Disarray in the District of Columbia

May 20, 1994

Poor Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly of Washington. These days she feels very misunderstood. For years she has been saying that the problems her administration has encountered are due largely to the terrible mess her predecessor left for her to clean up. Now there's an election coming up and voters will have to decide, among other things, whether Ms. Kelly really is struggling valiantly against overwhelming odds or just making excuses for herself.

Granted, there's probably more than a grain of truth to what she says about the city's financial and bureaucratic disarray. Growth in revenues from property and sales taxes has not kept pace with rising service costs, and each year Ms. Kelly has felt compelled to resort to accounting sleight-of-hand in order to balance the city's books. This year the revenue shortfall was so serious Congress even feared the city might not be able to borrow enough to pay its bills.

During the campaign, Ms. Kelly described herself as a take-charge manager who knew how to make things work. But her experience as a utility company official has not helped her surmount the challenges she faces as Washington's mayor.

For example, Ms. Kelly came into office pledged to "clean house with a shovel, not a broom." She promised to start by firing 2,000 mid-level city employees. But although she eventually succeeded in ousting a few hundred, mostly through attrition, the plan fizzled. Ms. Kelly also replaced former Mayor Marion S. Barry's appointees with her own supporters. But her administration has been a revolving door through which idealistic reformers come in, get chewed up by the bureaucracy and exit thoroughly disillusioned with government.

Ms. Kelly walked into a public relations disaster when it was reported the make-up artist hired for her TV appearances was paid with city funds. Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke humiliated her during negotiations to build a new football stadium in Washington, then announced he was moving his team to suburban Maryland. Even the mayor's strongest supporters acknowledge that much of the damage she has suffered over the past three years has been self-inflicted.

Ironically, Ms. Kelly's weakness has created a unusual political opportunity for Mr. Barry, who was forced from office after being convicted of cocaine possession in 1989, served six months in prison and was promptly re-elected as a councilman and folk hero from the city's poorest ward. If September's Democratic mayoral primary indeed turns into a three-way race among Ms. Kelly, Mr. Barry and City Councilman John Ray, Mr. Barry could well pull off a comeback as stunning as his precipitous fall from power five years ago.

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