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  • D.C. Elections Special Report

    By Kevin Merida

    In This Report
    Swearing In
    Paths to Power
    May 24, 1998
    Four Post stories,
    starting with this
    one, chart the
    return to D.C. of

    The Ruling Class
    Forward to Past
    Bright Lights
    IN THE SUMMER OF 1979, when Marion Barry was making his first trip abroad as Washington's new mayor, his two-week tour of Africa was considered so important to U.S. interests that the federal government picked up the tab. Everywhere Barry went – Senegal, Zambia, Tanzania – he was greeted like a de facto head of state. African leaders took pride in this former black militant who was now running America's capital city, and the mayor took pride in what he termed an experiment in municipal foreign relations.

    Barry was so large back then, a glittering symbol of the civil rights movement's success at ending a century of congressional torment of the District. To be sure, Walter Washington had been elected D.C.'s first home-rule mayor, in 1974. But it was Barry who had the grass-roots stripes, and thus it was Barry who seemed the true realization of "the struggle" when he toppled the sitting mayor four years later.

    As soon as his delegation landed back in the States, Barry dashed to an airport newsstand, where he found more evidence of the promise and hope of his victory. Time magazine had named him one of the "Fifty Faces for America's Future."

    Now, in the spring of 1998, Mayor Barry has no juice. Home rule is in suspension. The civil rights spirit that spawned it is dormant. A financial control board is running the city while its appointees overhaul the District government. Exactly when Congress will return power to the District's elected officials is uncertain – it could be as early as 2001, provided the city runs on balanced budgets till then. Or it may not.

    Under these circumstances, it might be easy to see the District's coming elections as a meaningless scrimmage for a bunch of powerless offices. Easy, and wrong.

    "It is hands-down the most important election since home rule," says Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District's delegate to Congress, "and probably the most important election in 100 years."

    This importance has little to do with the individuals running for mayor or any of the seven D.C. Council seats up for grabs. The return of home rule would certainly be a victory for democracy, but this election offers the prospect of a more immediate gratification: the opportunity for the District to recast its political identity – to let go, finally, of the past.

    This would be no small achievement, because history so heavily drapes this city's political landscape. The current distrust of the control board is mixed with bitterness over heavy-handed federal rule from 1871 to 1974; the sorrow over the loss of home rule is laced with memories of how hard D.C. fought to get it.

    That victory belonged not merely to the residents of the District, but to the civil rights movement as well. The movement's ideas and energy and personalities were suited to the moment, and helped produce the defining political event for a generation of D.C. activists and elected officials. But that was a generation ago.

    AS THIS CAMPAIGN TAKES SHAPE, there are questions worth considering that go beyond the candidates' qualifications and to the core of how the city might come together as a political body. Are the old civil rights-era strategies of race-based mobilization and empowerment still effective? Is it time to rethink which experiences and traits are required to lead this city? Is it time for voters to assume more responsibility in demanding and encouraging new leadership that can turn this city around?

    "The prospect is for a new beginning," says Ron Walters, a political scientist at the University of Maryland and a longtime observer of District politics. "People are ready to move on."

    It's hard to overstate the movement's role in shaping D.C.'s politics under home rule. A roster of movement activists who became D.C. politicians ranges from the late council chairman John Wilson to the late council chairman Dave Clarke, from former delegate Walter Fauntroy to current Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, from council member Hilda Mason to council member Frank Smith, from political strategist Ivanhoe Donaldson to financial control board member Joyce Ladner. Not to mention Marion Barry, who turned front-lines activism into a singular career.

    He first ran for mayor as a politician of the streets. He had headed the D.C. office of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; he had organized a bus boycott to protest a proposed increase in D.C. Transit fares; he had helped organize the Free D.C. Movement, which pushed for home rule. In 1978, he campaigned as a populist against the status quo.

    After winning, he replaced two-thirds of Mayor Washington's cabinet and department heads, and layered city agencies and services with anti-establishment activists. Most of them were of his generation, a majority of them were black. Of his top 13 appointees in his first term, only one was older than 50; only two were white.

