09/12/2006 01:11 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Saving D.C.: Marie Johns and the Race for Mayor

Sometimes, a local or state race says something important about the direction of the country. The rise of the anti-war movement is shaking up the Democratic primaries and shaping the troubled outlook for the GOP in November. And the ability of the country's major urban areas to confront their biggest challenges is being brought into sharp focus in the race for mayor in Washington, D.C., the nation's capital. Within a few miles of the White House in George Bush's America, the country's worst levels of poverty are allowed to flourish through the neglect of federal and local leaders.

Currently, the city, despite a boom in downtown contruction and business development, has done little to change the stark realities facing the city's poor and too many of its African-American citizens in a majority black city. The city now has the highest rate of new HIV infections of any American city -- and worse than some African countries; a high school drop-out rate of 50 percent for black males; and the highest proportion of people living in extreme poverty -- below $10,000 for a familiy of four. The only candidate with any real solutions for change, and the management experience needed to bring it about, is former local Verizon president, Marie Johns, a veteran community activist who created job training programs in her company when the city itself couldn't deliver. She's not the front-runner, but she's increasingly winning over anyone who has seen her speak about her ideas for change or routinely trump her better-financed opponents in debates, including front-running Councilman Adrian Fenty, whose positions on issues like rent control shift based in part on who is funding his campaign.

The mainstream media, outside of the city's alternative weekly, the Washington City Paper, have also paid little attention to his retaining a high-ranking advisor with a history of alleged thug-like behavior and racism. In any other city with a truly aggressive local media, Sinclair Skinner, the advisor, would be history, but not in the Fenty campaign in Washington.

The questions progressives are asking themselves is: Are they throwing away their vote if they vote for Johns?

Johns, though, is the first choice of many voters who list the two front-runners, Council members Linda Cropp and Adrian Fenty, as their second choice, thus drawing votes from both camps about equally. And like other upset candidates who ultimately win, Johns is asking that voters don't let themselves be swayed by two-month-old polling data and vote for the candidate that they think is best, and to many people seeking both real change and management experience in Washington, that candidate is Johns.

The Nation singled out John's "Fighting Poverty Tour" in an article about the city's rising crime rate and the failure to address the enormous gap between the poor and rich in the city -- the largest such division in the country. Her economic redevelopment plan includes expanding incentives to small businesses that do most of the city's hiring, boosting after-school and tutoring programs to help the most troubled students and bringing a technical-oriented community college to the blighted Southeast area of the city across the Anacostia River.

Some of the schools are so bad they deserve to be featured in the latest season of HBO's The Wire, set in Baltimore, about the lives of young people being lost to the lure of drug-dealing. Roughly 80 percent of Washington, D.C. schols fail to meet even the most minimum benchmarks of academic competence by its students and are labeled failing schools. Unlike Cropp, who sat on the school board while corruption, waste and the destruction of a generation of young people with a fourth-rate education ran rampant, Johns has a solid agenda for reform, including having the city government partner with businesses, universal pre-school, pay-for-performance for quality teachers -- and ensuring that city government plays a far greater role making sure that the floundering school board manages the schools' supplies and infrastructure professionally.

There's a reason that former OMB director Alice Rivlin, the former head of the city's emergency fiscal control board, has endorsed Johns, along with all of the city's leading neighborhood papers, except the Washington Post. Rivlin called her the "best candidate," and advanced the argument that if all the people who think she is the best candidate vote for her, Johns can win. As the Post noted, "Rivlin said that she was late coming to the Johns campaign but that in recent weeks, she became convinced that Johns's combination of business skills, good ideas and proven commitment made her the best choice to lead the city forward."

So far, The Washington Post, the biggest paper, has backed Fenty, a 35-year-old ambitious candidate who has shown a greater flair for campaigning than for governing. His claim to fame is constituent service and introducing a school modernization program that had to be rewritten by others, altered and refinanced in order to pass (as conceded in a generally positive piece on Fenty.) He's the front-runner over Linda Cropp, a city council chair and former school board member who has presided over nearly 30 years of mismanagement and failure, even though she helped improve the city's bond rating and finances. The Post -- and those two- month-old polls -- has portrayed those two as frontrunners (they've raised $2.5 million each compared to Johns' $500,000).

Today, the voters will get to decide who is the best person to lead the city -- or just the one with the biggest campaign coffers to spend on TV ads. When it comes to leadership, Johns is clearly the winner.