Undoing Reform: Cronyism in the DC Government

Since I was quoted in this article, Second Run: Why Local Filmmakers Are Miffed by Crystal Palmer’s Return to the D.C. Film Office, I thought I’d elaborate on my thoughts on why I’m miffed.

In the run-up to the mayoral election, I was told by many well-meaning folks that Vincent Gray shared the reformer credentials of Adrian Fenty but without the hard edges. He would be a fairer Mayor, one more attuned to the needs of citizens.

The people who tried to convince me of this notion hadn’t lived in DC as long as I had. They assumed that the city had always been this way. They didn’t remember the days of DC as the murder capital of the country, of when city government was synonymous with corruption. They thought of Marion Barry as an entertaining relic, not the coke-addicted “Mayor for Life” who drove the city into bankruptcy.

One of Gray’s first moves was to ease out Michelle Rhee, who had taken on the Sisyphean task of improving DC’s woeful public school system. The teachers unions wanted her gone and had donated a million dollars to Gray’s campaign.

Then came the news that Gray was undoing Rhee’s teacher evaluation system. This was the centerpiece of her reform agenda – get rid of incompetent teachers and replace them with ones who actually teach. But teachers are voters so the evaluation system is gone too.

Gabe Klein, the popular head of the District Department of Transportation, left. Klein was beloved for bringing bike lanes and the Circulator buses to the city. Perhaps he was too popular – the Gray administration leaked an allegation that he had mismanaged his department.

Now, the DC Film Office, and the return of Crystal Palmer. She held the job for 22 years, from 1986 to 1998, before Fenty sacked her. More than two decades in office – that’s a tenure even Politburo members would envy.

Palmer is married to former D.C. Councilmember Harold Brazil. The previous director of the Film Office, Kathy Hollinger, was an outsider.

Another addition to the Film Office is Leslie Green, daughter of Gray Campaign Chair Lorraine Green. She’s among a slew of high-priced hires added to the administration, while the city faces budget woes.

To me, these changes represents the worst of DC politics. Is the city government for the benefit of residents? Under Fenty, it clearly was. His appointees were from outside of the bureaucracy and focused on citizen services.

Or is the DC government a tax-collecting machine designed to enrich a narrow political class? That’s how it was during Marion Barry era. Jobs and contracts went to friends, with no accountability, taxpayers be damned.

Undoing reform – that’s what these changes represent. Washington is sliding backwards into an old-fashioned spoils system, where the needs of citizens are secondary to shoveling cash and offices to friends of the Mayor.

I’d like to be proven wrong. Really, I would.

Author: Joe Flood

Joe Flood is a writer, photographer and web person from Washington, DC. The author of several novels, Joe won the City Paper Fiction Competition in 2020. In his free time, he enjoys wandering about the city taking photos.

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