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D.C.'s Mayor and Democracy's Achilles' Heel

What happens when voters WANT failure and corruption?

By Petrarch  |  September 24, 2010

While the Tea Partiers celebrate their tremendous primary victories, another local primary had a far sadder result: Washington, D.C.'s mayor Adrian Fenty was defeated in the Democratic primary by challenger Vincent Gray.  Washington being over 90% Democrat, this means that Gray's election is a rubber-stamp.

There's no reason to think Gray is not a decent, well-meaning person; he's not a convicted felon or known drug-user like certain previous D.C. mayors.  He is, however, no Adrian Fenty.

Fenty's signature goal was to reform the disastrous mess of D.C. government, particularly the utterly worthless schools.  To this end, he appointed the extremely sharp and sharp-edged Michelle Rhee as chancellor of the school system.

Between them, Fenty and Rhee pissed off just about every vested interest in the city.  His defeat, and her inevitable removal, is being blamed on their hard edges.

But how, one asks, are you supposed to fix a mess the size of D.C.'s schools without knocking heads together?  The teachers unions, as they do everywhere, resisted reform to their dying breath.  Rhee simply started sacking incompetent teachers and corrupt principals on every side, doing what needed to be done despite their howls.

As a result, long-neglected repairs were made to school buildings, long-missing schoolbooks were provided to students, and the D.C. public school system slowly began to turn around and actually attempt to educate children.  No sensible, ethical, or caring person could consider this bad: we all know that a good fundamental education is key to success in life, and D.C.'s impoverished children had been too long denied one.

Unfortunately, the good side-effects of improving schools were specifically repudiated by D.C.'s voters.  What do young professionals look for when they choose a place to live and start a family?  First and foremost: decent schools.  For many years this meant Northern Virginia; finally, thanks to Rhee, the District was at least a plausible candidate.

But what happens when young professionals move into a neighborhood?  The place gentrifies, property values rise, and the poor are pushed out.  In D.C., that means black people are replaced by richer white ones.

Mayor Fenty and his predecessor Mayor Williams would like to have a wealthier, safer, more economically sound city regardless of the color of the citizenry; they made great strides towards this end.  It would appear that the voters feel otherwise: they would rather have a poor, uneducated, crime-ridden New Orleans-style "chocolate city".

Firing unqualified, incompetent, overpaid public-school teachers?  That wasn't a necessary prelude to improving education; it was a racist assault on the entitlement to a secure taxpayer-funded paycheck for black union workers.  Overhauling the D.C. administration and throwing embezzlers in jail?  Yet another way of keeping oppressed minorities from taking what is rightfully theirs!

Mayor Adrian Fenty was as successful a reformist big-city mayor as we've seen in our lifetimes, yet the voters threw him out precisely because of his successes.  Incoming mayor Gray didn't steal the election; he pointed out to the voters the "consequences" of Fenty's actions and the "disrespect" shown to the sacked teachers, pushed-out poor, and other long-entrenched special interests.  Thus they voted for a return to the destructive status quo in which there was no money and no good governance, but they ruled the swamp.

Now what?  Since, under the Constitution, the District is a congressional fief, Congress could simply run it directly as it did for many years.  Yet that would be expressly undemocratic, overtly overriding the expressed Will of the People.

If ever there was a people's will which should be overridden, it's a place where the most-loved politician was repeatedly convicted of drug use, tax fraud, and other abuses.  But once you start down that road, where do you stop?

Between a balanced republic and a democracy, the difference is like that between order and chaos.

- Chief Justice John Marshall