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Scandals are taking D.C. back to the bad old days, some say

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A fringe mayoral candidate says at a D.C. Council hearing that “the mayor is a crook.” The city’s attorney general accuses council member Harry Thomas Jr. of spending more than $300,000 of public money on a luxury vehicle and personal travel. The new council chairman, Kwame R. Brown, is embarrassed into giving up the fancy sport-utility vehicle that the city ordered to his specifications. The new mayor, Vincent C. Gray, gets rid of his chief of staff after reports that several children of top officials were given city jobs.

What does it mean that at least five members of the D.C. Council and the mayor are spending a good chunk of their time trying to fend off accusations of wrongdoing?

For now, say city officials and academics who study the District, it means that the new administration has been unable to communicate its vision or agenda. At a news conference Tuesday, Gray, who has yet to appoint a chief of staff to replace the one he sacked, tried to reject all questions about the scandals. But that was virtually the only topic reporters asked about.

Beyond the immediate impact on governing the city, the scandals have refocused attention on the District’s deeply divided electorate. Some historians, as well as supporters of Adrian Fenty’s, say this is exactly what the former mayor said would happen: Gray is taking the city back to the bad old days.

But many of the acts that led to the rash of allegations took place before Gray came into office, leading others to suggest that the scandals reflect instead a growing propensity among city politicians to live beyond their means, taking improper advantage of the surge in campaign cash and city contracts in recent years.

Not since the bad old days of the 1980s has the D.C. government offered its critics such a rich vein of material to support the notion that the city is run by people with an ethical blind spot. The allegations about council members abusing public dollars and about Gray’s campaign leaders giving improper payoffs and a city job to a fellow candidate have resurrected doubts that had largely been silenced during the mayoral administrations of Fenty and Anthony A. Williams.

“This is not back to the ’80s in that even then, there were not allegations of council members taking money,” said former council member William Lightfoot, a lawyer who held a top post in Fenty’s failed reelection bid last year. “Our problems in the past were different: Marion Barry was drugs, Tony Williams was the dork, Adrian was arrogant. What we’re seeing now is a reflection of a bigger problem: The elected officials think they’re entitled to a lifestyle and privileges that ordinary people do not have.”

Brown, who was embarrassed by revelations that he sought a “fully loaded” Lincoln Navigator complete with a DVD entertainment system, power moon roof and polished aluminum wheels upon election to his new post last fall, also turned out to have a boat he dubbed “Bulletproof.”

“What does that tell you?” Lightfoot asked.

Some longtime political observers say the latest scandals are not strictly a D.C. story, but part of a national narrative.

“It’s not only our local politicians,” said Bernard Demczuk, a professor of African American and D.C. history at George Washington University, and for many years a political aide to Barry when he was mayor. “It’s John Edwards and Anthony Weiner, too. It’s a much more attuned and demanding citizenry powered by new media and social media.”

Although the alleged improprieties took place before Gray assumed office, some say his failure to fully address the accusations has paralyzed his administration.

“The Fenty campaign made the argument that if Gray was elected, we’d go back to the old days of a government that didn’t hunt very well,” said Howard Croft, a historian of D.C. politics and former urban studies chairman at the University of the District of Columbia. “And now we have a kind of Keystone Kops feel to the Gray administration — the idea that it could take Gray so long to put a competent chief of staff in place. This whole ‘here we go again’ feeling we’re getting from these scandals seems like a continuation of last fall’s campaign.”

That campaign pitted the incumbent, a young, dynamic Fenty, against the older, experienced Gray, but it also divided the city by race and class. Fenty portrayed himself as a new sort of politician who bet that efficiency and reforms — including sweeping out hundreds of longtime city teachers and other employees — would be more important to voters than old-school ideas about the city being an employer of last resort.

Gray tried to adopt the reform mantle but won the election in good part because he promised to return to a more humane approach that took into account the dependence that many District residents had on their government.

“The question in the campaign and now again is, ‘Can you have a black mayor who is perceived as both competent and deeply connected to the black community and its traditions?’ ” Croft asked. “Unfortunately, Gray is now letting this question be raised again.”

On Tuesday, Gray rebuffed questions about ex-mayoral candidate Sulaimon Brown’s allegations that the mayor told him directly that a top Gray aide had an envelope of money orders and cash for him.

“There’s no question we would rather focus our full attention on the future of the city,” Gray said.

Council members and others in city government say the daily drumbeat of headlines threatens to turn Washington once again into a laugh line. “The District cannot afford to once again become the butt of late-night television jokes,” council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) wrote in a newsletter to his constituents.

Evans said Tuesday that the scandals “just reflect very badly on the city, especially in a time when we had made so much progress in improving since the Barry days.”

The specter of that period, when the crack-smoking mayor led a city into financial receivership, haunts the D.C. government two decades later. And the huge demographic shift in race and class that has occurred since then makes the city’s political landscape even more treacherous, many say.

“I hate to inject race into this, but it’s always there in the District,” Demczuk said. “The long-standing African American population would often turn their heads away, knowing that Marion Barry might be doing something untoward, because they appreciated his courage in standing up to racism in the civil rights movement. This new, transient population, mostly white, isn’t doing that.”

But Lightfoot says that the District’s new residents “are not just passing through. They are the bright young professionals walking up and down 14th Street and H Street, and they are not planning to move to the suburbs. They plan to live here.”

“These are the themes for the next mayoral election,” Croft said. “Whoever runs against Gray will be someone promising a scandal-free, efficient government going back to the effort to make Washington a world-class city, which was the appeal that won the office for Williams and Fenty.”

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