Earlier this year, while you were moving—packing your belongings into a car that thieves had burgled one too many times—D.C. hit rock bottom and began bouncing up.
Just as you hauled into Prince George’s County, weary of crime and muck and withering schools, and a city government that was only a hideous simulacrum of a city government, the District began improving. You couldn’t wait one more week, and now you’re stuck in suburbs bloated with urban migrants and antiseptic malls. You blew it. Washington is coming back.
And that comeback is not only the work of the new, suprademocratic forces that ascended this year—though the control board (and its hand-picked school superintendent) had a significant role in it. Rather, the District, at least partly on its own, is fumbling its way toward a political and economic recovery.
The most promising dimension of the recovery appeared more in what was not said and done than in what was. For the first time in many years, race did not constantly infect the city’s political dialogue, even during the election season.
“There was, of course, some tension, but it primarily wasn’t racial,” says James Gibson, director of the D.C. Agenda Project. “In the main, I don’t see that as the way arguments are framed.”
To be sure, the race-baiting “Reverend” Willie Wilson, the mayor’s pastor, took a more prominent role in public affairs this year. He attacked the control board in explicitly racial terms (implying that its chairman isn’t black enough, or isn’t really black). And he has defended the black charter school director indicted for attacking a white reporter.
But for the most part, public officials steered clear of racially charged language and seemed embarrassed by such incidents. Mayor Marion Barry denounced the alleged attack on the reporter. And earlier in the year, control board member Joyce Ladner rendered protesters outside her home a little ridiculous when she joined them in singing civil rights hymns, familiar to her from her own 1960s activism.
At other times, race simply receded into irrelevance. Take the recent shakeup in the school system. After he was fired by the control board, former Superintendent Franklin Smith defended his record but moved aside without fanning controversy. Contrast Smith’s dignified exit with that of former Superintendent Andrew Jenkins. When Jenkins was forced out in 1991, he tried to save his job by screeching that he was being fired for supporting Afrocentric education.
In the November elections, voters rejected race-baiting school board member Valencia Mohammed and the race-driven Umoja candidates. They gave white Republican Carol Schwartz the second-highest number of votes for an at-large council seat, behind current Ward 6 Councilmember Harold Brazil, a Democrat. Brazil, despite all his faults, has never used racial divisions to advance his political career. And he may bring his colorblind politics to the mayor’s race in 1998.
Finally, racist animosity toward the District from white Republicans on Capitol Hill never materialized, as some city activists warned in 1994. In fact, D.C.’s black elected leaders and Republicans on the Hill and elsewhere worked together: Witness the unlikely pairing of Democratic Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton with Republican vice-presidential nominee Jack Kemp. (Kemp advised Norton on her tax-cut proposal for District residents.)
If fewer pols were talking about race this year, everyone seemed to be promoting budget cuts and reforms. For the first time since the advent of home rule, city spending in 1996 actually declined from the previous year. And the city’s fiscal 1996 deficit—originally projected at $116 million—has turned out to be about $30 million lower. We mostly have an unelected official to thank for that, but Chief Financial Officer Anthony Williams, unlike the control board members, does work for the city and was hired by the mayor.
Williams brought order to the seemingly simple process of paying contractors who sell their goods and services to the city government. Since last summer, the city has been able to make these payments on a timely basis, mostly because Williams knows how to manage cashflow.
Wall Street has responded nicely to Williams’ austerity plan. When the District shook its battered tin cup in the public financial markets this fall, it received a more favorable hearing, measured by interest rates, than either New York City or Philadelphia. OK, so we’re no Greenwich, Conn. But we’re no Bridgeport, Conn., either.
And Williams has actually tried to purge the city government of its slothful management culture—by, of all things, firing people. “Bad attitude, bad commitment, incompetence, incomprehensible management—[they are] not tolerated,” Williams says. Last summer, for example, he gutted the property-tax division of the Department of Finance and Revenue after some of its top managers decided that location wasn’t so critical in assessing property values.
