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Posted at 05:13 PM ET, 07/23/2012

A white D.C. mayor? Inside the ‘comfort gap’


Having Evans or Mendelson as mayor could offend the 19 percent residents who believe it’s important to have a black chief executive. (Sarah L. Voisin - WASHINGTON POST)
In Sunday’s Post, Tim Craig took a look at D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson and his unlikely citywide appeal as he starts campaigning to remain chairman after November’s special election.

Mendelson is now only the second non-African American to fill one of the city’s top two elected posts since the city’s Home Rule government was inaugurated in 1975. (David A. Clarke — chairman from 1983 to 1991, then again from 1993 until his 1997 death — was, like Mendelson, white.)

But Tim’s report notes in a plurality-black city there might be a “comfort gap” of sorts between having a white council chairman and having a white mayor. In other words, not everyone comfortable with Chairman Mendelson would be comfortable with Mayor Mendelson.

Here, poll numbers are illuminating. In the Post’s most recent poll, which took place a week ago, we asked residents how important they consider it that the city have an African American mayor. We also asked similar questions in D.C. polls in 1998 and 2011.

The current findings are really not much different from the findings a year ago, but they are somewhat different from the 1998 results. Back then, 52 percent of Democratic likely voters said they considered it at least somewhat important to have a black mayor. Today, among Democratic-leaning voters, it’s 49 percent — not a significant shift.

But there has been a significant shift among white voters in those samples. In 1998, 57 percent of whites — again, Democratic likely voters — said it was important to have a black mayor; today, that has fallen to 44 percent today among Democratic-leaning voters. The shift has been most dramatic among white women, who have gone from 64 percent to 47 percent.

Overall, African Americans say 54 percent to 44 percent that it’s important to have a black mayor — with 31 percent saying it’s “very important” compared with 28 percent saying it’s “not important at all.” Among white voters, 6 percent say having a black mayor is “very important” versus 41 percent who say it’s “not important at all.”

The results also show, perhaps surprisingly, that younger generations are not necessarily more receptive to the idea of a white mayor. Thirty-five percent of adult whites under age 50 say it’s important to have a black mayor, compared to 36 percent of whites age 50 and older. Meanwhile, 56 percent of African Americans under age 50 say it’s important, compared with 51 percent of those 50 and older.

So, what lessons are there in the poll numbers for mayor aspirants — including Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) and Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), the two white D.C. Council members who are publicly exploring mayoral runs?

First off, they have to deal with the fact that more than one in six registered voters (17 percent) believes it is “very important” to have a black mayor and will thus be disinclined to give either Evans or Wells their vote. They also have an uphill climb with the 27 percent of registered voters who say it’s “somewhat” important.

But in terms of political practicalities, what stands to make the most significant difference for a white candidate is whether the next mayoral election is a standard two-stage election with a closed primary, or a come-one-come-all special election.

Our new polling shows a significant split between Democrats and independents, who would not be able to vote in a primary, barring a change to city election law: While half of Democrats say having a black mayor is important, only 38 percent of independents say so.

The upshot is this: If Evans or Wells wants to be mayor, they would face a significantly more receptive electorate in a special election.

Polling manager Peyton M. Craighill contributed to this report

By and  |  05:13 PM ET, 07/23/2012

 
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