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News & Politics
A Race to the Bitter End
Gary Tischler • October 6, 2010
Four years ago, two years ago, last year at this time, or even in the spring, if you suggested to anybody that Mayor Adrian Fenty might be behind as much as 13 to 17 percent in the polls in his re-election campaign against City Council Chairman Vincent Gray, they might have brought the guys in the white jackets for you.
This was the same Adrian Fenty who had swept into office with an unprecedented victory over Chairman Linda Cropp, winning every precinct and ward in the city, which surely spelled MANDATE in every respect.
Fenty ran on school reform. “Judge me by what we’ve accomplished there,” he said.
During the campaign, he did not say he was going to go for a mayoral takeover of the school system, which, when Mayor Anthony Williams tried it, he voted against as a Ward 4 councilmember.
But that’s exactly what he did on day one after his inauguration — he introduced legislation that gave him control over the schools, which would be run by a chancellor that he would choose once the legislation was approved.
The legislation made its way through a lengthy but thorough hearing process, shepherded effectively by Vincent Gray, who had won the council chairman race, and fully supported the takeover. At that time the mayor invited the council to be partners with him in his efforts to reform the schools.
Once the legislation was in place, Fenty selected a young, little-known educator named Michelle Rhee to be chancellor, without consulting the council or too many other persons in Washington. It was done in the clumsiest way possible — the Washington Post got the news before Chairman Gray did.
Still, Rhee came highly recommended by national figures, such as the chancellor of the New York school system, which was also in the midst of a major school overhaul. Fenty’s major effort — school reform — was about to take off. Meanwhile, the city was still thriving under his rule and developments moved forward. Under the new Chief of Police Cathy Lanier, another controversial choice, the crime rate and homicides in particular declined dramatically.
Fenty looked politically bulletproof, and in retrospect he sometimes acted like it, especially when he met opposition. He was still a young man in a hurry to get things done, but as late as a year ago Fenty’s re-election prospects looked solid, with a big money lead over any prospective candidate.
His successes and achievement stood, and still do. The school reform movement was moving — test scores were rising, although erratically, the infrastructure improved dramatically and enrollment and graduation rates were improving, although not everywhere. Recreation centers were going up. Parks were improved.
Everything was the same, and yet it wasn’t. While Gray had proved to be an effective, careful, consensus-seeking council chairman, he was no longer in tune with Fenty. He wasn’t even on his speed dial. The partnership with the council as a whole and with Gray in particular never materialized. Gray was angry about the last fall’s school firings and held hearings on them.
Rhee was often at the center of things. With Fenty backing her solidly, she moved decisively to acquire the power to make wholesale personnel decisions, firing principals, closing schools, and in the end firing teachers. She also became a national figure, a poster person for Obama and his Education Department’s reform policies. Her status culminated in a buzzed-about appearance on the cover of Time Magazine with a broom in her hand.
For Fenty there were other signs of trouble. There was a controversial contract squabble over parks and recreation projects that went to Fenty’s friends, a controversy that is still under independent investigation. There was a petty fight with the council over baseball tickets. There was an increasing perception that he wasn’t listening to regular folks in the black, poorer wards in town.
In January, the Washington Post published a startling and extensive poll it had taken which found that Washingtonians across the city were unhappy with Fenty. It was one of the more politically contradictory polls ever found. A majority liked what he had accomplished but was seriously troubled about his style and the way he got things done. They saw him as arrogant, go-it-alone, unwilling to consult with others, petty.
In short, the poll discovered what appeared to be a serious malaise about Fenty’s character and his way of running the city. Plus, a lot of the resentment was coming from the District’s primarily black wards, — 8, 7, 6, 5 and 4 — whose residents felt that Fenty was favoring white residents amid increased gentrification.
What the poll discovered was not a passion for any alternative candidate, including Gray, but a resentment
of Fenty. It was a big alarm bell. After a big win that appeared to unite the city, there was now a city that was dramatically and sharply divided.
When Gray finally announced his campaign — under the banner of “One City” — Fenty didn’t appear to be worried. He had a big advantage in campaign money, he had a record of achievement to run on, and his education centerpiece was flourishing and approved of by most residents.
