Ward 8 ties hopes for revival to Gray

A mural along Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE reflects the vibrancy of Anacostia. Both the incoming mayor and incoming council chairman are from east of the river.
A mural along Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE reflects the vibrancy of Anacostia. Both the incoming mayor and incoming council chairman are from east of the river. (Michael S. Williamson)

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 1, 2011

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.

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