Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly reported that D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) has endorsed member Anita Bonds (D-At Large) in the upcoming special election. He has made no endorsement in the race. The following version has been updated.
Of all the factors weighing on the April 23 special election for the D.C. Council’s at-large seat, a candidate’s race should be among the least important. Voters need to know whether a candidate will work hard, keep his or her word and maintain high ethical standards once settled in the John A. Wilson Building. Simply stated, race tells us none of that. And race is no indicator of where a candidate stands on the issues.
If you happen to be among those who care about the racial composition of the council, then race does matter — to you.
The council’s racial makeup is, however, a weak reed on which to rely in determining how its members will respond on any given issue. Based on years of council-watching, I am confident that race is not a reliable predictor of how a member will vote.
Council members tend to pair off or team up on social and political issues of mutual interest and based on constituent demands. To be sure, voting patterns and coalitions form around fiscal and taxation issues. Those patterns are defined not by race but by policy preferences and politics.
Still, none of that has stopped some candidates from resorting to both veiled and undisguised racial appeals. Voters got a dose of it this week from Anita Bonds, who was appointed last year to the at-large seat for which she is now campaigning. Speaking on WAMU-FM , Bonds said: “ People want to have their leadership reflect who they are . The majority of the District of Columbia is African American. . . . There is a natural tendency to want your own.”
Not to be outdone, at-large candidate Patrick Mara, according to The Post’s Tim Craig, urged about 100 people in the audience at a recent candidate forum in the Chevy Chase neighborhood to vote as a bloc. “Please don’t split the vote,” Mara said. Hmm. (Mara’s campaign manager elaborated on this remark later.)
Appeals to racial-bloc voting are nearly as old as the Civil War amendments. Yes, they often work. That certainly doesn’t mean the best candidate always wins. Sometimes it’s just the opposite.
Such appeals are off-putting.
In this largely Democratic city, Bonds has sat at the top of the Democratic food chain, serving as party chairman. She is not just a fixture in party circles: Bonds has been involved in public service for years, working in the administrations of Marion Barry and Anthony Williams. She has served on the council for months and has a record on which to run.
It’s no mistake that her candidacy has won the endorsements of two expected mayoral candidates Muriel Bowser and Jack Evans, both Democrats. They recognize her potency as a Democratic figure. Without the appeal to race, Bonds is expected to do well at the polls — but not because she is an African American woman.
She didn’t have to go there.
Neither did Mara. He knows what he needs to win. Mara knows where his voters are, and he knows that he needs to get them to the polls. His Republican affiliation is a tough sell in the District, but his independence and work as an elected school-board member have attracted an array of supporters not usually found on the GOP side. Mara needs an aggressive citywide ground game, not a Ward 3 voting bloc.
A third competitive candidate, Elissa Silverman, is a good example of why race shouldn’t matter. Silverman, a Democrat, and Mara have one thing in common: color. Beyond that, the two candidates couldn’t be further apart.
Silverman is more issue-oriented and freer from partisan politics than Bonds. And Silverman, a former Post journalist who works for the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, has a deeper understanding of the District’s challenges and issues, especially the budget, than does the rest of the field, which includes Democrats Matthew Frumin and Paul Zukerberg and Statehood Green Party candidate Perry Redd.
The April 23 winner doesn’t get to represent only the city’s heavily black wards or only white voters who live west of Rock Creek Park, on Capitol Hill or in NoMa. The winner is accountable to and will serve the entire city. Candidates who present themselves as anything but inclusive might find themselves excluded.
No early voting for me. Let’s see how the candidates close out their campaigns.
A city transforming itself into a thriving urban center can be defeated by identity politics. This contest matters to the District. Race should not.
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