- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 2, 2010

D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty said for months that he made “hard choices” for the city during “hard times.” Now it’s Vincent C. Gray’s turn.

Voter turnout on Tuesday hardly matched the high numbers during the 2008 Obama presidential run, when 62.53 percent of Washington’s registered voters cast ballots. But with 14 percent of the ballot counted Mr. Gray had captured 96 percent of the vote against only minor-party opposition in the overwhelmingly Democratic city to claim victory as the city’s mayor-elect.

Mr. Gray now has to choose among raising taxes, cutting spending and paying for programs that he touted as D.C. Council chairman on the campaign trail, including special education reform.

In many respects, Mr. Gray’s transition is challenging but not daunting, supporters said, because voters likely returned six of his council colleagues to City Hall and one of them, Kwame Brown, will replace him as chairman in January. D.C. congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton’s easy victory over Republican Missy Reilly Smith helps, too.

Also, Mr. Gray’s transition team includes Alice Rivlin, the former Congressional Budget Office director who later headed up the D.C. Control Board, and Anthony A. Williams, the former two-term mayor who served as chief financial officer during Marion Barry’s last mayoral term.

There’s no shortage of financial problems on the table, including overspent budgets, double-digit unemployment rates, a $175 million budget deficit and a burgeoning social-services safety net. And the dust still lingers from last spring’s budget skirmishes, which pitted Mr. Fenty and some lawmakers who wanted to raise taxes and fees against Mr. Gray and a majority of lawmakers who subsequently pushed most of them off the table.

How Mr. Gray handles closing that $175 million budget hole, which is the result of declines in sales- and income-tax collections, and revenue shortfalls projected in the near future is his first leadership test.

“Closing the budget deficit will be a real test of his leadership and set the tone for the rest of his administration,” said A. Scott Bolden, a prominent defense attorney and former chairman of the D.C. Democratic State Committee. “Chairman Gray is going to learn quickly what it means to be Mayor Gray.”

Raising taxes “is not sound fiscal policy” in this economy, Mr. Bolden said.

“In the short term, residents will stay put. But in the long term, they will consider moving to Maryland and Virginia. There is tremendous bloat in personnel, and he needs to make cuts in a lean, efficient and effective way without slashing and burning,” he said.

Union leaders and other Gray supporters echoed many of Mr. Bolden’s comments, saying tackling the deficit is Mr. Gray’s urgent priority, but they also said that continuing education reform, creating jobs and improving civic engagement are key priorities of voters.

For his part, Mr. Fenty instituted a hiring freeze and told agencies to trim their budgets. But unions, including the Washington Teachers Union, the Metropolitan Washington Council, AFL-CIO and the American Federation of Government Employees, played substantial roles in the successful Gray campaign and they have expectations.

The head of the teachers union cited Mr. Gray’s proposal to mainstream special-needs students in D.C. Public Schools, instead of paying tuition, boarding and transportation costs for out-of-state programs.

“I support the inclusion model,” said George Parker, head of the teachers union. “But you’ve got to put resources and expert teachers in the classrooms. We need those kinds of support services. The students need wraparound services. We need to spend the money.”

The Fenty administration spent down the city’s savings to cover overspending for schools and other programs, and that hole needs to be filled immediately, supporters said.

Mr. Gray and the city administrator shouldn’t take a piecemeal approach, said Stan Jackson, who served three D.C. mayors and as interim president of the University of the District of Columbia.

“The earliest and biggest challenge is devising a forensic analysis of the finances,” said Mr. Jackson. “What are the true resource allocations and how are those allocations spent. … On the jobs front, are we integrating bricks and mortar with human capital? … On economic development, do we understand the importance of being civically engaged?”

Mr. Gray campaigned on a theme of “One City,” and he urged civic leaders at a breakfast on Saturday to help him the bridge the real and perceptive divides in voters’ minds.

“Open communications and trust between the city officials and civic leaders. That’s what Vincent Gray said,” noted Robert Brannum, president of the D.C. Federation of Civic Associations.

A longtime critic of former Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, Mr. Brannum also said the Gray administration must “start protecting jobs for people who live in the District” and that there is no shortage of stakeholders who would willingly be a part of his “kitchen Cabinet brain trust.”

Mr. Jackson cautions that Mr. Gray should act with deliberate speed to align fiscal policy with the programs that mayor-elect laid out during the campaign.

He also said city leaders must be mindful that the control board, which Congress created too oversee District government because of financial mismanagement, is merely dormant - not dead.

“There is no margin for error,” Mr. Jackson said.

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