Jonetta Rose Barras
Jonetta Rose Barras
Opinion Writer

Is a black candidate the best candidate?

Some people have begun to cast D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser (Ward 4) as the default candidate for those looking to unseat Mayor Vincent C. Gray in the April 1 Democratic primary. It’s true that she has a bunch of money in the bank and has won straw polls in Wards 4 and 8; she didn’t win them by enough to snag the endorsements of the wards’ Democratic Party organizations, however.

So, is this crowning of Bowser based on two events in which only about 1,000 of the city’s more than 336,000 registered Democrats participated? Or is there a race-based calculation at play?

Jonetta Rose Barras

Jonetta Rose Barras’s weekly column focuses on local life, government and politics, with an emphasis on the District. With more than 20 years’ experience reporting and commenting for the Washington Examiner, Washington Times, City Paper, WAMU and other outlets, she is a familiar voice in the D.C. region.

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We know the answer. People have wondered aloud whether the District is prepared to elect a white mayor. CNN even presented an entire segment pondering that question.

For those who have said no, Bowser has become the viable alternative to Gray. She is perceived as the least flawed of the black candidates.

Gray remains under federal investigation over corruption in his 2010 mayoral campaign, although he has said he did nothing wrong and has apologized. Council member Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large) has an impressive record, but his zealous advocacy of D.C. small businesses has caused him to be stamped a disciple of dreaded “pay-to-play” politics.

Reta Lewis, a former federal official, has been underwhelming on the campaign trail. Andy Shallal has an affinity with blacks, appropriating various cultural icons as decorative motifs for his multimillion-dollar restaurant business. But he isn’t African American; he is Middle Eastern.

The race calculation seems so 20th-century. When I interviewed D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) — as I did all of the major Democratic challengers — he compared the debate to asking millennials, who have known only an integrated America, whether they engage in interracial dating: “It’s a dumb question.”

He’s right. But those 20-somethings don’t dominate the District’s electorate. Further, if the straw polls are any indication, many African Americans, particularly those older than 50, remain hung up on race. They didn’t give serious consideration to Wells and the other white candidate, council member Jack Evans (Ward 2), although both are more experienced than Bowser.

Older whites with whom I have spoken are just as stuck in the past. They worry they might be perceived as racist if they don’t vote for a black candidate.

Don’t get me wrong. I like Bowser. She has been fairly successful as a council member. Yet there is something to the assessment that her achievement portfolio is a tad thin. Her supporters dismiss that by citing Adrian M. Fenty, who had few legislative achievements to his name when he ascended to the mayor’s office.

Bowser is no Fenty. He was a reformer who got on the wrong side of certain elements of old-guard black Washington, who had been at the trough for more than 30 years. He attempted to adjust feeding trays while creating opportunities for a more diverse group of citizens and business leaders.

Even before Bowser officially launched her campaign, she embraced some of those whom Fenty tried to send away.

Equally important, Fenty vowed to run the government like a business. Bowser hasn’t offered any similar pledge. Her rallying cry has been that the District wants a new mayor.

But is she the one?

The racial paranoia and neurosis underpinning this election defy logic. Since an elective government was established in the District, I can recall only a few white local politicians who may have injured the African American community. However, I have witnessed plenty of black officials who repeatedly hurt African Americans, either through personal greed, neglect or incompetence — sometimes all three.

So, isn’t it time for District voters of all races to acknowledge that reality while joining the 21st century? After all, a black man, twice elected, sits in the White House. White mayors now lead such predominantly African American cities as Detroit and Gary, Ind. Before Martin O’Malley became Maryland’s governor, he was Baltimore’s mayor.

When I spoke with Bowser about this whole black-white discussion, she said she’s “the best” candidate for mayor “period.” She couldn’t offer a cohesive, global vision for the city, however. Instead, she strung together issues: affordable housing, infrastructure needs, government transparency, finally adding, “We’re going to have a government we can be proud of.”

Wells created a solid image of the District as a municipality where development of human capital was the top priority. Evans spoke about a city that’s a “network of vibrant, distinctive and self-sufficient neighborhoods” where residents shop, get a quality education and find decent jobs.

Those different responses — not the candidates’ race or ethnicity — is where voters should focus their attention. This election is about integrity and vision. It’s about choosing a leader who can advance the city, keeping its character and culture while investing in communities desperate for growth — smart growth.

If that’s Bowser or another African American candidate, fine. If it isn’t, then D.C. voters should boldly break with the past to create their better future.

jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com

 
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