Articles in This Series

Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Chapter Six
Chapter Seven
Chapter Eight

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Chapter Seven: 1990-94

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 18, 1995

Sharon Pratt Kelly was elected in 1990 to clean house. As she put it: not with a broom, but a shovel. She sold herself to the city's black and white upscale voters, as well as to Congress and the editorial board of The Washington Post, as the antipode of Marion Barry.

Instead of padding the payroll, she would cut it. Instead of polarizing blacks and whites, she would unite them.

Born in Washington to a striving middle-class family, she was a Howard University-trained lawyer who lived on the Gold Coast east of Rock Creek Park. She quit her $140,000-a-year job as a Potomac Electric Power Co. executive to rescue her home town from the humiliating legacy of Barry. Against all odds, she became the first black female mayor of a major U.S. city. People magazine named her one of the world's most beautiful people.

Kelly marketed an exceptionally attractive and reassuring reform product, and, for a while, Congress couldn't get enough. It gave her administration $100 million in aid, a $300 million loan and a much-needed second chance to put the District's finances in order.

Yet one of Kelly's campaign promises proved to be more true than all the rest. She really was different from Barry—she was not a politician. A curious amalgam of shyness and steely will, she never mastered the arts of schmoozing and consensus-building.

She came into office with no support in the poorest parts of the city, where blacks were suspicious of her corporate pedigree, her light skin and her Washington Post editorial page endorsement. Kelly's response to the anxiety of the city's poor was to cut summer jobs.

She alienated her rich, white supporters by trying to build a shelter for homeless people in Northwest Washington's Ward 3. She alienated her own staff by being cold, closed-minded and indecisive. And she alienated Congress by blaming her problems on racism, sexism and the clubbishness of Capitol Hill.

The new mayor who had made so much of Barry's ethical lapses demonstrated an uncanny knack for fumbling the symbolism of reform. While preaching austerity, she paid for her personal makeup artist with city money. She built herself a fancy new office that included bulletproof windows and a marble fireplace.

Although Kelly did attempt to reduce the cost of city government—she got rid of nearly 2,000 employees through attrition and layoffs—the changes were neither broad nor deep enough to close the gap between what the District brought in and what it spent.

With neither the political will to make sweeping cuts nor the administrative skill to enforce them, Kelly resorted to budgetary tricks. Her most creative accounting maneuver seemed, on the surface, a mere technicality. She "adjusted" the city's property tax year in 1993 by pushing it back three months. In effect, she paid for 12 months of spending with 15 months of taxes, buying herself an extra $170 million.

Such a splendid jolt of money, however, can come only once. By the end of her term, the extra $170 million had translated into a nearly equivalent amount of overspending. Congress decided that Kelly's "balanced" budgets were phony.

"I have personally come to the conclusion that the District government has not acted in good faith with Congress. I wanted to believe the best. Now I believe the worst," Rep. Julian C. Dixon (D-Calif.) said at hearings on the city's financial crisis.

When Kelly, the self-proclaimed house cleaner, left office in January, Barry inherited a deficit twice the size of the one he had bequeathed to Kelly—a hole so deep it imperiled home rule.

© Copyright The Washington Post

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