Casting Some Votes for Sense

By Marc Fisher
Thursday, September 14, 2006

B uried beneath all those scraps of paper that harried clerks used for ballots in Montgomery County's election debacle lies a bulletin of bully good news: In Maryland and the District on Tuesday, voters shattered stereotypes, searched for solutions and sent the old-line political establishment packing.

In one contest after another, blacks and whites alike convincingly trashed politicians' cynical belief that voters can be counted on to cast ballots along racial lines. In majority-black Washington, the exceedingly white at-large council member Phil Mendelson trounced vigorous opponent Scott Bolden, who told me on several occasions that it was time for blacks to take back a majority on the D.C. Council. Mendelson -- a charisma-free campaigner who makes Mayor Williams seem like Denzel Washington -- won in every ward of the city, and he won big, mainly because people of every stripe saw through Bolden's divisive rhetoric and arrogant manner.

Similarly, Vincent Gray, who is black, won the council chairman job over Kathy Patterson, who is white, with victories in six of the eight wards, meeting or surpassing his goals in majority-white parts of the city.

In Maryland, and especially in the D.C. suburbs of Prince George's and Montgomery counties, voters rejected the Democratic Party's effort to color-code their November ticket by pushing the attorney general candidacy of Stuart Simms, a black lawyer from Baltimore. Prince George's voters instead gave Montgomery state's attorney Doug Gansler 53 percent of their votes.

The only statewide election where race appeared to play a significant role was in the U.S. Senate contest, in which Ben Cardin, a congressman from Baltimore, beat former NAACP chief Kweisi Mfume by 55 percent to 28 percent in Montgomery, while Mfume stomped all over Cardin in Prince George's, 70 percent to 18 percent. Cardin faces a daunting task in Prince George's in his November face-off against Republican Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, who will try to shift the issue from Iraq to black resentment of the Democratic elite's anointment of Cardin in the primary.

Aside from the Senate contest, the Washington suburbs largely stood together in the most dramatic display to date of Maryland's new demographic reality. The balance of political power in the state now finally appears to be shifting away from Baltimore to where the most voters live, in the D.C. area. In addition to Gansler, Montgomery will now have native son Peter Franchot on the fall ballot for comptroller. Franchot sent William Donald Schaefer off to retirement by collecting almost twice as many votes as the 84-year-old Baltimore legend in Prince George's, and more than four times as many in Montgomery.

In the Montgomery county executive and D.C. council chairman contests, voters chose quieter, conciliatory figures -- Ike Leggett and Gray -- over the more aggressive approaches of Steve Silverman and Patterson.

But Montgomery and the District assumed very different attitudes toward growth and development issues: In the suburb, frustration with traffic and the role that developers play in campaigns and governance led to the Leggett win and the apparent election to the County Council of slow-growth advocates Duchy Trachtenberg and Marc Elrich, a Takoma Park council member who has fought against adding density even around Metro stations such as Friendship Heights.

In the city, however, voters resoundingly rejected candidates backed by the vocal but tiny minority of residents who have made enough noise to stall or kill transit-oriented developments that the District requires to expand its tax base and serve citizens most in need. Voters in upper Northwest's Ward 3 chose Mary Cheh, the one council candidate who forthrightly said she will stand up to the NIMBY crowd and fight for a denser, more urban feel to the upper Wisconsin Avenue corridor. Similarly, in Ward 6 in the Capitol Hill area, voters picked Tommy Wells, a D.C. school board member who has fought in his neighborhood for extensive new mixed-income housing developments and helped a business acquire an unused D.C. school building and renovate it into a profitable neighborhood gym.

On now to November, when Virginia voters will choose between pro-Iraq war Republican Sen. George Allen and anti-Iraq war Republican Jim Webb, guest starring on the Democratic ballot in what's shaping up as a fierce and potentially ugly battle. In Maryland, attention shifts to a whale of a governor's race and a very expensive Senate contest.

And in the District, Mayor Almost-Elect Fenty, who faces token opposition in November, will focus on building bridges to a council and political establishment that wanted little to do with him until now.

With only Ward 1's Jim Graham and the eternally exciting Marion Barry as his supporters on the council, Fenty needs new allies. He'll be helped in his search by wholesale change in the District government; fully half of its elected positions are turning over, including mayor, chairman and new council members in wards 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7. (Special elections will be held in the spring to replace Fenty and Gray.)

This year, change is in the air even before the first wisp of fall.

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