D.C.'s Beleaguered Mayor

November 06, 1993

These are not happy days for Washington's Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly.

The luster of a bright new face which excited the capital city when she was overwhelmingly elected three years ago has been dimmed by a series of setbacks. Some are of her own doing, and others are the sort of woes that afflict most big-city mayors. The mistakes she has made are political blunders, the kind a more experienced office-holder might not have made. But they hurt, and they are not offset by the sort of achievements Mrs. Kelly promised in her uphill campaign to succeed the discredited Marion Barry.

Mrs. Kelly's strongest appeal to the voters was that she was not Mr. Barry, the charismatic but disreputable activist-turned-politician who dominated Washington politics for 12 years. She wasn't going to clean out the District Building with a new broom, she promised. It would take a shovel.

She managed to get rid of most of Mr. Barry's henchmen -- only to replace them with her own cronies. Soon after he finished serving a six-month term for cocaine possession, Mr. Barry was back, too -- elected to the City Council. What's worse, the mayor looks increasingly like just another pol, not as bad as Mr. Barry but no better than the rest.

In a city struggling to pay for essential services, Mrs. Kelly permitted construction of bullet-resistant windows and armored partitions in her 11th-floor office. Her re-election committee solicited memberships in a club that would have "unique access" to her -- in return for raising $1,000 in monthly contributions to her campaign. That came only weeks after she drew heavy criticism when some of her aides hastily solicited campaign contributions from contractors to beat the imposition of a lower ceiling on campaign donations. More serious is Mrs. Kelly's failure to make much headway with Washington's severe urban problems.

As the nation's capital, Washington both benefits and suffers. Thousands of organizations pay high salaries and rents to be near the center of government, stabilizing the economy. But the federal government occupies a lot of tax-free real estate. Congress subsidizes the district government while also clumsily meddling in its internal affairs.

The city is not well-governed. Its bureaucracy is notoriously inefficient. Mrs. Kelly waited too long before making the serious cuts needed in the district's budget and laying off thousands of workers. She has wasted energy chasing chimeras like taxing suburbanites -- a political impossibility -- and legalizing casino gambling to finance a new convention center. Mrs. Kelly's political appeal is fading fast, as even some of her strongest supporters concede. She has time -- but not a lot -- to regroup. Otherwise, she will be the first of Washington's three elected mayors to serve a single term.

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