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Barras: State of the District, or the government?

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Local,DC,Jonetta Rose Barras

When Mayor Vincent C. Gray announced he would hold his State of the District address next week, I reflected on a conversation I had with a senior government manager just after he took office. There had been news reports about revealed questionable activities in Gray's 2010 campaign. Citizens worried those allegations of corruption would derail progress the city had made under Mayor Anthony A. Williams and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty.

"Don't worry," the manager assured me. "The city is on autopilot. It's got a momentum that would be hard to destroy."

She was right.

Each month since, thousands of young professionals and empty nesters have arrived in the District. Their sizable incomes and cosmopolitan mien have made the city a magnet for upscale retailers, restaurants and hip cultural institutions. The District has become a place of multiple pleasure centers that extend well beyond the federal enclave of monuments, memorials and museums.

A stroll on a recent warm winter day through various neighborhoods confirms the city has entered a period of sheer awesomeness. If I didn't already live here, I'd be scouting for an apartment.

How much of that joie de vivre can Gray claim has been government-instigated or -sponsored? More specifically, is the state of the District the same as the state of the government?

The recent $417 million surplus is no gauge of efficiency of operation or efficacy of public policy. It is merely the result of more people -- dead and alive -- paying more taxes and executive branch agencies failing to spend their allotted budgets. Core government services -- business and regulatory affairs, public works, and contracting and procurement, for example -- cry out for improvements and reforms. Most students in the city's traditional and charter schools score below proficient in reading and math -- a result that could be described as criminal.

Some of the city's managers and elected officials are dubious. Consider the fact that Gray remains under federal investigation. For two years, he has refused to tell citizens whose taxes pay his salary what he knew about the corruption in his 2010 campaign.

Gray certainly won't mention government flaws on Tuesday, or break his selective silence on what he knew about the corruption around his campaign. Instead, he will point to the number of cranes dotting the skyline; wax poetic about jobs, technology and economic development. He'll cite the drop in unemployment--never mind the depression-like rate in some communities east of the Anacostia River. And yes, he will hoist that $417 million surplus as an indicator of progress.

That blended portrait, which accentuates glorious conditions in the District and tamps down the sorry state of the government, won't be challenged. Recently arrived residents are not fully informed about municipal affairs. They are still distracted by the city's delicious sites and sounds. Others -- those who know the history and gory details -- will resort to those remarkable Southern rituals: feigning amnesia, smiling through the obviously distasteful and being mercifully generous.

So, forget the state of the District.

What's the state of Vincent C. Gray? Lucky -- so far.

Jonetta Rose Barras' column appears on Tuesday and Friday. She can be reached at jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com.

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