Potomac Confidential

Mayor Gray should fulfill Marion Barry's vision - without catering to Barry

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Marc Fisher
Monday, January 3, 2011; 11:00 AM

Washington Post enterprise editor Marc Fisher discusses his Outlook article titled, 'Mayor Gray should fulfill Marion Barry's vision - without catering to Barry.'

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Marc Fisher: Welcome aboard, folks...here we are on Day Two of the Gray administration and the new mayor is still lacking permanent appointments in a slew of top, key positions. I wandered by the Convention Center last night for the Inaugural Ball--quite an impressive scene, but not remotely the "One City" crowd that Gray might have wanted--if he's true to his rhetoric. But let's hear what's on your minds about the new mayor, the state of the city, and especially your thoughts about how Gray might try to bring together those who were so divided over the Fenty mayoralty, and how he might try to fill a very deep and disconcerting budget gap.... Your turn starts...right now....

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Kwame Brown: What kind of role will Kwame Brown play as the new Council chairman in the coming term? Mayor Gray shares a political base with Brown and seems to have vastly greater expertise both in the city budget and in handling the rambunctious Council members, especially Barry.

Marc Fisher: This is going to be a good early indicator of how Gray operates as chief executive. Fenty, as we all painfully recall, basically ignored the council, trying his My Way or the Highway approach--to his own political detriment. Gray is a far more contemplative and collegial sort, and that helps explain why he's so slow about getting started, but it also likely portends a closer relationship with the council. That said, Kwame Brown is viewed by quite a few council members as someone who is neither a leader nor terribly well versed in the intricacies of finance or how the city government works. That lack of trust or respect means that at least in the early going, it may be hard for Brown to put together a working coalition in a very divided council. But those who assume they can run over Kwame Brown will learn that he is not someone to be trifled with--he will make his leadership known and felt.

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Rocci Fisch: Welcome, Mayor Gray. Now get to work.

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deficit: Isn't Gray inheriting a $450 million budget hole or something like that? How will he be able to accomplish anything except cuts, cuts and more cuts? That seems like a rather large and insurmountable number to me...

Marc Fisher: It's a huge and scary challenge. The city rode through most of the decade on the back of a torrent of receipts from real estate transactions and growth, but that's all gone now, and the costs of the recession are enormous. Although Gray spoke constantly through his campaign of avoiding tax increases, he did a quick and total flip in his inaugural address, making it clear that a hefty tax increase is very much in the offing. The only question is how big and exactly who gets hit?

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Barry's Vision: Marc, welcome back. I still miss your weekly chats. That was an excellent article, but I think it, and similar articles over the years, have missed a crucial point. Sure, Mayor Barry greatly expanded the D.C. middle class by hiring thousands of new government workers, but he did this largely without regard to their qualifications. Sure, some of them worked out well; but if my experience is typical, an awful lot of them dd not. Their sense of entitlement was just appalling. Remember the DMV lines, car inspections, snow removal, pot hole repairs (NOT), all the bungled elections, and so much more? I was born in D.C. in 1947 and moved out in 1989 after it took 2 hours to register a rental apartment I owned at the time. (I only owned the one apartment so it was exempt from rent control laws.) This was 10 a.m. on a weekday morning. There were at least a dozen other people waiting to file their paperwork, but no one to take it. We could see and hear in an adjoining room that a loud party was going on. When people called out to ask for assitance, employees yelled back various unpleasantries, including at least one "Eff you." Most people left, but I decided to stick it out. When I later called to complain, I was told, "Hey, those people get to have fun, too!" Well, not on my tax dollars! I put my condo on the market that weekend, moved to Montgomery Co. a couple months later (the market was better then) and have never looked back. Sure, I miss some of the amenities of city life, but the continuing hassle just wsn't worth it.

Marc Fisher: Thanks for the kind words. Alas, your experience in the Barry years was utterly typical. And that's why Tony Williams and Adrian Fenty were able to gin up so much popular excitement over the simple proposal that they work to make the city government adept at the basics--answering the phones, taking note of residents' complaints and actually doing something in response. Now that many of those basics have been addressed--hardly perfectly, but at least decently--the challenge Gray faces is to maintain that level of service in the face of economic crisis, even as he seeks to address the perception that's widespread at least in black Washington that the city has moved its focus from the poor to the rich. I don't really see how Gray will be able to achieve that shift in perception given how deep a hole the District is in financially, but one good way to send that message is through his appointments, and he is clearly selecting from a different pool than Williams and Fenty did.

