The surprising winner for the best inaugural speech was D.C. Council Chairman Kwame Brown. His remarks had the right dosage of information and inspiration. "In this era of double-speak, empty rhetoric and grand promises that cannot be kept, I pledge to speak to you with candor, clarity and frank honesty concerning issues that we face," Brown said, after being sworn in. If he keeps only that pledge, he could transform the way business is done in the city. But politics is an industry that eschews deliberate nakedness. Its practitioners erroneously believe, as Col. Nathan R. Jessep in "A Few Good Men" might say, "you [the public] can't handle the truth."
Our best hope, then, is that Brown follows through on other commitments, including creating an ethics committee, beefing up the legislature's budget office, holding the executive accountable and hastening the pace of education reform.
In a conversation with me earlier this week, Brown explained that many District parents remove their children from D.C. Public Schools after the fourth or fifth grades. He called those years between fifth and ninth critical, asserting that many students fail in high school because they don't get what they need during that middle school period.
But teachers and principals aren't the sole culprits. Underscoring his inaugural remarks, Brown, who has two children in DCPS, insisted parents also must be held accountable. He pledged to renew his effort to institute parent contracts throughout the system.
First, however, he said he wants to "wrap [his] hands around the fiscal crisis at [DCPS]. How do we effect real change when we are losing money?"
During the past several months, I have written about the need to remove George Dines and other fiscal managers at the DCPS, all of whom report to Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi. Brown didn't talk of taking such action, but he expressed concerns that federal money available to the District is going unspent because DCPS isn't providing appropriate reports and invoices.
Dealing with the overall financial crisis in the city, including a projected $440 million budget gap for fiscal 2012 may serve as the first test of Brown's promise to push forward with education reform, his pledge of candor, and bird-dogging the executive.
Mayor Vincent C. Gray began immediately after his swearing-in to embrace a tax increase as an answer to the city's fiscal woes. No one is surprised by that shift. But Brown offered a strong response to the tax-and-spend chorus developing in the mayoral suite.
"First I want us to go get money from people who actually owe us. Then, I want to reduce programs that don't do anything for residents," he continued. "Raising revenue is the last thing that should be on the table.
"We will be an independent branch of government," Brown said.
Keeping that vow could close down all those pools where people are betting on how long it will take for the council to become the rubber stamp for the mayor.
Jonetta Rose Barras' column appears on Monday and Wednesday. She can be reached at email@example.com.