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Posted at 07:21 AM ET, 06/ 4/2009

Raw Fisher: Toast

If today's weren't the last installment of Raw Fisher, I might be writing about a small victory -- the District's decision yesterday to save the Eastern Branch and two other Boys & Girls Clubs, a cause I've tried to champion here for years -- or about Half A Tank, a new blog chronicling a journey across the Washington region and beyond by a Post photographer and writer searching for the stories of this recession.

But today is the end of this particular road, and so I thought I'd use this last moment to offer readers one final chance to explain just why the positions I've taken are completely boneheaded, why the stories I've told fail to represent the truth, and why journalism is going to seed. Today marks the end of the Raw Fisher blog, and at noon, the last regular edition of the Potomac Confidential chat will be live here on the big web site -- we'll mix it up on the issues of the day and on your views about the column, the blog, The Post and the future of the news media.

In my farewell column on Sunday, I wrote about the strengths and structural problems both the new media and the traditional print media have faced as I've experienced the great transition during my decade of writing the column:

There was something empowering about the new media, the digital technology that let readers speak out in the same format, the same time frame and the same space as the news that had hitherto been delivered from on high.
I loved the new battleground of ideas even as I lamented how opinion -- the laziest form of journalism -- was elbowing out the rigorous work of reporting. In this new world, it was so cheap to mouth off that the difficult and sometimes less-exciting work of ferreting out facts became too easy to discard or trim back.

What's your sense of how the evolution toward web-based news has altered the content and usefulness of journalism? Is it harder to find common ground for conversation and political debate in a country where everyone's reading and watching a different diet of information, or does the depth and personalization of Internet journalism make up for the loss of mass media?

Are we as Washington area residents better able to deal with the challenges in our daily lives because we can connect through neighborhood listservs and other such targeted, detailed media, or have we lost something because fewer people share the same stories that they used to find in the paper or on radio or TV? Or both?

Continue reading this post »

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Posted at 08:06 AM ET, 06/ 3/2009

D.C. Library At The Cutting Edge?

Normally, that's a headline you'd expect to find on a piece about budget cuts or service reductions at the ever-beleaguered D.C. Public Library. But as Raw Fisher moves through its final week here on the big web site, there's good news to report about one of my biggest hobbyhorses over the nine years I've been writing the column in The Post: The sorry state of the District's public libraries.

For the better part of the last decade, I've been hammering at the city government over its failure to invest in turning decrepit, pathetically underused libraries into the kind of essential community resources that, for example, Fairfax and Montgomery counties have created in recent years. But ever since D.C. libraries director Ginnie Cooper came to town two years ago, the sorry state of the city's libraries has started to show real signs of life. New buildings are being planned and built, interim libraries are up and running and attracting larger crowds, and what had been an unimaginative and plodding bureaucracy has been refashioned to try to capture some of the leading edge of the information world.

There are still serious questions to be asked about the system's future--Should there be fewer, larger branches rather than the 20-plus collection of smaller facilities that the city probably cannot afford to maintain? Is there enough of a commitment to books and especially to classics in this era of technological change? What exactly is the role of a central downtown library and how much of a people magnet and development engine can it be?--but in the meantime, there are some new signs that the city's library is thinking big, and that's good news indeed.

You'd hardly know it from walking into many city libraries, where the prevailing atmosphere is oh-so-very 19th century, but there are some D.C. library folks working on figuring out how best to share and spread information using the latest technologies. The library is running a photo contest comparing Washington then and now, using pictures from the library's terrific collection of local history materials that are in the public domain and available here.


There, for example, is the fabulous Blaine Mansion at Dupont Circle, one of my favorite D.C. buildings. Lots more cool pics where that came from.

And you can read about the new ideas the library's staff is cooking up on their blog, Amino, where it's evident that Cooper has assembled a group that is thinking much like those of us in the old media are: Exploring every avenue of the new communications matrix to figure out how to capture new eyeballs, how to ferret out what's useful and discard what's merely fashionable, and how to expand the rich and deep resources of what was into the frenetically changing universe of what's becoming.

Like many users, I still visit the library primarily to find books, and the danger exists that libraries will get too fixated on new toys and lose touch with the central mission. But it's also essential to use the new tools to bring the next generation inside the tent, where they too can lose themselves in the gems and glories of the world's assembled knowledge. It's nice to be able to step away from the column game with some good news about an area of coverage that's caused so much frustration over the years.

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Posted at 08:08 AM ET, 06/ 2/2009

Is Fenty Vulnerable?

Well more than a year before Adrian Fenty asks D.C. voters to grant him a second term, the mayor who won every single precinct in the District in 2006 suddenly seems just slightly vulnerable.

You'd be less than wise to bet even a halfway decent lunch on anyone coming close to Fenty in the 2010 election, but it now appears that at least two of the mayor's rivals on the D.C. Council are seriously considering a challenge. Both of the potential rivals are named Brown.

