Tohear Dr. Mary Sawyer tell it, harassment of black elected officials by the white establishment is robbing America of some of its best talent. Sawyer, assistant professor of religious studies of Iowa State University and author of the 1977 seminal report on racial harassment of black leadership, speculates in her 1987 updated study that harassment might be causing some black officeholders to resign or not seek reelection and could even discourage talented young blacks from making their first try for office.
Sawyer may have a point, but it's one that seems to have slipped past the District of Columbia. In this election year, a near record number of black political veterans and aggressive neophytes are making bids for key local offices.
The mayoral contest has attracted six major candidates. That's up from two minor candidates and the one major candidate who unsuccessfully challenged Mayor Marion Barry in the 1986 and 1982 Democratic primaries. The congressional seat being vacated by D.C. Delegate Walter Fauntroy has 10 rivals, the most in more than a decade. In all, 53 candidates are running for mayor, the city council, D.C. delegate and the "shadow" House and Senate slots, the largest number since 1978.
The local races have drawn not only impressive numbers but also some pretty solid candidates. In the key contests for mayor, city council chairman and D.C. delegate many of the candidates have earned graduate or law degrees and can boast of years of experience in municipal affairs, business, local politics and civil rights, academia and federal executive management. It's also worth noting that despite the pressures of the city's growing fiscal crises, a soaring drug-related homicide rate and the risks and hazards of holding elective office in today's climate, no black elected official in the District has chosen to quit. With the exception of Barry, all of the incumbents up for reelection are either seeking to hold on to their own seats or are running for other offices.
The District's experience could be considered remarkable in light of the charge by Benjamin Hooks, executive secretary of the NAACP, who told his national convention earlier this week that "at no time since Reconstruction has there been a comparable period of incessant harassment of black elected officials."
It would be wrong, however, to look at the District's record performance and conclude that black officials and candidates in the District discount Hooks's charge, which is echoed by other national black leaders. Most of the black community probably buys the argument that black elected officials are more closely scrutinized than their white counterparts and therefore must be more honest and more correct in their official and personal behavior to avoid becoming the subject of rumors and innuendos and, even worse, the targets of investigation. Most recognize -- and resent -- the fact that when a black man or woman ventures into the public arena a double standard comes with the territory.
And of course, there's enough evidence on the record -- ranging from the FBI's investigations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to the unfounded leaks and anonymous accusations against Rep. William Gray III (D-Pa.) -- to sustain those suspicions.
Granted all that, there is still reluctance on the part of many to go to the extremes of ministers Al Sharpton, George Stallings and Louis Farrakhan, who portray Barry as a repentant sinner and slightly tarnished angel who is the victim of a nationwide racist plot to discredit black elected officials. There is much to dislike about Barry's treatment over the years. The sting operation at the Vista Hotel may be ruled legal, but it was sleazy. And those repeated leaks of information from grand jury investigations about Barry and the D.C. government remain serious, unsolved and apparently officially ignored violations by someone connected with the government.
But the whole truth is much larger. If at the end of his trial it is decided that Marion Barry must undergo a period of extended involuntary government service, it will not occur because he was a strong bodacious leader who threatened the vested interest of the white establishment by advancing black economic and political empowerment (he didn't), or that he openly and notoriously ran around on his wife, Effi (he did). It will occur because he was accused of breaking the very laws that he as a public official took an oath to uphold, then lied under oath about what he did, got caught and was convicted by a jury of his fellow District residents. And if the truth be further known, should Barry go to jail he will have more in common with many white corrupt public officials than with the overwhelming majority of his black counterparts who manage to serve their constituents and take care of their families and their personal needs without extra help on the side.
Regardless of Barry's fate, D.C. electoral politics will be healthier and stronger. Along with the near record number of candidates, the city may have on its hands a genuine two-party race for mayor in the general election. Despite efforts to polarize Washington racially, black and white candidates can be expected to run well with significant support being drawn across racial lines. A closer look at some of these campaigns and the workers in them suggests the emergence of a new generation of political leaders. Maybe something good will come out of 1990 for D.C. after all.
The writer, a former government official and officer at Riggs Bank, will be joining the editorial page staff in August.