New registrations add another variable to D.C. mayor's race

By Ann E. Marimow
Sunday, June 20, 2010

On Fifth Street NW, gym rats and couples walking dogs mix with prostitutes and the homeless. A tired strip club hugs the corner just steps from the young professionals lined up at lunchtime for gourmet sandwiches and sushi.

This transitional downtown neighborhood, known as Mount Vernon Triangle, did not have a voting home of its own when Adrian M. Fenty defeated then-D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp in the Democratic primary on his way to becoming mayor four years ago. Precinct 143, which includes part of Chinatown, was established in 2008 in response to the surge of condominium dwellers along Massachusetts Avenue who were flocking to the former parking lot hub-turned-island of urban cool.

Some of the precinct's newcomers are among the more than 47,000 Democrats who have registered to vote in the city since the 2006 mayoral contest, many of them inspired by Barack Obama's presidential campaign. A Washington Post analysis of city figures shows the greatest increase in registered Democrats in transient Ward 1, which includes the gentrifying U Street corridor, followed closely by more established and predominantly African American Ward 7, east of the Anacostia River.

The new voters would be important to a political campaign in any election cycle, but they are particularly sought-after this year, when Fenty is thought to be in a tight primary contest against D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray.

To Fenty's camp, the fact that newcomers have chosen the District over, say, Bethesda or Ballston is directly related to the mayor's initiatives to improve schools and lower crime, said campaign strategist Tom Lindenfeld. "We think we have a chance once they are exposed to the contrast in the race," he said. "We're going to do everything necessary to make that case."

Gray's campaign is trying to capitalize on his background as a community organizer -- something he shares with Obama -- and founder of a nonprofit group. Traci Hughes, spokeswoman for the Gray campaign, also stressed his deliberative, inclusive decision-making style and said new voters want a candidate "who really cares about the people living in the city."

In the hierarchy of sought-after voters, residents with habitual records of participation are especially prized. At the other end are those who typically cast ballots only in presidential elections. Then there are the newbies, who have yet to establish a voting pattern in the District.

The get-out-the-vote challenge for both mayoral campaigns heading into the September primary is to persuade the newly registered -- without ignoring established voters -- that they have a personal stake in who is elected mayor.

Varied perspectives

Newlyweds Jennifer Hickman and Paul Gorski recently moved to a part of 14th Street NW in Precinct 22, which added the most new Democratic voters to the rolls in Ward 1 since the last mayor's race. The couple was attracted to the neighborhood's diversity and the thriving, locally owned businesses that they walk to from their home.

Hickman, who works for the National Wildlife Federation, registered to vote in the District in time for the 2008 presidential election, but she said she pays more attention to environmental-justice and animal-welfare issues than to local politics. She acknowledged being chagrined at not knowing about Gray's candidacy.

Gorski, an assistant professor at George Mason University, moved to the District from Northern Virginia six months ago to join his bride. He talked fluently about the race and the debate over the perception that Fenty has favored more-affluent parts of the city.

"Most people who live in this area are probably going to be okay no matter what happens in the election," said Gorski, who is undecided. "For people who are less privileged, it's a bigger issue. The question is: Who is going to do more for them?"

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