It didn’t take long for this to be exposed, and thus began the long and painful saga of firings, resignations, investigations, denials, perp walks and guilty pleas that have become a staple of the District’s news cycle.
City governments are often corrupt. Mayors and city council members are prosecuted and imprisoned nationwide. What makes D.C. different is that all of this is happening concurrently, in the nation’s capital, sitting in the shadow of the Congress that denies it voting rights.
This is also the city that I’ve been covering for 40 years as a journalist or talk-show host, conducting town-hall meetings in every ward, listening to the hopes, aspirations (and yes, complaints) of residents who expect integrity from their elected officials. Why? “Because this is Washington, D.C.,” they’d say.
They expected something better. But it’s exactly because this is Washington, D.C., where politics is stunted, that it never gets better.
We don’t have statehood or voting rights in Congress, which means there is limited political space in the District. School board member, council member, mayor, non-voting delegate to Congress, and soon, attorney general. That’s it. Those are all the available opportunities for elected office in the District of Columbia. (Okay, if you insist, there are the positions of advisory neighborhood commissioner and statehood senator and delegate. But, quick, name your ANC and your statehood senator! I rest my case.)
This is not a place you come to channel political ambition by way of local politics. Ask Jesse Jackson. He was elected shadow senator in 1990 with the hope and expectation that the Voting Rights Act would make him a voting U.S. senator. He quickly divested himself of that notion and headed back to Chicago.
If you happen to live in a smaller suburb of the city, you have all of those opportunities plus the state legislature, the Congress or the governor’s mansion. Instead, in the capital of the United States, local politics can’t lead beyond the mayor’s office, so no ambitious political operations or machines exist here. Political operations proceed in fits and starts, and change from election to election.
The result is that a relatively small percentage of the city’s remarkable talent pool is interested in running for office, which sometimes makes room for less-qualified opportunists who view public office as a lifestyle upgrade and taxpayers and campaign contributors as neighborhood ATMs.
In a town in which the largest employer is the government, the relationships between such elected officials, government contractors and wannabe government contractors are at best suspicious, and at worst, well, by now you know the $653,000 shadow campaign story.
So, what should we do about this?
My first instinct is to yell, “Start over!”
That’s what my teenage friends and I used to yell at the movie screen in Guyana when we sauntered into the cheap seats late and the movie had begun. Of course, the projectionist wasn’t about to listen to a group of idiots who demanded the same thing almost every afternoon in August, when schools were closed.
But when I think about politics in the District, all I want to do is yell, “Start over,” presumably with the same result.
The key question is not whether the next mayor should be black or white, or how we can ensure that one race or the other isn’t dominating city politics.
We, the public and the news media, need to know the specific source of every dime that’s contributed to campaigns, and to our elected officials.
We need to get our council members out of the business of approving contracts.
We must have access to details of all government contracts.
We need to end party primary elections, so talented people who are not registered Democrats have a better chance of winning and retaining office in the city.
And, most important, we need to intensify the effort for voting rights and statehood, so we can expand opportunities for candidates citywide.
Because we still have a shadow senator and not a voting member on Capitol Hill, we get a shadow campaign.
Kojo Nnamdi is the host of “The Kojo Nnamdi Show” on WAMU Radio (88.5 FM).
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Read Kojo Nnamdi’s 2010 article “For D.C., Vince Gray’s election is a bold step backward.”