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

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 14, 2010; B01

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.

"I think the citizens of Washington, D.C., have a certain vision for their city . . . that includes cutting-edge initiatives," Fenty said recently while showcasing a streetcar that is to begin operating on H Street on Capitol Hill next year.

Council members and observers say many of the new measures reflect the demographics of a city that is becoming wealthier and more diverse, but the changes are also raising questions about whether the new liberalism represents everyone.

"This is a city whose [recent] public policies are geared toward building a world-class city," said Howard Croft, former chairman of the Urban Studies Program at the University of the District of Columbia. "The city is trying to attract more affluent people, and that is who these new policies are geared to."

Although polls show public support for many of the council's initiatives, some residents interviewed last week expressed division over the significance of the new approach in a city that continues to struggle with high taxes, homelessness and poverty. "They should be focusing on schools and employment," said Channell Love, 40, of Southeast.

A difference of opinion

After operating under Capitol Hill lawmakers for generations, council members say, the city has benefited from a Democratic-controlled Congress and White House as well as a key ally in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Pelosi represents liberal San Francisco, and she is a Baltimore native who tells colleagues she has "D.C. in her DNA," said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.).

"Pelosi is a fiercely Home Rule speaker," said Norton, noting that Pelosi's father, Thomas J. D'Alesandro Jr., was known as the "mayor of Washington" in the 1930s and 1940s, when he was chairman of the House of Representatives' D.C. committee.

Julius W. Hobson, who oversaw government affairs for the city between 1985 and 1989, said council members have always leaned left. But, he said, city leaders don't fear Congress as they did then, when conservative GOP senators, including Jesse Helms of North Carolina, kept an eye on the city. Even the Fenty administration's decision to reserve the center lane of Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and the Capitol for bicyclists could have evoked a strong response from previous Congresses, Hobson said.

"You knew if you went too far, it was literally getting your hands slapped, and sometimes it was worse than getting your hands slapped," Hobson said.

But the council's use of its newfound freedom is leading to some division in the progressive community, the backbone of District politics for decades.

Many previous government leaders, most of whom had ties to the civil rights or antiwar movements, often engaged in highly charged drives for affordable housing, living-wage laws and full employment. Now, some of those longtime activists say the council and the mayor are redefining what it means to be progressive in the District, focusing on popular environmental and social issues instead of taking on tough decisions over how to expand jobs and opportunity for the city's poor.

Maurice Jackson, a Georgetown University history professor and a liberal activist since the 1970s, said council policies are now more "top down" because unions and churches have lost their influence, and he mentioned the income disparity between blacks and whites. In 2008, white households in the District had a median income of about $101,000; for black households, the figure was about $39,000, according to census data.

"If you ask about the qualify of black life, I just don't know if it's getting any better," Jackson said. "You don't have the types of progressives I grew up with."

Still, council members point to initiatives that they say have helped city dwellers despite the recession, which has affected city coffers. Last month, Catania announced that the city's portion of residents without health insurance was 6.2 percent, lagging behind only Massachusetts in total percentage of uninsured, due to city investments to offer free insurance to residents who earn up to double the poverty limit.

Catania is drawing up a program to offer subsidized insurance to residents who make up to 400 percent of the poverty limit regardless of their legal status -- in effect creating the "public option" that congressional Democrats unsuccessfully pushed for as part of federal health-care reform.

But with Republican leaders increasingly optimistic about their chances to reclaim the House or Senate in November's midterm elections, some wonder whether it's a matter of time before Congress limits the council's actions.

"The District has more to lose than any other location in the United States from a turnover of the House and Senate," Norton said. "They will be back at us."

Until then, said 31-year-old John Ball of Van Ness, the District is beginning to remind him more of his home town, Santa Barbara, Calif. "It's becoming a bit more relaxed," he said.

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