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Let’s fix more than the veneer

(Published March 13, 2000)

While the overall image Mayor Anthony A. Williams painted with his first State of the District address March 6 was positive, some longtime D.C. residents – whose institutional memory about this city far outdistances the mayor’s – continue to express skepticism about the improvements the mayor keeps claiming have occurred since he took office. Many say they have "heard it all before."

We share their concern that the Williams administration, in its first year, appears to have been much more adept at spinning the truth and creating a "can do" veneer than in making the solid, lasting improvements that are needed in our city’s most troubled neighborhoods.

Yes, making people feel good about where they live is important. And, frankly, that hasn’t been very difficult for the mayor to accomplish in the city’s more affluent neighborhoods. Filling potholes, picking up litter, making city employees answer their telephones, and putting more police cars on patrol are the kinds of visible improvements that can eliminate government annoyances for residents whose neighborhoods already function reasonably well.

But much deeper attention is needed to resolve our city’s vexing problems. We emphasize our – because far too many D.C. residents often view our distressed neighborhoods’ troubles as somebody else’s problem. Until we bridge Spring Valley and Washington Highlands, there can be no sustainable improvement in our overall quality of life. We must begin to function as a united municipality – to view the potential of our resources citywide and to value the dreams and desires and talents of D.C.’s poorest residents as highly as those of the rich.

The mistake we make again and again – in selecting our leaders and judging others’ leadership potential – is to assume that intelligence and common sense must exist in the presence of money. But wealth can never buy wisdom.

There has never been a question whether the money exists to fix the District’s most pressing problems. It’s always been a question of who gets the money – and that remains a political decision, largely out of the hands of the people whose hard work provides those tax dollars. Residents of the nation’s capital shouldn’t have to go begging year after year for their birthright. But it appears our elected leaders are content, as they begin the fiscal 2001 budget cycle, to continue looking to Congress and the congressionally appointed control board for guidance rather than to the people.

Mayor Williams made the extremely troubling observation, in describing the state of the District, that 18 D.C. teenagers have lost their lives to violence since the current school year began last fall.

D.C.’s young people are crying out for a reason to live. Giving them a city they can aspire to change and nurture and lead through their efforts – by controlling their own destiny – would give them something to live for.

It’s what we ask them to risk their lives for – democracy – when we send them off to foreign lands. Yet, the politicians seemingly cannot see that D.C.’s children are being killed on our own streets for pride and power, control – the same intangibles D.C. residents yearn for in their ongoing struggle to gain democratic rights.

Mayor Williams says spring training is over for his administration and it’s time to play ball. We hope the mayor’s game plan for the next three years can quickly get beyond the "feel good" semantics that have dominated his first year.

D.C. residents need a mayor who will acknowledge that years of local politicians "playing it safe" have only perpetuated the federal paternalism that continues to cause so much despair and hopelessness among the people of this city who have no way out.

It’s not just time to "play ball" – it’s time for the Williams administration to stop bunting, start flexing some muscle and, through solid performance, empower this city’s residents as a team to start posting some wins.

Copyright 2000, The Common Denominator