But things just didn’t quite work out that way. The campaign turned into a classic paradox. People took pride in the new rec centers, the lowered homicide rate, the improved schools, and higher test scores. But the jobless mark stayed high among black residents. Gray appeared to be gaining traction and momentum. His low-key manner, his directness, his ability to achieve consensus, and his dismay at the two teacher firings gained him endorsement from labor and the chamber of commerce both.
The campaign itself became series of media events, candidate forums, blogger buzz, charges and counter-charges. The campaign overshadowed the two city-wide races for the Democratic council at-large and council chairman seats, the latter for which Gray was now ineligible.
The recent poll was a shocker to everyone. It showed that Fenty was trailing among Democratic voters by as much as 13 to 17 percent (among most likely voters), a double-digit number which looms large but is not impossible to overcome.
Fenty has come out swinging. He’s alternating from attacking Gray on his record as Human Services Director under Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, admitting his failures of “not listening, not being inclusive and promising to change,” to pushing his achievements, especially regarding school reform.
It’s hard to count Fenty out. He is, by any measure, a relentless, tireless worker, who loves working the streets and going door to door. It’s how he won his council seat, it’s how he became mayor.
But this is a peculiar campaign. The policy issues are fairly clear: the continuance of school reform with or without Michelle Rhee, who’s inserted herself into the campaign; what to do about the looming budget crisis, which rarely seems to get discussed; how to close the gaps between the haves and have nots in the city; how to create jobs and battle the perennially high jobless rates in the poorer wards; how to forge an inclusive (or not) education reform policy; how to build bridges between the executive and the council; how to maintain and create affordable housing; and where to find additional moneys.
Those are traditional issues about what and what not to do, about money and spending, schools, jobs, crime, and budget matters.
What’s not traditional is the central issue in this campaign, which made Gray a viable candidate. That’s the mayor himself. Nothing seems to excite debate more than the mayor’s style and personality — his governance image, if you will. In a televised debate, he promised to change, to be more inclusive, and to listen more. “If I don’t prevail,” he said, “I’ll have no one to blame but myself.”
A new addition this year, early voting has been going on throughout the city for days now, but the final tale will be told on Sept. 14. That’s when we’ll see what the voters have been hearing, and who they want handling the city’s future.
Jack Evans Report
The September Democratic primary has come and gone and the Council’s summer recess is over. It’s back to school, back to work, and back to reality…literally! After a heated campaign, we have my colleagues Vince Gray as the Democratic nominee for Mayor and Kwame Brown for Chair. And we have an outgoing Mayor Fenty with three more months on the job. Together we face a tremendous challenge right off the bat – rebalancing the fiscal year 2011 budget, which began October 1st.
Last week the independent Chief Financial Officer, Dr. Natwar Gandhi, released the revised revenue estimate for the fall quarter.
While I was by no means expecting good news – anecdotal accounts of the economy continue to be pretty bad –the actual news turns out to be worse than I expected. Dr. Gandhi estimates an additional revenue shortfall of about $100 million for FY 2010, and potential spending pressures in the range of an additional $65 – 75 million. And this is just on October 1st!
We continue to see weaknesses in several areas: commercial real property values, income taxes – particularly capital gains and sales taxes. In fact, the decline in real property taxes in one year is $236 million – a figure which should take your breath away.
With the primary now over, all of this will force us to have our “rendezvous with reality” and refigure the FY 2011 budget within the next month. I have some hope of a higher level of cooperation between the Council and the Mayor in coming up with a consensus plan. I would like to see that plan avoid “one-time” fixes as I believe the continued revenue shortfall is likely to persist for a few years. While income and sales taxes will likely bounce back with the economy, I do not see commercial property coming back for several years, and the next wave of loan refinancing in this area is likely to reveal further weaknesses. So as I have said before, what we face is not a “rainy day,” but rather “climate change” and we have to rethink our government in order to live within our means.
