WHEN MAYOR Marion Barry campaigns for reelection, something magical happens in this city: A political machine goes to work, cleaning alleys, repairing streets and cutting deals.
After the vote count, however, the machine stops. Volunteer precinct and block captains who tended so efficiently to the needs of the voters fade into the background. Election day passes and the city's problems -- high infant mortality, teen pregnancy, crime, drug use -- remain essentially untouched for another four years. It doesn't have to be this way.
What we need is a full-time political machine in Washington. If ward coordinators can be organized to improve the delivery of services during an election year, then let's have ward bosses all year round. Our city doesn't need less politics, it needs more.
We already have the worst aspects of machine politics -- corruption -- as well as the worst aspects of "good government" -- bureaucracy and inefficiency. There has to be a better way, and Marion Barry is in a unique position to forge that middle ground. The goal of a Barry machine would be to realize the vision that he has articulated over the past eight years, a vision so far frustrated by an inert city bureaucracy.
"A political machine is a phenomenon in which a centralized group of people acting under a personality is able to do one important thing: mobilize people," says Alvin Thorton, associate professor of political science at Howard University.
When Barry was first elected mayor in l978, he billed himself as a "can do" man. Eight years later, the District still has the highest infant mortality rate in the country. Despite his so-called "blue-ribbon" panels on teen-age pregnancy, homelessness, housing, prisons and fire safety, these problems are as serious as ever.
The Barry election machine has had one purpose: getting votes. Now, with four more years in office, he must construct a different kind of machine, one that can make his campaign promises come true.
Barry made the right start last week, asking for the resignation of his top 100 appointees. But all government employes should be subject to this kind of fear and trembling -- yes, they should be removed from civil service protection and put on notice that they can be hired or fired by politicians, depending on the quality of service they provide.
The next step would be to overhaul the city's Advisory Neighborhood Commissions a running joke of a link between residents and their elected representatives on the D.C. City Council. The ANCs should become part of the infrastructure of the political machine this city needs.
The current ANC structure is apolitical and unresponsive. Earlier this year, the League of Women voters conducted a study of the city's ANCs. Of the 323 ANC Commissioners contacted, only 49 responded -- just one clue that something terrible has happened with our grass roots political structure. "What is the single largest barrier to success of the ANCs?" the League of Women Voters asked. More than half of the respondents called the D.C. government a prime hindrance in problem-solving, chiefly because of inaction.
The main argument against machine politics is that it invites corruption. Better to have a professional civil service, argued the "good government" reformers who first attempted to purge American cities of political evil. But as the ANCs have learned, when professional bureaucracies are allowed to sit, they get fat. They move slowly. And they just don't care.
The result is a woefully inadequate service-delivery system in areas where services are needed most. Take health care, especially the plight of the city's children, for example.
Changes are constantly being made at the highest levels of the Department of Human Resources. Yet, the incidence of cancer, tuberculosis, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, teen pregnancy, infant mortality, sickle cell, venereal disease, AIDS, high blood pressure and heart disease remain as high, if not higher, than any other place in the country.
People who need medical care should be able to get it; they should be encouraged to seek it, not stay home and let ailments fester because they are afraid of being humiliated or turned away.
Machine politics offers a hands-on approach to dealing with such problems. If your daughter gets sick and you don't know what to do, as many people in the District seem not to know, you would simply call your block captain or his assistant, who has a direct line to the precinct captain, who would arrange admission to the hospital -- a hospital where the ward boss already has an understanding about the way things work.
If your son needs a job, call the party boss. If you are too old to walk to the grocery store, the block captain will send a runner for you. If there is a family on the block whose children are getting out of hand and into trouble, the party will send someone to deal with them personally, probably a policeman who lives in the neighborhood.
The possibilities are endless, depending on the very specific needs of the neighborhood. You want your swimming pool to stay open longer? How about the library? Does it need more books? You want it; a strong party machine knows how to get it.
Of course these services are not free. You must work for the party. You must assist the block captain in making sure that things go smoothly on your block. You must not only vote, but get others to vote, too. How well you do determines the treatment you get. Do well, your daughter goes to Capitol Hill Hospital. Do badly and she goes to D.C. General, where those who did not vote for the right candidate will go unless they are rich.
