Race Could Be Deciding Issue In Contest for D.C. Chairman

Potential voters listen to D.C. Council members Kathy Patterson and Vincent C. Gray at a July candidates forum sponsored by AARP. A recent Washington Post poll says black voters support Gray and white voters back Patterson.
Potential voters listen to D.C. Council members Kathy Patterson and Vincent C. Gray at a July candidates forum sponsored by AARP. A recent Washington Post poll says black voters support Gray and white voters back Patterson. (Photos By Mark Gong -- The Washington Post)
By Nikita Stewart and Elissa Silverman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, August 14, 2006

The contest that will determine the next D.C. Council chairman has emerged as a tight struggle between two skilled council members whose candidacies have become symbolic of the District's sharpest divide: race.

Kathy Patterson, the three-term representative from predominantly white Ward 3 in Northwest, is running against Vincent C. Gray, the first-term representative from the predominantly black Northeast and Southeast neighborhoods of Ward 7. Patterson, who is white, is the favorite of most whites, according to a recent Washington Post poll. Gray, who is black, is the favorite of most blacks.

Pointed racial differences in voter preference between blacks and whites have been a constant in D.C. politics -- even when the leading candidates were black. This year's Patterson-Gray matchup for the crucial Democratic nomination in the Sept. 12 primary is one of the starkest examples of an election in which the faces of the candidates match the skin color of a majority of their supporters.

Both candidates speak of building a coalition that would bridge the city's racial divide. But the contest lacks a major issue to set them apart, so race and geography have become the backdrop of their campaigns -- in the candidates' stump speeches as well as in their election strategies.

Gray said the issue is more geography than race because his ward is predominantly black and Patterson's is mostly white. "Some of this is probably familiarity," said Gray, 63, a lifelong Washingtonian who has spent the bulk of his career in the city's social services community.

Patterson, 58, a former newspaper reporter originally from the small town of Chico, Calif., said she has worked hard to introduce herself to voters across town.

"I am a white politician seeking a leadership job in a majority-black city," she said. "I have a responsibility when I'm asking for votes to explain my record of the last 12 years."

The two candidates come from opposite ends of the city, and both represent politically significant wards. Patterson's home base is formidable because a consistently high percentage of Ward 3 voters show up to the polls every Democratic primary, especially with a competitive mayoral contest such as this year's.

Ward 7, which includes predominantly black neighborhoods that span the economic strata, is often seen as a bellwether in citywide races. Although Gray's home turf generally lags Ward 3 in turnout, Ward 7 is critical because it has more registered Democrats.

The largest concentration of registered Democrats in the city lives in the majority-black neighborhoods that make up Wards 4, 5 and 7, which wrap around the city in a crescent formation from west of Rock Creek Park to the eastern banks of the Anacostia River. Including Ward 8, which generally has low voter turnout except when council member and former mayor Marion Barry is on the ballot, the eastern bloc of wards has 34,000 more Democrats than Wards 1, 2, 3 and 6, where most white residents live.

The Gray campaign will concentrate its efforts on the eastern half of the city, said Vernon E. Hawkins, a veteran of D.C. politics and strategist for Gray. "We're going to focus on Wards 4, 5, 7 and 8," he said.

Right in the middle, Ward 4 is seen by both camps as a key battleground. The residential neighborhoods clustered in the northern tip of the city have the largest number of registered Democrats, as well as historically high voter turnout.


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