By Marc Fisher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 30, 2010; 7:00 PM
Dear Mr. Mayor:
When you finish the term you begin today, you, Adrian Fenty and Anthony Williams combined will have been mayor for 16 years - exactly as long as Marion Barry served in the office. If you're lucky, smart and politically agile, you will be able to complete the job that your two immediate predecessors started: fulfilling the vision that Barry spoke about so convincingly, yet left so painfully incomplete.
Back in the '70s and '80s, Barry charted a course for the District's young semi-democracy, riding the optimism of the Chocolate City era to try to empower the nation's foremost majority-black city with generous social services, a new attitude toward development that would lift all boats, safer streets and a school system that would finally give Washington's poorest children a shot at entering the middle class.
Barry tried to get there mainly by expanding the city's payroll; the hiring spree helped drive Prince George's County's emergence as the nation's most affluent majority-black suburb. The mayor's social service system swamped the city's budget, yet accomplished little for those it was supposed to help.
But Barry too often blamed outside forces for his administration's failings. His rhetoric as mayor never strayed far from his words as a street activist fighting for home rule: "We want to free D.C. from our enemies - the people who make it impossible for us to do anything about lousy schools, brutal cops, slumlords, welfare investigators who go on midnight raids, employers who discriminate in hiring and a host of other ills that run rampant through our city."
Williams and Fenty, positioning themselves as BlackBerry-wielding technocrats, retrofitted a foundation for the Barry dream. They fixed up decrepit schools, built mixed-income communities and nourished development that changed the face of the city, from the East End to Shaw to Columbia Heights to a vast swath of long-neglected neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River - but all at a cost. Their policies created a sense of loss in much of black Washington, a belief that longtime residents were being priced out as young people (white and black) moved into what had seemed to be permanently black neighborhoods.
That's where you come in, Mr. Mayor. Fenty lived up to his promise to confront the failure of the D.C. schools, and he broke a lot of china in doing so. You inherit a system with almost 30 fewer schools, one-third fewer central-office bureaucrats and a stunning array of refurbished facilities, as well as a dramatically overhauled teaching staff. Those teachers are both more energetic and less experienced than their predecessors, and the removal of many old-school teachers has left an open sore - not because the old teachers were getting better results, but because getting hired by the school system was, in the Barry tradition, a surefire path to a middle-class, suburban life.
Now you have to find a way to keep improving the schools so the city's new population of parents and future parents doesn't flee to the suburbs, even as you reach out to those who were cast aside in Fenty's necessary transformation of the school system from hiring hall to education vehicle.
The last two guys took care of the glitzy building projects. Williams remade entire neighborhoods with mixed-income housing developments. Fenty is leaving the city chockablock with the kind of amenities that previously existed only in the suburbs - the Deanwood recreation center, with the District's first water slide, a gym and a library; two bright, striking David Adjaye-designed public libraries, located east of the Anacostia ; and the Wilson Aquatic Center, a rare public investment in upper Northwest.
You got stuck with the harder work. In a time of shrinking resources and frighteningly high unemployment, in a city that is more affluent than ever yet has a poverty rate among black children that has soared above the national average, you must cut the budget, yet provide for those in need. If there is an honest way to do that, no American politician has found it.
Williams and Fenty saw the solution to that dilemma in development: Expand the tax base and improve the schools, they argued, and only then can you get the money to help lift up the poor.
You say you agree with that philosophy, but you ran for office with a mixed message. You pledged to create "One City," a place where black and white, rich and poor, can thrive. Yet you also repeatedly said that you want to reinstate teachers who may have been unfairly fired, and you agreed with voters who complained about new dog parks, bike lanes and streetcars - all initiatives of the Fenty years that were perceived in some black quarters as racially tinged, antagonistic projects.
Your election was as much a rejection of Fenty by black voters as it was an embrace of your more conciliatory, contemplative style. Which brings us back to Barry, who recently boasted that "politically, I'm stronger now than ever before."
That's classic Barry bluster, of course, but as usual, it contains an element of truth. Because even in this fourth-straight term of Someone Other Than Barry as mayor, the council member from Ward 8 has the power and savvy to define you. Look at how he managed to sell his images of Williams as emotionally barren and overly business-oriented and Fenty as immature and tone-deaf, even as those mayors radically remade the District into a dynamic, growing and more solvent city.
Williams tried to ignore Barry, and Fenty tried to get by with an endless stream of compliments. Neither strategy worked in the long run. Barry campaigned against Fenty, which gives the former Mayor for Life a chance to claim that he's one reason you won.
You don't have to cater to Barry nearly as much as Fenty and Williams did because you enter office with far more street cred than either of your predecessors. Still, you too must walk the line between expanding the tax base and honoring the political traditions of the city.
With gestures small and large, you can set a tone that appeals across the city's divisions. Take a hard line on ethical violations and push for answers to questions about contracts that Fenty's administration awarded to the mayor's fraternity brothers. Hire strong agency managers from across the nation. Move aggressively to lift the ban on tall buildings along the District's borders, especially near Oxon Hill, Fort Lincoln, Silver Spring and Friendship Heights. Keep the city's schools on the cutting edge of the national reform movement, and keep slashing away at the size of schools until every child is in a place where adults know them well.
The past two mayors succeeded by governing deep in the details of service delivery. They failed because they lost sight of the pain and dreams of those who felt left behind. Your challenge is to merge those two missions and let the people feel them as one.
Marc Fisher is The Washington Post's enterprise editor for local news. He will be online on Monday, Jan. 3, at 11 a.m. ET to chat. Submit your questions before or during the discussion.