- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 5, 2010

Jobs. The one-syllable word remains a central theme in D.C. elections, where two Democrats, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, are vying to remain employed as the employment situation for other residents remains grim.

When Mr. Gray and Mr. Fenty were campaigning for their respective offices in the summer of 2006, the U.S. Labor Department reported the D.C. unemployment rate was 5.8 percent.

Last week, the agency set the rate at 9.8 percent - and it is an especially bad picture for residents who lack the skills and education to compete in a tough job market. In predominantly black Wards 7 and 8, for example, the jobless rates are 19 percent and 30 percent, respectively.

The jobless issue is particularly acute for Mr. Fenty, who won resoundingly in 2006, but now trails Mr. Gray in all polling.

Some areas of the city are hurting more than others. According to the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, Ward 8 also had the highest unemployment rate in the city in 2009, and its average monthly jobless rate was 26.5 percent, compared to 2.9 percent for predominantly white Ward 3. Also, Wards 5, 7 and 8 had higher monthly average unemployment than the city as a whole in 2009. Those three wards also had the highest percentage-point increases in unemployment from 2008 to 2009, the institute said.

Mr. Gray hammers home those and other employment issues at every opportunity. In recent debates, Mr. Gray reminded voters that the Fenty administration failed to spend $4.6 million the council had appropriated for unemployed and underemployed adults during fiscal 2010, which ends Sept. 30.

The mayor did not dispute that, but he, his administrators and his supporters did offer explanations for the citys high unemployment numbers. For one, “the reality is, D.C. has always had higher unemployment rates than nationally,” the mayor said in a Sept. 1 debate.

As for the unspent local jobs funds, the Fenty administration focused instead on spending millions of federal dollars provided by President Obamas stimulus program.

Also, his supporters said, Mr. Fenty has indeed bolstered job prospects for unskilled residents. “He meets with the guys at nighttime,” said Fenty booster Ron Moten, co-founder of the anti-crime group Peaceoholics.

The mayor helped scores of ex-offenders and others who are unskilled get in job training and diploma-equivalency programs, Mr. Moten said.

“Adrian comes out in his 2x4,” he said, referring to Mr. Fentys convertible Mini Cooper.

On the campaign trail, both Mr. Fenty and Mr. Gray said providing a solid education to youths is a key to putting hard-to-employ residents to work and on the paths to careers.

At a live, televised debate Friday sponsored by WTTG-TV Channel 5, Mr. Gray vowed to reform the D.C. Department of Employment Services, aggressively enforce laws that mandate contractors hire D.C. residents and make sure community college, and vocational and adult-education programs are aligned for career-ladder jobs.

Mr. Fenty pointed out that Mr. Gray had dropped the ball, too.

“He was chairman for four years, represented Ward 7 for four years and ran [the Department of Human Services] for four years,” Mr. Fenty said at the televised debate. “Our administration focuses on education. Education is the way to finally solve this [unemployment] problem in the long term.”

• Deborah Simmons can be reached at dsimmons@washingtontimes.com.

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