Post columnist-turned-editor Marc Fisher was online earlier today to take readers' questions about his piece in this past Sunday's Outlook section setting goals for the new D.C. mayor's administration. Excerpts follow.
Q: What kind of role will Kwame Brown play as the new Council chairman in the coming term? Mayor Gray shares a political base with Brown and seems to have vastly greater expertise both in the city budget and in handling the rambunctious Council members, especially Barry.
Fisher: This is going to be a good early indicator of how Gray operates as chief executive. Fenty, as we all painfully recall, basically ignored the council, trying his "my way or the highway" approach -- to his own political detriment. Gray is a far more contemplative and collegial sort, and that helps explain why he's so slow about getting started, but it also likely portends a closer relationship with the council.
That said, Kwame Brown is viewed by quite a few council members as someone who is neither a leader nor terribly well-versed in the intricacies of finance or how the city government works. That lack of trust or respect means that at least in the early going, it may be hard for Brown to put together a working coalition in a very divided council. But those who assume they can run over Kwame Brown will learn that he is not someone to be trifled with -- he will make his leadership known and felt.
Q: Isn't Gray inheriting a $450 million budget hole or something like that? How will he be able to accomplish anything except cuts, cuts and more cuts? That seems like a rather large and insurmountable number to me...
Fisher: It's a huge and scary challenge. The city rode through most of the decade on the back of a torrent of receipts from real estate transactions and growth, but that's all gone now, and the costs of the recession are enormous.
Although Gray spoke constantly through his campaign of avoiding tax increases, he did a quick and total flip in his inaugural address, making it clear that a hefty tax increase is very much in the offing. The only question is, how big and exactly who gets hit?
Q: Some writers, like The Post's Cortland Milloy cheered Gray's victory as sticking it to the white, affluent, young inhabitants. However, D.C. newer residents contribute a ton financially that Gray is going to need to help out with the cost of the social programs for those in traditionally black neighborhoods. With so many people in DC feeling like Gray is not their choice, what is his plan to show D.C. residents that his one city campaign really will reach out to the more white communities who didn't support him in the primary. DC has come so far in the last ten years, we can't afford to roll back to the days of Marion Barry.
Fisher: Well, look at it from Gray's perspective. Why should he keep reaching out to people who not only voted against him, but who believe that he is out to screw their sector of the city?
To his credit, Gray moved immediately after the election to assure Fenty supporters--most of whom were white and living in the western half of the city--that he values their support and realizes that they pay much of the freight for the city's government. But Gray's appointments send a different message--one that's much more in tune with what he promised in his campaign. As I said in the Outlook piece, the challenge Gray faces is to govern in a way that addresses both of the city's major electorates, that maintains the focus on competent city services even as he reaches out to those who felt excluded by Fenty. And he has to do that in a punishing financial environment.
Q: Courtland Milloy had a great column in response to a Washington Post article on those who will be forced off welfare if stays eventually are limited to five years. Many show no initiative, saying, e.g., that that they are "picky" about job selection and the city should not cut off their benefits without finding them a good job and providing child care. Welcome to the real world! They are not the only ones who are struggling with these issues. Living off charity and/or taxpayers should be the last resort for those who are truly unable to work.
Fisher: Yes, in the abstract, that's a good and easy slogan to grab hold of. And Gray did for a while, too, but his roots are in social services, and he's already -- characteristically -- backing away from the move to have the District conform with the rest of the country and impose a five-year limit on welfare payments.
This is one issue where a mayor-council confrontation could indeed occur, and soon.
Q: I don't get it -- don't black people own dogs, ride bikes and use public transportation?
Fisher: Of course they do, and of course many of them value those additional urban amenities as much as do white residents. But for those who cling to old concepts of city neighborhoods, for those who believe that a city should be frozen in amber, those initiatives can seem like symbols of an alien invasion -- especially, and here is where the Fenty administration failed most grandly, when bike lanes, dog parks and the like are added even as services to the needy are cut or frozen. That was the mix that poisoned the electoral well for Fenty.
Q: Back in the 70's and 80's there was much conspiratorial talk of "The Plan" to drive blacks out of the city and bring back the whites. It always had the feeling of paranoia attached to it, but it was taken as gospel in some quarters. Conspiracies aside, if Rip Van Washington had dozed off at the corner of 12th & You back in 1991 and awakened today, I wonder what he might have to say about his city.
Fisher: Yep, some would say that The Plan succeeded. But of course, what was always pernicious about talk of such a conspiracy was the idea that the powers that be in the District really wanted to turn the city majority-white as some sort of racial imperative. But those powers -- if that's how you'd like to frame the developers, investors and politicians who help push development here -- are driven by the same forces as in any other city: They want to make a buck and, to a lesser extent, make the city more livable and attractive. They don't care if they sell apartments to blacks, whites or others -- but they do want a place that has less crime, more amenities and better schools. Which is not such a terrible thing.