The Washington Post's Mike DeBonis was online this afternoon to answer readers' questions today's Washington Post mayoral debate between incumbent Adrian M. Fenty and D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, as well as other aspects of their campaign. Excerpts follow.
Special education costs: Mike, I think you need to check your facts on improvements in special ed under Fenty -- there have been no cost decreases or drop in enrollments to non-DCPS schools.... Gray is correct that there is a lot of potential savings there for someone who can actually fix this problem.
Mike DeBonis writes: I am not aware of the numbers. But I can speak with authority on this: The Fenty administration has moved mountains to try and reduce the number of special education students put into private placements. As every city official has realized going back at least to Tony Williams, special education is an opportunity for great cost savings. But it's a very difficult thing to realize those savings. You have to build capacity within DCPS, then convince parents and judges that they can provide the necessary services. All this is complicated that the city's special ed system is under federal court oversight.
Spousal loyalty -- too little too late: Voters have been voting for over 60 hours. Thousands more will be voting starting Saturday. There is no "last two weeks" for Michelle Fenty to overcome the judgment made by voters over the past four years. I commend Michelle's loyalty but I suspect the chief value of her belated display of loyalty will be to keep her family together after Adrian loses the election. So, it was a good thing that she finally showed up. But whoever was responsible for keeping her off the campaign trail until now made a serious error.
Mike DeBonis writes: This is oh-s0-very-true about early voting. The poll Sunday reflected an electorate that would be able to cast ballots just days after taking the survey -- of course many of voters taking advantage of this were already resolute supporters of a candidate who are "locked in" for Fenty or Gray. I have no comment on Michelle Fenty's motives, but I agree that what is accomplished by her appearance today -- illustrating Fenty the family man, a man of personal warmth -- needed to attempted many months ago. And Fenty had plenty of clues starting certain last summer telling him that.
Gray, what is his plan? I am not happy with Fenty at all, however he has made progress. I did not like Fenty's "I am untouchable" attitude but he is getting things done. That said, what will Gray do to make things better? Be everyone's friend? That never works. That said, can you or anyone tell me exactly how Gray will improve things? I only hear promises, which ultimately turn into empty promises. -- Erik
Mike DeBonis writes: The way Gray articulated his case today is to say that Fenty's abrasive style has in fact helped to inhibit progress, that his unwillingness to deal with legislators and community representatives creates action, but action that leaves key players unsatisfied.
Special Education response: As Yoda would say: Try not, do. They may have wished to move mountains -- but the results are not there ... more money, more kids in private placements.
Mike DeBonis writes: Fair enough, but Gray has not really elucidated what he'd do differently except "try harder."
Re: "Pol-like behavior": Mike, Unfortunately, it is not simply the fact that Fenty has a terrible personality that turns some voters off. Rather it is that this terrible personality has an impact on issues of substance. If Fenty doesn't think that you are on his team, then you are gone. If he doesn't like you, then your program may lose funding. It doesn't matter whether the people or programs are having a positive impact on the city. This is what I hear far more often than the "he's just got a bad attitude" sentiment.
Mike DeBonis writes: I'll note this: In his earliest days, Fenty decided who was with him and who was against him on the matter of mayoral control of schools. The unions, the Chamber of Commerce, and certain council members opposed him and they never re-established good relations with the administration after that.
Voter Evaluation: This race is really about a shift in voter psyche. The polarity between D.C. resident satisfaction with D.C.'s progress/direction and their disapproval of Fenty makes an interesting statement: it really isn't about results. Though we clamor for a politician who isn't a "politician," the polls show we in fact want a "politician." Is this a phenomenon or a revelation of human paradox?
Mike DeBonis writes: Uhh, I guess I'd lean toward human paradox. My corollary to your comments, which I agree with wholeheartedly, is that "politics as usual" is what you do to win votes. You ignore "politics as usual" at your peril.
The Gentrification Issue: As a couple of columnists have pointed out, much of the divide over Fenty is based upon the gentrification issue -- specifically, the perception by some in the black community that Fenty is more concerned about the "wealthy" (i.e., white voters) than the non-wealthy (i.e., black voters). But when people deride the construction of dog parks and bike lanes, what they miss is the fact that the people they believe are using these dog parks and bike lanes -- upper-income professionals - are paying most of the taxes that are funding the relatively generous social safety net that is provided by D.C. I don't have any kids in the D.C. school system. But as a higher-income homeowner, more of my tax dollars are going to D.C. schools than most of the parents who have kids in those schools. The city needs high-income taxpayers who don't use many city services because they are the ones who are funding the school system and all of the other social welfare programs in this town.
