The continuity is not all bad. The murder rate is still falling, and city services haven’t gone off the rails. More killings and unplowed snow would have been far more serious reversions to the bad old days that Gray’s foes so frequently invoke. Census figures released last month showed that the District’s population had grown by a larger percentage than any state’s.
Those successes, though, explain why inertia at the Wilson Building is such a shame. The very divide that helped Gray win office is still there and isn’t becoming any less pronounced.
Take those census numbers, for instance. The vast majority of the newcomers are college-educated and young. They’re far more affluent than many Washingtonians, but considering the sky-high housing prices in their new city, their children probably won’t be able to opt out of public schools the way the kids of yesteryear’s affluent newcomers did. So they’ll be competing for limited city resources with the poorer residents who helped elect Gray. And they’ll be doing so in a city that features truly grotesque economic inequality: In the past 30 years, the median wage for D.C.’s college graduates has risen by 30 percent; for those with a high school diploma, it has gone up by just 1 percent, according to the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute.
Few things discomfit city dwellers more than rapid demographic change. That was true in white, ethnic enclaves in the 1960s, when African American newcomers and the longer-term, blue-collar, white residents who resented their arrival at least shared a rung on the economic ladder. And it’s true today. No matter how comforting the mayor’s civic slogan is, last year’s census announcement that the District’s longtime black-majority status had slipped away represents a possibly bigger challenge to Washington, where the African American community is remarkably diverse in economic terms, but where the newcomers who’ve made the city whiter are by and large from the professional class.
Gray got his job because Fenty failed to manage the politics of D.C.’s demographic revolution, and longtime residents felt they were losing even as their city was winning. By talking up jobs and courting non-yuppie businesses such as Wal-Mart, Gray has done a better job looking like he cares about how everyone feels.
Still, the public policy questions remain. Can the city meet the needs of newcomers in ways that improve the lives of old-timers? If so, how? Whoever figures that out holds the key to local politics in a city where the electorate has been transformed.
The distracted Mayor Gray hasn’t offered much of an answer. Then again, neither did the non-distracted candidate Gray.
Michael Schaffer is the editor of Washington City Paper.
Read more from Outlook:
Adrian Fenty, Vincent Gray and the politics of race and class
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