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Class Issues Drive D.C. Campaigns

By Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 13, 2004; Page A01

Terry Walker has a good job with the city and a nice house near U Street NW in one of the hippest parts of Washington. Funky shops, ethnic restaurants and lovely, rehabbed brick townhouses line the streets. There's a Metro stop nearby, and a gleaming new supermarket that sells organic food. Everything, in short, a young urban professional could want.

But though her property values are rising, Walker is not so sure that things in the nation's capital are headed in the right direction.

Council member Harold Brazil talks with Audrey Larkins while campaigning at a senior home on Bladensburg Road NE. (Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)

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"I wouldn't be able to afford to live in my own neighborhood now," Walker said as she strolled home from work on a recent evening. She pointed to a new apartment building at 13th and U. "Rents start at $1,500 a month in that building. For a one-bedroom! Who's moving into these places? Who can afford to pay this? Not everybody's a lawyer."

As D.C. voters head to the polls tomorrow to cast primary ballots, a sense of anger and anxiety is stirring large parts of the electorate, according to community leaders, academics and political activists. Though the city has risen over the past decade from near bankruptcy to boomtown, half of the six council members seeking reelection are facing serious opposition in the Democratic primary.

In all three races, challengers are gaining ground by arguing that veteran lawmakers have failed to ensure that average families get their share of the expanding economic pie.

Downtown looks great, but the school system is a nightmare. The business community has volunteered to pay for a new baseball stadium, but the city's only hospital for the poor was allowed to close. Wealthy, largely white Tenleytown west of Rock Creek Park is home to a new Best Buy selling high-end electronics, but largely poor and black Ward 8, east of the Anacostia River, is waiting for its first grocery store.

The D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute found recently that the chasm between rich and poor is as great in the District as in any major U.S. city and that the gap has grown wider as the District has prospered.

In June, a poll conducted for the Service Employees International Union found that a plurality, 44 percent, of likely Democratic voters think things in the city are on the wrong track, with young people, blacks and the poor expressing the highest levels of dissatisfaction. Thirty-six percent of those polled said the city is "headed in the right direction."

This year's council races are highlighting those divisions, said A. Scott Bolden, chairman of the D.C. Democratic State Committee, because "the electorate is talking about race and class and gentrification."

"John Edwards talks about the two Americas. Well, there are two D.C.s," Bolden said. "The question is: Do we have a rising tide? Or is the rising tide limited to certain parts of the city?" Tomorrow's Democratic primary is a referendum on that question, Bolden said.

While a majority of the council members are white, all three incumbents with tough races are African Americans. Two of them represent majority-black wards with high unemployment rates.

In Ward 7, council member Kevin P. Chavous faces a field of challengers led by Vincent C. Gray, executive director of Covenant House Washington, part of an international services network for homeless children. And in Ward 8, incumbent Sandy Allen and other contenders are fighting to prevent former mayor Marion Barry from staging yet another political comeback.

In both races, challengers accuse the incumbents of losing touch with the people and failing to bring home a share of the city's economic renaissance. Barry, in particular, has been relentless in his criticism of the current mayor and council. He argues that no one at city hall is fighting hard enough to improve the shameful condition of the schools, to make sure teenagers have summer jobs or to improve other services in the city's poorest ward.

The third race is being fought citywide. It pits council member Harold Brazil, who lives on Capitol Hill and chairs the council's Committee on Economic Development, against Sam Brooks and Kwame Brown, a former Clinton administration official who recently moved from suburban Virginia to the Hillcrest section of Ward 7.

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