It sounds cold. But look at what we have now. Hospital emergency rooms jammed pack with ailing people while the most indifferent workers imaginable sit around chewing gum. In some places, this attitude has even affected the doctors, who, like bureaucrats, answer to no one.
Little wonder that the mortality rate in Washington is so much higher than other cities. The current system boasts that it provides jobs to any young person that wants one. But on any given weekend, almost as many youth are arrested and sent to jail as report to work.
Barry says, albeit tongue in cheek, that he would like to see the District government work with the efficiency of the old Daley machine in Chicago. He says he would like to leave a legacy of institutions and programs that would last after he is gone.
"The vision is a capital city with strong, attractive neighborhoods, populated by a diverse, productive community living in affordable housing that is near appropriate commercial services, excellent educational facilities and recreational programs for every age and lifestyle."
This language comes from a comprehensive plan for city development signed by Marion Barry in l982. "It is a vision of a strong local economy with a full range of job opportunities and cultural attractions for region. It is a vision of a more humane city for all its residents workers and visitors."
It is also a vision that has failed. And it will never be realized as long as it is based on nothing more than rap.
The mayor's "blue ribbon" panels -- which talk about infant mortality one week, teen-age pregancy the next, homelessness the week after that -- cannot make these problems go away.
Like the dramatic increase in the city's prison population, which began under Marion Barry even as he boasted about more jobs and economic development, these problems are symptomatic of breakdowns at the community level where, under home rule, political organization is in chaos.
If the city had a network of strong ward bosses, connecting residents with the government through block and precinct captains, there is no way that 60 open-air drug markets could simply "spring up" in our neighborhoods.
The city's much-heralded anti-drug campaign, Operation Clean Sweep, for all its good intentions, relies much too heavily on police, who simply sweep dope dealers from one area to another. Sure, 6,000 arrests were made in two months. But who's kidding whom? Long before it was necessary to sweep the streets, there should have been intervention -- from the schools, from the church, from the neighborhood.
In the absence of real political power, residents must now accept, while judges applaud, military war tactics in our neighborhoods. With a political machine, there would be another presence on the streets, a political presence.
After years of experimenting with this bizarre form of government known as "home rule," the time has come for an overhaul. The establishment of a political machine would not only ensure improved delivery of services but also answer some critical questions about the political future of Washington.
The current home rule government has become stifling. There is no machinery for grooming new leaders. All of those talented people in the Mayor's Youth Leadership Program should be starting real political careers as runners or block captains, learning how to mediate neighborhood disputes, monitoring zoning board meetings and getting out the votes as they work their way up through a viable political structure.
Instead, they get to play mayor for a day.
People must get involved in politics at the grass roots level; indeed, they must be made to get involved, if residents are to have true representation. Machine party politics would make this happen. The ANCs, which are already oiled up with cash money waiting to be dispensed, are standing by ready to be cranked up.
Consider this: The ANCs receive tax money to pay expenses, hire staff and conduct programs "for the welfare of the people" in their areas. The total appropriated amount for each fiscal year was $ 1,072,000. Unspent money that has been distributed by the D.C. government to the ANCs do not revert to the D.C. treasury at the end of the year. So far, 37 ANCs are just sitting on $ 417,344.
The mayor, through the D.C. Budget Office and the D.C. Auditor, should seize on this opportunity to build a viable political organization -- within the bounds of the law -- in those areas where he already has support. These politicized ANCs would do what politics is supposed to do: solve problems. The ANC representatives and their block captains would process zoning complaints, make sure the trash is being picked up, monitor local playgrounds, investigate complaints against the police, represent the interests of the neighborhood against the bureaucracy.
The engine of a powerful political machine is already in place. Oil, by way of big bucks, is already being funneled into it. All it needs is for someone to drive it..
One man, Marion Barry, has shown that he can crank up a political machine for a short run every four years.
Now the challenge is whether he is bold enough to drive it all year round.
Courtland Milloy is a columnist and reporter for The Washington Post.