Restoring the capital is a regional task


WASHINGTON -- House Speaker Newt Gingrich was on target when he said this question should have been asked of President Clinton in his first debate with Bob Dole:

"Mr. President, for four years you have lived within a mile of poverty, drug addiction, violence, ignorance. For four years, your administration has shown no leadership. How can you explain this? Why have you neglected the nation's capital?"

It is indeed true: While battered, pothole-ridden Washington slipped into fiscal chaos, while Marion Barry's return to the mayoralty made an ugly joke of home rule, while a congressionally created financial control board flounders, Mr. Clinton has remained on the sidelines, silent.

A 10-foot pole

Notes columnist Mary McGrory: "Bill Clinton, who plunged into trying to straighten out Jerusalem, won't go near the District of Columbia, won't touch it with a 10-foot pole. It's a loser, all right. . . . People might take him for a liberal if he tried to do something about it."

But what about a second term, if the president should be re-elected? It might be too much to ask him to quote Speaker Gingrich's call to make Washington an "urban jewel." But he could quote President John F. Kennedy:

"More than any other city, more than any other region, the nation's capital should represent the finest in a living environment that America can plan and build."

Indeed, just in the last week a nationwide "Metropolitan Economic Strategy" has been announced by the president's own Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Secretary Henry Cisneros sees it as a challenge strategy: The federal government offers to collaborate with citistate regions whose leaders, city and suburban, come together to forge common plans for economic advancement, better transportation and human services and affordable housing. The president can and ought to lead to make the Washington region the premier model of the new strategy.

Hit the Treasury

Such an approach doesn't need to be -- indeed it shouldn't, politically can't be -- a hit on the federal Treasury to finance incompetence and the political cronyism of a mayor who continues to resist basic change and stiffs the control board Congress created.

What it should be is a strategy for the entire Washington region -- Maryland and Virginia suburbs along with the District -- that is devised and supported by leaders in government, business and civic groups across the entire region.

The District, after all, is why the suburbs are there in the first place. A depressed, quarrelsome, inhospitable city will harm the entire region, make it less attractive for corporations and national and international organizations.

And problems are hitting the suburbs. Gang activity is causing alarm in Alexandria, Prince George's and Montgomery counties. The Metro bus system is in big fiscal trouble.

With population and jobs draining from the District and constant exurban growth, traffic on the Capital Beltway, the region's main artery, is projected to rise 50 percent by 2020. There's even talk of double-decking parts of that huge road, at inevitably staggering cost.

So is there a way out -- a potential set of short- and long-term recovery strategies people might coalesce around?

Here's a plan. President Clinton should address business, civic leaders, mayors, county executives, members of Congress from across the region.

Come together

"Come together across the jurisdictions, races, class lines," he should say, "and sit down with my Cabinet and agency heads. Adopt a declaration of regional interdependence. Devise a plan to restore Washington's luster and make this region a competitor in the 21st century global marketplace. Then -- but only then -- will the federal government exert itself to work with you."

But how could the president assure a focused response in a region which -- except for himself -- has no common leader?

One scenario: He could appoint, to galvanize the effort, one or two Americans of unquestioned civic commitment and prestige.

Here are two nominations: Gen. Colin Powell (a resident of suburban Virginia) and retiring Sen. Bill Bradley (a Washington-region resident through his 18 years in Congress).

If the call for regional debate, negotiated strategies and solutions came personally from those two individuals -- one Republican, one Democratic, one black, one white, both deeply respected -- it's hard to imagine any major camps boycotting the process.

As Speaker Gingrich told Washington Post editors: "This country wants to love its capital. This country wants to love the White House and love the Capitol building and it wants to visit the Smithsonian and it wants to be proud and it wants people from the Third World to come here and . . . be proud to see America."

He is right. Bill Clinton, deep inside, agrees. What both need to grasp is that recovery won't work without the entire Washington citistate -- city and suburb, citizens, institutions, governments -- collaborating to forge the strategy.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

Pub Date: 10/21/96

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