Mount Rainier residents receive frequent postcards with unsolicited offers to buy their turn-of-the century Victorians and 1920s bungalows. All around Shepherd Street, contractors strip houses that will be flipped by investors eager to turn a profit in one of Prince George’s County’ oldest municipalities.
The pace of change has quickened in this former streetcar suburb, where artists and immigrants have flocked for the past three decades.
Anxiety over the influx of more affluent residents is fueling an unusually sour political season — tinged by a nasty debate over the decision to allow noncitizens to vote in municipal elections such as the mayoral and council contests that will be decided May 1.
Mayor Malinda Miles — a Web-savvy, 70-year-old who bought her house in Mount Rainier decades ago, when she and other black residents were treated as second-class citizens — is campaigning for a fourth term on a platform of staving off gentrification and preserving the social safety net. Those themes are echoed by Charnette Robinson and Tyrese Robinson, two African American women running for council seats.
Miles faces a strong challenge from council member Jesse Christopherson, 39, a white California native who used to work on Capitol Hill. He and council candidate Celina Benitez, a Salvadoran immigrant running against Charnette Robinson, pledge to draw new energy and investment to Mount Rainier while preserving its funky, artistic vibe. Tyrese Robinson’s opponent is Luke Chesek, who is white and moved in two years ago.
City leaders say they expect more robust voter turnout than usual after a series of heated candidate forums, allegations of sign stealing and growing worry about whether Mount Rainier is changing beyond recognition.
“The majority of the new homeowners are white, and that’s a little concerning at times,” said Brooke Kidd, a 20-year resident who is white and runs Joe’s Movement Emporium, an arts center that draws from across Mount Rainier’s racial and class divides. “We need to make sure they are not making decisions from bias and privilege.”
Mount Rainier’s proximity to downtown Washington — four often-traffic-choked miles — makes it an attractive option for those seeking roomier, more affordable real estate.
It’s a city that attracts artists such as dancer Emily Eakland, 34, and her partner, whose business, ReCreative Spaces, offers work and exhibit space for other local artists.
It’s also a quiet place where neighbors take care of one another, said Diana Edwards, a Miles supporter who moved here in 1986.
It was the perfect spot for Felix Romero to buy a house, open his flower-and-party-planning business in 2002 and — thanks to the January council vote allowing noncitizens to register — prepare to cast a U.S. ballot for the first time. He has a Christopherson sign in his store window.
Eakland, who is not publicly backing a candidate, says that she wants leaders who are committed to existing businesses but also court development that fits the city’s character.
“What I would hate to see,” she said, “is people pushed out, and artists being displaced.”
Christopherson said that he agrees, wholeheartedly. The stay-at-home father of two has lived in Mount Rainier since 2009 and served on the council since 2013. He makes a point of patronizing the mom-and-pop businesses along 34th Street, including a food co-op founded in 1969 by conscientious objectors to the Vietnam War.
“We need to recognize the gems, foster networks of entrepreneurs and bring in new business that is complementary to the customer base already here,” he said the other day while drinking a large organic coffee at the WaTerHole, one of the newer shops in town. “We have a great culture, and we should continue to preserve that Mount Rainier experience.”
Christopherson said that he respects Miles’s work to help poor and elderly residents avoid eviction, pay bills and feed and clothe themselves. But, in his opinion, the city has not made enough economic progress as housing prices have soared and has missed opportunities, especially downtown.
Miles said that market forces doomed a city-led revitalization project along Rhode Island Avenue. She argued that the city has seen gradual, sustainable improvements — including the creation of parks, green initiatives and the expansion of the police force.
Seniors like herself on fixed incomes, Miles said, could find themselves unable to pay their property taxes if home values rise too quickly — as they might if the mayor pushes development at a faster pace.
“If I move out of Mount Rainier, I can’t afford to move back here to live,” she said. “New isn’t always better. All change isn’t good.”
In the early 1900s, Mount Rainier was a city of mostly white farmers known as a “sundown” town — where people of color, it was understood, should be gone by nightfall. Miles arrived in 1968, one of the first waves of black residents at a time when voter lists for municipal elections focused on homeownership and excluded many African Americans.
She said that she clearly remembers the resistance she encountered when she started to become involved in civic life in the 1970s.
Although Mount Rainier soon had an African American majority, the five-member council stayed all-white until the election of Otis Hayward in 1985. Miles won a council seat two years later.
Since then, large numbers of immigrants have settled in town, creating what longtime resident and sculptor Alan Binstock called a “diverse Mayberry.”
Nearly 40 percent of the approximately 8,500 residents are Latino, according to 2015 Census Bureau estimates. Meanwhile, the black population has fallen below 50 percent. Miles is the only African American on the council.
The racial dynamics of the election are “more than just the elephant in the room,” said Nicole Goines, Christopherson’s campaign manager. “It’s the entire room.”
Benitez, a transplant from Los Angeles, decided to run after becoming involved in efforts to reach out to other Latino residents, who she said have been neglected by city government over the years.
“A minority within a minority” is how she described the immigrants who live mostly in World War II-era apartment buildings on the fringes of town but in some cases have bought homes closer in.
“The City Council should represent the whole community,” she said.
Benitez joined Christopherson, who speaks Spanish, and others to push for the law that allows noncitizens to vote in city elections. They are now campaigning to declare Mount Rainier a “sanctuary city.”
Such advocacy, she said, made her a target of “racial antagonism” from her campaign opponent, Charnette Robinson, a D.C. police commander and longtime Mount Rainier resident.
Charnette Robinson sent a letter to the council questioning the legality of noncitizen voting, which she called a “ploy to ensure votes for particular candidates.” The letter described the sanctuary debate as “an attempt to protect the rights of illegal aliens in ways rarely done for poor and minority citizens.”
The last page demanded proof that Benitez lives within city limits and was therefore eligible to run for council, even though the election board had already certified her residency.
Charnette Robinson vigorously denied that her inquiry had anything to do with her rival’s ethnicity and said she has a right to ask whether a candidate lives in the city or to question the need for a sanctuary label.
“We don’t need an ordinance to stipulate what we already know to [be] true — Mount Rainier is a community that welcomes diversity,” she wrote in an online forum. “As representatives, we must be inclusive, and not create ordinances that are one-direction and divisive.”
Miles abstained from the January vote that allowed noncitizen voting, which passed 3 to 0. Christopherson voted yes. Election officials said that 21 new voters have registered as a result of the legislation.
Initially, Miles said, it felt almost irreverent and too easy to extend voting rights to noncitizens after African Americans from her parents’ generation had to fight so hard to obtain those rights themselves.
But then someone asked her a question: “They said, ‘Do you want everyone to go through what you did to get this right?’ ” the mayor recalled. “So I asked myself, ‘Do I want that for someone else?’ ”
Still, she chose not to cast a vote on the issue, concerned about amending the city charter.
She said that her support for immigrants has not wavered. She signed an executive order to prohibit city police from helping to enforce federal immigration law after legislation to enact that policy failed to pass the council.
Municipal elections in Mount Rainier rarely draw more than 500 voters to the polls. But political observers in the city said that if the packed candidate forums are any indication, this year’s contest could change that.
“The fact that we have hotly contested elections means people are paying attention,” said Del. Jimmy Tarlau (D-Prince George’s), a Mount Rainier resident. “We hope that no matter who wins, the city will move forward and keep the diverse, eclectic nature of the community intact.”