Mike DeBonis writes: That is very true, and WAMU-FM's Patrick Madden asked that question quite directly to Gray: How do you increase the tax base without gentrification?
Gray's answer was weak IMHO; he tried to pivot to unemployment. But an unspoken part of Gray's pitch is that he's better equipped to bridge the divides of gentrification, that he'll do what it takes to send the message that poor residents won't be left behind, that they can share in the prosperity. There is no way gentrification ends. No mayor in the history of this city has been anti-development in any meaningful way.
Contracts: I couldn't help but share Fenty's frustration when Gray kept mentioning a wrong money amount on the contracts. Why does Gray continue doing that when the difference is so huge? For undecided voters, most of whom by now understand the contracts deal (so hard not to know about it) he risks coming across as dishonest ... also the smirk doesn't help either.
Mike DeBonis writes: None of the numbers has been especially clear. The $82 million figure was reported in the early days of the story and has stuck; it's the figure Gray cites on the campaign trail. The first set of parks contracts moved by the Fenty admin to DCHA totaled about $40 million; a little more than $4 million were fees paid to Banneker Ventures, the company linked to Fenty's friend. That figure, about 11 percent, is unusally high, the Post has reported. Later on the Fenty admin moved to add more parks to the DCHA MOU, for what would have been a total approaching $100 million.
WTU and Gray: Gray has recently gained support from the WTU; someone in this marriage is going to be upset. Gray claims that charters are at the center of his education plan. If that is true more charters will open taking more students from D.C. schools, hence schools close and teachers lose jobs. The two sides to this can not be reconciled.
Mike DeBonis writes: A pessimistic view on the prospects for a "Rheeconciliation." Probably the right one.
Hogwash: I've heard enough from recent DC transplants who threaten to leave if Rhee does. I say, "do us a favor and leave as of yesterday!" There are thousands upon thousands of us who have lived in DC for longer than an election cycle who pay boatloads of money in taxes. Contrary to another questioner's positing, DC has always attracted high income residents and it always will. I pay more than my share in taxes and could care less about a dog park or a bike lane. W/a school system upwards of 75% black, it stands to reason that a good number of those in support of Rhee, don't have children in DCPS and likely have no intentions on removing their kids from private schools. Yet, there is a meme developing that "they" know what's best for the city while "we" just want a handout, a return to the past. Something is wrong with that picture and the Post certainly shares quite a bit of responsibility for it. That explains how Fenty was consistently able to cite the "editorial board's" opinions in defense of him.
Mike DeBonis writes: You alight on an interesting divide, referring to the "thousands upon thousands of us who have lived in DC for longer than an election cycle who pay boatloads of money in taxes." My seat of the pants feel is that the length of one's residency in the city correlates pretty strongly to your mayoral preference -- meaning longtime residents tend to prefer Gray. Activist Gary Imhoff, a longtime white resident who is backing Gray, argued that length of residency, not race was the more meaningful divide in this race.
Unfortunately we did not ask our poll respondents how long they have lived here. I wish we had, and perhaps we will in the future.
And I will again remind readers that the editorial board operates separately from the newsroom. We have no input on their stories, they have no input on ours.
Contract steering -- lottery: Has Gray addressed any questions regarding the lottery contracts? Why did he take the unprecedented position of not allowing a Council vote on the 1st lottery contract for 9 months? Why did he meet with Bailey, the recipient of the 2nd contract, while the 1st contract was in abeyance? Did his refusals constitute contract steering?
Mike DeBonis writes: He has not been pressed on these issues as much as Fenty has been pressed on the contracts. A lot of ink was spilled on this when the contract was (not) moving through the council. Part of the problem for Fenty is that this was a complicated deal that defies an easy explanation of who benefited. Bailey ended up getting the contract, but no one has been able to explain how that helped Vince Gray, except to note that his mother once worked in DHS under Gray. Thin gruel. Certainly though, Gray's decision to slow walk the approval of a money saving deal is one of the lowlights of his otherwise good record as chairman.