D.C.'s 'savior' may have to fight for job

March 14, 1994|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly roared into office with a gleaming shovel in hand, promising to dig the city out of its smothering heap of woes. Three years later, having disappointed a city desperate for a savior, she is stumbling toward her re-election race with a powder puff in hand.

A mini-furor erupted over Ms. Kelly's use of public money to hire a makeup artist for her TV and public appearances -- a practice she says she has no intention of changing.

It should be a trivial, insignificant matter for a city aching from bullets and overstretched budgets. But to many in this town, the makeup flaplet has become a classic example of what they see as the mayor's imperial ways, her detachment from the working class of the city -- a glaring symbol of what has gone wrong with the Kelly administration.

Even Ms. Kelly, a former utility executive who came from the back of a crowded pack of Democrats in 1990 to nab the mayor's seat, is having a hard time putting a rosy face on her prospects.

Winning a second term, said the as-yet unannounced candidate, will be "very tough."

Indeed, six months before the crucial primary in this heavily Democratic city, there is so little affection for Ms. Kelly that even her fallen predecessor, Marion Barry, who's already rehabbed his way back from a drug conviction to the City Council, is considering another run for the top office. A recent poll reported that two out of three District voters think Mayor Kelly should not be re-elected.

What's more, lifelong Washingtonians are increasingly thinking about leaving, said Paul Strauss, an attorney and neighborhood activist in one of the city's more affluent regions, the mayor's bedrock of support in the last election. "Jack Kent Cooke might not be the only one moving out," said Mr. Strauss.

The mayor and her supporters believe the gray backdrop of violence and recession that's made life hard for big-city mayors across the country has overshadowed her record of accomplishment:

She has trimmed the bloated city government by cutting 3,200 funded positions, automated the large bureaucracy, improved an inept ambulance service, reduced the infant-mortality rate and won more federal money and crime-fighting help for the city.

In an interview in her swank 11th-floor office, the 50-year-old mayor said she's pulled off nothing short of "a minor miracle," given the state of affairs she inherited.

Critics, however, say Ms. Kelly, who had cast herself as an aggressive reformer, has not made much of a dent with her shovel, having failed to bail the city out of what is now a $300 million budget deficit, to provide new jobs and businesses or to get a handle on the chilling wave of violent crime that has become synonymous with the nation's capital.

In a misfire that made national headlines, she was rebuffed by President Clinton in her attempt to quell the city's crime epidemic by calling in the National Guard. And though it may have been congressional moves that ultimately sacked the deal, she may have fumbled away the only thing Washingtonians come together on: the Redskins.

'Importance of symbols'

But in a city where perception is reality, many believe the mayor's most serious problem is the sentiment, especially among the city's poorest residents, that the articulate, stern, impeccably tailored mayor is out of touch, elitist and too eager to indulge in the perks of the job.

"The major failure of this administration is a failure to understand the importance of symbols," said Howard Croft, chairman of urban studies at the University of the District of Columbia.

The recent makeup episode, in fact, comes on the heels of a string of other public relations missteps, such as her failure to leave a conference in New York and return to Washington as a shotgun stalker was terrorizing several D.C. neighborhoods.

"It is naivete of unbelievable proportions," said D.C. political analyst Mark Plotkin.

In the midst of a severe financial crisis, she has spent more than $1 million a year on a 24-person security detail. In 1992, she

moved her office into a new building that the city purchased -- hoping to save money on leases and centralize the government -- and outfitted her expansive digs with a $40,000 granite fireplace and $90,000 bulletproof glass windows.

The City Council, which had voted for the purchase and had intended to set up shop there as well, thought better of making the move in a time of belt-tightening and decided to stay in the dilapidated district building 10 blocks away.

But the strong-willed Ms. Kelly, in another act that was perceived detachment, moved anyway and didn't look back. "How could I [not move]?" she said. "We had already bought the building because the council voted for it."

Still, Ms. Kelly, a third-generation Washingtonian who graduated from D.C. public schools, Howard University and its law school, acknowledged that she is largely to blame for allowing the

"aloof" and "detached" image to take root.

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