The job ahead

Marc Fisher out­lines the un­fin­ished busi­ness that Gray in­her­its.

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY MARC FISHER Marc Fisher is The Washington Post’s en­ter­prise edi­tor for lo­cal news.

Dear Mr. Mayor:

When you fin­ish the term you be­gin to­day, you, Adrian Fenty and An­thony Wil­liams com­bined will have been mayor for 16 years — ex­actly as long as Mar­ion Barry served in the of­fice. If you’re lucky, smart and po­lit­i­cally ag­ile, you will be able to com­plete the job that your two im­me­di­ate pre­de­ces­sors started: ful­fill­ing the vi­sion that Barry spoke about so con­vinc­ingly, yet left so painfully in­com­plete.

Back in the ’70s and ’80s, Barry charted a course for the District’s young semi-democ­racy, rid­ing the op­ti­mism of the

Choco­late City era to try to em­power the nation’s fore­most ma­jor­ity-black city with gen­er­ous so­cial ser­vices, a newat­ti­tude to­ward devel­op­ment that would lift all boats, safer streets and a school sys­tem that would fi­nally give Washington’s poor­est chil­dren a shot at en­ter­ing the mid­dle class.

Barry tried to get there mainly by ex­pand­ing the city’s pay­roll; the hir­ing spree helped drive Prince Ge­orge’s County’s emer­gence as the nation’s most af­flu­ent ma­jor­ity-black sub­urb. The mayor’s so­cial ser­vice sys­tem swamped the city’s bud­get, yet ac­com­plished lit­tle for those it was sup­posed to help.

But Barry too of­ten blamed out­side forces for his ad­min­is­tra­tion’s fail­ings. His rhetoric as mayor never strayed far from his words as a street ac­tivist fight­ing for home rule: “We want to freeD.C. from our en­e­mies— the peo­ple whomake it im­pos­si­ble for us to do any­thing about lousy schools, bru­tal cops, slum­lords, wel­fare in­ves­ti­ga­tors who go on mid­night raids, em­ploy­ers who dis­crim­i­nate in hir­ing and a host of other ills that run ram­pant through our city.”

Wil­liams and Fenty, po­si­tion­ing them­selves as Black­Ber­ry­wield­ing tech­nocrats, retro­fit­ted a foun­da­tion for the Barry

dream. They fixed up de­crepit schools, built mixed-in­come com­mu­ni­ties and nour­ished devel­op­ment that changed the face of the city, from the East End to Shaw to Columbia Heights to a vast swath of long-ne­glected neigh­bor­hoods east of the Ana­cos­tia River — but all at a cost. Their poli­cies cre­ated a sense of loss in much of black Washington, a be­lief that long­time res­i­dents were be­ing priced out as young peo­ple (white and black) moved into what had seemed to be per­ma­nently black neigh­bor­hoods.

That’s where you come in, Mr. Mayor. Fenty lived up to his prom­ise to con­front the fail­ure of the D.C. schools, and he broke a lot of china in do­ing so. You in­herit a sys­tem with al­most 30 fewer schools, one-third fewer cen­tral-of­fice bu­reau­crats and a stun­ning ar­ray of re­fur­bished fa­cil­i­ties, as well as a dra­mat­i­cally over­hauled teach­ing staff. Those teach­ers are both more en­er­getic and less ex­pe­ri­enced than their pre­de­ces­sors, and the re­moval of many old-school teach­ers has left an open sore — not be­cause the old teach­ers were get­ting bet­ter re­sults, but be­cause get­ting hired by the school sys­tem was, in the Barry tra­di­tion, a sure­fire path to a mid­dle-class, sub­ur­ban life.

Now you have to find a way to keep im­prov­ing the schools so the city’s new­pop­u­la­tion of par­ents and fu­ture par­ents doesn’t flee to the sub­urbs, even as you reach out to those­whowere cast aside in Fenty’s nec­es­sary trans­for­ma­tion of the school sys­tem from hir­ing hall to ed­u­ca­tion ve­hi­cle.

