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  •   Candidates Debate Importance of Majority-Black Council

     
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    By Hamil R. Harris
    and Yolanda Woodlee

    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Thursday, September 17, 1998; Page B1

    The prospect of the D.C. Council becoming majority white for the first time had Mayor Marion Barry refusing yesterday to support any of the white Democratic candidates in the November general election.

    Barry said he was disappointed in the outcome of Tuesday's Democratic primary, in which Ward 1 incumbent Frank Smith Jr. lost to Whitman-Walker Clinic director Jim Graham and civic activist Phil Mendelson topped a field that included eight black candidates for the party's nomination for an at-large seat. Graham and Mendelson are white.

    "I think the council ought to reflect the makeup of the city," Barry said during a news conference. "I am not a blind Democratic supporter."

    The mayor said white council members led the effort to shut down his summer jobs for youth program and to cut funds for the University of the District of Columbia. When it comes to legislating, Barry said, whites and blacks are different "in terms of culture, in terms of philosophy."

    Graham, noting that his opponents made sure voters knew that he is gay as well as white, said he is insulted by Barry's insinuation that he wouldn't be sensitive to the needs of all his constituents. "This city is looking for talent, dedication and change," Graham said.

    D.C. Council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), who is white, said effective self-government "means respecting the vote of the people." If voters "wish to elect Phil Mendelson as a Democratic council member, I don't understand why a Democratic mayor wouldn't accede to the wishes of the voters."

    Mendelson, a self-employed political consultant, said he is "running to represent all of the neighborhoods in the city" and hopes to have Barry's support.

    District voters will choose two at-large council members in the Nov. 3 general election. There are four at-large seats, and in years past, Democrats usually have won one of the two at-large seats available every four years.

    Uncertainty about the council makeup grew yesterday with the hospitalization of council member Hilda H.M. Mason (Statehood-At Large), 82. Aides said Mason, who is black, suffered a "mild heart attack" Tuesday morning. Georgetown Hospital officials said Mason was in stable condition yesterday, and one of her aides, Pamela Pope, said she "will return to the council and she is not withdrawing from the election."

    Ron Walters, a University of Maryland government and politics professor, said he doesn't think race will be a big factor in the general election because the District's white voters overwhelmingly supported black candidate Anthony A. Williams's successful bid for the Democratic nomination for mayor. "This shows that the electorate is not that racially sensitive," Walters said.

    The city's population is about 63 percent black.

    In a recent Washington Post poll, nearly six in 10 city voters – 57 percent – said it was important that blacks hold a majority of the seats on the council. Support for a majority- black council was broad-based. Majorities of white and black voters said African Americans should hold most of the council seats.

    Six in 10 of those voters in predominantly white and upscale Ward 3 wanted a majority-black council, and so did similarly large proportions of black working-class voters in Wards 7 and 8, the poll showed.

    Council member Sandy Allen (D-Ward 8), who is black, said there had been quite a bit of talk about the council possibly becoming majority white. But that apparently wasn't a concern for voters, she said, "because they didn't come out. Prior to yesterday, I don't think people had thought about the racial issue."

    But Mark Thompson, who is running for the Umoja Party for an at-large seat on the council, said race will be a factor in the general election.

    "A majority-white D.C. Council means that rent control, home rule, jobs are in serious jeopardy because a majority-white council cannot necessarily empathize with those crises in the African American community," said Thompson, who is black.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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