MAYORAL CANDIDATE Patricia Roberts Harris has released a detailed policy paper on economic development in the District, emphasizing the need for more jobs and a pro-business environment to attract them. The plan is not a slapdash piece of work; it contains several interesting ideas as well as a comprehensive critique of the Barry administration's performance. The mayor's initial response -- that many of the proposed ideas are already in place or in planning, and that her facts are wrong -- is not good enough. There has, in fact, been a great deal of development activity, and there are many agencies and coordinating bodies involved in it -- a senior Barry administration official provides callers with an informal oral briefing on an impressive range of efforts. But only a systematic presentation by the administration will allow the public to judge fairly the total record.
Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis, also a candidate for mayor, says the Harris plan is "no new news," with some of its central ideas mere echoes of proposals Mrs. Jarvis has been pressing for some time, with appreciable success, as chairman of the Council's Housing and Economic Development Committee. Council member John Ray, another candidate, likewise says there's nothing new in the plan, and thinks it proves that Mrs. Harris is indeed a "bureaucrat."
Mrs. Harris and her staff acknowledge that there are no great new ideas in the package; it is, instead, the candidate's compilation of promising and proven approaches developed over the years from around the country, applied to the District. The notion of a private or quasi-public economic development corporation, for example, has been tried with varying degrees of success in several cities as a means of overriding bureaucratic obstacles to help developers package their deals, with resulting benefits for the community in employment and tax revenues. Mrs. Jarvis has also recognized this, and her somewhat similar proposal has a reasonable prospect of enactment later this year. There are questions: could a quasi-public corporation cut official red tape, and would it use the public interest as the key test of a development proposal? But certainly these approaches are exciting when compared with the seemingly lackluster, low-energy performance of the Mayor's Office of Business and Economic Development and related agencies.
There is more to the Harris proposal than an economic development coporation designed to be a zealous facilitator of special projects. She also urges comprehensive changes to create a pro-business climate in the District, from regulations and taxes to information and permits, so the District will be able to compete for its share of the region's growth. And she wants to revamp and expand the city's employment and training services in a number of specific ways. These other components of her program have the quality of a laundry list, with a lot of items but no discernible central vision.
But if this is to much too ask, Mrs. Harris is to be commended for presenting the public with a detailed document that utilizes her Cabinet experience and convincingly demonstrates that in this important area she is well prepared to be creative and aggressive. Does she, as her opponents charge, lack an understanding of the workings of District government? Not judging from this proposal and another Harris package on public housing. A challenger can never be as well informed on the details as the people in power. Mrs. Harris is no stranger to the problems of how to make a city work.
Perhaps this signals that the campaign is now moving decisively away from generalities and rhetoric, so that the voters will at least have the possibility of choosing on the basis of ideas rather than postures. The other candidates should try to contribute equally thoughtful and specific presentations -- not just on what the Barry administration has or hasn't done, but also on where the next mayor should lead the District in economic development and job creation.