NAPLES, Fla. -- Sharon Pratt Dixon, mayor of Washington, addressed a group of municipal professionals here with a rousing speech overbrimming with optimism that the nation's ills can be cured.

The normally staid audience, more familiar with dry recitations of multibillion-dollar budget gaps than crusades for social activism, responded with a three-minute ovation.

Mayor Dixon spoke before a gathering of municipal professionals sponsored by Municipal Bond Investors Assurance Corp. here.

At once regional and global in perspective, Mayor Dixon argued passionately that the nation's worst scourge is the senseof alienation felt by disenfranchised people across the nation. The "have-nots," she said, are increasingly becoming a more volatile segment of our society.

"If people dont' have a stake in the system, that's when you have the kind of random violence seen today even in suburban America," she said. "We've walked away from our time-honored values."

Her own task would appear among the country's toughest.

Dubbed the nation's "murder capital," southeast Washington is so rife with drugs and random killings that activists have all but written the area off as unsalvageable. Yet Mayor Dixon tossed off the problem as simply requiring an unshakeable "can-do" attitude. "It's a manageable situation," she said.

Mayor Dixon's speech also touched on some more typical themes: federal abdication of fiscal responsibilities; statehood for her district; the nation's miniscule savings rate; and the need to boost spending in research and development.

To alleviate these woes, the country need only resort to its historical strengths of creativity and imagination, she said.

"This country was the source of every major invention of the 20th century," she said. "What we have to do is become risk-takers again."

The mayor's address dwelt on the role of the federal government in Washington and shed light on problems encountered by municipalities across the country.

She found that through the 1980s the federal government was the only sector that "got more for less." Washington's police, fire, and ambulance services remained the same or improved during the decade, she said, yet federal contributions to the district declined.

The impact of the federal government on Washington is disproportionately large, but conference participants said cities nationwide could arrive at the same conclusion: The only sector to benefit in the past seven years has been the federal government.

The backdrop for Mayor Dixon's address was a pragmatism that suggested she was aware that her optimism would have to be paid for by hard work and unswerving tenacity. She sees "no signal whatsoever" that the recession is coming to an end and concedes there's no quick fix for the ailing economy.

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