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Native Intelligence
Mayor stands up PTA leaders
(Published June 30, 2003)

By DIANA WINTHROP

A T.S. Eliot poem characterizes April as "the cruelest month." In the case of Anthony Williams, June has certainly been the cruelest month as the mayor's pile of political fumbles grew. Williams hasn't even completed a year of his second term and already people are lining up behind potential candidates to replace him in 2006. Even the Washington Post is beginning to write what I have reported for some time: the mayor is doing a lousy job.

In June: (1) yet another scandal unfolded as the mayor's Office of Property Management finally came under federal investigation for possible misuse of millions of tax dollars and a questionable relationship with developer Douglas Jemal; (2) Mayor Williams' financing package for construction of a baseball stadium as a part of his effort to lure the Montreal Expos to the District failed to pass muster; (3) the mayor's battle with the D.C. City Council over removal of the controversial Charles Maddox as the District's inspector general went to court; (4) disorganization led to final scrambling by the mayor's administration to find summer jobs for kids; and (5) the Bush administration politically embarrassed Williams by making the District a national laboratory for the president's school voucher program.

A few months ago the president proposed a $75 million national "school choice" incentive plan to be implemented in several cities, beginning in 2004. Bush's plan received little support nationwide, including in many heavily Republican state legislatures. Congressional Republican strategists told the White House there were not enough votes in the GOP-controlled Congress for approval. That information came to the White House after the Bush administration had already strong-armed Mayor Williams into reversing his position on school vouchers.

The mayor's reversal announcement shocked many residents and children's advocates. And then his public retreat made him appear weak. Politicians can change their minds, but they need to have the moral conviction to withstand scrutiny. Williams exhibited none and his response showed a total lack of leadership when he defended the disaster by saying negotiations with the White House regarding public education in the District are ongoing.

Frankly, it's difficult to believe that Williams is sincere in his support for "a three-pronged approach" to educating D.C. children. He doesn't seem capable of understanding how to exert leadership and "sell" his ideas. He has no political operatives who know the city and its history or have even an iota of a thought about how to win public support for an issue.

The mayor's chief spokesman, Tony Bullock, sent me a short list of what he knew the mayor had done to sell vouchers. Williams did a few interview shows, during which citizens asked voucher-related questions - including a CNN event on leadership where apparently kids asked questions about "school choice scholarships." The mayor also gave some responsibility for the "sell job" to Joy Arnold and Leslie Whitlow in his Office of Community Affairs. Their scheduling of community events as a backdrop for winning support for his voucher plan was a series of scattered events with what appeared to be no planning and, finally, a major disaster.

Overtures were made to a number of D.C. education groups to sit down with the mayor to discuss vouchers. Parents United refused any meeting. The organization had already gone on record against vouchers. The D.C. Parents and Teachers Association (DCPTA) had also locally and nationally come out against school vouchers but agreed to at least give the mayor an opportunity to present his argument.

Arnold and Whitlow asked outgoing DCPTA President Linda Moody to set up a meeting with local PTA presidents, parents and community leaders. The mayor then proceeded to stand them up - and sent no representative from his administration to replace him. A group of angry people left after waiting an hour for the "no-show" mayor.

Bullock did not mince words when ask about the no show. He said the mayor really wants to have a "dialogue." The school choice meeting with DCPTA officials and parents was, according to Bullock, "a terrible scheduling error on the part of our staff." He said the mayor was never made aware of the meeting. "It was not intentional. The community outreach people failed to communicate properly," Bullock said.

If you take Bullock at his word, the irony is that Williams was taping a "chat on school choice" with State Education Office chief Connie Spinner and handpicked residents for D.C. Cable Channel 16, popularly known as "Mayor TV," during the scheduled DCPTA meeting.

Whitlow called to apologize for the screw-up. A wise elected official would have done so himself - which is an example of why the mayor's political loyalty quotient is so low. An experienced political operative would have rescheduled immediately, but there have been no calls to do so since the mayor has backtracked on his education funding views. The damage has been done.

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Copyright 2003, The Common Denominator