Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon swept into office Wednesday on a wave of goodwill from virtually every part of the region, and in her inaugural speech she reached out to virtually everyone in the region with the kind of politics of inclusion and teamwork, collegiality and cooperation, that epitomize the female style of management.
The bet here is that during the next four years we will witness an extraordinary change in the tone at city hall and the way the nation's capital does business. Dixon is no pushover. Her come-from-all- the-way-out-of-it campaign was ample evidence that she is tough enough to handle the entrenched bureaucracy and the police department and the school system -- all of which she is going to have to bring into her circle of influence if she is to turn the city around. But what came through so vividly in her speech is that she intends to govern by cooperation rather than confrontation, and in a community that has seen so much of the latter, that was a real breath of fresh air.
At no point was that more clear than the lovely moment when she looked up and said: "Where's John?" and then strode over to the new D.C. Council chairman, John A. Wilson, and gave him a hug. The council, which has been trying to even the balance of power after 12 years of playing second fiddle to Mayor Marion Barry, will soon discover that Dixon was raised with the admonition that mothers have passed on to daughters since the dawn of time: You can catch more flies with sugar than with vinegar. A charmed Wilson later said: "I thought it was a marvelous gesture. She's absolutely correct. We're going to have to work with each other."
Dixon, a former public utility executive, understands the dynamics of corporate culture and the tone that is set at
the top. Her style of leadership
and her work habits ought to filter down throughout her administration just as pervasively as did the truculent, divisive style of her predecessor.
And the benefits to the city, indeed to the entire region, can be enormous. It is no accident that the District's payment from Congress fell behind during the Barry administration as congressional confidence in him vanished along with nearly everyone else's. Dixon, as powerful an orator as we've seen around here in a long time, touched on the bass chords of the value system that holds American society together. Those were notes that would resonate with the most benighted members of Congress, with whom she must work.
The problems she faces are legion: record homicides, devastating school dropout rates, scandalous infant mortality statistics and a host of other public health problems, homelessness and hopelessness. Those problems, as she said, are not unique to the District. "All across America, in every statehouse and city hall, the same issues that beset this city are being confronted." What she said was not simple rhetoric. Drive-by murders and mindless violence are occurring not just in Detroit, New York and the District. They are happening in the middle-size cities of Middle America. And when that happens, Middle America and Congress start to notice.
So while the problems are not unique, Dixon has a unique opportunity to go to Congress with plans to make this city a model for reform. She has properly targeted the school system as the place to start recapturing young people and harnessing their entrepreneurial talents for legal schemes rather than illegal ones. And she spoke of an administration that will be part of a public-private partnership to help the "architects of hope and progress" throughout the community.
Some cities -- New York comes to mind -- may never be turned around. But the nation's capital is not one of them, and, in fact, national pride could never allow that to happen. There are programs that keep children from dropping out, that keep families together, that teach literacy, that keep mothers in jobs instead of on welfare and that reduce repeated incidences of teenage pregnancy. What needs to be done now is to put the pilot programs that work into much broader effect. Here is where the nation's capital could become a model for how to do this in cities around the country.
Dixon has the potential to attract some of the brightest and most competent people available to her administration. She has star quality, but she also has depth and vision and she works tremendously hard. But perhaps the single most important thing she can give the young people of this city -- and the young people around the region -- is the gift of a role model. She showed that education, hard work, intelligence and guts can take a person right to the top. Those are the bedrock values that she exemplifies and that she will help drive home to young people every time they see that megalumen smile.