The 13th Council of the District of Columbia, the first in the 25-year history of home rule to have a white majority, almost got through its first year without becoming entangled in a racially divisive issue.
But the council's record was broken recently by a brief, bitter debate over Mayor Anthony A. Williams's nomination of the Rev. Willie F. Wilson, an outspoken African American minister, to the board of the University of the District of Columbia. The council's 11 to 2 vote confirming Wilson belied the anxiety and the hurt feelings that erupted in an episode that showed how the issue of race can fluster D.C. politicians--black and white--in this majority-black city.
After white council members Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3) and Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) questioned Wilson's nomination because they said he had used racially divisive rhetoric in the past, some activists immediately questioned their racial sensitivity. Others called them racists. As the debate escalated on talk radio and at rallies supporting Wilson, no D.C. officials rose publicly to defend Patterson and Schwartz.
The experience has left Patterson and Schwartz feeling that what they believed were legitimate questions about Wilson's ability to be a constructive member of the UDC board were drowned out by critics who played the race card. They also felt that their fellow elected officials abandoned them.
Now, some council members are acknowledging that they should have spoken up for their colleagues. Several said that they assumed most everyone knew that Patterson and Schwartz are not racists but that perhaps officials underestimated the potential impact of the debate on the city's fragile race relations.
"Yes, in retrospect, some of us on the council could have and should have said something to defuse it," said Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who is white and who supported Wilson's nomination. Evans disagreed with those who saw the Wilson vote as a measure of the panel's racial sensitivity.
"In the end, five white people voted for [Wilson]," he said. "It didn't turn out to be the racial issue some people wanted it to be."
But it did raise what Barbara Zartman calls the "twitch factor."
Zartman, former president of the Federation of Citizens Associations, describes it as the uncertainty about how one is perceived by members of another racial or ethnic group "when they misunderstand your intent, your motives, your values when you say something that they consider insensitive."
"When there are no hot-button issues, the twitch factor is low; the twitch factor goes up with Reverend Willie Wilson," said Zartman, who also is an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Ward 2.
Anxiety about the loss of black political power in the District has been quietly circulating in some parts of the city since the last election, when Marion Barry left the mayor's office and whites won seven of the 13 council seats. Barry, a son of the civil rights movement, was succeeded by Williams (D), who represents a generation of black leaders who talk more about making government work than about racial inequities.
Williams's loyalty to fellow African Americans was called into question more than once last year: He was criticized by some black activists for appointing several whites to key posts in his administration, and he was pilloried over a short-lived proposal to relocate UDC from its home in a predominantly white Northwest Washington neighborhood to a site in mostly black Southeast Washington.
Some saw Williams's nomination of Wilson, who from his pulpit at Union Temple Baptist Church has lashed out at officials and institutions when he disagreed with their policies toward African Americans, as an overture to critics in the black community. Others saw it as a political payoff for Wilson, who supported Williams during his 1998 mayoral campaign.
Thorn Pozen, chairman of the Ward 3 Democrats, was not surprised that Wilson's nomination was controversial. But he was taken aback at the rancor aimed at Patterson and Schwartz and by suggestions that a majority-white council did not have the sensitivity to represent the District.
Most of all, he was disappointed that the city's elected leadership, including Williams, did not "stand up and say that type of dialogue is inappropriate and we need to look at the merits of the situation. . . . We don't need personal attacks on the council members who are just doing their jobs."
Patterson, in a statement just before the council's Jan. 4 vote endorsing Wilson, left little doubt as to whom she blames for the racial divisiveness of the debate.
"The mayor knew full well the controversy of his nominee; he shared those concerns with me privately," Patterson said in the statement. She criticized Williams for not defending her when Wilson's more strident supporters called her a racist.
"There has not been, to my knowledge, a word from the mayor or from his nominee suggesting that such ugly rhetoric might, perhaps, be wrong," Patterson said in the statement.
At a news conference the next day, Patterson stood next to Williams to support his proposal to replace the current elected D.C. school board with an appointed panel. When a reporter pressed Williams on why he had not confronted Patterson's critics during the Wilson debate, the mayor stammered out a response.
"I certainly don't think that folks who didn't support him are racists. . . . Of course, they're not," he said.
Abdusalam Omer, Williams's chief of staff, said the mayor should not have been expected to respond to the rhetoric directed at Patterson and Schwartz.
"We cannot be responsible for attention-getters," Omer said. "Sometimes it's a lot worse to answer them than to ignore it."
"I guess I disagree," said Pozen, the Ward 3 Democratic official. "I think silence condones it."
In a recent interview, Schwartz said she has no hard feelings over the episode. But in a letter to the editor published last week in The Washington Post, she chastised her colleagues and Williams for their silence.
After more than two decades in District politics, including two mayoral campaigns against Barry and a bid against Williams in 1998, Schwartz said she is familiar with how some activists use race as a wedge.
"I think it only becomes an issue in this city when people think it will serve their best interest," Schwartz said. "Marion [Barry] would divide us, then he would bring us together and then he would divide us, based on his best interest of the day."
Phil Pannell, chairman of the Ward 8 Democrats, encouraged Wilson's supporters to lobby the council to save his nomination. Pannell said his concerns about the council members' opposition to Wilson had more to do with the gray area of cultural sensitivity than with racism.
"There are white people who are just more comfortable with black folks that they perceive as being safe in their style, safe in their rhetoric," Pannell said. "I wouldn't label white people like that as racist. I just think it's a situation where they're just unaware of our culture."
Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) acknowledged that the reaction of some Wilson supporters to Patterson and Schwartz's arguments against his appointment suggests a need for more dialogue among city officials and residents about race.
"There is a need for us to look at racial issues," Cropp said. "Even if it's not in the open, there is a perception that there are racial issues that need to be discussed. . . . Out of this bad situation, maybe there is an opportunity for us to sit down and discuss some of the racial issues that are there."
Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) said the council cannot fret about its racial composition. Neither does it need to "sit around and talk about race without there being a specific issue tied to it. . . . I've always felt the council members approach issues based on either substance or political consideration, but not race."
While he does not think the Wilson episode created permanent bad feelings among council members, Mendelson said: "I do regret that I did not defend my colleagues. . . . I think we all have a duty to defend each other institutionally."
CAPTION: The Rev. Willie F. Wilson's nomination to the board of the University of the District of Columbia showed how racial issues can trip up city politicians and create touchy situations.
CAPTION: Council members Kathy Patterson, left, and Carol Schwartz felt abandoned by fellow council members when accusations of racism flew.