D.C.'s Unlikely Rescuers

THE Republican Party is not known for its interest in the problems of urban America. But the country's most prominent Republican, Newt Gingrich, has made an exception for the urban problem right on his congressional doorstep - Washington, D.C.

The nation's capital has long been a study in neighborhood decay and fiscal mismanagement. The Speaker has made the reversal of those dismal conditions something of a personal crusade. And his allies in this effort are the district's two most prominent politicians: Mayor Marion Barry and D.C.'s delegate in the House of RepResentatives, Eleanor Holmes Norton.

The teamwork here is little short of remarkable: ''Mr. Republican'' of the 1990s working with staunch liberal Democrats; a white Southerner planning urban strategy with two black Americans whose careers sprang from the civil rights movement. The Barry-Gingrich connection is made even more poignant by the mayor's record as a convicted crack cocaine user, which makes him a political outcast beyond the wards of his own city.

To his credit, the Speaker seems determined to demonstrate that Republicans care about cities with largely nonwhite, poor populations. He has chosen Washington as the place to raise his own ''big tent.'' For their part, the mayor and the delegate want, above all, to preserve the city's treasured Home Rule (now a little over two decades old). They want the time, and the congressional backing, to prove that the black-run local government can grapple its way out of a fiscal sinkhole.

When Barry reentered the mayor's office in 1994, a $322 million city debt awaited him. The city was, and continues to be, chronically unable to pay private vendors for services ranging from nursing care to trash removal. Under Barry, D.C. officials have embarked on a mission of ''transformation.'' The city's expenses are being scrutinized top to bottom. Outstanding debt has shrunk to $128 million.

Speaker Gingrich may look on approvingly, but his Republican budget watchdogs are by no means convinced that the mayor is likely to succeed. They're determined to keep squeezing the D.C. budget, all of which has to be approved by Congress, though only about one-third is actually paid for by the federal government. The rest comes from local taxes.

Last spring, Congress created a financial control board for the city. Republicans have also tried, unsuccessfully, to impose a ban on publicly funded abortions in the city and to lift rent controls. Gingrich has helped fend off such incursions.

The city's problems - poor schools, high crime, fiscal disarray - remain deep. But the unlikely team of Gingrich, Barry, and Norton make it more likely they will at least be honestly addressed. For that, Americans who want a capital they can be proud of should be grateful.

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