This means we cannot keep raiding our accumulated fund balances to pay our operational expenses. We cannot mandate vague and unspecified spending cuts. We cannot raise taxes which discourage investment in the city and hurt our ability to continue to attract new residents and taxpayers to the District. The past 10+ years have seen an unprecedented movement back into DC – and this has had a phenomenal positive effect on our “bottom line” and on our ability to pay for the social safety net we all want. But we need to avoid short-sighted policies which will ultimately kill the golden goose, as it were. We are entering into the third year now of reduced economic circumstances, so clearly one-time fixes are not going to work.
We cannot let the various spending pressures gallop out of control, such as the potential $30 million in special education, the $35 million more we won’t be getting from the Feds for Medicaid, or the spending pressures related to our ownership of the United Medical Center.
It seems to me the fairest thing is to freeze things across the board: pay grades, step increases,
pension contributions, procurement contracts, all of which will result in a rate of zero growth. That way, everyone is making a contribution to our financial stability and we can attempt to avoid the painful process of laying people off.
Can we do it? It’s not really a question of “can.” We simply must do it. The next month or so will be a real test of our city’s leadership and whether we will approach the problems facing our city head on, or whether we’ll stick our heads in the sand.
The Jack Evans Report
Jack Evans • September 22, 2010
-In my last column, I addressed two challenges (education reform and fiscal responsibility) which will face the next Council and Mayor. This election season we will elect a Mayor, Council Chair, two at large Members of the Council, and four Ward Councilmembers (Wards 1, 3, 5 and 6). The city faces five key issues which the Mayor and the Council will have to confront after all the speeches are done and the buttons and signs are put away – and these are my thoughts on the final three:
3. Creating an investment environment. Too many of our neighborhood commercial strips have languished over the past 40 years. Elected officials in town talk a lot about helping small businesses, but I’d point this out — small businesses pay the same outlandishly high tax rates as big businesses! I believe this has greatly discouraged investment in our neighborhoods. Three years ago, the Chairman and I authored legislation which reduced the commercial property tax rate from $1.85 to $1.65 for the first $3 million of a building’s value, which was quite helpful in our neighborhood commercial areas. But even the $1.65 is far higher than the surrounding jurisdictions – we’ve priced ourselves right out of competition with our neighbors, all while we hemorrhage retail spending across our borders. The business income tax rate at 9.975% is among the highest in the country, and we tax unincorporated businesses which our neighbors do not. If we are really serious about changing the business climate in DC – often ranked among the nation’s worst — we need to look long and hard at these rates if we are ever to bring more jobs and opportunities to our neighborhoods, and retain the spending power of DC residents right here in the city where it belongs.
4. Public Safety. We have made great strides over the past decade in implementing community policing, utilizing new technologies, and pinpointing resources at data-identified problem areas. We have much to celebrate — the murder rate is the lowest in 40 years. But we have a ways to go on continuing to lower robberies and theft – and we face particular problems with juvenile crimes and dysfunctionality of the juvenile justice system. These are the next areas we will need to focus on.
5. Self-determination. This area is one in which there can be either incremental or large steps. I believe a two pronged strategy will be needed to obtain statehood for the District, and/or any of the steps along the way. We will need a Mayor and Council that has a good working relationship with the Congress. Statehood ultimately is but a majority vote in the Congress, but there are issues, particularly financial ones, to address along the road to statehood. Smaller steps could be such things as budget and legislative autonomy for the District. Budget autonomy in particular would allow us to conduct a more rational budget process every year rather than the “hurry up and wait” that we suffer now as we wait for the Congress to approve our spending of our own locally-raised funds.
I believe we can achieve these things, but like many things, we’ll all have to wait until the dust settles after the election to get back to work on many of the pressing issues facing our city.
Jack Evans Report
The primary election is over! Congratulations to Vince Gray, who will be the Democratic nominee for Mayor, and to Kwame Brown who will be the nominee to Council Chair. As someone who has been down this road before, I greatly appreciate the hard work and dedication to our city that went into those successful campaigns, and I look forward to working with them on what is best for our entire city.
