Tough Times Ahead for the District

May 20, 1994

The District of Columbia is facing a series of crises that threaten not only fiscal disaster but also diminution of Washington's hard-earned home-rule granted by Congress more than two decades ago. At issue is whether the federal government will have to step in and bail out the financially strapped city or -- worse -- whether Congress will simply strip Washington of much of its autonomy.

Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, who is up for re-election this year, has lobbied the White House on the District's behalf and is scheduled to appear before a congressional subcommittee to defend her administration's handling of city affairs. During her three and a half years in office, Ms. Kelly instituted some reforms but fell far short of her campaign pledge to "clean house with a shovel" by firing thousands of mid-level city employees and bringing the bureaucracy to heel.

The Kelly administration also has been plagued by constant comings and goings among key officials, few of whom lasted long enough to make much difference. Example: the city's two top public health officers have just resigned, citing their frustration in dealing with the bureaucracy. Ms. Kelly's team has never managed to be the efficient, well-oiled government that voters yearn for.

Moreover, Ms. Kelly has had great difficulty articulating a broad vision for the city that would inspire confidence. Instead, a series of gaffes and public relations disasters -- from Jack Kent Cooke's decision to move the Washington Redskins to Laurel to reports that Ms. Kelly paid a TV make-up artist with city funds -- have dampened the enthusiasm of many who saw her as a harbinger of change. Last month, the Census Bureau reported that 30,000 people, mostly middle-class residents, left the city over the last three years -- more than left during the entire decade of the '80s.

Given her difficulties, even Ms. Kelly's old nemesis, former Mayor Marion Barry, says he will try to win his old job back. Mr. Barry, having served a six-month sentence for cocaine possession a few years ago, bounced back to win a city council seat from Washington's poorest ward, where he is considered something of a folk hero. If Ms. Kelly's support continues to erode and a three-way race for mayor develops in the Democratic primary in September, Mr. Barry conceivably could eke out a comeback. If that should happen, think how it would affect the city's already damaged reputation.

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