Yesterday, several politically connected folks around the city received emails from Marshall Brown, the longtime campaign consultant and strategist who worked closely with Marion Barry during the former Mayor for Life's glory years and happens to be the father of council member Kwame Brown (D-At Large.) Here's the text of that email:

Subject: Kwame Brown for Mayor Draft Committee

Would you lend your name to the Kwame Brown for Mayor Draft Committee
send this to your email list

Marshall Brown didn't return a message I left for him yesterday, but a couple of people who received the email told me that they believe the council member and his father are involved in a bit of elbow-sharpening competition with freshman council member Michael Brown (D-At Large), who recently told the Brookland Heartbeat neighborhood newspaper that "It's no secret. People talk about it all the time that there is going to be a race between me and Adrian."

Michael Brown, who lost two previous campaigns for mayor and council before winning last fall, has been open about his ambition to reach the District's highest office, and so has Kwame Brown, who was touted, at least by his father, as a future mayor before he ever won an election to anything.

But a year ago, nobody would have predicted that a challenge to Fenty would be worth any serious candidate's time or money. The mayor was riding high, criss-crossing the city with the same cheerful energy that got him elected. His big, sweeping reform efforts were winning him headlines and nationwide notice. His takeover of the city's schools got him mentioned in the same breath as New York's Michael Bloomberg and as one of the cluster of sharp young black politicians that includes Newark's Cory Booker and the leader of the free world.

Since last fall, however, Fenty has managed to add several dents to his smooth reputation. It wasn't just his tone-deaf decision to take a free trip to Dubai and attend a tennis tournament from which the government had banned an Israeli player. Nor was it the continuing spat between the mayor and the council over, of all things, the swag they get from the Washington Nationals in the form of free tickets to games. Nor was it the ever-more poisonous relationship between the mayor and the council on budget, school and other issues.

Rather, what made Fenty seem less invincible was the attitude with which he addressed any and all of those mini-controversies. Far from his old confident and genial self, he turned brittle and even snippy, responding to reporters' questions in a peevish manner that seemed out of character, barely communicating with some council members at all, and generally communicating the sense that he no longer believed in the transparency and accountability that he had preached during his campaign and during his early months in office.

Fenty and his staff argue that there has been no substantive change in his attitude or approach to governing. Some aides say the mayor is merely showing his frustration over news media that pay more attention to minor squabbles than to his top-shelf initiatives. Maybe. But the Fenty who parries with reporters these days is often brusque and brief where he was once helpful and engaged, and the man the mayor most often calls forward to handle detailed questions, Attorney General Peter Nickles, increasingly responds to tough questions with boilerplate about how whatever the mayor did was proper and necessary, end of statement.

Last week, when Fenty conceded he was wrong to have had a friend and city contractor drive the mayor's official vehicle around town, a Post editorial welcomed the apology as a harbinger of a new Fenty, who might sound and act a lot more like the one voters chose in such overwhelming numbers. Maybe with living and breathing challengers emerging, the mayor has decided to get back to his customer-service mantra that won him so much popularity in the first place.

At some level, Fenty must know that he's going to win next year virtually no matter what. Such knowledge could make a man arrogant. But don't be fooled into thinking that the mayor has somehow lost control or tired of his job. He still maintains a full schedule of appearances before every community group under the sun--this is a mayor who not only never stopped campaigning, but runs his administration like the manager of a just-in-time retail stocking operation, pushing agency heads to get stuff done almost as soon as the mayor reports back from the neighborhood meetings where residents make demands.

Council members Brown can certainly have some fun lunging at the mayor's slightly tarnished armor. But they're not going to pierce it--at least not anytime soon.

Join me Thursday for the last regular edition of "Potomac Confidential"--straight up at noon here on the big web site, where we'll talk about whatever's on your mind.

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Posted at 08:22 AM ET, 06/ 1/2009

Virginia Loses 1st Newspaper (More TK)

The Clarke Courier was a small newspaper for a small place. Its circulation was but 2,240, but in a county of just 14,000 people, that meant that if you wanted to know what was going on in Clarke, you had better check the Courier.

No more. The Courier last week became Virginia's first paid circulation newspaper to die in the epidemic of closings, layoffs and cutbacks that are part of the dismantling of the American news infrastructure. It won't be the last.

More than 10,000 journalism jobs have disappeared from U.S. newspapers so far this year, a pittance compared to what the automobile industry is going through, but a huge excision from the country's newsgathering and reporting capabilities. And in communities such as Clarke--located just beyond the edge of sprawl west of Loudoun County (Routes 7 and 50 go through it)--

The Courier, a weekly, had been publishing since 1869, not missing a beat even during the Great Depression. The paper was deeply rooted in its home--it had only 10 publishers over its long history. And one man--G. Kenneth Levi--was editor or publisher of the paper from 1932 to 1981. His sons worked at the paper and his wife wrote a column for it. They have all died.

