Politics is often said to be the life blood, the principal industry of Washington; political gossip the spice of its life. But those things are intended to describe "official" Washington--the Washington of Congress, the White House, the federal agencies, the international set, the lobbyists and the national media.
What I want to talk about is politics in the community of Washington, where ordinary people get their livings and spend their lives pretty much as they do everywhere in the country. Just as other Americans, these Washingtonians worry about jobs, decent housing, real estate taxes, police protection, schools, garbage pickups and health care.
Clearly, as with other states and cities, what happens in "official" Washington is very important to the daily lives of Washingtonians. Both culturally and constitutionally, this community is bound to official Washington. But the struggle for full political self-rule is the struggle for genuine release from these bonds.
The new grant of home rule in the 1970s excluded over 60 percent of the personal income earned by individuals in the District of Columbia from taxation by the people of the District because Congress bars commuter taxes in the District. And since the home rule charter has been in effect, the Congress has debated, for example, whether the District should operate a lottery, what sex acts should be crimes here and whether or where the University of the District of Columbia should have additional campus facilities.
Despite these limitations imposed by Congress, the people of the District have been delegated and allowed to exercise a considerable amount of home rule. Although substantially involved in appropriations, the Congress has overturned only two out of some 600 laws enacted by the District government. The questions are: how well are we doing with what we have? To what extent have we been able to free ourselves from the culture bondedness of official Washington in the exercise of our self-government?
There are some positive pieces of evidence. We have developed the foundation of a competent municipal financial and administrative structure. We have begun to address some of the tough local social and economic problems.
On the other hand, there are some not so positive signs. There seems to be any number of people who want to run for office, but, proportionately, a disappointing number who are interested in electing any of them. In the District, victory in the Democratic primary is tantamount to election. Four years ago, less than one-half of voters eligible to vote in the Democratic primary for mayor did so; only somewhat more than one-third of that number chose the candidate and, thus, the mayor.
The people of the District of Columbia are entitled to the form of representative government they want, whether it is statehood, voting representation under pending constitutional amendment or greater autonomy within the existing home rule charter structure. But I am certain that we shall have none of them unless we, as District residents, turn out in substantial numbers to support the form of government we want and to participate in the electoral and other governmental decisions we do have to make.
I have contrasted the community of Washington to the official Washington, but the community of Washington is itself divided again into what might roughly be seen as two communities-- the affluent community and the excluded community. The affluent community shares with the metropolitan area af Washington the highest median family income in the country--for the metropolitan area as a whole, $27,500, as compared with $20,000 nationwide. The excluded community is made up largely of those who are the one-fifth of the population of the city that is counted as poor.
It has become an evasive convention to lump the poor and low-income people into the so-called "underclass" and, in so labeling them, to dismiss them from our consciousness as elements beyond our social redemption. But the behavior of a relatively small number of sociopathic individuals, who may victimize any of us, but who work out their rage and frustration, their viciousness and their greed primarily against people in their own neighborhoods, cannot excuse our lack of recognition of the excluded community.
The people I am talking about are, in the main, decent, hard-working individuals trying to make the best lives they can out of the worst circumstances. These are the women in Washington who head households alone in proportions that are among the greatest if not the greatest for cities; these are the children of the poor trying to cling to aspirations and dreams amid the fruits of affluence which they can neither taste nor touch.
Today's black-led District government is a clean government, even by today's big-city standards. But, despite the impression the daily media sometimes give by inadequate and overly simple coverage, there is a lot more to running the complex state, county, city government that is the District of Columbia than counting the spoons every night.
The test that our present home rule will have to pass is the government's effectiveness in meeting the needs of all its people. The questions for that test are not simply about who gets elected; but about how many people care enough who's elected to show up and vote.