In their drive to become the District's next mayor, both D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp and council member Adrian M. Fenty have made fixing the city's dilapidated school buildings a top priority. But the consensus ends there.
Fenty's bill proposes to spend $1 billion on schools by tapping into D.C. Lottery revenue. Cropp (D) scoffed at the plan last week during her birthday party fundraiser, calling it "poof! imaginary money."
Education funding will be the first test of how District leaders handle controversial legislation in a rapidly shifting political landscape. With Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) not seeking a third term and with seven council members running for mayor or contemplating a run for council chairman, city politics has taken on a new edge.
Council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), chairman of the education committee, said she will try to broker a compromise on education. "If we're not able to act on this issue, it's not good news for District residents, period," Patterson said. She said she hopes her role will bolster her planned run for council chairman.
Other council members running or considering a bid for the city's two top political jobs are: mayoral candidate Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5); Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), a candidate for council chairman; and two potential council chairman candidates, Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) and Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7).
Although the council and the mayor share some priorities for the coming year, both expect that the campaigns for next year's elections will present new challenges if candidates promoting their agendas become less willing to compromise on difficult issues.
In addition to school renovations, the council is expected to consider proposals for a smoking ban for District bars and restaurants, a new hospital, tougher rent control and a construction contract to build a baseball stadium for the Washington Nationals.
Williams's priority list for the remaining months of his term includes building the hospital with Howard University, creating a new central library on the old convention center site and stimulating job creation for D.C. residents.
Many of Williams's plans have mixed support on the council. "It's going to be very, very difficult," Williams said of reaching his goals.
Last year, the council rejected Williams's proposal to gain control over the city's schools. Williams did not include school renovations, an expensive proposition, on his latest list of priorities. Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi has said modernizing 130 city schools would cost $2.8 billion.
Council responses to Fenty's school-improvements proposal, introduced this year, illustrate how some members seek to satisfy voters, as well as members' need to score political points. They began by pointing out that the D.C. Lottery revenue that Fenty (D-Ward 4) would use to fund his plan already is committed in the city budget.
Nevertheless, Fenty's plan was approved by the finance committee, even though Evans, the chairman, has called Fenty's funding plan irresponsible. Evans voted "present" in committee.
Last week, he introduced legislation that would guarantee $200 million a year in city tax revenue for school modernization over the next decade -- twice Fenty's number.
Cropp responded to Fenty's plan by using her power as chairman to help add millions of dollars for school construction in last year's budget. Although it doesn't come close to $1 billion, she promised that there will be additional funds, all spent responsibly.
One priority that the mayor shares with some on the council is the effort to build a $400 million, 250-bed, "state-of-the-art" hospital on the grounds of the former D.C. General in Southeast Washington. If approved, a new hospital could improve the mayor's political standing with some residents but could create a political problem for some council members.
There is perhaps no single issue that hurt Williams more politically than his decision in 2001 to close D.C. General. Some voters who live east of the Anacostia River and who depended on the hospital now distrust him.
The proposed new hospital has the strong support of political and civic leaders in Southeast and in Ward 7, where the effort to draft Williams for mayor in 1998 started. But the plan is opposed by the D.C. Hospital Association, which fears the hospital would add duplicative services and result in higher hospital costs.
Even some council members who opposed the closure of D.C. General and believe there is a need for a health care facility in the area question whether the plan for a full-scale hospital is the solution.
"We have to approach this methodically and make sure there is no overlap," said Orange, who voted against D.C. General's closure and favors building a facility. "There's still a lot of work to be done."
Orange said council members are in a tough spot politically.
"If you were opposed to closing D.C. General, how can you turn around and be against this project?" he asked.
Gregory M. McCarthy, the mayor's deputy chief of staff, said Williams's commitment to the hospital is just as strong now that he is not running for reelection. McCarthy said the debate will be "an epic battle full of people with very hard and deeply felt notions."
Some see opportunity in all the political tumult. Already, members say, interest groups are trying to harness the political winds to drive their agendas, and observers say council members will pay more attention to voters this year than traditionally powerful business and industry groups.
"I think people are going to see a heightened responsiveness from their elected officials," said Fenty, who was one of the three smoking ban supporters last year. "I think it's a good thing."