The paper was just sold to a new owner last year. But the publisher of the Winchester Star was unable to save the Courier. The problem was not circulation or readership--they held steady, as they have for most community weeklies. After all, local news is one commodity that is still available primarily from newspapers--the wire services and aggregators (YahooNews, Google News, etc.) that have turned national and foreign news into a nameless, brandless stream of free, raw data don't handle local news. But ad revenue, the lifeblood of journalism, dried up, both because of the recession and because of the massive shift of advertisers' dollars, interest and energy from the old standby of print papers to a hodgepodge of other outlets, both online and not (mostly to nowhere, actually--this is the great unwritten story of the dismantling of the news industry, the concomitant decline of the advertising and public relations businesses).

The death of the Courier follows a familiar darkening of downtown Berryville, the county seat. As the paper reports in its final edition, "Within the past year, the Gold Leaf gift shop closed, The Daily Grind and Berryville News Stand closed, Berryville Graphics laid off 70 workers, and American Woodmark Corp. announced that it was closing its Berryville plant. Downtown now has more than 11,000 square feet of empty space."

But two of those stores have reopened, and the town is gearing up to attract new businesses. No such optimism exists for replacing the Courier. Last week, a high school softball pitcher named Jordan Wolford hurled a no-hitter, a big story in the Courier. Such an achievement might get noticed by one of the surviving papers from surrounding areas--perhaps the Northern Virginia Daily or the Winchester Star. But you won't find a word about the no-hitter on Google News. But regular coverage of the county's high school sports teams? Probing reports on the county's economy, government, schools and crime? Nope.

The only paper that really cared about Clarke County is gone. Will life in Clarke be diminished as a result? People aren't exactly broken up about the paper's death. It's just another sign of the times. But it says here that over time, each lost strand of community adds up to more disconnected lives. The web makes up for that kind of lost connection in many ways--smaller groups of neighbors may find each other through community bulletin boards and listservs, and certainly people organize themselves and find one another online by interests, political activities and hobbies. But a service that listens to people and tells them about each other's lives where they live has been an essential organizing concept in how we live for nearly half a millennium. We'll certainly figure out a way to reinvent that connection, probably better than it's ever existed before. We just haven't gotten it done yet; we're too busy taking apart the old jalopy.

Join me Thursday for the last regular edition of "Potomac Confidential"--straight up at noon here on the big web site, where we'll talk about whatever's on your mind.

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Posted at 11:55 AM ET, 05/30/2009

After 1,250 Columns, The End

The first of 1,250 columns, nine years ago, spoke of a time that seems impossible now, of heady young tech moguls flush with money and drunk with possibility, instructing the chef at The Palm in Tysons Corner to spell out "Netscape" for them -- in crabmeat.

Today's is my last column, and as I scan the archives, I see stories of public arrogance and private foibles, but mostly, I see stories of people poking their way through life -- a quest I've tried to capture here a few times each week.

Those first columns covered topics that seem all too familiar today: police beatings, dreams of a trolley line from Bethesda to Silver Spring, schools that teach little more than cynicism. But other pieces feel like relics of another world: a journey with the mapmaker scurrying to keep up with the leading edge of sprawl, a visit with city kids who played baseball where dreamers thought there might someday be a major league stadium, an attempt to understand what drove angry college kids to shut down the city with protests against . . . well, it never was quite clear.

Those demonstrators didn't teach me anything about globalization, but writing about them did show me that the relationship between news writers and readers was changing forever.

For that column, published the day after the anti-globalization movement held its biggest demonstration here, I wandered around downtown asking protesters what they were so angry about. One young woman explained that her parents failed to see the root injustices of society: "They say, 'I like my VCR and my Saab, and I like medicine and fried chicken.' "

"Such terrible people," I wrote. "Imagine, liking medicine and food!"

The reaction to my description of "humorless bands of adolescents . . . searching for ways to upset their elders" was immediate: Thousands of e-mails poured in -- this was just as broadband was becoming commonplace -- most howling about how mean I was. The issue was fleeting, but what stuck with me was how the culture of the Web was shifting the relationship between writer and reader. People took a visceral interest in how the story was told. They wanted to know how I'd chosen whom to quote, what views I'd brought to my reporting. I'd always received letters, but this was new -- in the size of the response, in the unchecked venom, in the expectation that there ought to be a continuing conversation between news purveyor and news consumer.

There was something empowering about the new media, the digital technology that let readers speak out in the same format, the same time frame and the same space as the news that had hitherto been delivered from on high.

I loved the new battleground of ideas even as I lamented how opinion -- the laziest form of journalism -- was elbowing out the rigorous work of reporting. In this new world, it was so cheap to mouth off that the difficult and sometimes less-exciting work of ferreting out facts became too easy to discard or trim back.

On the first day I was given this space to play with, the great columnist Mary McGrory summoned me to her office with a note: "Come see me. I have three words for you."

