In Defense of Marion Barry
Jude Wanniski
August 19, 1997

 

Memo To: Juan Williams, The Washington Post
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: DC Home Rule

I was sorry to see you line up on "Fox Sunday Morning" with Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard and Josette Shiner of The Washington Times in denouncing the cityís mayor. The case that Mayor Marion Barry makes about the U.S. Governmentís withdrawal of home rule from the District of Columbia is not without merit. For the past 24 years, the district government has had to supply all the normal services of a city, a county and a state, yet it had been told by the Congress that it must rely exclusively upon the tax base within its borders. That is, the DC income tax can only apply to citizens of the District. Congress did this because Congress is comprised of human beings who in this case have the power to limit their personal tax liabilities. This is the same institution that set the DC taxi zones so the lowest fares apply on trips most often taken by Congressmen and their staffs. Most of them live in the suburbs or are permitted to claim their home states as primary residences. Much of the white exodus occurred in these last 24 years of home rule, as people who work in the district have a distinct advantage in moving to the suburbs, where the divergence of living conditions and tax liabilities has become greater with each passing year. In other words, hindsight instructs us that we could have 24 years ago predicted the mess the city is in today.

Yes, you say when Congress did run the city, things were run better, but that does not take into account the fact that the last 24 years have been among the worst in the history of the United States in terms of economic decline. The people of the district were handed the keys to the city at exactly the time when good jobs for ordinary Americans were evaporating. The social pathologies of the welfare state were simultaneously destroying the aspirations, lives and families of those who would normally constitute a broad middle class that could tax and govern itself. Except for a few years of the Reagan administration, real wages of ordinary people have been declining. Just as expansion begins again, Congress and the President have taken the keys to the city back. At the same time, they give the District Control Board some of the flexibility on tax policy that should have been given years ago. Even so, Mayor Barry and non-voting U.S. Rep Eleanor Holmes Norton had sought relief from the federal tax system as a way of attracting back the wealthier tax base that had fled to the Virginia and Maryland suburbs.

They were helped only by Jack Kemp, who since 1979, both in Congress and as HUD Secretary in the Bush Administration, advocated enterprise zones for abandoned inner cities. At Empower America, since 1994 he has worked with Marion Barry to get a separate tax system for the District that would put it on a par with the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico -- another jurisdiction which does not have voting representation in Congress. If the District could not tax the incomes of Virginians and Marylanders who work inside DC boundaries, it would attract them back into the district as residents who would pay lower rates than where they are now. In this entire stretch of time, through the mayoralty administrations of Walter Washington, Sharon Pratt Kelly and Marion Barry, the white political Establishment -- Republican and Democratic -- were not willing to give the city the ability to grow in this fashion. Even the congressional Black Caucus refused to lift a finger to help stanch this hemorrhaging of the tax base with supply-side solutions. The white power elite was only insistent that Mayor Barry grapple with the flood of social problems that accumulated, a rearguard action which he could only fight with increased taxes and fees and the neglect of the District public infrastructure. Since his re-election in 1994, when he took over from Sharon Pratt Kelly and a $350 million budget deficit she left as her legacy, all Barry could do was seek the kind of reforms that Kemp had been urging for years. There are now pious, liberal and conservative political commentators at The Washington Post who blame the people of the city for not having produced better mayors than those the city has had. This comes dangerously close to racism. Iím surprised, Juan, to find you at the fringes of these know-nothings.

My point is that if the people of Washington had voted for Fiorello La Guardia or Richard J. Daley as Mayor these last 24 years, they would not have been able to do much better than those who were elected. It is especially irritating to see the both the Washington Post and the Washington Times run from the responsibility of having observed this decline over the years without doing anything but carp about the Mayorís personal problems or the cityís failure to clear the streets of snow promptly. How comfy it is to be an armchair mayor with a five-bedroom home in Bethesda, discovering that the cityís finances are a mess and all the essential services are broken. Iím writing this to you, Juan, because you seemed to find it so easy to fall in with the crowd in beating up on Barry, when you should be taking the trouble of seeing the decline and fall of the District from Barryís perspective. Here are all these white guys telling the black guys that they now have the honor of running the good ship Washington, D.C., but only if under national storm conditions they had to steer toward the rocks. The only white guy of any political prominence I know who tried to do something to help Barry was Kemp. There were even a few moments since the GOP took control of Congress, when Jack got Newt Gingrich and a few of his other friends in Congress to help, as long as it seemed convenient to them.

Iím not saying that Marion Barry could not have done marginally better at keeping the District from grounding on the rocks as soon as it has. Perhaps there is no realistic way to proceed than have Congress take back responsibility as well as power. Iím saying it is up to a few people, like you perhaps, to point out that every step of the way he had only bad options, and that he would have had those same options if he were a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant -- George Washington, or even George Will.