    This was called "black empowerment," fitting for a city that was 70 percent black and had endured the insults of a long line of Southern white politicians. In keeping with the civil rights movement's goal of using political power to gain economic leverage, Barry in his first year as mayor promised to award 25 percent of city contracts to minorities. He later added 10 percentage points to that goal. After all, patronage was a staple of big-city government; white mayors, such as Richard Daley in Chicago, had built machines with it. But in D.C., empowerment soon gave way to cronyism, corruption and ultimately embarrassment.

    Over the past 25 years, Barry has proved to be a resilient politician, despite some near-death experiences. One of his survival skills has been to use racial rhetoric as a political club, whether it's to mobilize support among the poor (as he did in his 1994 comeback campaign) or to deflect critical inquiries (as he often does by turning the white media into a bogeyman).

    But these days, many District residents are less concerned with the threat to the city's autonomy than with the quality of their public schools and the trustworthiness of their police force. These days, Congress figures as a problem, but not the only problem: As Norton concedes, Congress's meddling in District affairs "happens to be an outrage, but that is the way it is." Along with the outrage, she says, residents have to present Congress with an offer it "cannot refuse, which is elected officials we ourselves have confidence in."

    IN OTHER AMERICAN CITIES, a second generation of black mayors has faced the same problems that plague the nation's capital – an eroding tax base, urban decay, a poor national image – but with strategies their forebears were not of a mind to use.

    Commonly, these mayors have bridged racial differences in their cities, established ties to neighboring suburbs, and put emphasis on economic revival.

    "Many of us have different political skills that have lent themselves to consensus-building," says Ron Kirk, a former lobbyist who was elected in 1995 as the first African American mayor of Dallas. He inherited a city that was filled with black-brown racial tension and losing white residents to the suburbs. His top priority is to advance a project that would convert the Trinity River – which has long divided north from south, and black from white – into an oasis of lakes and parks and open spaces.

    Paths to Power
    In Cleveland, Michael White has presided over a downtown revitalization, a reduction in crime and an upturn in housing construction. In Atlanta, Bill Campbell was instrumental in keeping the city's professional basketball team from leaving and in winning voter approval for the largest series of infrastructure repairs in the city's history. In Memphis, Willie Herenton has brought more minority firms into the business mainstream.

    Most of these mayors have worked closely with white business leaders – and some of them have had their racial loyalty challenged as a result. Some black community activists have picketed Kirk's home; some of Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer's critics sent him Oreo cookies.

    If there is a lesson in any of this for the District, it may be that Washington is changing more rapidly than some have noticed: It is no longer the "Chocolate City" that funkmaster George Clinton sang about in 1975. While the African American voting base is growing in Prince George's and Montgomery counties, it is shrinking in D.C. Estimates now are that the city's black population may dip below 60 percent by the end of the next mayoral term.

    The city's changing demographics have made possible what was unthinkable 20 years ago: electing a white mayor. For many, the District's condition is so grave that race has become a secondary matter. That happened in Gary, Ind., too, where three years ago Scott King became the first white candidate elected mayor since 1963.

    In one sign of changing times, the pastor who led the 1994 Draft Barry campaign is planning to host a breakfast for Carol Schwartz, Barry's Republican opponent in 1994. "It's time to move on," the Rev. Robert Hamilton told The Washington Post this spring. "It's time for a new landscape."

    The landscape is still being charted, but it will clearly include people like Ernest Jarvis. He is the 35-year-old son of council member Charlene Drew Jarvis; his generation was not on the streets for the boycotts and rallies. But today he is president of Metropolitan Access, a networking group of about 500 young black professionals who are trying to influence District affairs in their own way.

    "Our civil rights fight is economic opportunity instead of political opportunity," Jarvis says. "We want to wield the business machinery in town, not the political."

    THE NEXT MAYOR will be under enormous pressure to be a more resourceful executive than the city has had in the past – a mayor with a broader constituency and a greater knack for doing more with less. There is general agreement that the city has to improve virtually all the services it provides, but no real consensus on how to do it.

    In these circumstances, charisma still counts. Last year's special elections for council chairman and an at-large council seat drew dismal turnouts. Even the '94 campaign, in which Barry regained the mayor's office, drew only 50 percent of registered Democrats in the primary and a slightly smaller percentage of overall registered voters in the general election.

    But in a political vacuum, there is always opportunity. The opportunity here is to assure that home rule will not be just a monument to the city's civil rights past.

    Kevin Merida is a writer for The Post's Style section.

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    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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