Washington, D.C.: Backsliding?

In 2006, the people of Washington, D.C., elected Adrian Fenty (D) to be their sixth mayor since the establishment of the ‘home rule’ city government. I certainly didn’t agree with him on everything—his positions on gun control, for example, were misguided and counterproductive—but on the whole, Fenty had a very positive impact on the city. He and his appointed schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee, embarked on a surprisingly successful mission to improve the District’s public schools. He overhauled and reorganized dysfunctional city government agencies. He and his appointed police chief, Cathy Lanier, managed to reduce the city’s homicide rate by over twenty-five percent. In the four years Fenty was in office, D.C. became a noticeably nicer, safer place to visit.

Coming to power eight years after Mayor Anthony Williams (D), a competent if unremarkable leader, Fenty inherited a city on a positive trajectory. Williams had largely dismantled the almost twenty-years of cocaine-encrusted embarrassment left by Mayor Marion Barry (D), and had guided the city into a healthy cycle of renewal and improvement. The budgets were in good shape, crime rates were dropping (though not fast enough), and the schools had seen some tepid improvements. Williams deserves much praise for what he did. When Fenty became mayor, he took all those good things and accelerated them. Williams’s tenure was marked with slow, steady steps in the right direction. Fenty, however, seemed to prefer taking energetic leaps.

Fenty wasn’t (and still isn’t) a ‘politics as usual’ kind of guy. Before becoming mayor, he broke ranks with then-Mayor Williams and opposed city funding for the Washington Nationals baseball stadium, believing that the team should have had to pay for its own playground—a refreshingly responsible, free-market position. Since leaving the mayor’s office, he has publicly supported Governor Scott Walker’s (R-WI) efforts to rein-in Wisconsin’s ballooning budget by reducing the coercive power of government employee unions. The Fenty administration was largely bereft of corruption and controversy; the best his opposition could come up with was complaints about how Rhee dealt with the teachers’ unions, and a big ‘scandal’ that revolved around how he didn’t share tickets to sporting events with members of the city council.

He did what he thought was best for the city, regardless of what party appellation was attached to the idea when it was born, and regardless of how politically risky it might be. In other words, he was exactly the kind of leader—a statesman—that a great city like Washington, D.C. ought to have. And yet, when Fenty stood for reelection in 2010, the people of Washington, D.C., chose Barry crony Vincent Gray as their Democratic Party nominee instead—by an inexplicable 54-44 margin. In the heavily-Democratic city, that all-but assured that Gray would be their next mayor. The people of the District had unceremoniously defeated the best mayor they had ever had.

So how has Gray been doing since he took office as mayor of our capital city? He furloughed the city’s 9-1-1 dispatchers for a day in 2011 to save some money, which let over two hundred emergency calls go unanswered. He has opposed the reinstatement of the District’s effective and successful school voucher program. He was arrested by U.S. Capitol Police for obstructing traffic during an absurd protest against Congress for daring to use a tiny bit of its constitutional authority over the District. And, most troubling, he has brought back all the cronyism and corruption that Mayors Williams and Fenty had done such a good job of eliminating.

So far, Gray himself has not been charged with any crimes . . . but many people close to him have been. There is an ongoing federal probe of Gray’s 2010 mayoral campaign, which allegedly paid fellow mayoral candidate Sulaimon Brown (D) to publicly denigrate Fenty and drive more votes to Gray. Brown was guaranteed a job in the Gray administration in a classic ‘quid pro quo’ arrangement, and was immediately hired into a cushy position (with a six-figure salary) after the election. He was fired less than a month later after local media revealed that he had a colorful criminal record, and that’s when he went to the press with his story. Since then, Gray’s administration has been repeatedly accused of various forms of nepotism, cronyism, and corruption. As the old saying goes, ‘where there’s smoke, there’s fire.’ It is a safe bet that many of the accusations are true.

And what of all the progress that the District made, first under Williams and then most-spectacularly under Fenty? Are the schools still improving? Is crime still down? For now, yes. It takes more than two years for rampant political corruption and mismanagement to reverse the inertia of a steady twelve years of progress. Remember, things didn’t look too bad for the District when it was two years into the first Barry administration either. But, if you’re paying close attention, you can already see where this style of governance is likely to lead. All you have to do is look at what happened last time the city chose cronyism over leadership, and corruption over competence. Its schools were a laughing-stock, its neighborhoods were blighted cesspools, and it was the murder capital of the United States.

Washington, D.C., has come so far since then—from a national embarrassment to a fine example of renewal and rebirth. Ten years ago, tourists were well-advised not to stray too far from the monuments and federal buildings that surround the National Mall. Today, no such warning is necessary; most of the city is reasonably safe. Once-dilapidated neighborhoods are now filled with vibrant storefronts, office buildings, homes, parks, museums, and restaurants. This renewal brings with it new employment opportunities for inner-city youths and adults—which helps lift people out of poverty and reduces incentives toward crime.

Oh there are still a few trouble spots scattered throughout the city, and the bulk of the southeast quadrant (which includes the area represented by now-Councilman Marion Barry [D-Ward 8]) remains stubbornly unimproved. But overall, Washington, D.C., isn’t a city we need to be ashamed of any more. I would hate to see it backslide.

Scott Bradford is a writer and technologist who has been putting his opinions online since 1995. He believes in three inviolable human rights: life, liberty, and property. He is a Catholic Christian who worships the trinitarian God described in the Nicene Creed. Scott is a husband, nerd, pet lover, and AMC/Jeep enthusiast with a B.S. degree in public administration from George Mason University.