Two years ago, Washington, D.C. voters shocked the nation when it decided to bring back a political establishment that long-tolerated rampant crime and systemic academic failure, voting out mayor and rising Democratic Party star Adrian Fenty, and replacing him with Vincent Gray, whose only notable achievement in his long career in politics was overseeing the clown college known as the city council.
Fenty won acclaim from fellow centrist Democrats in the school reform movement for his takeover of D.C.’s woeful public school system — long renowned as the Superfund Site of public education (before Detroit took that unenviable position) — and for hiring the sharp-elbowed Michelle Rhee to overhaul it. But the rest of his tenure was filled with spats with the city council, incidents of alleged cronyism, a high-profile snub of Dorothy Height, a doyenne of the city’s black political elite, a jailbreak from the city’s juvenile detention center that destroyed his reputation as an effective city manager, and even bruising the egos of the very school reformers who kept his campaign afloat by failing to appear at a debate sponsored by the Young Education Professionals of D.C. Only Rhee’s popularity (and fears that Gray would let D.C.’s schools slide back into decrepitude) kept Fenty from losing to Gray in a landslide.
But these days, Chocolate City residents are as tired of Gray — and the rest of D.C.’s political leaders — as they were of Fenty and his jerk reputation. The very culture of bureaucratic ineptitude, graft and chicanery, and race-baiting that typified D.C. politics during the days of the notorious Marion Barry has once again become the norm.
This week, a donor to Gray’s successful mayoral campaign, Jeannette Clark Harris, pled guilty to her role in helping local powerbroker and government contractor Jeffrey Thompson recruit straw donors so they could funnel $653,000 in campaign dollars to Gray and other candidates. The case itself stems from a year-long investigation into Gray’s political campaign, which has included guilty pleas by two of Gray’s campaign operatives for their role in passing money to Sulaimon Brown, another candidate in the 2010 mayoral race Gray’s team allegedly recruited to run a “shadow campaign” against Fenty. This led the Washington Post to demand that Gray “address these revelations”
Last month, Gray’s flashy successor as chairman of the city council, Kwame Brown, resigned from his post after pleading guilty to charges of overstating his income on a loan application (and submitting falsified documents) in order to purchase his home and a $50,000 powerboat he inexplicably named “Bullet Proof.” The son of one of Barry’s cronies during his days as D.C. mayor, Brown became the second city councilman in six months to be forced out of office and head to a prison cell — and joins a long list of current and past city officials (including Barry, who spent six months in prison on charges stemming from his notorious 1990 drug arrest) with rap sheets longer than lists of accomplishments.
Speaking of Barry: His continuing presence in D.C. politics remains as embarrassing to the city as its seemingly permanent status as the nation’s murder capital ever since his four scandal-plagued terms in the mayor’s office. Barry made a spectacle of himself last month when he argued with fellow councilmembers about who should take over a top post on the body. Without a hint of personal contemplation, he declared that the city had become “the laughingstock of the nation.” This came after he aroused the ire of the city (and the entire nation) this past April when he proclaimed that D.C. needed to “do something about these Asians coming in and opening up businesses and dirty shops.”
Certainly D.C. isn’t nearly as in bad shape as it was during the 1980s when the best thing about the city was the three Super Bowls won by the now-woeful Redskins. But the corruption-plagued political culture once again threatens to further tarnish Downtown’s reputation — and raises the question of whether the federal government should put an end to its five decade-long experiment in home rule.
AT LEAST D.C. RESIDENTS no longer have to worry about crime outside the District government’s offices in the aging John Wilson Building. A 72 percent decline in reported crime between 1991 and 2010 (the last year reported by the city to the Federal Bureau of Investigation), along with a two-thirds decline in burglaries, has made the city a more-hospitable place to live. The reductions in crime, along with the desire among hipsters and wonks to live in cramped rowhouses, the improving status of D.C.’s traditional public schools (along with the array of public charter schools), and the unceasing expansion of the federal bureaucracy, now means that middle-class white and black residents can reside as comfortably in Anacostia and the H street corridor as they could in Adams-Morgan and Dupont Circle. It’s why the percentage of whites residing in the district increased by 31 percent between 2000 and 2010 (and caused some consternation among the city’s old-school black politicians, who can no longer engage in the kind of race-baiting that made their careers).
