D.C. City Council member John Wilson, who represents a ward with one of the largest concentrations of tenants, has changed his views on rent control.
Until now, Wilson viewed rent control as a "program" to make decent housing affordable for low- and middle-income District residents. Now he believes it can be no more than a "stop-gap" measure until other solutions are found.
Some of Wilson's views on other issues, including education and prisons, have also changed in recent months since he began juggling the roles of politician, teacher and student as a fellow at Harvard University's Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School of Government.
Since the city received Home Rule more than a decade ago, Wilson has represented Ward 2, which extends from Georgetown to Capitol Hill and from Shaw to Southwest. He maintains that he never spent more than two days in a row outside the District until he went to Harvard.
As a fellow, Wilson rented an efficiency apartment in Boston in September and has spent only about three days a week in the District. Although his work at Harvard will end in January, Wilson insisted that his stay in Boston has had an impact that will affect his political work here.
Wilson, a former candidate for mayor, Mayor Marion Barry's frequent verbal sparring partner on budgetary matters, and the council member who readily spices up a legislative debate with both witty and sarcastic speeches, said he had become worn and depressed from years of politics.
"I had run out of a lot of ideas and different approaches and I wanted to bounce my thoughts off other people," said Wilson. "[The fellowship] has been one of the most rewarding and interesting experiences I have ever had in my life, except for serving on the council . . . . I really needed my whole philosophical viewpoint reinforced."
But he has reassessed other philosophies, too, he said during a wide-ranging interview about his Harvard studies.
Wilson, chairman of the City Council's Committee on Finance and Revenue, said he has been convinced that the District government should place a greater emphasis on education, including doubling expenditures, testing teachers, providing merit pay for teachers and making computers available to every child in the school system.
"I never looked at education as a key to running a city," said Wilson. "Industry and jobs go where they can find people with adequate skills. We're losing a whole generation of students because they are not prepared."
He also has altered his view on the need for prisons.
"I have a more progressive view," Wilson said. "There need to be more community-based facilities, and politicians need to be more objective. Before, I believed we should build more prisons to put more in them. Now, I think we have to look at the social ills connected to crime and take a double approach -- look for alternatives."
As part of the Harvard program, Wilson must teach a weekly study group on city government, politics and problems.
LaVaughn Henry, one of the student coordinator's for Wilson's group, said the council member maintained a steady group of listeners through a combination of humor and an emphasis on the practical side of politics. The study group, which sometimes numbers as many of 20 students is scheduled to meet from 8 to 9:30 p.m. on Wednesdays but at times goes until 10:30 p.m., students said.
In accordance with rules established by the Institute of Politics, which annually hosts the city mayor, council members and other local officials, the discussions during those study groups remain off the record. Students said they were impressed by Wilson's determination to make them identify with the challenges facing urban governments.
"He is dynamic and very energetic," said student Ken Gerber. "He seems to care a lot about people and his community. He has stressed to students that we're the ones to be faced with the problems in the future."
Of this semester's crop of institute fellows -- including former New Republic editor Rick Hertzberg, New York State Assembly member Barbara Patton, former Conservative Digest editor Lee Edwards, Arizona Republic editor Jack Casserly, CBS Evening News producer Richard Cohen and Karen M. Paget, former director of The Youth Project, a Washington-based foundation -- Wilson was the only one whose central focus was local politics.
"Wilson has made a dent in the group by insisting on being heard," said Paget. "There is certainly a high level of frustration on Wilson's part but his commitment to local politics does not wane."