I scurried over and presented myself. Mary looked up from her desk and said, "Three words: Cruelty is important." To do this job right, you must name and blame the bad guys. You must call it as it is. The minute you hold back, your credibility is shot. The second you stop reporting, you're just one more pontificating, pusillanimous pundit." (When my friend and colleague Marjorie Williams launched her column, she too received the gift of three words from Mary: "Subtlety is overrated.")

The beauty of a column is that you can dig up the story, then say it straight: You can expose the cynicism that leaves D.C. school kids worse off at the end of their education than they were at the start, then you can call that system a criminal enterprise. You can reveal the narrow-mindedness that threatens to put mentally retarded people out on the street, and then push until embarrassed officials do the right thing. You can keep hitting the same note until a school principal with a phony doctorate is removed.

But this work breeds humility and frustration, too: No matter how many times I wrote about the folly of zero tolerance policies, bureaucrats held dear to rules that treat kids like crooks and punish them as we never would adults. Reporters like to think that merely shining light on a problem will lead good people to solve it. Sometimes that's right, but often it's not: I wrote over and over about how to move homeless people into housing at relatively low cost, yet many readers found my energy misplaced, preferring to rely on the old canard about the homeless being on the street because they want to be. And readers consistently told me I was dead wrong about privacy issues, even when it was clear (to me, anyway) that rules supposedly designed to protect people were instead preventing the public from learning about wrongdoing (this comes up especially on mental health and crime issues, such as after the Virginia Tech shootings).

This gig was always huge fun. I staged stunts: Amid the security hysteria after 9/11, I walked along downtown sidewalks wearing a gas mask and crash helmet to see how people would react (to my joy, most got the joke). I took the Virginia and Maryland standardized tests that are inflicted on eighth-graders (I'm still lousy at math), I watched 24 hours of the D.C. government's self-promoting cable TV channels (I may have been the first customer to call the cable company requesting an outage).

In the column and on the Raw Fisher blog, which started in 2007, I have learned how deeply many of us crave community. The more atomized our lives become, the more we yearn to be part of something larger. Yet we also live in a time of great skepticism about the motivations of others. "Leave me alone" does constant battle with "hold me tight."

The daily newspaper, like TV news anchors and radio deejays, was for many years a regular visitor in most homes. Newspaper columns were an invitation to a relationship with a reporter who would take you to places and introduce you to people you might not know firsthand, but were part of the place you called home. That much hasn't changed: Readers taught me early on that while editors worried about whether we were writing about each locality in the Washington region, what mattered was the people and the stories. Even those who live miles away and take pride in never setting foot in the District would clamor for more on the city, because it is the central depot of our collective awareness. People want to talk about the great characters whose antics, agonies and achievements we all know, whether that be Marion Barry appalling us, Dan Snyder disappointing us, or Barack Obama stirring us.

There are a million stories in the naked city, someone once said, and I told 1,250 of them here, and another 1,200 on the blog. I heard from readers 250,000 times and I tried to respond to all of them. I could stay on this road for years to come, I love it so. But this path feels worn and familiar, and the challenge now is to hack out a new one.

Newspapers are in a fight to survive, desperately searching for new ways to reflect the world to an audience that is less trusting, more distracted and diffuse. For many people now, digital connections seem to trump geography as the central definition of home. But those electronic ties don't fulfill all our needs. Where we live still matters. Starting next month, I'll be putting together a group of writers whose job it will be to tell the truths of Washington in compelling and essential ways, combining traditional storytelling with new forms that involve and engage the people who live here.

The ideas are the same ones that drove this column: to figure out what connects us -- even when that something is paradoxically the very thing that divides us. To introduce readers to the characters whose stories tell us something about ourselves.

I'm grateful to the many who have come along on this ride, who have argued with me, fed me tips and steered me right. Thanks to all who shared their stories and even to those who splattered venom all over my e-mail queue. I'm off to expand my collection of funhouse mirrors and point them somewhere new.

Join me next Thursday, June 4, at noon for a farewell edition of "Potomac Confidential" at

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Posted at 08:24 AM ET, 05/27/2009

The Iron Fist Of Cleveland Park's Politburo

A classic Only-In-Washington story is shaping up in Cleveland Park, where Not In My Backyard zealots have managed for years to stymie plans to upgrade a pathetic 1950s supermarket for fear that people might actually drive to it and use it.

A relative handful of residents have been able to turn their opposition to Giant's expansion plans for its shop on Wisconsin Avenue NW into a virtual roadblock--and that has so frustrated supporters of the plan that some of those supporters decided if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Recently, they signed up as members of the Cleveland Park Citizens Association, with an eye on turning around that group's opposition to much-needed development.

Now the neighborhood group is pushing back, hard. Its president, George Idelson, sent out this message on the local listserv Tuesday: "The Cleveland Park Citizens Association welcomes the many new members who have joined in recent weeks. This is a president's dream come true and we look forward to their active participation."

Except that he welcomes nothing of the sort. Idelson goes on to accuse the new members of attempting a coup--and he therefore invokes "emergency" measures to postpone an election for officers of the neighborhood association, protecting the anti-development stance of the group.

