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Mayor Fenty, Please Sweat the Small Stuff

A missive to the new mayor--from today's Outlook section, where you'll also find six other letters to Adrian Fenty seeking solutions to some of the smaller problems facing the District:

Still running, huh? Every time I've seen you since your victory over Linda Cropp in the Democratic primary, you've been in extended campaign mode, making the rounds, talking to Washingtonians, dashing off to other cities on your Best Practices Tour. You say that once you take office this week, you're not going to change the hands-on, grass-roots style that made you so popular in your ward and won you the mayoralty.

Good for you: Washington has had it with schemers and dreamers. As you can see from the messages folks around town have sent to you today, people are hungry for someone to get down and dirty, someone who can fix the basic services that were beyond Marion Barry's ability and beneath Anthony Williams's grand vision. They want you to sweat the little stuff.

Your campaign speeches included a lot of bravado about sweeping out incompetents and demanding accountability from agency heads; we heard almost identical rhetoric from Williams and Sharon Pratt Kelly, yet the bureaucracy held firm against their efforts. Will you really wield the broom? Washingtonians desperately want to be able to stop looking to the suburbs when we need to take the kids to a decent library, find an example of road projects that take less than an eternity to complete, or stock our homes with basic goods.

Mayor Williams has left you some big pieces of his agenda to complete: Though it must grate on you daily, you're the one who has to bring the baseball stadium project in on time and on budget. You get to push through Williams's reshaping of the Anacostia and Potomac riverfronts. You must complete his most important legacy, his creation of thriving, mixed-income communities where the city's most dangerous low-income housing projects once stood.

Despite that heavy load, you seem intent on fulfilling at least one huge dream of your own: Confronting the enduring failure of the D.C. school system. When I asked Williams about you, he immediately focused on your school plans. "That boy definitely is a great politician," he said. "He's going to come in fresh and get everybody playing at a higher level. The real heavy lifting is what the mayor can do with his bully pulpit. Adrian has to create models of success in the schools. But no question, it's hard. The schools are a Bermuda triangle. If we had a school system that was top-notch, can you imagine what we could be?"

You'll quickly learn that who governs the system may not be as important as you think, but your instinct that fixing the schools is a political task is correct. The mayor can gather the forces necessary to smash the system's coddling of incompetents and malingerers, create the handful of marquee schools that could forever alter the city's expectations and start to lure back the middle-class families who would rather move than subject their children to the risk and resignation that pervades our schools.

You've already accomplished something that hardly anyone in the city thought possible. Where Williams and Kelly were stymied early in their administrations by chatter about their supposed lack of racial authenticity, and where Barry used race as a battering ram, you managed to make it through a tough campaign in which race never came up. You are the city's first biracial mayor, and your emphasis of individual character over group identity has diminished race as a poisonous political issue in the District.

Surely you will disappoint us in some ways -- this remains a singularly tough city to manage. But your easy manner and Energizer Bunny constancy create the conditions for early success.

Where I live in upper Northwest, I hear plenty of complaints that transcend neighborhood boundaries: Why do so many police officers stay sealed up in their vehicles? How long will the shame of the city's ambulance service frighten residents and visitors alike? How can it be that our local high school, Wilson, is considered one of the city's best, yet graduated only 53 percent of its seniors last spring?

But I'm also looking to you to take care of some smaller things: The half-done road project near my house is virtually dormant. Preservation zealots have joined with NIMBY activists to prevent needed development along Wisconsin Avenue. And the branch library has been shut down for two years.

D.C. residents tend to believe that their own corner of town is neglected while others get all the attention. If you can get us to see that we're all pretty equally ill-served, that would be a great service, and a promising first leg of your marathon run.

By Marc Fisher |  December 31, 2006; 9:11 AM ET
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Good message, Marc.

Posted by: Mark | January 2, 2007 12:23 PM

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