The last two guys took care of the glitzy build­ing projects. Wil­liams re­made en­tire neigh­bor­hoods with mixed-in­come hous­ing de­vel­op­ments. Fenty is leav­ing the city chock­ablock with the kind of ameni­ties that pre­vi­ously ex­isted only in the sub­urbs — the Dean­wood recre­ation cen­ter, with the District’s first wa­ter slide, a gym and a li­brary; two bright, strik­ing David Ad­jayedesigned pub­lic li­braries, lo­cated east of the Ana­cos­tia; and the Wil­son Aquatic Cen­ter, a rare pub­lic in­vest­ment in up­per North­west.

You got stuck with the harder work. In a time of shrink­ing re­sources and fright­en­ingly high un­em­ploy­ment, in a city that is more af­flu­ent than ever yet has a poverty rate among black chil­dren that has soared above the na­tional av­er­age, you must cut the bud­get, yet pro­vide for those in need. If there is an hon­est­way to do that, no Amer­i­can politician has found it.

Wil­liams and Fenty saw the so­lu­tion to that dilemma in devel­op­ment: Ex­pand the tax base and im­prove the schools, they ar­gued, and only then can you get the money to help lift up the poor.

You say you agree with that phi­los­o­phy, but you ran for of­fice with a mixed mes­sage. You pledged to cre­ate “One City,” a place where black and white, rich and poor, can thrive. Yet you also re­peat­edly said that you want to re­in­state teach­ers who may have been un­fairly fired, and you agreed with vot­ers who com­plained about new dog parks, bike lanes and street­cars — all ini­tia­tives of the Fenty years that were per­ceived in some black quar­ters as racially tinged, an­tag­o­nis­tic projects.

Your elec­tion was as much a re­jec­tion of Fenty by black vot­ers as it was an em­brace of your more con­cil­ia­tory, con­tem­pla­tive style. Which brings us back to Barry, who re­cently boasted that “po­lit­i­cally, I’mstronger now than ever be­fore.”

That’s clas­sic Barry blus­ter, of course, but as usual, it con­tains an el­e­ment of truth. Be­cause even in this fourth-straight term of Some­one Other Than Barry as mayor, the coun­cil mem­ber from Ward 8 has the power and savvy to de­fine you. Look at how he man­aged to sell his im­ages of Wil­liams as emo­tion­ally bar­ren and overly busi­ness-ori­ented and Fenty as im­ma­ture and tonedeaf, even as those may­ors rad­i­cally re­made the District into a dy­namic, grow­ing and more sol­vent city.

Wil­liams tried to ig­nore Barry, and Fenty tried to get by with an end­less stream of com­pli­ments. Nei­ther strat­egy worked in the long run. Barry cam­paigned against Fenty, which gives the for­mer Mayor for Life a chance to claim that he’s one rea­son you won.

You don’t have to cater to Barry nearly as much as Fenty and Wil­liams did be­cause you en­ter of­fice with far more street cred than ei­ther of your pre­de­ces­sors. Still, you too must walk the line be­tween ex­pand­ing the tax base and hon­or­ing the po­lit­i­cal tra­di­tions of the city.

With ges­tures small and large, you can set a tone that ap­peals across the city’s di­vi­sions. Take a hard line on eth­i­cal vi­o­la­tions and push for an­swers to ques­tions about con­tracts that Fenty’s ad­min­is­tra­tion awarded to the­mayor’s fra­ter­nity broth­ers. Hire strong agency man­agers from across the nation. Move ag­gres­sively to lift the ban on tall build­ings along the District’s bor­ders, es­pe­cially near Oxon Hill, Fort Lin­coln, Sil­ver Spring and Friend­ship Heights. Keep the city’s schools on the cut­ting edge of the na­tional re­form move­ment, and keep slash­ing away at the size of schools un­til ev­ery child is in a place where adults know them well.

The past two may­ors suc­ceeded by gov­ern­ing deep in the de­tails of ser­vice de­liv­ery. They failed be­cause they lost sight of the pain and dreams of those who felt left be­hind. Your chal­lenge is to merge those two mis­sions and let the peo­ple feel them as one.



Mayor-elect Vin­cent Gray greet­sWood­sonHigh foot­ball play­ers af­ter they won the city cham­pi­onship on Thanks­giv­ing. Gray is in­her­it­ing a school sys­tem that has seen dra­matic changes.

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