Idelson writes that the new members were putting together a "competing, unnamed slate" and conducting a campaign that "has been fueled by false charges that the Association opposes all change and development. It has distorted our position on the Giant development and makes the wild claim that the Association is responsible for store vacancies on Connecticut Avenue. The campaign was orchestrated was demonstrated by some 60 bundled applications received by certified mail just before the specified cut-off date, by anonymous leaflets, and by private emails urging residents to join CPCA to 'stage a coup.'"

"Demonizing an association and encouraging a chaotic election is hardly normal. This is Cleveland Park, not some third world country," Idelson writes. "This is clearly an emergency. In the interim, we will seek ways to mend this tear in our neighborhood fabric."

Needless to say, this edict has met with a firestorm of protest from Cleveland Parkers. "If fearing electoral defeat is cause enough to delay an election, we may have never had elections in 1992, 2000, 2004, or 2006," writes Peter Brusoe. "The key to democracy is to allow voice, discussion and perhaps even contention."

A resident named Gina throws the organization's own words back at it, noting that the association web site suggests the group's purpose is to allow residents to "make your voice heard and help preserve and improve our neighborhood."

The battle that has consumed the Northwest Washington neighborhood for so many years is, believe it or not, about a small, lousy supermarket in a block-long mid-century brick building that Giant long ago realized was insufficient to serve local needs. Giant first proposed a replacement that seemed too suburban in design, but over a preposterously extended period of negotiation and revision, the proposal gained support from many in the area.

The latest wrinkle in the saga comes as Cleveland Park loses its Magruder's market, adding to the area's supply of empty storefronts--most of them sitting vacant because of neighbors' opposition to the restaurants and nightspots that would logically fill those empty spaces.

This one's far from over, but when the NIMBYs start waging their battles through Soviet means, it can't be long before the forces of progress prevail.

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Posted at 07:42 AM ET, 05/26/2009

In Virginia, Who Votes Will Decide Who Wins

At the last three campaign events I've gone to, I've heard exactly the same opposing views from Virginians contemplating the June 9 Democratic gubernatorial primary: "It's only governor, so I don't think I need to vote" runs slam into "I'm tired of politics after last year, but this is for governor, so I guess I better get out there and vote."

In the Washington suburbs, attitudes toward local and state government are different from those in most places around the country. Because of proximity to the District and the large number of people who have some connection to the federal government, voters tend to be more aware than average of how government affects their lives. But they draw entirely different lessons from that extra dose of awareness: Some decide that the president and Congress are the key votes, while others conclude that the most direct democracy is the most crucial--the local and state offices that handle issues closest to people's daily lives.

In the battle to face Republican Bob McDonnell in November, the three Democrats desperately trying to win Virginians' attention in a rare June primary agree that the outcome of their race will be determined largely by who bothers to vote. When the last two times primaries were held for statewide office, in 2005 and 2006, fewer than four percent of voters made it to the polls.

Yet this vote will likely determine who is Virginia's next governor--not because the Democrat is destined to win in November (history strongly favors the party opposite from the one that controls the White House)--but because the three Democrats line up very differently against McDonnell, the state attorney general until earlier this year.

McDonnell is a social and fiscal conservative who grew up in Fairfax but has spent his adult life in the Hampton Roads area. A graduate of Rev. Pat Robertson's Regent University law school and recipient of more campaign dollars from Robertson than any other politician, McDonnell is nonetheless presenting himself this season as something of a moderate. His TV ads make no mention of his party and he's taken pains to note that the social agenda that played an important role in his legislative career is now secondary to the pressing tasks of easing transportation woes and getting Virginians back to work.

McDonnell is smart, telegenic and anything but harsh in manner. To beat him, Democrats must figure out a way to replicate the formula that put Mark Warner and Tim Kaine in the governor's house: They appealed to northern Virginia liberals and moderates who want action on top-quality schools and colleges, better roads and transit, and a health system commensurate with northern Virginia's affluent, well-educated population, even as they won over more conservative downstate independents who are put off by the Republicans' just-say-no mentality but are equally anxious about Democrats who forget to turn off the tax spigot.

Terry McAuliffe's path to power starts with celebrity and big bucks. His advantages are obvious: Money buys awareness, and McAuliffe's big personality would assure that the fall race would be about him, something both sides say they relish. McAuliffe, best known as Bill Clinton's longtime chief fundraiser, is supremely confident that his story--a dramatic, speedy rise to status as a legendary power broker--will translate into a sense among voters that he is a born executive, someone who gets things done. McDonnell, in contrast, is eager to portray McAuliffe as a symbol of everything that's wrong with politics--a glib, slick operator who's all about the money and power, rather than the people and their problems.

McAuliffe's route to victory depends on bringing out new voters, people who don't ordinarily pay close attention to Virginia politics, but who were energized by last fall's presidential race and want to keep pressing for change. He's paying especially close attention to bringing back to the polls black voters who generally turn out in particularly weak numbers in state primaries.

