Terry Walker has a good job with the city and a nice house near U Street NW in one of the hippest parts of Washington. Funky shops, ethnic restaurants and lovely, rehabbed brick townhouses line the streets. There's a Metro stop nearby, and a gleaming new supermarket that sells organic food. Everything, in short, a young urban professional could want.
But though her property values are rising, Walker is not so sure that things in the nation's capital are headed in the right direction.
"I wouldn't be able to afford to live in my own neighborhood now," Walker said as she strolled home from work on a recent evening. She pointed to a new apartment building at 13th and U. "Rents start at $1,500 a month in that building. For a one-bedroom! Who's moving into these places? Who can afford to pay this? Not everybody's a lawyer."
As D.C. voters head to the polls tomorrow to cast primary ballots, a sense of anger and anxiety is stirring large parts of the electorate, according to community leaders, academics and political activists. Though the city has risen over the past decade from near bankruptcy to boomtown, half of the six council members seeking reelection are facing serious opposition in the Democratic primary.
In all three races, challengers are gaining ground by arguing that veteran lawmakers have failed to ensure that average families get their share of the expanding economic pie.
Downtown looks great, but the school system is a nightmare. The business community has volunteered to pay for a new baseball stadium, but the city's only hospital for the poor was allowed to close. Wealthy, largely white Tenleytown west of Rock Creek Park is home to a new Best Buy selling high-end electronics, but largely poor and black Ward 8, east of the Anacostia River, is waiting for its first grocery store.
The D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute found recently that the chasm between rich and poor is as great in the District as in any major U.S. city and that the gap has grown wider as the District has prospered.
In June, a poll conducted for the Service Employees International Union found that a plurality, 44 percent, of likely Democratic voters think things in the city are on the wrong track, with young people, blacks and the poor expressing the highest levels of dissatisfaction. Thirty-six percent of those polled said the city is "headed in the right direction."
This year's council races are highlighting those divisions, said A. Scott Bolden, chairman of the D.C. Democratic State Committee, because "the electorate is talking about race and class and gentrification."
"John Edwards talks about the two Americas. Well, there are two D.C.s," Bolden said. "The question is: Do we have a rising tide? Or is the rising tide limited to certain parts of the city?" Tomorrow's Democratic primary is a referendum on that question, Bolden said.
While a majority of the council members are white, all three incumbents with tough races are African Americans. Two of them represent majority-black wards with high unemployment rates.
In Ward 7, council member Kevin P. Chavous faces a field of challengers led by Vincent C. Gray, executive director of Covenant House Washington, part of an international services network for homeless children. And in Ward 8, incumbent Sandy Allen and other contenders are fighting to prevent former mayor Marion Barry from staging yet another political comeback.
In both races, challengers accuse the incumbents of losing touch with the people and failing to bring home a share of the city's economic renaissance. Barry, in particular, has been relentless in his criticism of the current mayor and council. He argues that no one at city hall is fighting hard enough to improve the shameful condition of the schools, to make sure teenagers have summer jobs or to improve other services in the city's poorest ward.
The third race is being fought citywide. It pits council member Harold Brazil, who lives on Capitol Hill and chairs the council's Committee on Economic Development, against Sam Brooks and Kwame Brown, a former Clinton administration official who recently moved from suburban Virginia to the Hillcrest section of Ward 7.
Brazil has drawn the support of the city's business and political establishment, including Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), council Chairman Linda A. Cropp (D) and the Greater Washington Board of Trade. He maintains that he helped steer the District back from the brink of bankruptcy and imposed fiscal discipline on city finances.
Brown has been endorsed by the AFL-CIO and other large labor unions, Democratic groups and council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4), a young populist who built his reputation on constituent service and is running unopposed. Brown is campaigning on a promise to funnel economic development to the city's forgotten wards and increase affordable housing.
All three contests have been hard-fought and intense. But the at-large race has been particularly nasty, with Brazil angling to highlight the divisions of race and class that distinguish his base of support from Brown's.
Last week, Brazil dropped fliers in mailboxes in largely white Wards 2 and 3 linking himself to Williams and Brown to Barry under the headline: "Which Team is Best for DC?" Williams, a technocrat credited with engineering the city's downtown revival, is popular among white voters. Barry, a charismatic politician who poured money into services for the poor, is still popular among many black voters.
Brazil campaign manager Darden Copeland said the flier makes the point that Brown has taken advice from several Barry advisers -- including his father, Marshall Brown -- and therefore represents a throwback to the bad old days of out-of-control spending, collapsing city services and rampant cronyism.
Others see a more troubling message.
"Harold is playing the race card," said John Frye, a longtime Ward 7 activist. "This is the kind of stuff that has divided this city over the years, rich and poor. He is thriving on it, using it to raise money in Ward 3 to ward off the black people down here that's trying to get the council to do their job."
Frye, who lives in Deanwood, is working to defeat both Brazil and Chavous, saying neither has done much to improve the lives of people in his community.
"Citizens here can't even go to the store to get everyday things -- toilet paper, soap. They can get drugs quicker than they can get soap," Frye said. "But when you ride downtown, you see cranes and buildings and development all over the place."
Frye is particularly annoyed by what he sees as the willful neglect of the District's eastern reaches. A few months ago, he said, he went to a meeting where Brazil was the guest speaker. A citywide map of development projects showed nothing in the works for Pennsylvania Avenue SE, one of the city's most important gateways, he said.
"I couldn't believe it. I said, 'Why can't Pennsylvania Avenue look like Connecticut Avenue? Why it have to look like the '68 riots still hit it?' " Frye said.
Angie Rogers, an analyst for the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, said the institute's data confirm that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer; that neighborhoods doing well 10 years ago are still doing well, while those that were doing poorly are, in many cases, doing worse.
But focusing on that dynamic ignores more basic issues, Rogers said. "These debates are characterized as this dichotomy between economic development downtown and in Ward 3 versus improving the status of the poor. But what about spending tax dollars on economic development versus garbage collection?" said Rogers, who lives in Ward 6. "There are people sitting in their homes in Ward 3 saying, 'Baseball stadium? How about you pick up my garbage?' "
Though the unequal division of economic spoils is a major issue among voters, some analysts agree that there are prosaic reasons that Brazil, Chavous and Allen find themselves in political battles.
If voters were truly up in arms about the direction of the city, council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) said, he and Fenty would not be running unopposed. And Republican Carol Schwartz would have attracted more than token opposition in the race for her at-large seat.
Evans argued that each of the contested races has its own internal logic. In Ward 8, he said, Barry is an icon who would attract supporters regardless of whether the city were doing well. In Ward 7, "the perception is that Kevin is out of touch with his ward on constituent services."
And in Brazil's race, "the perception is that Harold doesn't show up, doesn't pay attention to what he's doing on the council," Evans said. "Rightly or wrongly, that's what people think. So a virtual unknown is catching fire."
Jamin Raskin, a constitutional law professor at American University, said the abundance of tough races for council incumbents might be part of a cycle in District politics whereby "today's brash young challenger demanding accountability becomes tomorrow's established incumbent perceived as too 'downtown.' "
As the city has prospered, "there have been rising expectations in the city about what local government should deliver," Raskin said. "People are just shopping around for their best public servants."