First test for mayor brings out her best--and worst, observers say

May 08, 1991|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- When Washington Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon first learned about the violence in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood Sunday night, she thought it was nothing more than a criminal incident and merely monitored the situation from afar.

By early Monday, she would learn that the rioting, started by mainly Hispanic protesters in the northern part of the city, would explode -- tear gas, gunfire and all -- into the first major test of her administration, and of her talent and prowess as mayor.

After spending Monday night at the command post in the middle of the smoke- and debris-filled Mount Pleasant community, meeting with police until 3 a.m., she arrived at the District Building yesterday at 10:45 a.m., dropped off by her police driver and female security guard.

Calm and composed, as she has appeared throughout the last few days, she said she'd been getting little sleep but felt "just terrific" about her handling of the volatile, ever-changing situation.

It is a crisis that some observers say is bringing out the best in this bold, decisive, serious-minded mayor who ordered police to impose a curfew in the troubled communities for the last two nights -- but also the worst.

"She's devoid of political instincts," said political analyst Mark Plotkin, who, like other observers, criticized the mayor for waiting until Monday night to visit the site of the unrest. "She has no instinct that says, 'I'll go here' or 'Let's go there.' The mayor is, more than anything, a shy, almost apolitical person. She still has problems with the human connection. She

still has trouble extending her hand."

Even Monday afternoon, as the mayor walked 3 1/2 blocks of the riot-torn area, she refrained from going up to people to talk and didn't seem to notice the band of schoolchildren along the route who waved to her.

"The walk was important symbolically," said Mr. Plotkin, "but it was totally pro forma. Marion Barry would have waded into the crowd, looked in the sea of faces and picked out a baby or an elderly person or a face that seemed hospitable."

But Mr. Plotkin gave the mayor high marks for her recent meetings with community leaders -- "she's handled that exquisitely," he said -- and her ability to change course and move swiftly. "She's flexible enough and tough enough to realize when something isn't working and change it."

Carl Rowan Jr., a D.C. attorney who campaigned during the mayoral election for Dixon opponent John Ray, said he sensed "a hardening of her position and a realization that certain conduct is not going to be tolerated. The question is whether she waited too long to reach the decision. She definitely seemed to change her thinking on the matter."

Paul Costello, the mayor's director of communications, said Mayor Dixon had no regrets about her actions.

"She's not somebody to do Monday-morning quarterbacking," Mr. Costello said. "She's always learning and looking ahead. She came in Monday morning and said, 'Let's talk about what we need to do now.' "

And personally the mayor has sounded "on top of things but distressed," said her sister, Benaree Wiley, president and CEO of the Partnership, a non-profit corporation in Boston. "I think she's distressed by it -- not the violence as much as what the underlying problems are. But she seems calm. She's very serious about these things, anyway."

Many have applauded Mayor Dixon's direct style and demeanor throughout the crisis, her willingness to listen to Hispanic community leaders coupled with her insistence on restoring law and order.

"A lot has to be measured by the way leaders look in response," said Lynn Cutler, vice chair of the Democratic National Committee. "Her calling for a curfew, being very firm and at the same time saying to the police, 'Use care here, don't go in swinging,' was a caring but tough approach.

"In reality, the best thing an elected official can do is set a tenor, create a mood. She let everyone know she was in charge."

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