The dramatic ousting of three longtime D.C. Council members might have come as a shock to much of the District yesterday. But to residents of Wards 7 and 8, whose ballots largely did the deed, the results were simply the natural culmination of years of growing frustration.
"If you listen to the way people talk here, it's not a surprise," said Ray Evans, 63, as he popped into the Safeway at Alabama Avenue and Good Hope Road SE yesterday afternoon. "My God, look around. Look at the lack of housing. There's no jobs. Kids don't have the right things to participate in. We've already lost a generation of kids. There needs to be a change."
Change was made in sweeping fashion as voters sent Kevin P. Chavous (Ward 7), Sandy Allen (Ward 8) and Harold Brazil (At Large) to defeat in Tuesday's Democratic primary, replacing them with Vincent C. Gray, a former director of the D.C. Human Services Department; former mayor Marion Barry; and political rookie Kwame Brown, respectively. None of the races was competitive: Chavous came the closest, losing by 17 percentage points.
The incumbents, who had a combined 34 years on the council, chair important committees. Chavous heads the panel on education and libraries, Brazil the one on economic development and Allen the one on human services.
But voters said such status paled in comparison to the fact that the three council members did not seem to deliver much in the way of constituent services for the two wards east of the Anacostia River.
"No one will go downtown to the council chambers and not be accountable to residents," said Barbara Morgan, 69, a longtime Ward 7 activist. "That is over. We want to see our concerns answered. We need better schools. We need to have economic development. We are concerned about the conditions of our [retail] avenues. . . . When you go downtown, you see cranes all over. We don't see that out here. We are entitled. We pay taxes."
One of the major themes of Gray's campaign was that he would be a "full-time council member," a dig at Chavous's reputation as someone who was as busy at his private law practice as at city hall. Gray pledged yesterday to quit his job as executive director of Covenant House Washington, which helps troubled youths, assuming he wins in November's general election.
Gray also noted that with the election of Brown, who lives in Ward 7, three council members would live east of the Anacostia.
Brown, who heads a private nonprofit organization that links minority-owned businesses to large corporations, said that when he campaigned in Wards 7 and 8, he found "people who were saying, 'We need some attention.' They said, 'Hey, look, we do not want preferential treatment. We just want to go with our families to a sit-down restaurant and have more community development and community policing, just like they want in Dupont Circle and Petworth.' "
But Wards 7 and 8 certainly do not look like Dupont Circle or Petworth. Although some parts of both wards feature well-manicured single-family homes, a lone Denny's in Ward 7 is the only major sit-down restaurant, and blighted strip malls, vacant lots and abandoned buildings are prevalent.
Some public housing complexes have been replaced by new middle-income housing. But the run-down Skyland shopping center, which the city intends to redevelop through eminent domain, is a symbol of the ongoing struggles in the two wards.
"I don't think that Chavous has done too much for the Ward 7 community," said Shawntai Anderson, 26, clutching bags from the CVS and Safeway on Minnesota Avenue. She said the new retail stores on the commercial strip are nice but are less important than creating more affordable housing. And although several housing initiatives are underway in the southern part of Ward 7, as well as in neighboring Ward 8, Anderson was frustrated that little was being built in the northern part of Ward 7, where she lives.
Residents cited some specific complaints yesterday about the incumbents. Morgan, for example, was outraged that Chavous had supported a school vouchers program against her and other Ward 7 residents' wishes. Rita Spears, a 12-year resident of Ward 8 who works at Nostalgia, a retail store on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE, said Allen was not attentive to the crime problems in her own neighborhood.
"Look at the drugs right in her back yard," Spears said. "Look at the killings at the high-rise near where she lives. She's not even taking care of her own back yard."
Over and over, residents complained that they simply did not see Chavous, Allen and Brazil enough. When they called about abandoned cars, trash-strewed lots or petty crime, it was difficult to reach the council members or even to get a return call from their staff, residents said.
"The only time you would see Brazil and Chavous was when it was voting time," said Ward 7 resident Lillian A. Pharms, 66, who said she voted for Gray and Brown.
To council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4), who cruised unopposed to a primary win, Tuesday's results served as a lesson: Never underestimate the impact of personally interacting with your base.
"From what I heard in Wards 7, 8 and citywide, there was not enough engagement with the people," Fenty said. "This shows that you can become the chairman of an important committee, but you can never forget the people who elected you."
Gladys Banks, 60, a minister who has lived in Ward 8 for 18 years, supported Allen but agreed that the new council members "should put it on their schedules to come out once or twice a month to the community and come to the corner and just listen to people vent."
Ward 8 residents noted that Barry often stops on the street and holds a conversation with regular citizens. Chester C. Hart, who runs the Anacostia Men's Employment Network in Ward 8, a nonprofit organization that focuses on job readiness and education for ex-offenders, said Barry is a "natural politician."
"He creates the attitude of faith and hope," Hart said. "He gives us hope."
Staff writers Hamil R. Harris and Debbi Wilgoren contributed to this report.