How Obama could lead in DC

Jeremy Lott Senior Fellow, Defense Priorities
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For my money, the most disastrous result from all of the primaries across America this year was the loss of Democratic District of Columbia mayor Adrian Fenty to Vincent Gray, the City Council chairman. Now, granted, Fenty was very far from the perfect mayor. He did a lousy job with the cleanup of this year’s snowpocalypses. He helped to rob DC residents of a democratic say on gay marriage. He mismanaged recent crime- and money-related scandals. In any other circumstances, he would have deserved to lose his reelection bid. But DC does not deserve Vince Gray.

Fenty represented a decisive break from the politics of failure that had been practiced by the DC city government. Fenty, who is black, moved away from the racial spoils system that made Marion Barry and other DC leaders so popular, and he did everything he could to improve the education of children in the District. He lobbied his fellow Democrats, unsuccessfully, not to kill a voucher program for poor DC students that had been passed by a Republican Congress. Fenty appointed the controversial but effective education chancellor Michelle Rhee, and he backed her in her efforts to fire bad teachers.

There was much more to his rule, which built on the modest but real achievements of previous DC mayor Anthony Williams. Fenty put more cops on the streets, increased police efficiency, lowered crime, and presided over unprecedented business development. I moved to the region in 2003. Many of the neighborhoods around Metro subway stops that were considered ghetto when I arrived have been transformed into hubs of commerce. A few friends had lately tried to tempt me to move into the District from Virginia. Why, things are getting better all the time, I was told.

All of that is threatened by Gray, a free-spending throwback to uglier times. He rode a wave of black resentment against Fenty’s supposed kowtowing to white interests. As mayor, he would move to gut Fenty’s education reforms as a sop to the DC teachers’ union, his most enthusiastic backer. Never mind that the students who disproportionately benefited from Fenty’s efforts were poor minorities. This is not progress but its polar opposite.

Politically, DC is a de facto one-party non-state. The Democratic primary is normally decisive in the mayoral race, and that’s all but assured at this writing. Fenty has thrown in the towel. He has turned down overtures by DC Republicans to let him have their party’s nomination and endorsed Gray. Perhaps Fenty hopes, wrongly, that his support for Gray will help to shore up some of his reforms.

The only thing that could even possibly work at this point is an intervention by the White House. President Barack Obama has publicly lamented that the primary result could harm the education of DC children. Moreover, his instincts on education issues are cautiously reformist. Ideally, he wants to reward good teachers, fire a few bad apples, and have real standards in schools. Yet he allowed the Democratic Congress to end the DC voucher program and he allowed the reformist mayor of the nation’s capital to lose a primary that could have been won.

It fits into the narrative that is slowly encrusting the Obama presidency, of an idealistic executive whose best reform impulses fall victim to his political naïveté and Democratic Party hackery. But imagine what could happen if Obama audaciously inserted himself into the race, if he announced next week that he would be changing his voter registration to DC and writing in Adrian Fenty on November 2. It would turn heads at the very least. And if he manages to cobble together a broad coalition of concerned citizens who don’t want to see DC circle the drain again, so much the better.

Jeremy Lott is an editor for Real Clear Politics and author of William F. Buckley (Thomas Nelson, 2010).