Preserving D.C.'s hard-won gains

Sunday, September 12, 2010

IT IS SHAPING UP as a tough year for incumbents, and Washington Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, who faces a tough renomination challenge Tuesday, may become one of the casualties. A deep recession understandably has many voters in a mood for change, and Mr. Fenty, as has been well chronicled, deepened his jeopardy with a style that has struck many residents as disrespectful. On top of that, his opponent, D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, is well liked and respected for his decades of community service.

So why aren't we climbing aboard the Gray bandwagon? A front-page story in The Post last week provides some explanation. It described how Mr. Gray took charge of a deeply troubled city department in 1991 -- and left it, four years later, marginally better in some areas, worse in others and overall still a deeply troubled agency. We worry that a similar style of honorable intentions, deference to entrenched interests and modest ambition could set the city back at a moment when it could be taking huge strides forward.

If Mr. Gray wins, of course we will hope from day one that we are wrong, and we will root for his success. But the striking thing about this race is that there is no need to take that gamble: Mr. Gray's opponent is a known commodity with a record of accomplishments unique to the District and rare for any big-city mayor. What's not in dispute as voters head to the polls is the belief that, finally, the District is headed in the right direction -- and that it was Mr. Fenty who brought about the needed change.

By now, Mr. Fenty's accomplishments also have been well chronicled. The list is long: public safety improvements, school reform, innovations in transportation, new recreation facilities, responsive government agencies. We fear, though, that voters may forget the obstacles that Mr. Fenty had to overcome in bringing change to the city. Even more worrisome would be to assume that this hard-fought progress will simply continue as a matter of course. It took Mr. Fenty and his particular brand of no-excuses determination to produce the results now being hailed by so many.

Everyone now claims to be for school reform. But generations of D.C. elected officials accepted as a matter of course a system in which children didn't get textbooks, classrooms didn't get heat and achievement was neither expected nor sought. Failure was not only tolerated, it was rewarded until Mr. Fenty showed the courage to take on the status quo. He knew Washington could never be a world-class city with such deplorable schools. He also knew that every year without change meant another cohort of Washington youth deprived of opportunity.

Problems persist, of course, but reforms undertaken by Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee are beginning to produce results in the way of improved test scores and enrollment gains. Long notorious for having the country's worst school system, the District now is held out as a national model for school reform. Many of those who fought the mayor hardest against that reform now have embraced Mr. Gray's candidacy.

We don't discount concerns about Mr. Fenty's sometimes immature behavior, concerns that we have returned to from time to time throughout his first term. We've worried too about the lack of judgment reflected in the choice of some of his friends, though such concerns extend as well to Mr. Gray's circle of friends who date their involvement in city affairs to the unsavory mayoralty of Marion Barry. It is maddening that someone as dedicated to city improvement as Mr. Fenty, who was able to win support from every precinct four years ago, would squander so much goodwill and political capital, thus jeopardizing the accomplishments of his administration.

But it troubles us more that so much of Mr. Gray's campaign has focused on the mayor's personal failings, rather than on any advocacy for an alternative policy agenda. There have been complaints about Mr. Fenty's tendency to go outside the city's political establishment to staff his administration, yet almost everyone agrees that his key appointments -- police chief, schools chancellor, fire chief, transportation chief and more -- have been stellar. Often during the campaign it has seemed that voters heard more about Mr. Fenty's lack of courtesy toward council members than about what they could expect from a Gray administration.

It's no knock on Mr. Gray personally to say that Mr. Fenty has delivered results, which is not all that common in the challenging world of big-city administration. Considering how those results have made Washington a better city, we hope voters give him a chance to continue the progress for four more years.

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