McAuliffe needs those people who often stay home because he's assuming that the winner among politically-involved voters will be Brian Moran, the longtime state House delegate from Alexandria.

Moran is the Bob Dole of this race: A well-liked, good-natured, smart insider who was the presumptive Democratic candidate--until Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton last year, demolishing McAuliffe's path back to the White House. Moran has run a curiously flat and narrow campaign. He's not nearly as dynamic a speaker as his two opponents, and although he's raised a lot of money, he seems to be husbanding much of it for a big emphasis on his home turf of northern Virginia and other urban centers. Moran is running to win the votes of those who are most likely to turn out--the party regulars, many of them inside-the-Beltway liberals who like his positions on the environment (he's the only one of the three who argues that coal can't be made clean) and gays (he's the only one of the three who supports gay marriage). But could Moran put himself in dire trouble in the fall if he wins the nomination by steering left?

The third candidate, state Sen. Creigh Deeds, is the wild card, the only Democrat from outside the Beltway, the only one with rural roots, the one who seems most at ease in a world where easy access to guns, the death penalty and opposition to gay marriage are matters of course. Deeds is not giving up on northern Virginia, but hopes to benefit if liberal voters here render themselves meaningless by splitting between McAuliffe and Moran.

So who will vote? If TV advertising determined turnout, McAuliffe would waltz to a win. But you need only look back one decade--to the GOP race for attorney general in 1997--to find a Virginia primary in which the only candidate who was not on TV ended up the victor.

The beauty of this primary is that despite the torrent of money being spent, despite the yammering on national TV and radio talk shows desperate for political topics in a year in which only Virginia and New Jersey have elections, no one knows who will come out. Polls mean little when the turnout is so unpredictable. Each vote really does count.

The politicians are busy promising to bring jobs to places where people are suffering; surely, no one believes that nonsense. But the state does have a large and direct impact on how we live--and the choices a governor makes will determine how many Virginians get educated to take on the next generation's jobs, who gets what kind of health care, and how attractive a place to live the state becomes. Amazingly, more than 90 percent of Virginians are likely to leave this choice to someone else. Those few voters get to deliver the surprise.

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Posted at 08:10 AM ET, 05/22/2009

Michael Steele's Academic Misadventure

He hasn't exactly held high office, and he's neither a policy leader nor a brilliant campaigner, but former Maryland lieutenant governor and Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele is a hugely charming storyteller, and in a video to appear this weekend on C-SPAN, Steele keeps an audience of high school students spellbound with the scary yet inspirational tale of the time he was booted out of Johns Hopkins University.

The heroine of Steele's story--as is often the case--is his mother, Maebell Turner, who managed to scare him onto the right course without ever deigning to look at her son or to stop stirring the grits.

Steele told the story to students at Woodson Senior High School in the District, as part of C-SPAN's "Students and Leaders" program, which brings big-name politicians, journalists and others to five D.C. public schools. In seven minutes, Steele spells out how he "partied my behind off. I heard there were classes, and some people told me I really should go. But I was having a good time. I was freshman class president ... I just networked the heck out of that bad boy. I was getting there. I was talking. I was grooving. I was having a ball."

After ignoring his academics for way too long, Steele got a letter at home in the District--he was being expelled. He summoned the courage to tell his mother as she cooked him a breakfast of grits, fried scrapple, bacon and eggs one Saturday morning. "My mother never once looked at me" during the conversation, Steele says.

"Well, baby," she said, "I don't know what you're going to do but come September, you're going to be at Johns Hopkins University."

"My mother never spoke about that issue again," Steele tells the students.

He managed to talk a dean at Hopkins into giving him a second chance--but only if he took four courses at George Washington University that summer and scored A's in all of them. And then Maebell added a requirement of her own: He'd have to achieve those grades while also working full-time, because the school year was for academics and the summer was for making money, which Steele did by working where his mother did, at the Sterling Laundry in Northwest.

Steele has told this story before, in this profile of him in the Hopkins alumni magazine, for instance. But this appears to be the first time the tale has been captured on video, and it is indeed a great story.

It's a story of perseverance, of attitude catching up with aptitude, of a kid learning--before it's too late--that the time for slacking off is over. Steele did get back to Hopkins, did straighten himself out, did finish school. The D.C. school system has always been bigger on inspirational speakers than on enforcing high expectations for its students, and there's no evidence that such stories really change the way kids behave. But it's a fun story nonetheless. The full program airs Monday on C-SPAN at 7 p.m.

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Posted at 08:20 AM ET, 05/21/2009

Political Tiff Blocks D.C. School Reforms

The biggest difference between many D.C. public schools and their suburban counterparts is the enormous and too-often-ineffectual infrastructure the city system has built to deal with a few kids in each classroom who throw tantrums, assault teachers or otherwise disrupt the proceedings.

