Tuesday, September 7, 2010
In arguing (again, as I did on the Cleveland Park Listserv) for Mayor Adrian Fenty's re-election, I need not list (again) his accomplishments. I don't have to extol his success in wringing value out of the bureaucratic mess which once passed for government in DC or describe the progress made by our city (and ward) under his leadership. According to polls, most DC voters freely acknowledge all this but still want Chairman Gray to be our mayor. Indeed, the smart money is now on Gray -- due, in no small part, to the endorsement given him by our Councilmember, Mary Cheh. (Everyone knew that Fenty's main chance for victory lay in a solid vote from Ward 3. Cheh's position will undoubtedly deny the Mayor just enough of our votes to ensure his defeat.)
I admit that it's difficult to oppose Mr. Gray, since nothing really bad about him can be said. He seems to be a fine fellow. He has served admirably as the District's Council Chairman. (I resent being deprived of his service in that office by his run for mayor.) In reading and listening to Gray's supporters, I'm struck by the many excellent qualities he is said to possess. People speak of his willingness to consult stakeholders, his inclusiveness, his instinct for collaborative problemsolving, his insight, his judgment, his understanding, his philosophy and, above all, his desire for consensus in reaching solutions.
These qualities are very fine but they are, in the end, just that -- qualities. They don't necessarily produce any result other than, perhaps, a lot of feel-good politics. Mr. Gray is a praiseworthy public servant, but his commendable personal and professional qualities neither arise from nor positively lead to the one thing I want in a mayor -- the ability (plus the willingness) to decide and then to do hard things. It is one thing to listen, to consult, to include, to collaborate. It is quite another to do all this and then decide what should be done for the greater good and actually do it, knowing that one's actions will create enemies. In my opinion, when it comes to political character, this is where the rubber meets the road (or, as it were, the muck). I'm not sure Mr. Gray has the spiritual or political treads needed to gain traction in running this town.
Allow me to offer a familiar example. We are told (by a certain councilwoman who should be in a position to know) that Chairman Gray does in fact favor school reform. Hmmm... Let us imagine Mr. Gray faced a public school system which so badly served its students that it was, truly, an insult to their taxpaying parents and a violation of their own civil rights. Let's add that he was opposed in his efforts at reform -- as Mayor Fenty was -- by politically powerful people entrenched in a culture of institutional mediocrity. How would Mr. Gray deal with this problem? He would undoubtedly exercise his skills at consulting with stakeholders, collaborating, developing solutions, and reaching for consensus. When the time came, though, to decide and to act -- as it did for Mayor Fenty -- would Gray profoundly restructure the education system and hire a no-nonsense chancellor to ride herd on the system's teachers and administrators? Would he close excess schools and impose measurable academic standards -- knowing that a good part of the electorate would end up hating him for it? Would he risk his office and title for the sake of better schools? It's a fair question. Pardon my skepticism.
You could project this example onto other pressing issues -- e.g., smart growth sustained by progressive urban planning around mass transit. Mr. Gray is said to favor this, too. We love the sound of it, don't we. We're all for "progress" and "smart" stuff -- until, of course, the progress is aimed in our direction, in which case some of us become downright (dare I say it?) conservative. Opposition is mounted against almost any innovative proposal. This, in my view, is when a city's leader is tested. In such circumstances, if a mayor does not exercise power and act, one way or another, nothing is accomplished but a lot of shouting. I'm sure that Mr. Gray can tolerate a lot of shouting but, given the value he places on consensus, I'm not certain he's up to facing real opposition and then acting anyway.
You get my drift. Successful municipal politics is the province of includers and collaborators, while successful municipal governance comes with a decider and a doer. Adrian Fenty has shown to my satisfaction both the skill and the will to make decisions and do hard things, which is why I want him to continue serving as my Mayor.
Bill Coe lives in the Van Ness area.