Kelly, Sharon Pratt Dixon

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Kelly, Sharon Pratt Dixon

From 1991 to 1994, the difficult job of running Washington, D.C., belonged to Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon Kelly, a successful utilities attorney who had had no previous experience in city government. Kelly was voted mayor in the wake of Marion Barry's fall from political grace. During her uphill campaign, Kelly portrayed herself as a squeaky-clean political outsider, even though she had strong connections to the national Democratic Party. Kelly, a middle-class African American who was born and raised in the District of Columbia, promised to reduce crime, cut the city's bloated budget, and clean up corrupt government. Although she was turned out of office after just one term, Kelly earned herself a permanent place in history by becoming the first female mayor of the nation's capital.

Kelly was born January 30, 1944, in Washington, D.C. She was the first child of Mildred Petticord Pratt, who died of cancer when Kelly was just four years old, and Carlisle E. Pratt, who was a lawyer and superior court judge. Family expectations were high for Kelly, whose father gave her a copy of Black's Law Dictionary as a birthday gift when she was very young. Kelly did not disappoint her father, graduating from Howard University with a bachelor's degree in political science in 1965 and a law degree in 1968. While in college, Kelly met her first husband, Arrington Dixon, who later became a member of the Washington, D.C., City Council. The couple married in 1967, had two daughters, and divorced in 1982. In 1991, Kelly married entrepreneur James Kelly III. Although she had won the mayoral race as Sharon Pratt Dixon, she changed her last name to Kelly shortly after her 1991 wedding.

Kelly began her legal career as an attorney in her father's law firm. She also taught courses at Antioch School of Law, before joining the Potomac Electric Power Company (PEPCO) as associate counsel in 1976. Kelly eventually became the first African–American woman to be named vice president at PEPCO. As a decisive, hardworking executive, Kelly was involved in Lobbying, policy making, and regulatory matters for the utility company. At the same time, she developed a strong interest in local Democratic politics. Kelly became the Democratic national committeewoman from the District of Columbia in 1977 and eventually was the first African–American woman to serve as national party treasurer.

"Divisiveness has no place in our politics … spitefulness and hatred only erode that which is truly magnificent about our country."
—Sharon Pratt Dixon Kelly

Kelly entered politics to try to halt the social and economic deterioration of Washington, D.C. In 1989, she announced her longshot candidacy for mayor. Soon afterward, Barry's career self-destructed with his arrest and subsequent conviction for crack cocaine possession and use. After Barry had withdrawn from the race, Kelly faced three city council members, each of whom had greater name recognition. Kelly was a political unknown whose middle-class background made her suspect to residents in the poorest sections of Washington, D.C. Until then, she had been on the political sidelines, never in the spotlight. To set herself apart from her opponents, Kelly made a rather rash promise to cut Washington's murder rate, which was the highest in the nation. She also pledged to shrink the city's budget by eliminating 2,000 government jobs. On her lapel, Kelly wore a pin shaped like a shovel, to symbolize her campaign promise to "clean house with a shovel, not a broom."

On September 11, 1990, Kelly achieved her first victory at the polls, winning the mayoral primary election by an impressive margin. In that year's general election, she handily defeated her Republican opponent, Maurice T. Turner, a former D.C. police chief. Kelly won the mayor's race with 86 percent of the vote, a new district record. Her administration's slogan became Yes We Will, a vow to overhaul city government.

During the early days of her administration, Kelly enjoyed successes. She coaxed $100 million in emergency aid from the U.S. Congress, helped to convince the owners of the Washington Redskins football team to remain in town, and handled riots in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood with considerable aplomb. But problems arose, including political squabbling with city council members and serious budget cuts from Congress. Despite her campaign pledges, Kelly still faced an appalling Homicide rate and an overextended city budget. Although her call for deficit reduction was popular, government workers who were affected by proposed layoffs were openly hostile to her plans.

As Kelly's ratings in public-opinion polls plummeted, the political fortunes of former mayor Barry rose. In 1992, Barry staged a remarkable political comeback when he was elected to the D.C. City Council, shortly after his release from federal prison. Despite his well-publicized drug problem, Barry remained popular with many voters, particularly those in poor and working-class neighborhoods. Barry was credited with developing the downtown area, attracting new businesses, and focusing national attention on the capital's plight during his 12 years as mayor. He criticized Kelly, focusing on her inability to improve schools, crime rates, and public housing.

In the primary election on September 13, 1994, Kelly was handed a stunning defeat. Barry and D.C. City Council member John Ray finished in a virtual dead heat for first place in the Democratic mayoral primary. A massive voter registration drive brought new supporters into Barry's camp. As a result, many voters turned to candidate Ray as the only realistic alternative to Barry. Kelly received the unmistakable message that her brand of government did not work in the nation's capital. Voters returned Barry to the mayor's office in the November general election. Among those who were appointed to Barry's mayoral transition team was Kelly's ex-husband, businessman Arrington Dixon.

In 1998, Barry was replaced by Anthony "Tony" Williams, who, like Kelly, pledged to reform District of Columbia politics. In 2002, Williams ran for re-election and was supported by both Sharon Pratt Kelly and Marion Barry. That same year, Williams was implicated in a scandal involving the diversion of funds from the Washington Teachers Union.

Further readings

Brown, Janice Frink. 1994. "Barry Transition Team Set to Go." Washington African American (December 3).

Fisher, Marc. 2003. "D.C.'s Network of Inept Cronies Still Thrives." Washington Post (January 28).