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Street Cars: Can Gray still kill this initiative? Please say no. Thanks.

Marc Fisher: Yes, he can at least significantly (and perhaps permanently) delay the streetcar project--and a really extended delay could end up killing the plan entirely. The idea that bike lanes and streetcars could be a racial issue would seem farfetched in most cities, but in Washington, that's exactly what has happened, and Gray, when I was with him during the campaign, straight out told people that the Fenty folks had gone way too far with dog parks, bike lanes and streetcars--which have become symbols of the growing white presence in the city to some black residents.

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Tall building ban: Hi Marc, can you explain your position on this? Why would you like to see the ban removed?

Marc Fisher: The city has watched for decades as suburban edge cities such as Tysons, Bethesda, Rosslyn, Clarendon, New Carrollton, and Silver Spring have grown into places that attract the majority of the offices and other businesses in the region. The District's downtown has flourished in recent years, but the city's other neighborhoods, especially around Metro stations, have failed to compete with their suburban counterparts, largely because the city has failed to capitalize on the Metro infrastructure by placing dense development at those stations. The best way to do this, of course, is to build up. Just look at the difference between the Maryland side of Friendship Heights and the D.C. side, literally across Western Avenue--on the suburban side, tall buildigns with a mix of retail, office and residential. On the D.C. side, short, squat retail buildings with nothing else. By lifting the height restriction in some key areas along the city's border, we could compete more effectively with the burbs, but more important, the city could expand its tax base so that it is able to help those most in need.

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Teaching and D.C.: It's sad to say, but too many past mayors cared far more about the teachers' union support than the students they were teaching. What is Gray's plan to continue the massive improvement in the school districts? In the last elections, he appeared to be in the union's pocket. The saddest part if the school systems go back to their awful ways. The rich will just go to private school at an even greater rate, the people who are hurt the most are the ones who have no where else to go.

Marc Fisher: The great fear in much of the city is that the schools will backslide, that they will once again turn into a hiring hall for people whose main interest is in improving their own lot rather than in committing their lives to the children in the city's public schools. That fear is well-founded given that Gray spent much of his campaign telling voters that he thinks many hundreds of teachers were sacked who should never have lost their jobs. The city's only hope for financial sustainability longterm is to improve the schools--or at least some of them--to such a point that young families both black and white stay in town after having children, rather than fleeing to the suburbs. There is of course a very definite limit on the number of kids the city's private schools can take in, but the number of places in charter schools is much more elastic and that is where parents have been moving their kids in droves. Watch for that to accelerate if Gray doesn't send clear and quick signals that he will place the same emphasis on school reform that Fenty did, even if he goes about it in a different tone and style.

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Bike lnes, etc.: Like you, I hope Mayor Gray can serve to bring together different parts of the city. However, as a bike rider who frequents some of the new, upscale restaurants Mayor Fenty was responsible for bringing to D.C., I would like to point out that our tax money is essential for paying for much of what Mayor Gray hopes to accomplish. Run us out of the city and its problems will increase, not diminish.

Marc Fisher: Well, sure, that relatively tiny bunch of D.C. residents who pay the vast majority of the taxes in the city may feel that they deserve some extra attention from the District government, but the people at the low end of the income scale feel that they have been spurned and neglected over the past 12 years and that they should be given a larger share of city resources. The Post's Nikita Stewart did a fascinating and revealing piece last fall looking at the perception in virtually every neighborhood in the city that their Ward and their community was getting the short end of the stick. She did the numbers and found that the Fenty admin was pumping out spending to every ward in remarkably equal numbers. But the Fenty team did a miserable job of getting that message across, and so, most of the city continues to believe that it was shorted during his term. That's where the marketing aspect of any mayoralty becomes essential--you have to not only deliver the goods but hammer home to people that you've done so.

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Racial Flair-ups: Some writers, like the post's Cortland Milloy cheered Gray's Victory as sticking it to the white, affuliant, young inhabitants. However DC newer residents contribute a ton financially that Gray is going to need to help out with the cost of the social programs for those in traditionally black neighborhoods. With so many people in DC feeling like Gray is not their choice, what is his plan to show DC residents that his one city campaign really will reach out to the more white communities who didn't support him in the primary. DC has come so far in the last ten years, we can't afford to roll back to the days of Marion Barry.