I have had good working relationships with both men. I am especially encouraged by Vince Gray’s early outreach, within days after the primary election, to plan town hall meetings in each Ward of the city, in recognition that he did not win every Ward. I think this is a very good gesture in the right direction in fostering a much needed dialogue which will help our city move forward together, and allow all of us to get to know one another better.
We have tremendous challenges facing us in both the near and long term – not least of which is the potential continued weakness in the economy, which will have implications for the District’s revenue and budget, as well as an impact on unemployment and demands for social services. It is quite possible the Chief Financial Officer, Dr. Natwar Gandhi, will come to us with more bad news on the revenue side of the balance sheet this month – and it could be one of the first challenges as we return from Council summer recess to redo the FY 2011 before it starts October 1st.
Other efforts will continue as well, such as school reform, how to continue to create an investment climate for our economy to keep “growing the pie,” and how to make our public safety agencies work for everyone across the city. I look forward to approaching these issues and more with new vigor as we move forward to make Ward 2 – and the entire city – the best place that it can possibly be.
The Georgetowner’s Jeff Malet Up Close with the New Tea Party
Georgetowner • August 27, 2010
In an effort to wash its hands of racism allegations and repolish its public image, the Tea Party Express invited more than a dozen black conservative speakers to Washington’s National Press Club on Wednesday. The conservative-cum-populist group, a former member of the National Tea Party Federation, called the summit to help distance itself in the public eye from former chairman Mark Williams, whose “satirical” — and frankly, ill-spirited — blog post aimed at the NAACP inspired a blistering send-up by the black advocacy organization and a nationwide imbroglio that saw many commentators crying racism. Williams resigned after the NTPF expelled the group from its ranks.
Wednesday’s panelists, which included noted black conservatives Alan Keyes and William Owens, made no bones about their distaste for Williams’ remarks, but said the gaffe of one individual didn’t tarnish the overall platform espoused by the party.
“How many times do they have to pluck that bad apple out of the barrel before people quit focusing on it?” asked panelist Herman Cain, who hosts the conservative radio show “THE New Voice.”
Georgetowner photographer Jeff Malet was on hand to photograph the event. View his photos here.
The Jack Evans Report
Jack Evans •
-It truly is the dog days of summer! Or, in the words of Nat King Cole, “roll out those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer!” In this kind of heat and humidity the best thing you can do is do nothing, move as little as possible and have a cool, frosty drink nearby.
Oddly enough, those recommendations notwithstanding, we’ve been doing quite a bit in the council office lately. First of all, we’ve continued work on the Georgetown Waterfront Park, and I am happy to announce we have received a commitment from Pepco for a donation of $50,000, which fills an important gap in moving the remaining parts of the project along.
Logan Circle was busy this past weekend with the 11th annual “Dog Days” sidewalk sale events, with participation by both retailers and community groups. And just recently we helped the neighborhood secure funding from the District to help design a marketing plan for the 14th Street corridor.
In Shaw, we celebrated the grand opening of the brand new Watha T. Daniel Library, a great community resource for the neighborhood and city. As you may recall, the previous library was a big heap of unattractive concrete, often compared to a prison or a wartime bunker, which was neither inviting nor very functional. I am very proud of the hard work of my staff, the D.C. Public Library, and community stakeholders in making the new library som
In Shaw this past week, we celebrated the start of a $31 million rehabilitation of the Gibson Plaza Apartments, which will renovate the 271-unit affordable housing building with a variety of green building features, and will be funded by federal HUD funds. I am happy to report that not a single resident will be displaced by this renovation.
Whew — after all that, I think we better slow down a bit! Actually, I love getting things done and it is gratifying that we’ve been able to move forward on a number of projects in the past week or two.
Don’t forget the upcoming elections. One thing is for sure: it is going to be a very interesting month and a half.
