled.

According to Sharon, “Ward 2 at that point extended all the way down into Southwest, so that Southwest was part of Ward 2. I cut a deal with Jack Evans.” They agreed that Ward 6 would receive Sursum Corda and several other troublesome housing complexes along North Capitol Street, in exchange for gaining Southwest. Ward 6 relinquished everything on the east side of the river as well as Kingman Park. “It made the ward more cohesive and focused,” stated Chuck Burger, chair of the 2000 redistricting commission. “It strengthened our advisory neighborhood commission (ANC) structure, which facilitated community representation. Redistricting set the table for the ward’s current economic renaissance.”

More importantly, it changed the ward’s political dynamics by adding Southwest. In future, Ward 6 candidates would win by gathering votes from seniors in public housing south of the freeway and the liberal residents of Southwest condos and the inner sections of Capitol Hill.

Marching Toward the River
With all the waterfront south of I-695 under her purview, Sharon began the transformation that would lead to the public-private developments now referred to as the Capitol Hill Riverfront. She gained a key ally when Anthony A. Williams (D) came into office in 1999. She finally had a mayor she could work with. Like Williams and Congressman Norton, she recognized the wasted potential that lay south of I-695, an area of industrial plants, brownfields, a trash transfer station, low-density public housing, and gay night clubs.

As Norton pointed out to this reporter, “The District has no way of physically expanding its boundaries. We are locked into this jurisdiction with a growing population. There is no way out without using all available land for the highest and best use. The Yards has created an entirely new neighborhood for the District of Columbia with all the amenities of any [great] neighborhood including restaurants, retailers and new residences.”

Norton authored legislation allowing the General Services Administration (GSA) to repurpose the excess land at the Navy Yard. Then she got the federal government to remediate industrial brownfields associated with the Navy Yard. In 2003, the GSA awarded Forest City the right to develop the excess property into The Yards. The DC Housing Authority (DCA) secured a federal Hope 6 grant to fund the one-to-one replacement of neighborhood’s public housing through a mixed housing development, which ultimately resulted in the building of Capitol Quarter. In addition, Norton and Sharon helped move the federal Department of Transportation to a new parcel just south of M Street SE.

Handling the District side of the equation, Sharon crafted legislation providing finances for Yards Park. She laid the fiscal foundation for the Riverfront Business Improvement District (BID) and helped nudge the DCA housing replacement project. She helped Mayor Williams to establish the Anacostia Waterfront Corporation to provide a mechanism for planning and development along the entire river.

In 2005 the city began to court Major League Baseball. “I will say candidly,” Sharon remarked in her Overbeck interview, “I could care less whether baseball came back to DC or not. But I did see it as a potential economic development engine.” Along with Jack Evans, she became one of the most reliable supporters of Mayor Williams’ plans to bring baseball back to DC. While Evans may have been the public face, it was Sharon who whipped the votes, recalled At-Large Councilmember David Grosso (I), who at the time clerked the Committee on Economic Development that she chaired. “She was the brains behind baseball. She was the one who figured out how to make the financing work.” Said Evans, “Overall, without Sharon Ambrose, we would not have baseball in Washington.”

Once the baseball deal was authorized and funded in 2006, the District government used eminent domain to redevelop the land, which set the stage for the development of the modern Capitol Riverfront. Ambrose also used her support for baseball as a lever to get Mayor Williams to support a $25 million earmark to fund the renovation of Arena Stage. The infusion persuaded the cultural anchor to remain in Southwest.

In 2006, Sharon resigned from the Council due to failing health.

Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down
Sharon’s illness proved only a temporary setback. As her health improved, she threw herself back into public life. She played a political role through work with the successful campaigns of Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen (D), At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman (I), and At-Large Councilmember Grosso. “I owe my political career to Sharon,” commented Grosso.

On Capitol Hill, Sharon helped put together the land deals and financing that resulted in the renovation of the Old Naval Hospital, now known as the Hill Center. She was an active board member right up her last days. “Sharon was a very hard-working member of the Hill Center Board,” said Kane. “She had a lot of contacts that she leveraged. She knew who to talk to.”

While the Hill Center was perhaps Sharon’s final gift to her beloved neighborhood, the ward’s boundaries, streets, and buildings are her lasting testament, and its economic renaissance is the embodiment of her spirit. “The Ward 6 that we see today is the fruition of all Sharon Ambrose’s painstaking work,” declared former Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Ken Jarboe, Hill resident and neighborhood activist.