Marc Fisher: Well, look at it from Gray's perspective. Why should he keep reaching out to people who not only voted against him, but who believe that he is out to screw their sector of the city? To his credit, Gray moved immediately after the election to assure Fenty supporters--most of whom were white and living in the western half of the city--that he values their support and realizes that they pay much of the freight for the city's government. But Gray's appointments send a different message--one that's much more in tune with what he promised in his campaign. As I said in the Outlook piece, the challenge Gray faces is to govern in a way that addresses both of the city's major electorates, that maintains the focus on competent city services even as he reaches out to those who felt excluded by Fenty. And he has to do that in a punishing financial environment.

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Marion Barry: Hi Marc, don't you cater to Barry by framing your Outlook piece about him and his unfulfilled vision. Stop it, please! Yes, Barry created the black middle class. But to use a great Barry term, get over it. We have moved on as a city. Do me a favor. Look up how many pieces of legislation Barry has introduced since 2005 and how many have passed. Write a story about what he has done for Ward 8 since his second comeback. Not much.

Marc Fisher: Excellent point--and of course Barry has had a rough time in the council over the past couple of years, mainly thanks to his own misbehaviors of an all too familiar stripe. But although he has only a fraction of his former political power, he nonetheless has a knack for drumming up publicity when he goes after a mayor, as he has with both of the past two mayors. There's no reason to think he won't try to assert himself with Gray as well, though I think Gray is better positioned than Williams or Fenty were to withstand a full-on Barry attack. Yes, much of the city's electorate has moved on, but Barry himself has not, and to the extent that he can still gum up the political works--which he can--he remains an essential factor in city government. And more important, he is still a large enough shadow over the government that the mayor and council members have to figure out a Barry policy or strategy--you can't say that about any other council member. No mayor has to, for example, have a Mary Cheh policy.

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Not looking forward to the next four years.: I'm willing to give Gray a chance, but do not have high hopes for his administration. I do not believe for a second that he will not raise taxes and believe those tax revenues will be directed towards social programs that need reform, not more money blindly directed their way. I am also concerned that the budget gap will be filled by cutting much-needed services, like police, fire, public transportation, and infrastructure services. I'm concerned we regress to the pre-Williams era.

Marc Fisher: He's already made it clear that taxes will go up. And if those increases are keyed to people earning big money, then it's a relatively easy political move, because the rich don't have the numbers or the influence to fight back in this city. Will those residents then rebel through the only means of expression they really do have--voting with their feet and moving to the suburbs? That was obviously the pattern through most of the latter third of the 20th century, but that has changed in recent years as the city has become a more attractive place to live and as families found ways around the central city/suburbs dilemma--the quality of the schools. As each of the last two mayors repeatedly instructed us, it's really all about the schools, the schools, the schools.

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Sense of entitlement: Courtland Milloy had a great column in response to a Washington Post article on those who will be forced off welfare if stays are eventually limited to 5 years. Many show no initiative, saying, e.g., that that they are "picky" about job selection and the city should not cut off their benefits without finding them a good job and providing child care. Welcome to the real world! They are not the only ones who are struggling with these issues. Living off charity and/or taxpayers should be the last resort for those who are truly unable to work.

Marc Fisher: Yes, in the abstract, that's a good and easy slogan to grab hold of. And Gray did for a while, too, but his roots are in social services, and he's already--characteristically--backing away from the move to have the District conform with the rest of the country and impose a five-year limit on welfare payments. This is one issue where a mayor-council confrontation could indeed occur, and soon.

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Marc is chatting!: I think we can assume the mayor is not opposed to house pets. What's his position on Dippin' Dots?

Marc Fisher: We have yet to pierce that veil, but I will see if I can get a crack team of reporters on that essential question. In the meantime, we should find out in the next few months whether Gray will be more ecumenical in his distribution of the mayor's stash of Nationals tickets. The Fenty seats at Nats Park went largely unoccupied through much of last season--at least post-Strasburg injury. Gray, unlike Fenty, is a baseball fan, so maybe he'll use some of the ducats himself...stay tuned.

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16 years ago this was a bad place: I'm not sure people remember how bad this city was 16 years ago. Before the Verizon Center let to the rebuilding of Chinatown. Before U street was filled with hip bars. The downside to some people is DC is on track to losing its black majority. Working to keep this by artificial means, could lead to a disastrous setback. What is Gray going to do to not set us back 16 years in race relations in D.C.?

