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Speakers at D.C. town hall meeting lament lack of jobs, state of city government

By Lauren Abdel-Razzaq,

They talked about D.C. schools, economic disparities and other issues that affect the city’s African American community. But the loudest message was this: Mayor Vincent C. Gray must do a better job of reaching out to residents and bringing jobs into the city.

“Being a mayor is being a salesperson and selling the city,” said Mark Plotkin, a WTOP radio political analyst and a panelist at a town-hall meeting Wednesday night that was sponsored by The Washington Post.

“He’s got to call people he doesn’t know and sing the praises of the people of the District of Columbia,” Plotkin said. “Otherwise, he will fail.”

Former D.C. mayor Anthony Williams, also a panelist, said that Gray, a Democrat, who has had a rocky start as mayor amid a hiring scandal, should focus on creating jobs.

“What the new generation of leadership has to do is try to use government not as a main engine of growth, but [as] a catalyst to bring in public and private partnerships,” said Williams (D), who served from 1999 through 2006.

More than 100 people attended the forum at Friendship College Academy High School, discussing the findings of a poll on race and the economy conducted by The Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation. The first meeting, in February, examined the recession’s impact on the District’s African American families.

In one guise or another, the recession kept popping up on Wednesday.

Ward 6 resident Marla Blount, who has a master’s degree in business administration, told the panel she has been searching for a job for 2 1 /2 years, but doesn’t have many leads.

“I’ve tried to do everything right,” said Blount, 46, who moved to the District in 2000. “I just know that if I can’t find a job and I’ve got two degrees, I can just imagine what happens to the people who don’t have one degree.”

“It’s inexcusable,” she said.

Other panelists included Maudine Cooper, president of the Greater Washington Urban League; Jeff Franco, executive director of City Year Washington, D.C.; Nikita Stewart, a Washington Post politics and government reporter; and Curtis Watkins, director of the Phelps Stokes National Homecomers Academy. The panel was moderated by Washington Post columnist Colbert I. King.

Most D.C. residents who spoke up seemed discouraged about the economy and the state of the city’s government, unsure their concerns are being addressed.

“I think mayors can change the nature and course of a city,” Plotkin said. “A mayor has to be personally engaged. This city does not know this mayor.”

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