Recent months have not been good for D.C. leadership.
The news that city council chairman Kwame Brown resigned Wednesday after being charged with bank fraud in federal court (he has also been charged with a misdemeanor count related to his 2008 campaign), comes on the heels of other bad news for District leaders. Former council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D) resigned in January after being charged with embezzling money from city taxpayers; he was sentenced to three years in prison last month after pleading guilty. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), meanwhile, is facing an ongoing federal investigation into practices surrounding his 2010 mayoral campaign. (Two aides have been charged; Gray has denied wrongdoing.)
The big question that leaves us with: How can those who remain, or those who will replace Brown and Thomas, restore the public’s trust?
The job filled by Brown, who as city council chairman had been the second most powerful political leader in Washington, will be immediately filled by Mary M. Cheh, the council’s president pro tempore, until members can elect an interim chairman next week. At that election, one of four at-large members will be selected to become an interim chairman (Phil Mendelson is apparently favored). Later, a special election will be held for a permanent replacement.
Whoever holds the chairman’s job going forward — as well as other city council members and D.C. leaders — will need to take steps to repair what’s likely to end up as a bruised image. The city may be in far better shape than it was during the Marion Barry years, but comparisons are bound to be drawn, even if they are wrong. The actions of leaders like Thomas or the alleged ones of Brown don’t necessarily mean the city itself is being mismanaged. As Mike DeBonis and Ben Pershing write, “today’s investigations … are juxtaposed with stuffed coffers, competent government services, a growing population and a widespread sense that the city is on the upswing.” Still, fixing a lack of trust and confidence in the city’s leaders is sure to be a key priority for the top political leaders who remain.
One way to do so is to emphasize just that point: The city is doing well, and the actions of a few do not spell mismanagement. With solid finances, lower crime rates and a good environment for development, any interim city council chairman can remind citizens that the Washington has a solid foundation from which a new chairman can start. Mendelson seems to get that: While he noted the disturbing nature of the charges against Brown, he said that “the other way of looking at this is now, it appears the investigation regarding the council chairman is at an end and we have a chance to move forward without the cloud of an investigation.”
But in that respect, the city’s leadership will still have plenty more work to do. As DeBonis and Pershing write, “with Brown out and Gray politically wounded, the leadership vacuum in city politics is likely to continue for months.” Any interim leader will only be able to do so much, and true steps forward are unlikely until the investigation into Gray’s campaign comes to a close. While Gray may have been unaware or uninvolved in the questions surrounding his campaign, until that matter is cleared up, people will remain wary of whom they can trust.
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