- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 16, 2006

The D.C. elections last week mean the immediate future of the nation’s capital is vested in the hands of 35-year-old Adrian Fenty, a Democrat. His victory in the September Democratic primary assured his victory last week, but folks don’t know whether to applaud Mr. Fenty or look askance with a raised eyebrow. Some are doing both. Skepticism is high and expectations are great for the Fenty administration.

The mayor-elect has posited his politics between the fiscally conservative Tony Williams and the liberal mayor-for-life Marion Barry. It’s an inexperienced political spot.

Since home rule was established in the mid-1970s, D.C. voters have typecast their mayors, electing Democrats who seemingly fit the middle-class mold of the decade. Walter Washington was a threat to neither blacks nor whites during the turbulent 1960s and early 1970s, Marion Barry rose through the ranks of the newly home-rule empowered electorate and Sharon Pratt Kelly was a native darling and lobbyist who promised to sweep clean the bloated bureaucracy of the intoxicating Barry years. The city wanted all three.

By the late 1990s, coffers were dry, Wall Street had turned its back and the bureaucracy was running amok. City Hall could neither pick up the trash nor fill the potholes. Black flight replaced white flight.

The city wanted other liberal wannabes, but it needed Tony Williams.

The city needed the Barry appointee to improve mundane city services, and that was the initial and popular mandate in his first victory at the polls in 1998. Mayor Williams obliged by routinely filling potholes, making sure trash and recyclables were collected as promised and establishing an easy-to-navigate Web site where residents and businessmen could initiate and track some licensing and permit services. The trains ran on time and the control board (the budget and management authority created by Congress and signed into law by Bill Clinton) went dormant.

The second time around in 2002 was a bit different for Mr. Williams. Special interests — anti-school choice advocates, homosexual rights activists, environmentalists, anti-tobacconists, bicyclists, etc. — started pushing the mayor and the other occupants of City Hall. The editorialists at Washington’s leading newspapers urged Mr. Williams down different paths: The Washington Times encouraged the mayor toward fiscal austerity and school reform while The Washington Post pushed social concerns. Mr. Williams made considerable inroads on all fronts.

But two big-city problems — poor performing schools and violent crime — are as onerous today as they were eight years ago.

Mr. Fenty, like his campaign opponents and his predecessors, has promised to tackle those problems head-on. He has given stakeholders a clear indication of his priorities — education and economic development — and has made key moves in that direction. Mr. Fenty has said he will renominate Nat Gandhi as chief financial officer, and he has made two other appointments this week that suggest Mr. Fenty wants to stay the course on economic development and raise the tenor of how best to reform schools. One appointment is that of deputy mayor for economic development and planning, the get-the-job-done Neil Albert, who served in the Williams administration, and a deputy mayor for education, Victor Reinoso, who currently serves on the school board. Mr. Fenty also, and very wisely, abolished several deputy mayor posts, explaining that while the agencies and policies those deputies oversaw will not be diminished, the bottom line is that the accountability buck stops with him. There is a “new generation of elected officials,” Mr. Fenty told editors and reporters Monday at a luncheon meeting at The Times, and voters and other stakeholders have mandated “that we run cities like a business.”

Can’t argue with that. With a $7 billion-plus budget, annual surpluses and housing and commercial projects booming in all quadrants, the capital remains in an economic resurgence. The shameful reality, though, is public schooling — and the city’s educrats want to keep it that way.

The District’s public school system can only be reformed by deliberate and drastic measures. Mr. Fenty is on record: “The goal isn’t to take over the school system. The goal is to fix the school system.” So said Mr. Fenty on Monday at The Times.

Indeed, there is a difference between taking over public education and reforming the system, as Mr. Williams discovered in 2000, when he sought the former only to compromise on a voter initiative that stymied reform with the creation of an appointed-elected school board vis-a-vis putting the mayor in charge as reformers sought.

The Fenty education plan spells out a good formula: The mayor is in charge of public education and all requisite entities that feed into education, the deputy mayor reports to the mayor, the superintendent reports to the deputy mayor and the school board becomes an advisory panel. It’s a clear chain of authority that the education establishment will fight tooth and nail. This is especially so since the appointed-elected hybrid board reverts to its all-elected self in 2008.

Mr. Fenty deserves an ovation for working with other advocates of the reform-schools-now movement, and I hope he remains mindful of the Tony Williams-Stephen Goldsmith school of thought that more spending doesn’t guarantee better services. And I don’t doubt for a second that Mr. Fenty will continue to make sure the trains run on time.

The mayor-elect is no exception to the middle-class mold, and his let’s-do-this attitude will offer some cushioning as he hits the potholes that all big-city mayors hit. With eyebrow raised, I say his transition is off to a good start.

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