The Jack Evans Report
Jack Evans • August 25, 2010
-Our long hot summer will soon enough turn the bend of Labor Day and the September 14 primary which will select the Democratic nominee for Mayor, Council Chair and a number of races down the ballot. As many of you know, I have endorsed Mayor Adrian Fenty for reelection, but regardless of the election’s outcome, the city faces 5 key issues which the Mayor and the Council will have to confront after all the speeches are done and the buttons and signs are put away. We’ll talk about two of them today:
1. Schools. This continues to be one of the central issues facing the city, and historically has broken down like this: “rich” kids go to private or parochial schools and “poor” kids are stuck in run down schools with no future. Over the past 30 years the city has hemorrhaged middle class people, but good schools are key to retaining middle class families in the city and improving outcomes for low income kids. Mayor Fenty has made some pretty big changes, starting with authoring the Schools Facilities Modernization Financing Act as a Councilmember, and of course, as Mayor, implementing the takeover of the school system and installing Chancellor Michele Rhee as its head. As a result of the first legislation and a lot of hard work by Allen Lew and his facilities team, our school construction and maintenance efforts are the best they have been in a generation, by far. At some point credit is due to the Mayor for this. The other changes have been somewhat more controversial, but I believe Fenty and Rhee are on the right track by trying to bring more accountability into the system. My observation over the years has been this: for years we had a performance evaluation system where almost by magic no one was ever fired for lack of performance, but our schools were at the same time among the worst performing in the nation. Fenty has quite correctly identified this as fundamentally problematic and has sought to change old ways of doing business.
2. Fiscal responsibility. As Chair of the Council’s Committee on Finance and Revenue, you’ve seen me write about this topic often, and it continues to be a concern of mine. Fortunately, the District has the relative stability of the federal employment base, but in the FY 2011 budget cycle this spring, I expressed a number of concerns which all go back to this one notion: we can’t live beyond our means. For the last several years we’ve spent down revenue from our fund balances, which were once over $1.5 billion but which now are down to about $500 million. I believe the decline in our revenue — chiefly in the realm of commercial property — is not likely to return in the near term. A certain amount of our economy through the 2000’s was built on the shaky foundation of irrational exuberance. Yet the size of our government has not been restrained in proportion to the shrinking revenue. Using our fund balance the past three year has allowed us to paper over the problem, but I believe the next mayor and council won’t have this luxury — and I’ll note I was the only Member of the Council to vote against the budget this past year.
Those are the two biggest issues we’ll face next year. Next column we’ll talk about three more.
The author is a city councilmember representing District Ward 2.
Maryland Blue Crabs: A Delmarva Summer Send-Off
Georgetowner • August 11, 2010
As the mid-August heat grows muggy and yellow, the long days sputtering the unassuming masses to a heat-induced, midday standstill, a familiar shudder runs through the collective spine of the District. In the throes of the year’s most relentless barrage of heat and humidity, Washingtonians have learned to intuit the swansong of a long, scorching summer.
In avoiding the grueling heat and saving our business attire from embarrassing sweat stains, it becomes easy to dismiss the last weeks of summer, to forget the bursting anticipation that comes upon us in mid-April at the end of a gray winter. It is high time to focus our energy and relish in the closing month of engrossing sunlight, of beaches and sunscreen and barbecues and swimming pools, like the encore of a Stones concert.
And perhaps no feast quite so exemplifies a Delmarva summer like a bucket of steamed Maryland blue crabs. Corn, hushpuppies, coleslaw, a wooden mallet, a pair of nutcrackers, and a large roll of butcher paper is everything that friends or families need to experience this summer treat at its finest. However, popular opinion has led many to believe that in order to get the best pickin’s, one must drive all the way out to the Chesapeake Bay or Annapolis. And while there is no doubt about the deeply-rooted seafood culture and history in those areas, there is plenty of top-quality crab to be gotten inside the beltway.
This past year, despite limits on crab fishing and concerns among the shrinking population of these creatures, this has been an astoundingly fruitful year for crab fishing. So, whether eating out or going down to the Wharf to pick up your catch alive and fresh, here are the best places in town to get some quintessential Maryland blue crab and enjoy the end of summer the way everyone should.
