Solutions for Ward 8 and elsewhere

Sunday, September 5, 2010

ONE DISPIRITING aspect of the spirited contest between Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray is what it reveals about the District's deep and enduring racial divisions. Neither Mr. Fenty nor Mr. Gray seemed particularly eager to discuss those during a debate last week showing a stark difference in support for Mr. Fenty and Mr. Gray, with the chairman clearly ahead. Of African Americans polled, 64 percent supported Mr. Gray and 19 percent supported Mr. Fenty; of whites polled, 64 percent backed Mr. Fenty and 28 percent supported Mr. Gray. The divisions played out geographically with the predominantly white Wards 2 and 3 favoring Mr. Fenty and the predominantly black Wards 7 and 8 embracing Mr. Gray. It is a stunning reversal of four years ago when Mr. Fenty won every precinct in the District.

Mr. Fenty took the blame, suggesting during the debate that his style of governing, with its rush to produce results, caused some people to feel left out. We don't think it's that simple; we think Mr. Gray came closer to the truth with his argument about divisions occurring between those with comfortable incomes and those without. Consider what the Post poll showed about the racial gap regarding which issues are important. For whites, public schools mattered most; for blacks, the economy and jobs.

And no wonder: How, as Mr. Gray argued, can you tell a resident of Ward 8 that things are okay when unemployment is in double digits and he or she is out of a job?

The question is how best to help city residents who are struggling. Empathy matters in a politician, but obviously it's not enough; rhetoric helps even less. Marion Barry, who professes to have the interests of his low-income Ward 8 neighbors at heart and who supports Mr. Gray, has been mayor or council member for much of the past four decades, but statistics suggest that his constituents haven't benefited much. City-funded jobs programs and earmarked contracts can provide short-term relief to a few people but not long-term improvement.

Vocational and literacy training for adults and a community college, which Mr. Gray has supported, are potentially valuable. But what matters most are good schools, to prepare children for decent-paying jobs; safe neighborhoods, so that families can feel secure; accessible primary health care, which Mr. Fenty and his predecessor have done a good job of extending; and a government that provides reasonable services without taxing exorbitantly, so that businesses will move in and start hiring.

Mr. Fenty has worked hard to get those basics right. It's not a process that can provide immediate results, especially during a deep national recession, and it's easy in the meantime to play on divisions by focusing on bike lanes or the hiring of a white police chief. But Mr. Fenty is the first city official with the vision and guts to realize that the best way to empower the city's poorest wards is by fixing their schools and enabling their residents to finish high school, go to college and compete in a global economy.

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