DISTRICT OF DECLINE
SEPTEMBER 5, 1996
For the past 25 years the nation's capital has been falling into disrepair. Some blame inadequate revenues, caused by Congressional wrangling; others call it a simple case of chronic mismanagement. Kwame Holman reports.
KWAME HOLMAN: Last May, Washington, D.C.'s most famous local figure staged the kind of political theater he's known for. With rumors swirling that he'd relapsed into the drug use that sent him to prison five years ago, went before a nervous-looking gathering of city employees and reporters and declared simply that he was fine.
MARION BARRY, Mayor, Washington, D.C.: (May 1996) I come back better prepared and better able to govern. I'm all right. I'm ready to move forward.
KWAME HOLMAN: But if the fourth-term mayor was in fine form, the same cannot be said for his government in recent years. These days, the problems regularly cause the mayor to tell citizens to lower their expectations of the government.
MAYOR MARION BARRY: Government cannot sweep every sidewalk, hug every child, pay every worker, make everyone take their medicine, or dry every tear.
KWAME HOLMAN: The District of Columbia's government has had to slash services because of huge budget shortfalls. The fiscal woes finally induced the Congress, Washington's ultimate overseer, to act last spring.
ANDREW BRIMMER, Financial Control Board: (June 1996) The financial plan and budget here represents the most realistic budget ever prepared by the District.
KWAME HOLMAN: An independent financial control board headed by former Federal Reserve Board member Andrew Brimmer was installed with power over all the city's spending decisions. Over the last two years, the money shortages, along with serious management problems, have landed virtually every part of the D.C. government in some stage of crisis.
The city's housing agency was taken over by a court-ordered receiver because of incessant mismanagement. City police cars and other equipment are broken down or non-existent for lack of funds, amid a persistently high crime rate. Last winter, snow clogged city streets for days. The city couldn't afford to plow it. Every day, people throughout Washington are chagrined by the trash that's uncollected for days and the pock-marked roadways that mar the nation's capital.
KATHERINE PEARSON-WEST, Civic Activist: This should be the envy of the world. It's the international capital, the seat of democracy. And we're perceived as a joke.
GARY MALASKY, Civic Activist: The city deserve better. The city deserves a city government that can run efficiently, that can provide services efficiently, and we haven't had that.
KWAME HOLMAN: Many observers of Washington, D.C.'s government say its basic problem is that it's forbidden by Congress from collecting adequate revenues to pay for the wide range of state-like services the city provides. But beyond that, assigning blame for the city's fiscal woes often breaks down along lines of race and feelings about Mayor Barry.
Those feelings range from ambivalence to support by many in the city's black majority from exasperation to disgust by many whites who make up 40 percent of the population. Katherine Pearson-West, a long-time civic activist and one of Washington's largest black middle class enclaves, is sympathetic toward Mayor Barry and his troubled bureaucracy.
KATHERINE PEARSON-WEST: Now, I don't agree with everything he does, and he's by no means a saint but in some cases he's there when you need him and he speaks out. The problems associated with the district and not just our own causing, but it--it hurts when we give people ammunition to, to shoot us down. I think we should be trying to do everything we can to appear like we're exemplary, and I don't think we do that.
KWAME HOLMAN: Gary Malasky was born and raised in Washington and resides with his family in the largely affluent, largely white Ward 3 section of the district. He says Mayor Barry is no longer good for the city.
GARY MALASKY: This is a beautiful city. It has tremendous advantages. I don't feel that Marion Barry represents the best of what the city has. What we really need at this point is someone who's going to walk in the morning and say we've spent a dollar, have we gotten a dollar's worth of value? I would be amazed if Marion Barry's ever asked that question.
KWAME HOLMAN: Interviewed in his downtown office, Mayor Barry disagreed.
MAYOR MARION BARRY: I don't by the notion that we just badly mismanaged, that we're corrupt over here, we don't know what we're doing, and in that context and not being that way, we're still going to transform the government, make it more responsive, make it more repentable, and make it the best managed, best run government in America.
KWAME HOLMAN: Howard University Political Scientist Ron Walters is a long-time observer of Washington's local political scene.
RON WALTERS, Howard University: Behind any budget crisis of any sizeable duration and magnitude, what you have is a profound management crisis.
KWAME HOLMAN: Walters says the city bureaucracy's current problems can be traced back 25 years to the grassroots political movement that first forced Congress to grant self-government to Washington: The movement known as Home Rule.
RON WALTERS: What you had were people who were not well trained to handle the functions of city government coming in to do those jobs. Now people who I think were well meaning, uh, who supported the political system, who wanted Home Rule to work--uh but who simply did not have modern bureaucratic skills.
