Sherwood’s Notebook: July Fourth in the District


Let's survey the landscape this July 4th.

As of Friday, we are four months from Election Day, November 4th. The city's economy is clicking on nearly all cylinders. The 2015 budget passed by the council had support from both business leaders and social service advocates. The District of Columbia financial books and economy are the envy of cities and states across America.

Our city is gaining about 1,000 net new residents each month. Overall crime is down and confidence is up.

Cue the balloons and champagne.

But don't get too tipsy on the good news.

Warm weather has softened our attention to the nagging homeless problems. Children, through no fault of their own, suffer from bad family decisions and halting government response.

Schools are out for the summer, but parents and guardians wonder what will become of the reform effort this fall when a lame duck mayor and his administration in September propose sweeping school boundary changes that may well rattle neighborhoods across the city.

Public safety is not just a police issue. Fire and emergency services also seem rattled by critical staffing shortages, poor decision making and low morale in a crucial agency that has never seemed to be functioning well day-to-day.

What, really, does the Department of Employment Service really do with the hundreds of millions it spends? Unemployment and underemployment are persistent, nagging woes. Where are the ideas for year-round "summer jobs" for youth, the marginally employed?

Into this mix of good and bad news, we have an intolerable leadership situation. Mayor Vincent Gray, having lost his reelection bid and still facing potential legal charges over his muddled 2010 campaign, increasingly is seen as a shadow of himself politically.

Many say his nine-month long "lame-duckness" is ridiculous. The council rightly has gotten criticism for creating this untenable situation by scheduling the primary so early on April 1st.

Senior aides to Gray are bailing right and left. They need jobs and there's little incentive to stay around until January 2, 2015 when a new mayor takes over.

Council member Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7), one of Gray's strongest supporters for reelection, killed Gray's seed funding for a new hospital east of the Anacostia.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson imploded Gray's grand scheme for a citywide streetcar system, taking half of the designated $800 million project to fund immediate tax cuts for the middle class and other budget goals. Mendelson said the city's transportation department couldn't possibly spend the huge sums set aside for streetcars.

Into this swirl of good and bad news come the candidates for mayor and council. What should the voters do?

First, ignore the 9th grade civic class platitudes of bringing us all together, of promises to give some matter “serious” consideration, of pledging to work every day on this or that problem without any specific idea of what that work would be.

Campaign rhetoric tends to be of the cheer leading kind.

Don't be satisfied when someone defines a problem, says we ought to have a “conversation” about it or otherwise dodges more substantive views. Demand some explanation of how the candidate would address or at least outline solutions to that problem. (Be wary of proposals to create generalized studies, a task force or a committee.)

Also be wary of phrases like "nationwide search" and world class." They evoke images of "the best," but really don't mean anything. “Nationwide search” is a euphemism for the best, but the best may well be right here in local Washington.

We were giving a speech a few years ago to a citywide association when a person in the audience asked how the city could get a "world class" school system. Your columnist suggested we should eschew "world class" rhetoric, suggesting that better-than-average was a worthy goal for the more immediate future. If we can just make sure our students can read, write and do math our rhetoric doesn't need to be highfalutin. It just needs to be honest.

A “One City' mirage. This is another phrase-lite appeal to our common good. Mayor Gray has meant well with it. Current mayoral candidate Muriel Bowser is using #AllEightWards. Independent mayoral candidate David Catania hasn't adopted a catchy saying beyond "we can do better." Carol Schwartz is just getting started on a campaign that may or may not develop a catch phrase.

The truth is we are a diverse city of incomes and race, opportunities and barriers. We all can work together, but to rhetorically suggest we are all "one" strains reality and doesn't fool those who are most in need.

"War on cars?" You might hear this phrase, for good or bad. We only have so much room on city streets. If projections of growth are anywhere near accurate, our city will have to be even more aggressive to accommodate vehicles, multi-modal public transit, bicycles and pedestrians. It's not either/or but melding transportation. Right now, in just one example, the downtown area is a glut of traffic chaos during the afternoon rush hour.

On these and many other issues, we need to hear a lot from the candidates during the summer and fall.

What, really, do they have to say?

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