Marc Fisher: I don't think Gray or any other mayor is delusional enough to believe that they can reverse the natural ebb and flow of population in and out of a city. Williams made a big push to increase the population of the District, which is still about 150,000 below what it was half a century ago, and that is a goal that city policies can indeed have a big impact on. (This takes us back to the height restriction question.) But as for who moves here and who stays here and what the racial mix is in the city, there are much larger forces at work that govern that. Cities change, and they need to if they are to stay attractive and vibrant. Neighborhood populations shift quite dramatically and quite frequently, and there's nothing wrong with that. My sense of Gray is that he is genuinely devoted to racial peace and progress, and that he felt the city leaned too hard in the direction of affluent, white residents over the past four years. What he might do with that perception is wholly unclear.

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Rocci Fisch: Welcome, Mayor Gray. Now get to work.

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DC: I expect this city to take a major step backwards under Gray. Be honest, do you agree?

Marc Fisher: I really don't know. I do know that he faces a financial reckoning far more challenging and severe than either of his predecessors did. And I think he's likely to be honest enough to take harsh actions to address that shortfall, rather than resort to the kind of trickery that could put the District in the same boat as some state and local governments that could collapse this year. But I do fear that Gray's plodding style will be a major impediment to the kind of progress the city needs to make, and that his contemplative style will let his staff set the tone for the city--and perhaps in ways that the mayor himself might not fully endorse.

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hopeless: It appears that Fenty lost largely because he wasn't black enough. This perception hinges largely on the fact that he 1) didn't appoint enough blacks to key positions, 2) invested in bike lanes/dog parks, 3) created an environment that allowed more middle/upper income individuals to rent/purchase/fix up homes and open nice restaurants/businesses in historically black neighborhoods. If a large majority of the city sees this as overwhelmingly bad, well, we're doomed.

Marc Fisher: I don't think it's nearly that dire. Yes, if a large majority of the city feels excluded and unwanted, that's a big problem. But Fenty lost because he neglected the politics of his office and focused almost exclusively on his pet policies and projects. You can't walk or drive around the city without seeing numerous examples of the extraordinary progress the city made during his four years, but those achievements were not felt by a huge portion of the electorate. So the challenge Gray faces is to continue with some of those initiatives--especially the city's sponsorship of new mixed-income communities to replace decrepit, crime-ridden public housing projects--even as he persuades the city that he is delivering for all, and not just for the affluent.

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Crime: So Marc, one of my barometers is crime. I am NOT pleased with how crime, especially juvenile crime, is handled here.Yet he's keeping Lanier, and hasn't talked about how he plans to handle DYRS.Any thoughts? Oh, and how did the burglary story turn out?

Marc Fisher: Crime stats are impressively lower in most categories--and that's true nationwide, so it probably has little to do with city-specific policies or programs. But some kinds of crime are up, including property crime, which is a dangerous signal because, as Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani found in New York, those more petty and less violent crimes are strong indicators of a fraying social fabric. Cops say the courts and prosecutors here are absurdly lenient when it comes to juvenile crime, and certainly DYRS has had well more than its share of scandal as kids under its supervision run wild in the streets. I don't get the sense that Gray intends to crack down much in that area, but it's not an area where he's made any clear pronouncements as yet. As for my burglar, whom I wrote about last month, he's still at large, even though the police have his photo, name, address and just about every form of evidence you could possibly muster.

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Steetcars: I don't think Gray gets it. As Sam Huntington noted development is not a one way rachet. Neighborhoods can and do move backwards. I live in Ward 6 -- we bought a rowhouse a few years ago. Our tax assessment is absurdly high compared to some of our neighbors (who have all renovated without permits) -- but we are willing to pay our share. But if Gray kills the Streetcar and moves backward on the schools -- then we will leave. I will lose some money on my house -- and walk away. And so will a lot of the families that have moved in...Gray doesn't have to worry about Cleveland Park and Georgetown and Logan Circle -- he has to worry about screwing up the creeping development of places like the SW waterfront, the H Street Corridor, and NOMA. If he screws that up -- then a huge part of his tax base will be lost -- and the setback for the city will be significant. And for the record -- not everyone moving in is white.

