New D.C. mayor's savvy already faces evaluation

November 19, 1990|By Arch Parsons | Arch Parsons,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Less than two weeks after Sharon Pratt Dixon's election as mayor of the nation's capital -- and almost two months before she actually takes office -- her political instincts for governing already are being scrutinized.

In the politically delicate transition period between the departure of Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr. and her formal installation as his successor, the 46-year-old mayor-elect has gained cheerleaders and created skeptics. But political analysts generally believe it is too soon for either.

"She's just starting up her learning curve," said Ronald Walters, chairman of Howard University's political science department. "At this stage, I'd grade her about B."

Mr. Walters and other analysts base their early estimates of Mrs. Dixon's political savvy mainly on two events that have occurred since her election Nov. 6 -- her announcement of a transition team to help in the selection of key aides and a skirmish she had Wednesday with Mayor Barry and the president-elect of the City Council, John Wilson, over the district's potential $200 million budget deficit.

Mrs. Dixon said in an interview that her first priority as mayor would be "to put the city's financial house in order." But she made it clear in her tiff with Mr. Barry and Mr. Wilson that she'll try, at least, to do the job on her own terms.

At a news conference after meeting with the two, she said it was up to them to devise a plan for closing the deficit for the current fiscal year.

"It is the responsibility of the outgoing administration . . . to balance the budget," Mrs. Dixon said.

But Mr. Wilson -- a council member for 15 years, longtime chairman of its finance and revenue committee and a constant critic of Mr. Barry's budgets -- took umbrage at Mrs. Dixon's refusal to involve herself immediately in the district's budget predicament.

"My position is that the boat does not leave the dock until everybody is on it," he said.

At this stage, however, Mrs. Dixon has said she prefers to allow her budget views to be represented by a major study of the city's financial difficulties, which is to be released formally today. The study was prepared by a special commission chaired by Alice Rivlin, former director of the Congressional Budget Office.

Although Mrs. Dixon may not support all of the commission's 100-plus budget recommendations, she said in the interview that she planned to "build on" the study when she takes office.

Relations between Mrs. Dixon and Mr. Wilson could become a problem for the mayor-elect. "John Wilson pressed Marion Barry for years about balancing the budget, but Marion ran over the council," said Edward C. Sylvester Jr., staff director of the House Committee on the District of Columbia. "John isn't going to let that happen again."

Analysts of Washington's local politics think that Mr. Wilson, 47, would like eventually to be mayor. He denied it.

Asked whether, as one analyst put it, he had "long-term plans for the big seat," Mr. Wilson replied:

"I don't want to be mayor. "I've now got the job I wanted for years. Two terms as [council] president, and I am through."

Mr. Wilson said of Mrs. Dixon: "I assume we would have our differences . . . but we'll get along. . . . She'll come around to reality."

For further clues to Mrs. Dixon's political acumen, analysts were assessing a list of members of her transition team that she made zTC public on the day after her election. It was heavily laden with lawyers, physicians, business executives and other professionals, but lacking in community leaders and neighborhood-level political activists.

The imbalance led to muted criticism of Mrs. Dixon as an "elitist." A native Washingtonian, she is the daughter of a judge and is a former executive of a utilities company.

Within a few days, however, more names were added to the list -- this time, people from Washington's neighborhoods. The criticism obviously had been heard.

"Mrs. Dixon is going to have to deal with the fact that she is an establishment figure," said analyst Mark Plotkin.

Mr. Sylvester, however, saw no problem. "She's going to make mistakes," he said. "But she's a fresh, new person in the mayor's office -- one with respectability."

Mrs. Dixon said of herself: "I have good working relations with all the institutional players."

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