Why the disconnect between D.C.'s progress and Mayor Fenty's fortunes?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

THE BIG NEWS from The Post's poll on the District's mayoral race is the 17-point advantage that D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray enjoys over Mayor Adrian M. Fenty among those likely to vote in the Sept. 14 Democratic primary. That's a testament in part to the smart race Mr. Gray has run, even with fewer resources.

What was also remarkable in the survey results was the general consensus of those polled that the District is headed in the right direction and, even more significantly, that Mr. Fenty is responsible for the progress.

The number of people who believe the city is headed in the right direction, 56 percent, compared with those who don't, 29 percent, is the highest measured by The Post since 2000 and the second-highest since 1986. Moreover, when asked if Mr. Fenty brought needed change to the city, 67 percent answered "yes." It is because we agree with this assessment that we endorsed Mr. Fenty's reelection. We think the record shows that his well-run administration has begun to reform schools and that it has lowered crime and improved city services across all eight wards.

What has happened in the past three years in the District has not occurred under any previous mayor. Mr. Fenty's predecessor, Anthony A. Williams, is rightly credited with getting the city on track -- and not fully credited for his successes in, for example, improving health-care delivery to poorer residents. But even he could not produce the kind of results seen during Mr. Fenty's tenure. Mr. Williams, who didn't back Mr. Fenty in 2006, is now a supporter, precisely because he recognizes the progress made by the city under Mr. Fenty. The accomplishments are all the more remarkable in tough economic times.

Given this record, and the appreciation of it by a majority of D.C. voters, it's amazing that Mr. Fenty managed to squander so much of the public goodwill that was reflected in his sweep of every D.C. precinct four years ago. How this happened is no secret. Like many D.C. residents, we have long wondered why he would let things like silly fights with the D.C. Council, unnecessary government secrecy or shutting out community voices jeopardize the good work being done by his administration, and we have said so.

The question for voters is whether those flaws are serious enough to justify gambling with the city's continuing progress. Mr. Gray argues that he can continue the city's upward trajectory without the rancor and with more inclusiveness. Mr. Fenty argues that part of his ability to get results flows from his take-charge, cutting-through-the-bureaucracy, don't-take-no-for-an-answer style of governing.

The mayor didn't consult as broadly as the city's mandarins expect when appointing people such as, say, Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier. But his key appointments have been almost universally top-class and results-oriented. While Mr. Gray has received the endorsements and financial backing of public employees unions and community groups, Mr. Fenty was elected essentially unbeholden to any special interests. You didn't see the teachers union, for example, spending its dollars on radio ads for his candidacy, as it is now doing for Mr. Gray. Would Mr. Gray have the toughness to reward his supporters when appropriate but to say no when that is in the public interest?

The candidates are scheduled to meet Wednesday at noon in a debate sponsored by The Post. We hope they move beyond questions of style and on to an examination of their records -- and, even more, of what each promises to do in the next four years. Who has the clearer set of priorities? Are promises of new programs backed by credible explanations of where the money will come from? These are the kinds of questions voters should be asking during the remaining dozen days of this election season.

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