But unlike 1995—when Williams struggled against a resistant mayor and lumbering bureaucracy—top city officials have cooperated more with the CFO this year, last week’s tensions notwithstanding. For instance, Williams and others in the mayor’s office collaborated recently to put $3.4 million in escrow so the city can afford to pay promptly for snow removal should another blizzard strike.
And the mayor behaved during the budget-writing process last spring, which produced a realistic city budget proposal for the first time in years. Congress liked what it saw and didn’t take months—as it had the previous fiscal year—to approve a final D.C. budget. That meant the city could anticipate problems with the budget early, without waiting uncertainly for approval months into the fiscal year.
Other Barry/Williams successes include convincing Congress to provide additional money to purchase desperately needed firefighting equipment and to pay for police raises retroactive to April. Congress trusts Williams more than Barry, of course, but the mayor has at least ordered his priorities clearly—and Congress has responded. “We can fundamentally change the culture of D.C. government,” Barry says. He adds, predictably, that this will take “more time and some more energy,” but for a man who seemed so unreconstructed in his old-style approach to governance just last year, his rhetoric is a significant step forward.
There’s even some evidence that Barry has learned to keep some of the promises that flow from that rhetoric. In October, he told Washington City Paper staffers that “we’re not competitive because the tax structure—commercial tax structure, disability comp[ensation], unemployment comp—is much higher than in the suburbs.” It only took a month (the bureaucratic equivalent of warp speed) for the D.C. Department of Employment Services to announce a reduction in the amount that businesses must pay into the unemployment compensation fund.
Barry himself likes to tout low-to-the-ground achievements, like making D.C. attractive to big-budget filmmakers, saving $2 million in a prison-food contract, re-equipping some recreation centers, persuading the sports commission to build a $65,000 football field for Anacostia kids, and making D.C. government forms available on the Internet. These aren’t revolutionary achievements, but God knows the District can use some visible, if small, accomplishments.
Elsewhere in the Barry government, a little-known city official running the Medicaid behemoth managed to slash the city’s biggest program by $80 million this year. Paul Offner—a former domestic-policy aide to Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) and contributor to the New Republic—came to the District in August 1995 to undertake a challenge. He hasn’t been disappointed.
From 1988 to 1995, Medicaid spending in the District rose at an average annual rate of 14.3 percent, crowding out spending on education, police, and other basics needed to prevent middle-class flight. Offner brought the growth rate down to 8 percent this year and expects to see even slower growth next year.
Offner achieved this feat in part because he identified areas in which the District was spending Medicaid dollars it didn’t have to spend. The city was overpaying hospitals, so Offner cut the amount D.C. paid for hospital services by an average of 20 percent. He was also able to wring a 17-percent cut from what the District was paying health maintenance organizations. And Offner found $14 million in savings in what the District had paid for nursing homes and group homes for the mentally retarded.
Finally, Offner slashed 25,000 unqualified people from the Medicaid rolls last spring, saving $18 million. And he is planning to move the remaining half of AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) recipients not already in managed-care plans into HMOs, saving another $2.4 million. Though other states have had trouble moving welfare recipients into managed-care systems—which have a tendency not to cover the sickest recipients—Offner says the city has learned from such difficulties. HMOs will be required to furnish all Medicaid services currently provided, and HMOs bidding for city contracts will fare better if they promise to include community-based clinics—which often serve poor patients—in their provider networks.
Not all of Offner’s accomplishments are merely financial. Unsurprisingly, by the early 1990s the District had developed a Medicaid system heavily dependent on state-run institutions and wary of experimentation. Most states had programs that allow elderly and disabled Medicaid recipients to live at home, with homemaking and nursing assistance. Such programs are cheaper, and the recipients like them much better than the alternative—state-run facilities. But in the District, the only option has been institutionalization.
Beginning Jan. 1—thanks to a federal waiver obtained by Offner—D.C. will begin providing in-home services for the disabled. He hopes a waiver for the elderly will follow by the summer.