Over the years, the D.C. schools have tried everything: suspensions, alternative schools, uniformed police, security guards, walkie-talkie-wielding deans of discipline, counselors and a hugely expensive expansion of the number of kids declared to be in need of special education.

Now, just as Mayor Adrian Fenty and Chancellor Michelle Rhee have hit on a strategy that gets at the roots of the behavior woes that plague the system, political sniping between the mayor and the D.C. Council is getting in the way of helping kids deal with the violence and anger of poverty and letting teachers teach.

When Fenty and Rhee took over the schools, they offloaded many functions that had stolen attention from teaching. Over the years, the D.C. system had become a baroque bureaucracy that ran everything from an in-house security force to warehouses full of books that never made it to the classrooms.

But the council is now trying to force the schools back into the police business and strip Fenty's deputy mayor for education of his ability to foster innovation.

Fenty's approach, D.C. START (Student Assessment and Resilience Team), is an audacious and promising stab at confronting behavior problems where they begin. Social workers who were hired and trained through Deputy Mayor Victor Reinoso's office are stationed at seven elementary schools and one middle school; they work one-on-one with kids who hurl books at teachers, shout at classmates and adults, or monopolize teachers' attention with their anger, grief or depression. What's different about D.C. START is that it gets clinicians into the children's homes; it coordinates -- for the first time -- the city's contacts with a family across police, mental health, social service and other agencies; and, by all accounts, it works.

At Simon Elementary School in Anacostia, social worker Adrienne Biel has counseled 35 of the 315 students this year. A first-grade boy who broke up his class every day by screaming at teachers and throwing desks across the room spent 21 weeks with Biel, talking about problems at home and learning to calm himself when he grew frustrated. The other day, Biel saw the boy standing quiet and alone in the hallway. She asked him what he was doing.

"I'm doing my deep breathing out here so I don't get angry in there," he replied.

The shift in the boy's behavior resulted from counseling at school, outside therapy, a behavior plan that's enforced at home and parenting classes for his guardians.

D.C. START is intended to attack the too-common belief among teachers that many kids who come from troubled homes cannot be held to high standards. "The hope is that we will chip away at the wall that some teachers have built around themselves in terms of low expectations," Reinoso says. "As they start to see troubled kids become better-behaved, teachers will regain their faith that kids can change and succeed."

It's too soon for statistical proof that START works, but the program it's based on, in Upstate New York, has been around long enough to demonstrate that referrals for discipline drop by more than a third in schools with this strategy in place.

Debby Rager, who supervises D.C. START, says families who are asked to open their files at all city agencies may be suspicious at first but soon see that the reward for sacrificing some privacy is help with domestic violence, substance abuse, parenting and medical and legal problems.

Another boy at Simon had a tendency to run out of his classroom, bringing teaching to a halt. Biel discovered that the boy's mother had died and the father was out of the picture; the grandparent in charge blamed the school for the child's problems.

It took several months of calls and visits, but Biel won the grandparent over, and the boy is now seeing a psychiatrist, is on medication and is functioning far better at school. "Yes, these children have concerns at home," Biel says, "but if we say, 'Oh, they have so many issues at home that they can't learn,' then why do we come here every day?"

Biel's reach extends far beyond the classroom: She has found places for kids at a grief camp and in a cheerleading program, and she has helped parents get legal aid, drug rehab and jobs.

Council members want the school system to take over START, but Reinoso argues that in government and business alike, innovation tends to come from outside core structures -- from Bell Labs, not the phone company. "This is moving forward in large part because it's apart from the school system," Reinoso argues.

"The council is essentially undoing parts of mayoral control of the schools just two years in, when they committed to trying this for five years," Reinoso says.

Simon's principal, Adelaide Flamer, credits Biel with helping kids cope with violence, with calming some of the most difficult kids and with discovering connections among families at the school -- the kind of intimate mapping of the community that helps teachers understand who's who and where tensions and alliances begin. Principals don't want to hear about political infighting; they want that clinician. "Just don't take her away from me," Flamer says.

"Potomac Confidential" will return next week at

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Posted at 08:26 AM ET, 05/19/2009

Tip To Candidates: Change Your Names

In politics, image trumps substance much of the time. Candidates will do virtually anything to adopt the image they believe voters want to see. So why don't more candidates change their names?

When the candidates for governor in Virginia take the stage today for The Washington Post debate in Annandale, it'll be a Terry, a Brian and a Creigh vying to take on a Bob in the fall election. A nifty new NameMapper tool demonstrates that we've got just what you'd expect: A choice of guys whose names peaked in the 1950s and 60s and have sunk down toward name oblivion in recent years. (Creigh never made any list of popular first names, ever, anywhere, so it's the outlier here, an attraction for those who like to go against the grain, or a turn-off for those who like solid American names they can trust. Like, um, Pontiac. But we digress.)

