"What a way we have traveled," Washington declaimed in a short and emotional inaugural address. "What a distance this city has come to find its rightful place in the nation."
This was in January 1975, the dawn of home rule, the end of a century of congressional rule of the District. And while the city had indeed come a long way, it still had a long way to go: Gaining home rule was a huge achievement, but it was supposed to be a means to an end. That end was an efficient and responsive government.
For the longest time, the congressional appointees running the District had failed to deliver it. "Most District of Columbia residents," read a summary of a public opinion poll taken in the spring of 1974, "apparently feel that their local officials cannot be trusted, their local taxes are misspent, and that the residents' opinions are ignored in important local matters." Different constituencies clearly had different aspirations for the home rule government, but they all seemed to share a simple desire for functional basic services.
It's useful to recall this circumstance now, because it has often been obscured in the dramatic arc of District politics over the last 23 years the rhetoric of empowerment, the effort to take on the responsibilities of a city-state, the rise and fall and rise of Marion Barry and, ultimately, the suspension of home rule last summer. It helps to explain why, despite the symbolic value of home rule, a surprisingly large number of Washingtonians seemed content "to trade a measure of democracy for vague promises of efficiency," as American University law professor Jamin B. Raskin has noted, with more than a little sadness. "Things had just deteriorated so steadily over the course of a decade that people were desperate."
Home rule may return as soon as 2001, provided the District runs on balanced budgets until then. Or it may not; Congress could change its current conditions for transferring power from the financial control board to the elected government. But even with home rule suspended, this fall's D.C. elections offer voters and candidates a chance to set their failures aside and recast their relationship to start over, from the same desire that prevailed in 1974. To go back to the future.
In political terms, home rule was certainly a glittering prize. In that 1974 campaign, no fewer than 109 candidates ran for mayor and the 13 seats on the new D.C. Council. Still, one thing was clear from that momentous beginning: Governing the District wasn't going to be easy, even if everything went the city's way.
Congress had saddled the new regime with a crippling unfunded pension liability. It had banned taxes on suburban commuters to help finance the new government, a provision insisted upon by lawmakers from the D.C. suburbs. And it handed over a municipal bureaucracy with a bloated payroll of 40,000 employees, their numbers having doubled over the previous decade and a half as powerful congressional committee chairmen, white Southerners all, used the municipal government as a patronage mill.
Responsiveness had not been a hallmark of this bureaucracy, at least not on the nuts-and-bolts issues that affected people's lives: zoning and planning, police, fire, public schools, trash collection. Among the first bills Mayor Washington sent to the council were measures to make it easier to remove abandoned cars from private property, and to shift the cost of repairing sewer pipes broken by Metro construction from homeowners to the District.
AMONG THE THINGS WASHINGTON didn't do was clean house, having run the D.C. bureaucracy the previous seven years as the appointed mayor. That task fell instead to Marion Barry, who narrowly defeated Washington and council chairman Sterling Tucker in 1978 and went on, in his first term, to ward off a financial crisis while trying to improve services. But as Barry's personal and political problems mounted in his second and third terms, he kept on hiring new workers, in part to expand his political base. Revenue from the downtown real estate boom of the '80s made it easy.
By the end of Barry's third term, the city payroll had reached 48,000 workers, more per capita than any other city in the United States.
At the same time, the government's problems were magnified by the range of its responsibilities, which combined those of a city and those of a state, and the limitations of its resources. The District developed a reputation as a prodigious mini-welfare state, with one of the most generous smorgasbords of social services in the country. The liberal mayor and liberal council members rarely saw a problem they couldn't fix with another contract.
The District's liberal voters played a role, too for a time. In 1984, the people passed Initiative 17, making Washington the first city in America to give homeless people an absolute guarantee of shelter. Six years later, the Barry administration was spending $40 million a year on a system of roach-invested hotels for the homeless run by crony contractors. When the council finally repealed the shelter guarantee, in 1990, advocates for the homeless organized another referendum. But this time, the people refused. They'd seen enough.
Barry, city contractors and those on his payroll may have been happy he counts empowering a black middle class as one of his principal legacies but the poor and the homeless weren't (mismanagement undermined most of those social programs). And middle-class taxpayers were fleeing to the suburbs.
By 1990, when Barry was convicted on drug possession charges, the government was running a deficit of $118 million. Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly's promise to sweep the government clean became a bitter joke. By 1995, when Barry made his redemptive return to the mayor's office, the spending gap was projected to reach $722 million. Services had just about collapsed.
After Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R-N.C.) engineered the nearly total takeover of the city government last summer, Barry complained of the "rape of democracy." Few people rallied.
The return to some semblance of order hasn't been pretty, and it hasn't been swift. But in February, Chief Financial Officer Anthony A. Williams announced that the District had finished last year with a budget surplus of $185.9 million. The news, beyond its shock value, also carried a measure of hope.
Now Camille C. Barnett, the control board's new chief management officer, is reaching out to residents and elected officials, believing such a partnership is necessary for home rule's return. "One of the primary objectives I have is to improve customer service," she says. "And you can't improve customer service if you don't know the customers."
THE FIFTH YEAR of her five-year contract was intended to coincide with the return of home rule, but last year's surplus has put the city a year ahead of schedule. The real question now seems to be not whether the city will stay on track, but whether Congress will change the rules if it does and extend the board's life.
That will depend on a host of factors, beginning with who is elected mayor in November, and who is elected to the D.C. Council, and how they all end up working with Barnett and the board. So it remains, in this election year, to see if the voters will redefine the purpose of the local government as being to serve the people who elect it instead of those who work for it.
"If everyone takes the notion of customer service seriously in government, it changes a lot of things and one of the things it changes is the relationship between the government and the people," says Barnett. "It becomes much more of a partnership. It's the whole philosophy behind community policing. It's the whole philosophy behind preventive health care."
How her approach goes over remains to be seen. Already, she has made some diehard home rule advocates nervous.
"Camille Cates Barnett has been brought in not only to manage the city, but to make everyone feel better that they have had democracy stolen from them," says Sam Smith, editor of the Progressive Review and the Free D.C. News Service. "Barnett, faithful to the reinventing-government text, speaks of the people of D.C. as ‘customers.' If we are customers, who owns the business we are buying from? Why, Camille Cates Barnett & Co., of course."
The only new relationship he sees taking shape between the governed and the government is the control board and its minions pushing the poor out of town 65 percent of the budget cuts over the past five years, he and others have pointed out, have been directed at programs serving children and low-income adults.
In other quarters, however, the customer service approach is sounding pretty good.
D.C. Council member Sharon Ambrose, who has dealt extensively with Barnett, watched her speak recently to a civic group on Capitol Hill. Barnett ended her spiel, Ambrose recalls, by saying, "I want to introduce you to someone who is really going to make a difference in this city so would you all stand up please, turn to your neighbor and shake his hand."
The people, Ambrose says, loved it.
AMONG THE MAYORAL CANDIDATES, you can already hear echoes from the halls of management. D.C. Council member Jack Evans says, "There is not the opportunity to campaign on grand ideas. A lot of the problems we're having people moving out, businesses moving out are directly tied to service delivery." Council member Harold Brazil refers to providing services as "the basic compact between government and the people." Council member Kevin Chavous talks about a return to democratic rule built on a "user-friendly, consumer-driven approach to how we deliver services."
As Marion Barry said shortly after he was first elected mayor: "If I can just get everybody to answer the telephone right, that's drastic change, that's revolution."
Vernon Loeb covers the District government for The Post.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company