D.C. Mayor: A Referendum on Michelle Rhee?

There are lots of big issues in the race in Washington, D.C. between Mayor Adrian Fenty and lead challenger Vincent Gray: -Crime (which has ...
by | April 28, 2010

There are lots of big issues in the race in Washington, D.C. between Mayor Adrian Fenty and lead challenger Vincent Gray:

-Crime (which has dropped dramatically under Fenty)

-Cronyism (a problem for Fenty)

-Fenty's public manner (the mayor's sometimes-brusque style is a liability)

-Metro (which is facing serious funding problems)

-Pandas (four years and no new cubs?!?)

Still, more and more it's hard to escape the conclusion (even though it's one I've been reluctant to accept) that the race isn't really about Fenty or Gray, but rather Michelle Rhee. Rhee, who Fenty hired to head the D.C. school system, is the most polarizing person in the city who isn't part of the federal government or the Washington Redskins organization. When they decide whether to vote for Fenty, at least some voters really will be deciding whether or not they want Rhee.

In that context, this story in the Washington Post was fascinating:

The private foundations pledging to help finance raises and bonuses for D.C. teachers have placed themselves in the middle of the city's mayoral race with one of the conditions for their largesse: If Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee leaves, so could the money.

The private donors have told the District that they reserve the right to reconsider their $64.5 million pledge if leadership of the school system changes, further complicating a proposed labor contract that has generated controversy since Rhee and union leaders announced it this month.

That clause, yet to be publicly discussed by D.C. officials, is a standard feature of private grants. But it comes at the beginning of a primary campaign that could leave Rhee out of a job. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) has staked much of his campaign on evidence of Rhee's success in improving schools. His opponent, D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, has sent mixed messages about retaining Rhee, telling reporters after his campaign kickoff Saturday that school reform and Rhee's presence are "not inextricably tied."

If you want to be sympathetic to the foundations, you could say that if they're going to commit millions of dollars of their money, they should have some input on how it's spent and who spends it. The unsympathetic view is that they're blackmailing District voters to reelect Fenty and keep Rhee in charge.

There's a story here that's much bigger than the D.C. mayor's race. Big, bold reform efforts in state and local government increasingly (it seems to me) are funded by foundations. Governments are desperate for cash and don't have a lot of money lying around to try new things. But, it's worth wondering what strings foundations attach.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer

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