If you were ever somebody in D.C. politics, you were probably at the John A. Wilson Building in downtown Washington on Tuesday night.
There, as the Ballou High School drum line kept the beat going, a political reunion rarely seen took over the glass and marble atrium of the District’s city hall, all in the name of celebrating the 40th anniversary of home rule.
“Welcome to our birthday party,” said Sterling Tucker, the first chairman of the elected D.C. Council, who served as master of ceremonies for the party. “Tonight we understand . . . there is much to be done.”
Local judges, council members, former city officials and two former mayors were all present to commemorate the day that the District could finally pick its own mayor and city council. The fight for that right — which involved persuading Congress to give up total control of the city’s political and budget decision-making — had been a long and tenacious one, a battle that many on hand Tuesday evening shared fond remembrances of.
In his remarks, Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) alluded to those difficult negotiations and honored many for their efforts. He reserved special praise for Walter E. Washington, the city’s first appointed and elected mayor.
“Imagine having to deal with the leaders up the street that didn’t want to acknowledge that this was not a plantation,” Gray said. “Maybe one day we’ll just say that the city was named for him.”
The evening ceremony was filled with symbolism and a touch of irony, as former political foes and longtime allies stood side by side and talked about battles won and lost. Perhaps the surprise of the night was that former mayor and current council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), who perhaps casts the longest shadow on the city’s recent history, did not speak.
The night was filled with other symbolic moments. Standing one person apart to the right of the stage were Sharon Pratt, the city’s first woman mayor, and council member Muriel E. Bowser (D-Ward 4), who is hoping to be the city’s second woman mayor. Whether coincidence or strategy, you couldn’t help but notice the direct line from one to the other. On Pratt’s way out, they exchanged a quick embrace.
“It was like a family reunion. And you know, with your own family, you don’t always like everybody,” Pratt said. “There are some of us who got along or didn’t get along but kind of enjoy seeing each other.”
But the city’s history since 1974 has not been without tumultuous growth pains. The days when the federal government controlled the District government are over, but the battles for statehood persist. In September, a bill to consider D.C. statehood was given a hearing before a U.S. Senate committee. It went nowhere, but it was the first time in 20 years that a hearing ever took place. Budget autonomy is still nonexistent for D.C. government.
“There are still a lot of young adults and residents who don’t fully appreciate how long it’s been since we’ve gotten home rule in 1974,” said council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5). As for the next 40 years, he hopes that full representation in Congress will become a reality. “I’m forever an optimist. . . . I think the grass-roots support we’ve gotten from some of the organizations who’ve seen, I think, the awareness raised locally. The next step is to get awareness raised outside the Beltway, so others know our plight.”
As part of the celebration, organizers unveiled a photo exhibit displaying the sights of the home-rule fight during the past 100 years. The exhibit has about 60 photos dating back to the 1910s up through the 2010s, with a particular focus on the past four decades. In a photo taken at the Women’s Suffrage Parade in 1913, a sign says that no gender could vote for the president at that point in Washington. In a 1959 photo, a protester’s sign reads, “Only convicts, lunatics and Washingtonians can not vote.” Then there’s one of a 97-year-old man casting his first presidential ballot in 1964.
For Ward 8 resident Brenda Dickerson, 70, the celebration was a reminder that the city, while achieving partial home rule, still has battles to fight.
“I didn’t learn that much about it until we got here to D.C. I don’t know; I have a little question mark. I think we should be represented as a state,” the Florida native said. “To me, just because we’re the nation’s capital doesn’t mean we shouldn’t get the rights.”