Marc Fisher: Good and important point--too often in this city, the dividing lines are framed quite casually by race, when in fact what we're talking about may be class or income level. Many of the newcomers over the past decade have been black or Hispanic, and indeed even as the black majority in the District has shrunk considerably, the percentage of population that is white has grown only slightly--meaning that the city has gone from having a negligible Hispanic population to one that is nearing 10 percent. But to your larger point, yes, there are indeed quite a few neighborhoods where the changes over the past decade are very fragile, and where crime, bad schools and other quality of life indicators can very well make the difference between whether those newcomers stay or leave. That's why you saw Gray move so quickly to reach out to Fenty supporters--he knows that the city's tax base is a delicate one and that he has to do what he can to keep it growing.

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Street cars, etc.: I don't get it - don't black people own dogs, ride bikes, and use public transportation?

Marc Fisher: Of course they do, and of course many of them value those additional urban amenities as much as do white residents. But for those who cling to old concepts of city neighborhoods, for those who believe that a city should be frozen in amber, those initiatives can seem like symbols of an alien invasion--especially, and here is where the Fenty administration failed most grandly, when bike lanes, dog parks and the like are added even as services to the needy are cut or frozen. That was the mix that poisoned the electoral well for Fenty.

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Rocci Fisch: The taunt of an apparent Facebook thief

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House and Gray: If the Republican House gets angry, can't they basically dictate to budget to D.C.? Everything D.C. does is subject to their appeal right?

Marc Fisher: Yes and no. The city writes its own budget, but the spending plan remains subject to Congressional approval. In the last few years, that's been fairly automatic, but you don't have to look too far back to recall when it was anything but. And a GOP-controlled House may decide as previous Republicans have to have some fun with the District's liberal social leanings, stomping on policies around, say, gay marriage, gun control, or welfare. But so far at least, the GOP honchos in the House say they are not so inclined. That could change without notice, of course, so stay tuned.

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Primary vs election: The idea that only a small subset of D.C. population get to vote to elect the mayor is the real problem here. I bet Fenty would still be in office if they let independents vote in the primary. Also let's remember that ultimately the House controls D.C. What are Gray's plans for working with Congress, because if he upsets the wrong person (a lathe cab situation) then his position could become much more ceremonial.

Marc Fisher: Theoretically, yes, independents and Republicans could make a difference in the District if they were permitted to vote in the Democratic primary, which obviously determines who wins the November general elections. But in fact, the number of registered independents and Republicans in Washington is so small as to be largely insignificant. Even if all registered voters could participate in D.C. primaries, I don't think we would have seen any different results in any of the recent elections. Check the numbers and you'll see that the margins would have stood.

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The Plan: Back in the 70's and 80's there was much conspiratorial talk of "The Plan" to drive blacks out of the city and bring back the whites. It always had the feeling of paranoia attached to it, but it was taken as gospel in some quarters.Conspiracies aside, if Rip Van Washington had dozed off at the corner of 12th & You back in 1991 and awakened today, I wonder what he might have to say about his city.

Marc Fisher: Yep, some would say that The Plan succeeded. But of course, what was always pernicious about talk of such a conspiracy was the idea that the powers that be in the District really wanted to turn the city majority-white as some sort of racial imperative. But those powers--if that's how you'd like to frame the developers, investors and politicians who help push development here--are driven by the same forces as in any other city: They want to make a buck and, to a lesser extent, make the city more livable and attractive. They don't care if they sell apartments to blacks, whites or others--but they do want a place that has less crime, more amenities and better schools. Which is not such a terrible thing.

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Barry follow-up: Barry has that stranglehold over mayor and council because the Post and other media cover his every escapade, whether it be in the council chambers or elsewhere. Get over it, Marc! And apparently Kwame Brown has a Cheh strategy, because he just booted Jack Evans out of the camera spotlight to put Cheh in the seat next to him. I guess that's to:1. Put someone who understand the law next to him2, Make Ward 3 residents think he cares about them.I'd call that a Cheh strategy.

Marc Fisher: Excellent point....But does the mayor have a Cheh strategy?

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I Decided To Opt Out: Mi Marc - -After 52 years of watching the decline and fall of my fair city, I decided things would never improve or return to the times of the 50's and early 60's. So I moved far, far away just prior to 9/11 and have not looked back. From what I read, things are still in about the same condition as I left it. Do you forsee any vast improvements coming?? Thank you!

Marc Fisher: My sense is that the quality of life and the vibrancy of the city has improved steadily and remarkably over the past 12 years in particular, in just about every possible way.

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Rocci Fisch:

Marc Fisher: Gotta wrap it up--thanks very much for coming along. Great to be with you again...let's do it again soon...


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