Greater Greater Washington

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Gray transition: bold innovators or a return to Barry?

Which would you rather have running Mayor-elect Vincent Gray's transportation transition team?


Tom Downs. Image from Citistates Group.

A former City Administrator under Marion Barry, who was running the city during the famous episode where Barry flippantly dismissed snow plowing failures while he was at the Super Bowl?

Or a former CEO of Amtrak, head of UMD's smart growth center, and occasional blogger who wrote excitedly about the return of streetcars, the value of high-speed rail, and the need for a federal transportation reauthorization?

What if they're the same guy?

Vincent Gray announced the core members of his transition team yesterday. For transportation, the co-chairs are Thomas Downs and Cellerino Bernardino. The Examiner reports that both had prominent roles under Mayor Barry.

Downs served as transportation chief (DDOT was not yet a separate agency) from 1981 to 1983, and then became City Administrator, including during the famous snow incident. Bernardino, the article says, was DPW chief in the last Barry administration but resigned "under an onslaught of criticism" when the District couldn't effectively pick up trash or fix potholes.

It sounds bleak. Many people worried that Gray, despite his repeated insistence that he would continue public education reform, avoid cronyism, and support transit and bicycling, was just going to be the third coming of Marion Barry. Appointing two former Barry officials to run this important segment of the transition might give credence to those fears.

It was my first reaction upon reading the Examiner article as well. DCist came to the same conclusion, titling its morning roundup entry, "The Transition, Brought To You By The 90s and Marion Barry." But a very different picture of Downs emerges if you read this bio and his Citiwire posts.

Besides having headed up the DC government, Amtrak, and the National Center for Smart Growth Education and Research at the University of Maryland, Downs is now the North American chairman of Veolia Transportation, one of the French rail companies that have recently been providing real competition in the U.S. transit operator market.

That doesn't mean we can stop being vigilant toward Gray's appointments. Bernardino most recently was defending a massive big-box development at DC's edge, touting its "green" features except for its enormously non-green land use and transportation footprint. In economic development, which will likely include planning, the transition members are Chamber of Commerce CEO Barbara Lang and former GWU President Joel Trachtenberg. They're certainly no Barry cronies nor are they anti-growth by any stretch of the imagination; if anything, they might come down on the side of being excessively pro-growth.

Lang isn't the most progressive thinker on cities, though. She thinks it's not safe for women to be out in downtown DC after 10 pm, arguing as a result that transit is useless and everyone needs parking. She also didn't even know she provides SmartBenefits to her employees.

Despite the Examiner's spin, it doesn't look like the Gray transition is a return to the Marion Barry crowd. It does primarily comprise people who did the most for DC during the 1980s and 1990s, including the widely acclaimed Alice Rivlin, head of the Financial Control Board in the late 90s.

This group has a great wealth of experience, but will need to avoid the common temptation to think about all DC's problems in the same framework as we did 20 years ago and recommend the same solutions we applied to the problems of that era. With department leaders like Gabe Klein, we have people pushing 21st-century solutions.

Good people of the 20th century can also push 21st-century solutions, but need to listen to a wider group of voices beyond those that were active in the 1990s and be willing to take chances on leaders, like Gabe Klein, who don't necessarily follow the traditional mold. Will this group think outside the box? Time will tell.

David Alpert is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Greater Greater Washington and Greater Greater Education. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He loves the area which is, in many ways, greater than those others, and wants to see it become even greater. 

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Don't forget the head of the transition and future chief of staff, Reuben Charles, who has hundreds of thousands of dollars of unpaid debts.

It's a new day in DC.

by jcm on Nov 4, 2010 10:35 am • linkreport

I read the Examiner piece also and thought that it was a little short-sighted too.

First off, I think the idea that people who worked for Barry at any level and any time are necessarily bad is a misconception. He had four terms as mayor, and he started relatively well. Downs in particular has an interesting history; he was brought on rather grudgingly, and served independently even as Barry struggled to deal with the city's failing finances.

Second, it's funny that no one is playing up the fact that there are more people with links to Anthony Williams on the transition team than with like to Barry!

All told, I'm not yet pessimistic about this. Vigilante, yes. But I'm not all gloom-and-doom because two of this people once worked with Barry.

by Martin on Nov 4, 2010 10:36 am • linkreport

Dave, very coherent article on an important subject.
My only qualm is that you last paragrah framed these individuals as 'great" and I think a lot of people would debate their level of great. In fact some might say they were average at best.

