Mayor Gray's message of unity will face a daunting reality test

Sunday, January 2, 2011; 6:18 PM

VINCENT C. GRAY was sworn into office Sunday as the sixth person to become mayor of the District of Columbia with a passionate plea for the city to come together. His call for "one city - our city" was an echo of the refrain that helped him in his against-all-odds bid to unseat Adrian M. Fenty in September's Democratic primary. But the new mayor takes over at time of enormous challenges for the city, and it remains to be seen how effective this slogan will be as a governing tool.

Mr. Gray's inaugural speech, delivered to well-wishers and local and federal officials who packed the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, was more personal than policy-oriented. It was as if Mr. Gray wanted his powerful life narrative - the journey from a childhood in a one-bedroom Northeast apartment, raised by parents who never attended high school, to the District's highest office - to serve as a metaphor for overcoming hardships. Only glancing mention was made of the difficulties the city confronts in its still-troubled schools and in neighborhoods where residents struggle with joblessness and are victimized by crime. "These are serious and difficult challenges that affect each one of us, regardless of where we live in the city. And they will not be solved overnight. Dealing with them will them will require patience and sacrifice from every one of us," Mr. Gray said.

Looming over Mr. Gray and the D.C. Council, with its newly sworn-in chairman, Kwame R. Brown, is a budget deficit for this year and next that has been projected to grow as high as $400 million. There will be, as the new mayor asserted, the need for "painful choices"; it's clear he recognizes the danger of expectations outpacing the reality of what the city can afford. Mr. Gray gave no clue as to the specifics of how he would deal with the fiscal issues. But it is encouraging that as council chairman presiding over closing the latest budget gap, he resisted calls for raising taxes in favor of fiscal restraint. It's also noteworthy that Mr. Brown used part of his inaugural speech to warn against adding to the burdens of overtaxed residents and businesses.

Perhaps most striking about Sunday's ceremonies was the deference paid to the school reform so bravely started by Mr. Fenty, which had been such a bone of contention during his administration. Mr. Gray, who had faulted his predecessor for his dictatorial style, said he would adopt a more collaborative approach. But he went out of his way to stress that he would not compromise on putting children first. Mr. Brown called the District's education reform "the envy of this country," and other council members spoke movingly about the importance of better schools.

It is too soon to judge how school reform will fare now that Mr. Fenty, unstinting with both his support and resources, is out of the picture. There have been encouraging signs from Mr. Gray, starting with his education appointments. He has retained, at least on an interim basis, Kaya Henderson, deputy to former chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and co-architect of the bold changes, and has spoken publicly about his possible interest in her continuing as chancellor. Equally impressive was his pick of two nationally recognized education reformers, Hosanna Mahaley for state school superintendent and De'Shawn A. Wright for deputy mayor of education. Mr. Gray's successful efforts to protect school funding during the recent round of cutbacks was reassuring.

Other problems face the city. Will there be sufficient funds to maintain the gleaming new projects completed during the Fenty administration's building spree? Is it wise, fiscally and otherwise, for the city to continue ownership of United Medical Center in Southeast? What steps are needed to stop the free-fall of the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services? Mr. Gray will need more than words to confront these issues; but if he succeeds in uniting the city and its government, he will be off to a good start.

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