July 13, 2012

D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray announced a number of new green alleys in the District on Wednesday, then briefly spoke to the issue foremost on many minds: the growing scandal around a “shadow campaign” that disregarded campaign finance laws to help him get elected.

Many commentators chuckled at the vanishing chance that any coverage would focus on the green alleys. Many Washingtonians feel deeply betrayed, whether they supported Gray or not. This is a step backward for the District’s reputation, for efforts to promote honesty in government and for the hope of uniting a divided city, a platform Gray ran on and I think genuinely believed in.

However, let’s not shortchange those green alleys. They will last far longer, and ultimately make more of an impact on the lives of residents whose homes adjoin them, than this scandal or any political questions over who is mayor and for how long.

All Washingtonians, especially those who might be reading local news more closely this week than at other times, should not forget an important point: No matter who is in office or how they got there, the mark they will ultimately leave on the city is in the way they conduct the actual business of government, from bus service to public schools to employment training and far more.

This scandal is heartbreaking and inexcusable, but it isn’t taking the District back to 1995 and the Financial Control Board. The city’s budget is as solid as ever, and in fact Gray’s budget staff has adamantly pushed to rebuild the city’s rainy-day fund as the economy recovers.

The One City One Hire program has made progress in helping the District’s unemployed and less-skilled residents find jobs. Workforce development has begun targeting critical sectors much more intelligently than in the past.

Education reform has not stalled, and numerous traditional neighborhood and public charter schools had oversubscribed lotteries this year, though there’s a long road yet to travel to ensure quality education for all children.

The streetcar project, first proposed by Mayor Marion Barry and brought to the fore by Mayor Adrian Fenty, has found a champion in this administration, which has devoted more money to it than any before. Pedestrian and bike safety and infrastructure keep growing.

The city is churning along as usual. The economy is recovering, and there’s really no sign that the scandal has had any effect on employment, the real estate market or any of the fundamentals of the District’s economy.

What if Gray resigns, though? D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson would become interim mayor until a special election, likely in November. Would a whirlwind special-election campaign allow residents to find the mayor who best represents their vision for the future? Certainly a special election would push candidates to raise large amounts of money very fast, with who knows what consequences. Would the winner share most residents’ values or just those of big-money donors? Those donors, it turns out, were the problem with the Gray campaign.

Meanwhile, Mendelson has shown a much greater ambivalence than most of his colleagues have about the direction in which the District has moved under the Williams, Fenty and Gray administrations. Would he stay the course, playing more of the role of a caretaker, or would he try to bring important projects to a halt?

Those calling for Gray’s resignation now, before all the facts are in, need to grapple with these questions and more. Regardless of what Mendelson did or who won a special election, any change would be remarkably disruptive. Most progress on major initiatives will stop until the end of the year. Every time an agency gets a new head, which could happen twice in one year, it saps the organization’s productivity for some time.

Nothing excuses fraud, and it’s important that those who broke these laws be punished. If the mayor knew about the lawbreaking prior to the investigation, then he can’t and shouldn’t stay, regardless of the disruption his departure would cause. Still, there’s still a real possibility that the mayor didn’t know. Certainly that means he did a poor job of choosing confidantes and monitoring his campaign, and these underlings did enormous harm to the mayor, his agenda, and all of us.

Meanwhile, one step that residents can take is to support the proposed ballot initiative to bring District law more in line with federal law by forbidding direct corporate contributions to campaigns. We’ll know soon whether supporters’ signatures sufficed to get the initiative onto the November ballot. It won’t solve all problems with money in politics — at this point, only a constitutional amendment could do that — but it would be a start, especially in pushing for more transparency, which is what was lacking with the Gray campaign.

If future District residents can find a good and affordable place to live in a safe neighborhood with a pleasant streetscape and diverse retail choices, get to work without having to drive in traffic, send their children to a good school, enjoy a number of job options or find decent job training to gain needed skills, the District will continue to become a world-class city and One City at the same time. Despite last week’s horrible revelations, it’s still on course in that regard.

The writer is the editor of the blog Greater Greater Washington. He participates in The Post’s Local Blog Network.