Much of the credit for D.C.’s revival belongs to Anthony Williams, who pulled the District from the brink of insolvency, cut taxes, and brought greater attentiveness to crime and quality-of-life issues during his eight years as Barry’s successor as mayor (and four previous years as its chief financial officer). Another person responsible for D.C.’s revival is Virginia Walden Ford. a mother and activist now living in Arkansas, whose agitation against the city’s abysmal school district led to the growth of school choice (including charter schools and the recently revived D.C. Opportunity voucher program saved last month from the Obama administration’s latest attempt to shutter it), and, ultimately, the school district’s takeover under Fenty during his first year in office.
Even Fenty, flaws and all, did his part to improve the city’s quality of life. With help from Rhee, Fenty succeeded in reversing D.C. Public Schools’ decades-long slide into the academic and systemic abyss. This included forcing the district’s American Federation of Teachers local to accept a new contract that allows for the use of student test score data in evaluating teacher performance, and the ability to pay bonuses to top-performing teachers for their work. The district’s success in purging 23 percent of its low-performing teachers this past school year (and in rewarding 476 more-deserving teachers with bonuses of as much as $25,000) has made it a model for reformers looking to improve the nation’s teaching corps.
But for residents (and reporters) these days, those improvements are less visible than the corruption that has once again reared its ugly head.
D.C.’s city councilmembers, better-known for squabbling with mayors (and penny-ante graft) than for being selfless public servants, have come under even more scrutiny. In January, Harry Thomas Jr., who succeeded his father on the legislative body six years earlier, copped a plea (and stepped down from the post) after being caught embezzling $459,000 in city grants marked for charities and youth baseball teams to pay for golf outings, SUVs, and an inaugural ball he held for himself. (He will now spend the next three years in the federal pen.) Thomas’s troubles cast the harsh light on Kwame Brown, who had already caught flack for demanding an SUV with all the features that would cost taxpayers $2,000 a month; his high living ultimately caught up with him last month after federal prosecutors indicted him for engaging in fraud related to two loans from a local bank (including falsifying the name of a college chum on an employment verification form).
Gray hasn’t exactly covered himself with glory during his tenure. Even before taking office, Gray raised eyebrows when he appointed as fire chief Kenneth Ellerbe, a former city fire commander who had been forced to formally quit his job two years ago after it was revealed that he was also serving as head of the fire department in Sarasota, Florida (and was still taking a tax deduction on his D.C. home even though he was no longer a full-time resident). Scandals plagued Gray’s other appointments. In June, Gray came under fire again after it was learned that his choice to head the city’s public housing agency, Michael Kelly, was forced to resign from his previous job in Philadelphia the week before his appointment by Gray after being caught giving bonuses and promotions to an aide with whom Kelly was having an affair.
Meanwhile Gray’s 2010 mayoral campaign came under federal scrutiny after Congress ordered an investigation into the hiring of onetime Gray and Fenty rival Brown, who was immediately fired (and disavowed by) Gray after Washington City Paper learned he had faced (and beat) assault and attempted murder charges. Brown testified before a grand jury that Gray’s campaign paid him $44,000 (along with a $750 loan from the campaign’s chairman, and promise of a city job) to stay in the mayoral race and ask Fenty embarrassing questions. As a result, several Gray’s former campaign operatives, including Thomas Gore — who had helped the mayor in his ascent in D.C. politics — pled guilty to federal campaign finance law violations.
But Gray’s biggest problem may not be indictments, but with two groups that helped him win office in the first place.
The AFT’s D.C. affiliate, which spent $1 million to help Gray defeat Fenty, expected the mayor to appoint a schools chancellor more to its liking, and roll back many of his predecessor’s school reforms. But Gray stunned the union (and school reformers) when he chose Rhee’s protégé, Kaya Henderson, to take her place. While Henderson has eschewed Rhee’s high-profile approach to running the district (and refuses to do Time covers with brooms in hand), she has largely stayed the course. This, along with recommendations this past February from a mayoral commission to replace some of the city’s traditional district schools with charters, has angered the union. The strain was clear last April when AFT local president Nathan Saunders criticized Gray and Henderson for outlining a five-year plan that “only amounts to half” of what the union thinks the city should do.
The city’s charter schools, the educational providers of choice for 41 percent of the city’s school-aged children, backed Gray after spending years sparring with Fenty over his penchant for violating the city’s school funding formula and withholding millions that was due them. But the mayor hasn’t repaid them in kind. Charter operators were particularly miffed late last year after Gray proposed to hand D.C. Public Schools an extra $21 million to help the district address cost overruns. Although Gray tried to make amends by giving charters an extra $9.4 million, the move displeased charter operators and school reformers alike.
With the mayor under the cloud of scandal, and city councilmembers heading to prison, D.C., residents may be wishing for Fenty to come back from political exile and take his old job back. And they may even be rethinking whether they really want their city to be the nation’s 51st state.