(PEOPLE SINGING WE SHALL OVERCOME)
KWAME HOLMAN: Marion Barry and others who became Washington's first elected officials were in the forefront of the civil rights and anti-war movements of the late 1960's and early 70's. But their activist past may now work against them. Stephen Koczak, a former president of Washington's major city-wide civic association, traces overspending by the city government to a do good at all costs philosophy born of its leader's social activism.
STEPHEN KOCZAK, Civic Activist: So I think there is a quality of commitment on Marion Barry's part. It just happens that his background and his education and his instincts are not the kind of things that he can do--the city finally has to get down to being a regularly run city.
KWAME HOLMAN: The budget problems resulting from such fluid spending practices were masked by good economic times in Washington until last year when the Mayor revealed a massive potential deficit. But he made a point of assuring city workers the budget wouldn't be balanced on their backs.
MAYOR MARION BARRY: There are those who advocate that I should fire at least 5,000 of you all right now. You know that? I'm not going to do that. I'm not going to do that.
KWAME HOLMAN: The mayor was not being purely compassionate. The 30,000-person work force called bloated by many critics is a major source of the mayor's political strength. Black city employee predominate the work force, and many are local to Barry, despite his much-publicized drug conviction in 1990.
KATHERINE PEARSON-WEST: Well, I don't think people wanted to admit that they would vote for Mayor Barry because of the problems he's had in his life, but we have to face reality. He has practically built the middle class in Washington, D.C., at least the black middle class, and they, they owe a lot to him.
KWAME HOLMAN: Middle class blacks with ties to the government and the city's large number of low-income blacks who receive services from the city formed the base of Barry's upset reelection in 1994. But that loyalty to the mayor generally is not shared by Washington's white minority, one of the best-educated and best-connected communities in the nation. In the city's affluent Ward 3, Barry got less than 20 percent of the vote.
MAYOR MARION BARRY: I think the situation is getting worse in terms of relationships between African-Americans and the majority population, the white population, not just here in Washington but all over. You see it everywhere you go.
GARY MALASKY: To say that it's part of some national racial picture I just don't think applies to this city. There are obviously people who at a minimum are open-minded, and I think there are a lot of people who are very supportive, proactively supportive of, of civil rights. And I don't think that's the constituency here.
KWAME HOLMAN: The mayor also says many whites have a distorted view of him and his government.
MAYOR MARION BARRY: A lot of people in a white community get their news about me from the daily newspapers, a lot of programs we have for our seniors, or for our young people, or for those who--AFDC or others don't affect the white community, so they don't feel the same kind of passion about me and my view programmatically as say young people--we just put about 13,000 young people to work this summer, six weeks, the only city in America that offers a meaningful summer job to everyone who works wants one.
We probably have out of 13,000 probably 200 white kids, and so when you look at it programmatically, the white community doesn't always see the programmatic attachment to me that the African-American community does.
MAYOR MARION BARRY: I, Marion S. Barry, Jr.--
SPOKESMAN: Do solemnly swear--
MAYOR MARION BARRY: --do solemnly swear.
KWAME HOLMAN: Political scientist Walters says criticism of black-dominated, urban bureaucracies like Washington's often comes from news organizations, Congress, and other powerful sectors, and takes on a racial connotation.
RON WALTERS: It makes it very difficult to govern in a city where a substantial portion of the population which happens to be powerful and affluent believes that you're incompetent, or will look for that incompetence, will ferret it out, will expose it to the public on a consistent basis. It means that the people who will have responsibility for these cities are under a continuous attack in terms of the credibility, which makes the atmosphere very difficult to govern in.
KWAME HOLMAN: Republican Congressman James Walsh of Syracuse, New York, heads the committee that spearheaded the institution of a financial control board to ride herd on the city's finances. But Walsh says he wants Home Rule returned to the district after its books are balanced.
REP. JAMES WALSH, (R) New York: I just think we've got to get back on track here, and we've had terrible management in the last twenty some odd years, and, you know, Lord knows, the city is full of smart people. The reins of the city will be handed back to whoever the mayor is once we get through this period, whether it's Marion Barry or not. That depends on the people of the District of Columbia, not the members of Congress.
KWAME HOLMAN: For now, the outlook for the city is mixed. A new sports arena is under construction, building home for a revitalization of downtown. A major tax break for city residents designed to lure middle class taxpayers back to the city may get through Congress this year. But last week, the newly installed control board took a dramatic slap at self-government in Washington.
Going over the heads of elected school officials, the board reportedly prepared to oust the city's schools superintendent after years of sub-standard education and recent repair problems that prevented several schools from opening on time this week. As the problems and potential solutions continue to play out, many Washingtonians say real salvation for the city won't come until residents install a new generation of political leadership.