In District politics, 'progressives' aren't what they used to be

D.C. Council members David A. Catania (I-At-Large), left, and Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) have spearheaded recent legislation.
D.C. Council members David A. Catania (I-At-Large), left, and Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) have spearheaded recent legislation. (Nikki Kahn - The Washington Post)
By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 14, 2010

Gay and lesbian couples can now marry in the District, and the city is poised to become the first jurisdiction in the nation in which every resident, regardless of immigration status or income, has health insurance.

The city overhauled election laws to usher in same-day voter registration. Lanes on some major byways, including Pennsylvania Avenue, are reserved for bicyclists. Through a bag tax, residents have a personal stake in the cleanup of the Anacostia River.

And, if Congress allows, chronically ill residents will have access to marijuana from city-sanctioned dispensaries, and D.C. students will have access to more organic and less fatty foods at school.

The new regulations illustrate the rebranding of the nation's capital in the past year in one of the most significant legislative sessions since Home Rule was enacted in the 1970s, observers say.

The shift can be attributed to an active group of progressive D.C. Council members, little federal intervention in city matters that emboldened some leaders to tackle controversial issues, and a subtle shift from traditional liberal ideals steeped in social justice to those that stress their view on quality of life.

"We are on our way to becoming more liberal than West Hollywood," joked council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1). "We have one of the most progressive legislatures in the United States, and it shows up at moments like this."

A council bloc

Much of the recent legislation can be traced to D.C. Council members Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), David A. Catania (I-At Large) and Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3).

The elections of Wells and Cheh in 2006 eventually helped tip the council's balance of power as they formed bonds with Catania, a veteran council member who left the Republican Party in 2004 over its stance on gay rights. The three, and longtime liberal allies such as council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), say the support of Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D), a native Washingtonian and mayoral candidate, has been essential.

But perhaps most important, Wells, Catania and Cheh, who are white, have received support from a new set of black members, including Michael A. Brown (I-At Large), Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large) and Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4).

The black council members represent a younger generation whose views on some issues might differ from those of older African Americans, and observers say that ambitious politicians grasp how the city is changing. Blacks made up 70 percent of the city's population in 1980; now, they account for 54 percent.

"People are looking for a fresh approach and a progressive approach," said Wells, who said he travels to Europe each spring in search of initiatives to replicate at home. "There are old-line Democrats, and there are progressive Democrats. . . . We are making the progressive agenda the priority."

Despite spats between council members and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) -- who proposed the bike lanes -- over details of governing, they have found harmony when enacting major legislation.

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