Glad that the Chamber is involved, they are no for forward and progressive thinking (sorry for the sarcasm).

by Matt on Nov 4, 2010 10:37 am • linkreport

Yeah, 'Great' came off differently there than how I meant it. I changed it to 'good'.

by David Alpert on Nov 4, 2010 10:42 am • linkreport

Many people worried that Gray, despite his repeated insistence that he would continue public education reform, avoid cronyism, and support transit and bicycling, was just going to be the third coming of Marion Barry.

Is that the real worry? I don't think so.

I think far more people see that many of Gray's supporters want to see patronage akin to the third coming of Marion Barry.

The worry then is how effective Gray will be in meshing the desires of his supporters that voted him into office with the obvious needs of the city.

Painting it solely as a fear of Marion Barry, part III does a disservice to the real challenges Gray faces.

by hmmmm on Nov 4, 2010 10:44 am • linkreport

If I remember correctly, Sal Burrnidino was very good on bike issues when he was with DC DPW.

by Eric Gilliland on Nov 4, 2010 10:50 am • linkreport

Where can one get a complete list of the transition team? (If it was in one of the links, I missed it.)

by b on Nov 4, 2010 11:20 am • linkreport

@b This Post post has them all.

by jcm on Nov 4, 2010 11:29 am • linkreport

"Where can one get a complete list of the transition team?"

bizjournals has a list (via Google news)

by wondering the same thing on Nov 4, 2010 11:38 am • linkreport

First off, I think the idea that people who worked for Barry at any level and any time are necessarily bad is a misconception.

I think this is a very good point. Also, you have to understand the Barry Administration in the context of the city at that time. No middle-class to speak of. Practically bankrupt. And with an overriding mandate to maximize the creation of public sector city jobs for otherwise unemployable residents.

Barry created PG County's black middle-class; filling potholes was almost completely irrelevant.

You can't blame the various appointees for not plowing the streets or fixing potholes when there was no political constituency for this to speak of.

by oboe on Nov 4, 2010 12:39 pm • linkreport

Why is Gray looking to get rid of Gabe Klein?

by SJE on Nov 4, 2010 1:03 pm • linkreport

"Besides having headed up the DC government, Amtrak, and the National Center for Smart Growth Education and Research at the University of Maryland, Downs is now the North American chairman of Veolia Transportation, one of the French rail companies that have recently been providing real competition in the U.S. transit operator market."

I can only comment on what I know:

Amtrak: Don't know exactly what he has done there, but it is certainly not the most efficient, well managed and commercial rail company in the world.

Veolia: A company that was responsible for the Metrorail crash in California, that came down last for the bidding of the VRE contract, that has awful relations with local authorities and Unions in the bus market (inc being kicked out of a contract in north Virginia)... Not quite sure being Chairman of it is such a good thing.

You sure that gives him the credentials?

by anonymous on Nov 4, 2010 1:30 pm • linkreport

Yes, more fearmongering please!!!! The city needs it!!!!! Be careful "you people" because "those people" who worked under "that man" are coming to get YOU. This is what the examiner and others are perpetuating and it's quite unfortunate.

So what we now know is that 2 of the 15 people named in the transition have ties to Barry. One last served in 1983, while I was in grammar school. The other in 1998. Yet, the headline here poses whether these selections signal a return to the Barry era. Although the article adequately debunks this common myth, I think it fails in assuming that people who worked in government 20 years ago can't possibly be forward thinking. If there were ample evidence to suggest that these same people haven't learned anything since 20 years ago, that's one thing. But what you've done here is give them credit for the good work they have done since that time, to then turn around and "hope" that they don't govern like they did 20 years ago.

I think this line of thinking is, at a minimum, ageist and somewhat divisive.

by HogWash on Nov 4, 2010 1:31 pm • linkreport

@HogWash - it's prefectly fair to question whether a leader from a previous administration suffers from that administration's shortcomings. We can and should question our political leaders

by rtbon on Nov 4, 2010 3:17 pm • linkreport

So is Gabe Klein leaving or isn't he?

by J.D. Hammond on Nov 4, 2010 3:38 pm • linkreport

@Rtbon, but of course we should and it is fair. But is it fair to question who served in an 1983 administration when it's almost 2011? Keep in mind, by all accounts, Barry's first term wasn't a bad first term. So why should we hold those who served in his first term (when he was doing ok) to what happened after they left his administration? We shouldn't.