Bethesda Crab House, Bethesda
Imagine your favorite dive bar. Now add picnic tables and mountains of steamed crabs, and you’ve got Bethesda Crab House. A long-established institution in the area, the menu is short and sweet. They do crabs, crab cakes and crab legs. But they do them well. Their crab cakes are what will really get you coming back time and time again. As they’ll tell you at the cash register, it is nothing but heaps of crabmeat with a little mayonnaise to bind it together. These guys know how to make a real Maryland crab cake. There are no french-fries at Bethesda Crab House, as the space is small and the fryer would take up too much room in the back. Plus the establishment believes they just fill you up anyway so you can’t eat as much crab. This is the perfect antidote for your crab cravings. And don’t forget to get an order of corn on the cob. (301-652-3382, 4958 Bethesda Ave.)
Quarterdeck Restaurant, Arlington
Hidden among the high rise apartment buildings, not a mile from the Key Bridge, the Quarterdeck is easy to miss. Built into an old house, the interior atmosphere, with its wood plank siding and worn, beachy furniture and décor, would lead you to believe you were somewhere on Chesapeake Bay, or down in some low-key seafood shack in Virginia Beach. The patio is double the size of the inside, and the buckets of crabs tumble out of the kitchen until the restaurant runs out.
As delivery status of the crabs are day-to-day, the restaurant encourages patrons to call at the beginning of the day to check for availability and make crab reservations for that evening — if you wait to walk in for dinner, there often won’t be any left by the time you show up. Quarterdeck Restaurant has a policy to serve steamed crabs only when local crabs are in season, so you know you’re getting the freshest catch every time you go. (703-528-2722, 1200 Fort Myer Dr.)
The Wharf, Southwest Washington
If you’re brave enough to cook crabs on your own, the Wharf, on the southwest waterfront off Maine Avenue, is a wealth of fresh daily catch. You can get most fish that you’re looking for there, though in the summer months, their specialties are shrimp and crab. The Maryland blue crabs this season are piled in monstrous, twitching towers on beds of ice, fat and blue and beautiful. There’s no big secret to cooking them. Throw them in a big steamer with plenty of Old Bay, make sure there is vinegar in the water, and steam until they turn red. (1100 Maine Ave. S.W.)
Jack Evans Report
Georgetowner • June 17, 2010
This past week the council completed its work on the FY 2011 budget. States and localities around the nation, of course, are dealing with problems similar to those facing the District: a significant decline in revenues matched up against state and local budgets, which have seen sharp growth through the current decade. Much like the housing mortgage market, irrational exuberance in the stock market or the sovereign debt crisis in Europe, state and local governments have been overleveraged for a few years and now that revenues have remained flat for a third straight year, it would make sense to make some adjustments.
A good case in point is the dust-up which occurred over the funding for the proposed streetcar lines on H Street N.E. and in Anacostia. I’m pro-streetcar and supported the mayor’s original proposal, although I agree with the sentiment that we should put some more planning into what we are doing. That being said, as part of our budget deliberations last month we took what was a program funded by reallocating existing funds and changed it to a program for which we will now borrow an additional $47 million. I think this is a bad idea. As you may know, about two years ago the council passed a law to put a 12 percent cap on our borrowing, which I fully supported. What this means is if our operating budget for the year is $1 billion (it’s more like $5 billion!) then we can only borrow up to 12 percent of that, or $120 million. Borrowing an additional $47 million puts us very close to that line, not just for FY 2011, but going forward the next couple years.
I don’t think we should play it that close. In fact, I would advocate we do the very same thing with respect to our operating reserves and fund balances, because we don’t know what the future may hold. If the District’s revenues go down farther — witness the plunge in the stock market over the past month, which would impact our income tax collections — then the 12 percent cap becomes smaller. If we either leverage our debt all the way up to that line, or spend our fund balances or reserves all the way up to the line, then when something bad happens we have no margin for error. No margin at all. That should make people nervous — I know I am.
We should not borrow the additional $47 million. We can fund the streetcar project by maintaining the original proposed cut to the various Great Streets projects that are not going forward, by making the necessary recommended cuts by the Committee on Human Services and by reversing the plan to spend $7 million in cash on a proposal for small business streetscape relief (which is money we don’t have). It is likely the mayor and the council will revisit the budget when we come back from the summer recess on September 16, and hard decisions may well need to be made.