NameMapper, which uses birth records across the country to present in graphic form our collective choices of baby names, has nothing to do with politics, but I was taking it out for a spin (noticing along the way that the wife and I gave our kids names that became popular only a few years after we chose them, making us either brilliantly prescient about naming trends or sadly, if somewhat imprecisely, aligned with popular tastes, depending on how you look at it) and I realized that with the exception of our unusually-named president, we've got a slew of leaders around here whose names reflect the tastes of mid-century America.

Check out Terry (McAuliffe), a name that peaked in popularity in 1963, in Arizona. Our Terry was born in New York in 1957, so his parents were just ahead of the crowd. Ditto Brian (Moran): Our Brian was born in Massachusetts in 1959, but the name peaked in popularity in 1973, in Nebraska. Moran was actually made a Brian during a valley in the name's long history of success. Finally in this race, there's the Republican, Bob McDonnell, a square-jawed, Moral Majority type with a name that suits him. McDonnell, born in 1954 in Philadelphia, is of course actually a Robert, and that name peaked in 1960, in Rhode Island, so his parents were right in there on a name that was about as popular as any in U.S. history--a name that has all but disappeared in the naming sweepstakes nationwide.

While we're in the gubernatorial department, Virginia's Tim (Kaine) and Maryland's Martin (O'Malley) are also blessed, or saddled, depending on how trendy you like your names, with monikers that peaked decades ago and have sunk fairly low on the hit parade. Tim is nearly gone as a stand-alone name; Timothy is ever with us, but it has declined dramatically in popularity, having hit its peak in 1966, a name that was especially strong in the Rust Belt and Appalachian states (Kaine is from Minnesota originally.) Martin has an old-fashioned ring to it, and the numbers back up that impression--the name peaked in 1964 and was especially popular in the Southwest, though O'Malley is a D.C. kid, born in '63.

Speaking of the District, let's not leave out its boss, Mayor Adrian Fenty, whose first name is unlike all the others we've looked at today--Adrian is a more popular boy's name today than ever before in recorded history. Its numbers go up and up every year, hitting #56 among boy's names nationwide in 2008, vastly higher than back in 1970, when the mayor was born in the District. Can such a frivolous factor really make a difference in how popular a politician is or who wins an election? We'd like to think not, but my colleague Jay Mathews has spent decades documenting the impact that candidates' height has on voting patterns (the taller the better, of course), and it's fair to conclude from the last several decades of elections that men with no hair and fat men face enormous obstacles in any election.

Our president won in spite of a name that won't ever make anyone's top 100 list, but of course he had to spend absurd amounts of campaign time poking fun at and explaining his own name, so these things do matter, even when we know they shouldn't. So, if these gents in Virginia want to win this year, what ought they do? The federal government's listing of most popular names puts Jacob, Michael, Ethan and Joshua atop the hit parade for 2008. Drill down to Virginia's numbers and the top five is the same except that William vaults to #1, displacing Michael. (Robert landed at #41 in Virginia last year; Brian at #73. No Terry, no Creigh.)

It's a great toy.

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Posted at 08:05 AM ET, 05/18/2009

MoCo Strikes Back At D.C. Charity's Big Spending

Montgomery County has registered its outrage over the huge salary paid to the chief of the Food & Friends charity, which serves meals to AIDS and cancer patients throughout the Washington region.

The county has stripped Food & Friends of a $55,000 earmark that helped the group serve meals to Montgomery residents. The move is a protest against the $357,000 in salary and benefits that the charity gives to its executive director, Craig Shniderman, in the most recent year for which public records are available. Shniderman's pay more than doubled in less than a decade, putting him at a level well beyond that of most similarly-sized charities, according to compensation experts consulted by The Post.

The county council moved to delete the $55,000 from County Executive Ike Leggett's budget because "the Council was concerned about excessive compensation provided to the organization's executive director," said council member George Leventhal (D-At Large).

In a previous job, as executive director of the Jewish Social Services Agency in Montgomery, Shniderman was sentenced to six months of home detention and 18 months of probation for taking almost $4,000 from the Jewish Community Center in Rockville. Shniderman was charged with taking items from the center's gift shop from 1987 to 1993 and with allowing the agency to be billed for phony consulting services. He pleaded guilty to misappropriation of funds. [UPDATE: The conviction was later expunged.]

Food & Friends responded to the council's move by saying its leaders were "saddened and puzzled.... What we have here is the recommendation that 8,000 specialized meals and nutrition counseling will not be funded by the Montgomery County government on the strength of Mr. Leventhal's personal objection to compensation determined after careful study by the board of directors of Food & Friends," wrote Robert Hall III, the charity's board president.

The charity says Shniderman's pay was determined in consultation with an independent consultant and remained flat this year because of the recession.

It's rare indeed for local governments to devote any oversight energy to checking out the quality and activities of the non-profits that get all manner of earmarks, so this is a most welcome move by the MoCo council. Food & Friends by all accounts does much-needed work and does it well, but that's no excuse for running a charity as if it were a fancy for-profit business.


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