But it helps prove my point that this is a bit of over reach, a real stretch. Things were relatively OK during the first term. Yet some believe that they should question anyone who had the nerve to serve during that time. This was DC and DC government was the obvious employers for many DC residents. They could have declined to serve under a city mayor. But how much sense does that make. You work under who you got, not who you wish you had.

by HogWash on Nov 4, 2010 3:38 pm • linkreport

"anonymous,"

Veolia did not bid on the VRE contract. Perhaps you are confusing Veolia with Keolis, which came out on top and was awarded the contract. But not after Amtrak kicked up a considerable fuss. In addition to Amtrak, Bombardier also presented a bid.

As for Downs at Amtrak, he definitely had a mixed record. While he did attempt to begin a more business-like attitude with the creation of strategic business units, he oversaw some draconian cuts to the route network, and got crosswise with labor. For the latter he was fired by the Amtrak board.

by Paul on Nov 4, 2010 3:41 pm • linkreport

Will this group think outside the box? Time will tell.

We just had an election where the incumbent was ousted for going outside the box. You participated in that.

That may or may not have been a "good" outcome, but, whatever else happens, I don't think you'll see much that's outside the box in DC for a very, very long time. The establishment is going to be running the show. That's what you voted for, don't complain when you get it.

by David desJardins on Nov 4, 2010 4:14 pm • linkreport

Who know who has a hard time seeing Gray keep Gabe Klein?

Gabe Klein himself.

by Fritz on Nov 4, 2010 4:37 pm • linkreport

David D: Actually, we had an election where the incumbent was ousted for being an asshole and making everybody think he didn't give a damn what they thought about anything. Remember, the polls showed that most people thought a) DC was going in the right direction and b) they didn't like Fenty. Doesn't sound like being ousted for going outside the box, just for being a jerk while outside said box.

by David Alpert on Nov 4, 2010 5:33 pm • linkreport

Today Gray made a big mistake, and failed to attend the funeral of Paul Dittamo, an MPD officer who was killed in the line of duty. Mike Debonis reports that the head of the FOP was "apoplectic". I think this makes Gray keeping Lanier less likely.

by jcm on Nov 4, 2010 5:41 pm • linkreport

Keep in mind, by all accounts, Barry's first term wasn't a bad first term.

Does anyone know if this was, in fact, true? Could we at least have some of these "accounts".

Wikipedia says it was a mixed bag:

Barry’s first four years in office were characterized by increased efficiency in city administration and in the sanitation department. Barry also instituted his signature summer jobs program, in which summer employment was made available to every school-age resident. At the same time, Barry streamlined the city’s deficit-ridden finances by laying off hundreds of city workers. However, crime rates rose dramatically during his first administration, in part because many of his layoffs were centered in the police department, and his campaign promise to “take the boards off” public housing – i.e., to rehabilitate dilapidated and condemned public housing units – was slow in fulfillment, as was his management of the city’s deficit (up to $125 million by 1980). In addition, graft and embezzlement among Barry appointees such as Employment Services Director Ivanhoe Donaldson began late in Barry’s first term, although it would not be discovered for several years.

by oboe on Nov 4, 2010 5:46 pm • linkreport

What about Gabe Klein? GGW needs to get on the horn with Gray and tell him to keep Klein and build some streetcars.

BTW, Gray sounded ridiculous on the Kojo show saying he can work with Republicans in Congress to advance statehood.

by Michael on Nov 4, 2010 6:11 pm • linkreport

@David Alpert: the incumbent was ousted for being an asshole

Wow. Maybe you should have included that statement in your Gray endorsement.

I think the establishment is called the establishment for a reason; it's because it is established. When you challenge the establishment and try to create change, invariably you get criticized for not giving sufficient deference to the status quo and to "process", because the process was mostly created in the first place to protect the status quo and resist change.

I have little sympathy for people who say they wanted things shaken up and yet complain that they think it should be done without rubbing anyone the wrong way. I don't think that's one of the possible combinations.

by David desJardins on Nov 4, 2010 6:12 pm • linkreport

@David Alpert: the incumbent was ousted for being an asshole

And to think that David Alpert wrote that he would NEVER agree with me.

by Douglas A. Willinger on Nov 4, 2010 8:27 pm • linkreport

The bios of the Gray transition leaders can be accessed here: http://susiecambria.blogspot.com/2010/11/gray-transition-press-release.html

by Susie Cambria on Nov 5, 2010 7:38 am • linkreport

Tom Downs is a great selection for the Metro Board. Mr. Downs brings vast experience in Transit Administration and will be independent voting voice for the Mayor. Jim Graham was often able to control the DC delegation because of his influence at DC Budget level.

by Interested on Jan 5, 2011 11:00 am • linkreport

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