What kind of political culture will fill the vacuum in the District once U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. has finished his aggressive crackdown on crooked officials and sleazy campaign practices?
That question ought to preoccupy District leaders and voters right now, especially in the predominantly African American eastern wards where Machen’s legal bulldozer threatens to raze the existing power structure.
The challenge is to attract and support candidates who are genuinely dedicated to public service and who view U.S. and District laws as meaningful strictures rather than annoying hindrances to be circumvented.
Without a fresh generation of ethical leadership, the likes of disgraced former D.C. Council chairman Kwame R. Brown and former council member Harry Thomas Jr. will just be succeeded by a new bunch of phonies who speak movingly about their purported passion to help the public but in reality care mainly about enriching themselves.
If there’s a reason for hope in the current gloom about the future of District government, it could come in the person of newly installed council member Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5). On the surface, at least, he seems to exemplify the traits of honesty and professional experience that one would want in a rising class of officeholders to replace those who’ve been discredited and, in some cases, are headed to prison.
In an interview Friday in his half-furnished offices in the John A. Wilson Building, McDuffie emphasized his idealism by slapping two pamphlets on a table describing the D.C. Council’s Code of Official Conduct, and Rules of Organization and Procedure.
“You’ve got to sleep with these things, these rules. This is the kind of tone we want to set,” McDuffie said.
McDuffie, a 36-year-old former federal civil rights lawyer, easily won last month’s special election to replace Thomas after the latter resigned and pleaded guilty to embezzling more than $350,000 of public funds.
The newcomer represents one of the District’s most politically important wards, stretching across Northeast from Catholic University to the Anacostia River. It’s the heart of the city’s black middle class and often decides citywide races.
In a potentially positive sign, the election was dominated not by traditional bread-and-butter issues but by voters’ dismay about the surge of corruption scandals. McDuffie said that was a big change from the first time he ran for the seat two years ago, when he finished third.
“In 2010, the question [from voters] was, ‘What are you going to do for us?’ In 2012, it literally was, ‘Are you going to steal any money?’ ” McDuffie said.
Rejecting a much-abused campaign-finance practice, McDuffie declined to accept multiple contributions from a single person using different business addresses. He’s requiring all of his staff to undergo ethics training, even though it’s not required.
McDuffie’s pedigree is noteworthy partly because, unlike many others, he does not spring from a family-based political organization that prized loyalty over clean government. After graduating from Howard University and University of Maryland law school, he worked as a prosecutor in Prince George’s County before going to the Justice Department.
By contrast, Brown and Thomas were heirs to fathers active in District politics. They grew up in environments that didn’t necessarily emphasize ethics.
Brown, whose political base was in Ward 7 east of the Anacostia, resigned last week as council chairman and pleaded guilty to bank fraud and a campaign-finance violation.
McDuffie said it was important to build a political system to develop and attract candidates, presumably from outside the old networks.
“There’s been no apparatus in place to really groom leadership,” he said.
Does McDuffie sound too good to be true? It’s easy to sound strong about ethics at the dawn of one’s time in office. McDuffie will have to stick to his professed ideals even when pressures to cut deals, raise money and satisfy constituents become acute.
So keep in mind the cautionary note sounded by veteran labor leader Joslyn Williams, president of the Metropolitan Washington Council, AFL-CIO. His organization supported McDuffie — but it previously backed Thomas and Brown, too, only to be disappointed by the outcomes.
“We’ve been going around trying to find young people who get it and have a passion for the city. They get in, and they get seduced by the system,” Williams said.
It’s up to McDuffie, other District leaders and ultimately the voters to change that system so such seductions end for good.
For previous columns by Robert McCartney, visit washingtonpost.com/mccartney.