Perhaps most important—in terms of future attempts to scale back the city government—Offner managed to slash deeply without triggering a political backlash. While the cuts have shocked the system and prompted howls from liberals and hospital bureaucrats, those complaints have little political traction: Most of the complainers are Barry supporters, and the mayor has not only accepted the cuts but encouraged them. Finally, because Offner has maintained minimum federal standards for care—or because he can at least plausibly claim to have done so—no one has sued the city over the Medicaid cuts.
Beyond the technicalities, Medicaid is a symbol of what a determined, intelligent reformer could do in the D.C. government of 1996. Offner isn’t afraid to trumpet his own success. “An $80-million cut is the instruction I got from the mayor, and that’s what I’ve done,” he says. But he’s one of the few city officials who deserves his own plaudits.
Some signs of District renewal are less tangible. Last month, for instance, Fortune magazine saw fit to include Washington in its list of the top 10 cities for business life in the nation—though the accompanying text mainly admired the suburbs, not the city. (“You don’t have to live in the heart of Washington to take advantage of its vitality,” the article hummed. “In fact, you probably shouldn’t.”)
Still, businesspeople here say things haven’t been this good since the late 1980s, when the real estate market was artificially inflated, leading to a terrible—(oh, sorry—this is a good news story). “There has been a lot of good news in the District this year,” says Ted Trabue, staff director at the Greater Washington Board of Trade.
Unemployment fell slightly in the city this fall, and the city recently chopped its generous welfare checks, which should prevent an influx of new poor residents from the already-stingy suburbs. Two giant construction projects—the MCI Center and the Federal Triangle trade center—inched closer to completion this year. Together with the planned move of the Washington Opera to the downtown Woodies building, these developments should have a longer-lasting positive impact on the city’s core. (As should the new convention center, which will break ground next year.)
In addition, the D.C. Council passed legislation that should help stimulate an economic recovery this year. For instance, the council passed—and Congress approved—a bill that will permit business improvement districts (BIDs) to form in the city. BIDs allow companies a greater role in cleaning and policing their retail neighborhoods and have been successful in revitalizing parts of New York and other cities.
More important was the procurement-reform bill passed by the council this fall. The moronic way the city now procures goods and services has prevented reforms across the government, from schools to Medicaid. The reason is simple: It takes city procurement officials eons to process reformed contracts. As of October, the city was behind on 259 contracts—more than double the number just four months before.
But now the council has finally begun to fix the system. Though the councilmembers should have included more of the reform elements sought by City Administrator Michael Rogers and others in the Barry administration, any change in procurement is a good start.
Trabue also praises the decision to lower unemployment insurance rates for District businesses and a recently passed council bill that allows retailers to ask check-writers for credit cards as identification. Small potatoes, sure, but enough to suggest, as Trabue does, that “a better business climate may be coming.”
So is everything rosy here? Of course not. Despite the recent improvement in the jobless rate, the District lost more jobs than it gained in 1996, and there’s no guarantee that downtown construction will bring the benefits—more retail, restaurants, housing, and foot traffic—that city planners envisioned.
And simply in preparing this article, I was reminded how dumb the D.C. government can be. The mayor told City Paper explicitly in October that he would provide us a list of his administration’s accomplishments not reported anywhere. “Let’s give some balance here,” he pleaded. We said OK.
Eleven weeks later, we have received no list. I made at least a dozen phone calls—to the mayor’s press secretary and director of communications and to some of their assistants—but got nothing. Except one voice-mail message, which contained—among many incomprehensible sentences—this gem:
“We’ve done—I’ve done accomplishments projects before—I did one for ’95—and it’s, it’s quite an arduous task, because, um, you know, you have people who have to talk to other people to see if they can release certain bits of information and then what happens is you have different agencies who are planning on releasing different accomplishments at different times, and they might not necessarily want to release it with your information, because, you know, it might circumvent something that they’re doing, and it’s just a lot of really bureaucratic issues going on.”
And that’s the good news.