As we enter the frenetic final two weeks before the primaries, let's pause to salute an exciting and hopeful occurrence of this election year: the record number of persons under 40 who are running for office or managing campaigns.
While few of this new generation are given much chance of upsets on Sept. 11, their presence and the serious, feisty campaigns many are running herald a new day in the District.
Just four years ago, when Mayor Marion Barry was such a shoo-in for the Democratic nomination, I bemoaned the lack of viable candidates for mayor, delegate and council chairman. I felt that the citizens, who weren't enjoying the benefits even of limited home rule, were the losers.
Now with a void rising from Barry's exit as mayor and the creation of the shadow congressional seats, the pendulum has swung in the other direction. At least 11 of the 48 candidates on the September ballot are under 40. The face of local politics is undergoing dramatic change, and the fact that several people seeking office are young and of high quality carries extra meaning in Washington now and for the future. It isn't surprising that many are running against the establishment.
"The old leaders are no longer moving the city because their time has come and gone. Younger individuals are now ready to assume their positions to help lead us into the 21st century," said Vincent Orange, 33, a lawyer, accountant and government worker who is mounting an underdog challenge for D.C. Council chairman to the venerable Democrat John A. Wilson.
"When Martin Luther King, Jesse Jackson and some other leaders were coming into being, they were running major organizations in their twenties. The only reason I'm older is that the civil rights movement allowed me to go to school and to really prepare myself."
The view that the old guard has remained center stage too long is echoed by lawyer Donald M. Temple, 37, a Democratic candidate for D.C. delegate. Temple is a former congressional staffer who is running in part because of what he says is his annoyance at the "civil rights clique of people who marched with King and worked in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee who try to keep power and are not interested in a real power transition or new leadership emerging."
But Donna Brazille, 30, campaign manager for Democratic D.C. delegate candidate Eleanor Holmes Norton and a former member of the presidential campaign staffs of Jesse L. Jackson and Michael Dukakis, strongly rejects the view that the former civil rights activists are stumbling blocks to progress.
"Eleanor Norton and Jesse Jackson have spent their lives trying to bring more young people into the political process," Brazille said. "Just as Donald was groomed on Capitol Hill, those two have groomed a whole generation of leaders as well. Without Jackson, I would not be running this campaign. His candidacy gave me an opportunity to serve in the political process at a staff level.
"Those of us under 40 now recognize and see electoral politics as a new way to empower ourselves and empower minorities and women. This is our pipeline to leadership."
But if Temple is angry at the former civil rights activists who formed this city's first political leadership, he, like Orange, admits benefiting from the gains obtained by the courage of these older individuals.
Indeed, Democrat Terry Lynch, 31, who is running for an at-large seat on the D.C. Council, recalls that both Wilson and council Chairman David A. Clarke, a Democratic mayoral candidate, were only 30 when they first ran for the council.
Other young candidates include Harry "Tommy" Thomas Jr., 29, who is seeking a shadow senate seat; Dee Hunter, 25, a candidate for the shadow House seat; Democrat Kathryn Pearson-West, 34, a candidate for the council for Ward 5; Calvin Gurley, 36, a Democratic candidate for the council for Ward 6; Roffle Mayes Miller Jr., 38, Republican candidate for D.C. delegate; and former journalist and government worker Edward W. Sargent, 32, an at-large candidate for the school board.
One group that is particularly pleased with the new generation of young politicians is the Committee for the '90s, a nonpartisan group of local citizens who organized in February 1987 to influence the local political process. They surveyed citizen concerns and assessed mayoral candidates' stands on issues.
"I see this as the wave of the future," said Virginia View, founder of the committee. "After all that our city has been through, all the pain, I would like to see us focus on moving forward. New voices, new faces represent an opportunity to move on -- even if they are not elected. It's an indication that in the future there will be new people in the arena doing things -- perhaps without the baggage of those who were part of the old fight."
While it's wonderful to see this new generation emerging, it's also important that they keep an eye on some of their predecessors, whose fights were won just so this process of incorporating the young into our political structure could occur.
They must recall that those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it. Armed with the precious history they have inherited, they can, hopefully, one day work to better Washington.