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D.C.'s Ward 8 pins its hopes for economic improvement on Mayor-elect Gray

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 2, 2011; 7:50 PM

Juanita White may be 75 years old, but on primary day the 24-year resident of the Hillsdale neighborhood says she rounded up dozens of people - many "complacent and standing on their corners" - and persuaded them to cast votes for Vincent C. Gray.

Nearly four months later, White still keeps a Gray sign in her yard as a reminder of what she calls one of the most important local elections since Marion Barry won his first mayoral term in 1978.

Mayor-elect Gray, she hopes, will transform her community - improving schools, tackling unemployment and boosting economic development so that "more educated people move in and become more involved in the neighborhood."

"I am hoping and praying for what he's going to do," said White, a longtime community and Democratic activist. "No man is God, but we need to have high expectations for him and we are going to be there to support him to see he does what he's supposed to do."

As Gray prepares to be inaugurated Sunday as the District's seventh mayor, interviews with an array of Ward 8 residents reveal a community pinning its hopes on his remembering the people when he takes office.

With a 30 percent unemployment rate and more than one in three families living in poverty, residents say they want more job opportunities and services - and some of the growth experienced in the past decade by residents in other wards.

For generations, residents say, they have heard promises from politicians that life would get better east of the Anacostia River. This time, they say, they will give Gray only so much time, perhaps a year or two, to prove that he can deliver on campaign promises that include lowering the city's unemployment rate.

"I think people understand we are in a tough economy right now and that resources are stretched thin, but the challenge will be to find creative ways to show results," said Charles Wilson, an accounting firm consultant and community activist in Ward 8.

Gray vows he will be an advocate for Ward 8, but he's unsure whether he can live up to residents' expectations. With the city facing a $440 million budget shortfall in 2011, Gray said that "it's going to be tough" for him to remain popular.

The situation facing him, Gray said, is not unlike that experienced by President Obama after his inauguration in 2009: Voters expected too much from Obama too quickly, Gray said, forcing the president to repeatedly assert to supporters that promised reforms could take time to implement.

"We are going to do the best we can," Gray said. "You want people to be enthusiastic and optimistic, but you have to manage expectations because a lot of it is connecting with reality."

Sense of hopefulness

But many Ward 8 residents think the 2010 elections offered their community the best chance in years to shift the public debate to issues that concern them.

For the first time since home rule, both the city's incoming mayor, Gray, and incoming D.C. Council chairman, Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large), are from east of the Anacostia. Both live in Ward 7.

And many residents say they are confident that Gray - who grew up poor in Northeast Washington and later oversaw the Department of Human Services and local nonprofit agencies - can relate to what it's like to live in the poorest neighborhoods of the city.

Lovisa Archie Pearson, 28, who two days before Christmas was picking up two bags of canned goods at the Salvation Army office in Anacostia, four kids ages 1 to 8 in tow, was confident that Gray would look out for the area.

"I really think he's going to do something for us," she said. "He knows we need employment, housing and a lot of community support."

In his campaign, Gray tapped into widespread anti-Fenty sentiment in the African American community. On primary day, voters in Ward 8 turned out in larger numbers than even Gray campaign officials had expected. The number of ballots cast in Ward 8 rose 27 percent compared with the amount four years earlier, and 82 percent of them were for Gray.

"We dispelled the myth that Ward 8 don't vote," said Jacque D. Patterson, head of the Ward 8 Democratic Committee.

'They are still not hiring'

On street corners, in takeout restaurants and at barbershops across Ward 8, nearly everyone mentions "jobs" when asked what Gray's top priority should be.

At My Spott Barber Shop on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE in Anacostia, several patrons said it's baffling that so much development is occurring in western areas of the city, yet the jobs do not appear to be trickling down to Ward 8 residents.

"I see they are fixing up a lot of things and building new hotels and businesses. But they are still not hiring people, and I'm not sure why," Kevin Hines, 27, said as he waited for his 3-year-old son to get his hair cut.

"We expect to see some improvement east of the river," said Mary Cuthbert, a Ward 8 Advisory Neighborhood Commission member from Congress Heights. "We want to see it be the same like everywhere else they built up.

"And we don't need no bicycle lanes," Cuthbert said, referring to the perception that outgoing Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) was more attuned to the concerns of affluent parts of the city. "We need a store where you can buy some pantyhose and a shower curtain, and we want to see people go to work."

To get more residents working, Gray promises to reform the Department of Employment Services and place renewed emphasis on a law that requires city contractors to include a certain percentage of D.C. residents in their hiring. But Gray has said that the biggest opportunity for Ward 8 residents is the relocation of the Department of Homeland Security headquarters to the campus of St. Elizabeths Hospital in Congress Heights.

The $3.4 billion project, which broke ground in 2009, is expected to create up to 20,000 construction jobs. When completed in 2016, the campus is expected to house 14,000 federal workers and receive up to 2,000 visitors each day. Gray said he wants the local and federal governments to partner to leverage the project into new shops, restaurants and housing to create more jobs for Southeast residents.

"He's almost been given a gift," said council member David A. Catania (I-At Large). "He will be able to tailor his economic development message to what is one of the largest construction projects in the United States."

But Catania and other officials say that Gray still needs to temper expectations, noting it will take years to reverse the fortunes of many of the city's chronically unemployed.

Looking for a voice

Consider 48-year-old Cheryl Lane, who has lived in Ward 8 her entire life. Lane says she last held a full-time job 27 years ago, when she worked as a nurse's aide at D.C. Village.

"I've been looking but just haven't found anything yet," Lane said, noting that she doesn't own a car and that "now hiring" postings rarely stay up long in her neighborhood. "I want to see what Gray can do."

D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), a key Gray supporter in the campaign, said he wanted the mayor-elect to appoint "four or five" Ward 8 residents to his Cabinet, fast-track school modernization and street beautification, and use his bully pulpit to shame more companies into hiring D.C. residents.

Gray's Cabinet selections, however, have left some Ward 8 community leaders uneasy. Out of the nearly two dozen people Gray has publicly appointed to administration posts, not one is a Ward 8 resident, said Dorothy Brizill, a community activist _blankwho runs the DCWatch Web site.

Ward 8 advisory neighborhood commissioner Anthony Muhammad said Gray was indebted to the area after the overwhelming support he received from its residents in the Sept. 14 primary.

"We were the deciding vote, and now we can't get on the playground with you after we built it?" Muhammad said. "Some people are complaining [that] it looks like he's just an older Fenty."

But Gray did go out of his way on a recent Saturday to speak at a meeting of the Ward 8 Democratic Committee, where he emphasized that communities east of the Anacostia must share in gains the city makes during his term.

"I have three priorities: employment, education and fiscal responsibility," Gray said. "If we can accomplish those three things in the next four years, we will have one heck of a party to celebrate."

Gray paused, then added, "And if it doesn't come to Ward 8, we will have no celebration at all."

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