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Supporters of home rule rally in October 1973 on the steps of the District building.
Supporters of home rule rally in October 1973 on steps of the District Building. (Margaret Thomas/ TWP)
Home Rule and Its Discontents

By Colbert I. King
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 1, 1998

It wasn't supposed to end up like this. After all, the right to trudge to the polls and choose government leaders of their own liking was, for D.C. residents, such a long time coming. In fact, it was nearly a century. But in a political upheaval that began only two years ago, when Congress created the the financial control board, and culminated only last summer, when Congress effectively kicked Mayor Marion Barry over the side, the limited form of self-determination known since 1974 as "home rule" was suddenly gone.

In its place is a governance scheme more convoluted and ambiguous and every bit as undemocratic as the presidentially appointed board of commissioners that called the shots in the District from the late 1800s to 1967.

How did a city that worked so hard and waited so long to regain a voice and a vote in its own affairs end up dancing to the tune of a handful of presidential appointees, a congressionally imposed chief management officer and chief financial officer, and a small army of handsomely paid staff and consultants? And just as important, what does the future hold for a place that was once billed as a newly liberated "Chocolate City" but is now a town occupied by hired guns?

Clifton McCleary
(Courtesy Lorraine Talley)
Clifton McCleary came to Washington in the mid-1950s from Kings Mountain, N.C., and joined the police, then the Army. After his discharge, he became politically active. "He went down to desegregate the lunch counters in Greensboro," says his sister, Lorraine Talley, who lives in Southwest. "He was a friend of [Stokeley] Carmichael's. He was also a friend of Malcolm's. He worked on [Walter] Fauntroy's campaigns." He was a founding member of the Black United Front and an officer of the Amalgamated Transit Drivers Union local. He helped put one of his brothers through college. In the mid-'70s, he began having mysterious headaches and returned to the easy-going environs of Kings Mountain and became a car salesman. "He was very comfortable in all social situations, white and black," says his sister. "He became the godfather to one of the white salesmen's children." He died on March 25, 1979, the unintended victim of a shooting at a nightclub one of his brothers owned.
A little retrospection is in order here.

Conventional wisdom has it that home rule was the final result of the tumultuous civil rights struggle of the 1960s, that the popular election of black District officials arrived pretty much on the same terms and conditions that led to the integration of lunch counters and voting booths in the Deep South. Not so.

There were, to be sure, striking similarities between the nation's civil rights struggle and the District's home rule fight. The moral case for enfranchising District residents was as compelling as wiping out discriminatory voter qualification laws in Dixie. After all, both the District and the Southern states had dispatched their black sons overseas to fight and die in wars, black households annually sent their tax dollars to the U.S. Treasury. Yet in return for their troubles, black Southerners and District residents received second-class citizenship.

And the same vicious smear used to defame the quest for black rights in the South hovered over the District's black majority: Give it to 'em, went the whisper, and watch the place go to hell.

But to suggest that the victory of home rule in the '70s was largely the result of '60s-style civil rights activism overstates what actually happened in the District 25 years ago. The key events in the fight for home rule were less dramatic than in the struggle to gain freedom in the South. That deserves emphasis, because the clues to getting home rule back lie in understanding how home rule was won in 1974-and lost 23 years later. The history of home rule in the District is, in fact, a story of incrementalism overlaid with race.

Strange as it may sound to some recent arrivals, home rule is nothing new to the nation's capital. Residents of the City of Washington were electing their leaders as early as 1802, though under circumstances that were less than completely democratic. Back then, black people and women were excluded from voting. Moreover, the president appointed the mayor, and only seven of the 12 council members were elected. But over time, more municipal positions became elective. Starting in 1820, District voters chose the mayor and council for half a century.

In 1874, however, Congress discovered that the newly spruced up streets, sidewalks and buildings in the nation's capital were bathed in $22 million worth of red ink. The city was in desperate need of its first federal bailout. The overspending was the work of presidential appointees, not the elected government, but that mattered not to the lawmakers on Capitol Hill: They installed a three-member commission to run the city. It was a stopgap arrangement that lasted for almost 100 years.

Long before Marion Barry and others helped launch the Free D.C. movement in 1965, various groups were campaigning for increased self-rule in the city. And while the '70s home rule campaign was waged on terms that cast key congressional opponents as disrespectful of a majority black city seeking equal status with the rest of the country, the job of winning self-government was always an uphill climb-even when the District was majority white.

Race always mattered, to one degree or another, but the one constant argument against home rule was that Washington was a federal district that belonged to the nation. Perhaps the resistance stiffened as the city became increasingly black, but Congress never trusted the people of the District – white or black – to govern themselves. That opposition was overcome in stages.

In 1955, Congress allowed District residents to elect the local officers of the Democratic and Republican parties. Satisfied that the republic would not fall as a result, Congress next passed and the nation subsequently ratified the 23rd Amendment in 1961, giving the city voting power in the Electoral College. In 1967, Congress took the bold step of permitting D.C. residents to elect school board members, and President Lyndon Johnson replaced the board of commissioners with an appointed mayor-commissioner and nine-member council. In 1970, Congress awarded the city a nonvoting delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives.

As their electoral experience broadened, the voters of D.C. somehow restrained themselves from running wild through the streets. Home rule supporters cited both that experience and that behavior in arguing that the District was more than ready to govern itself. Still, it took the equivalent of a two-by-four to get Congress's attention.

It came in the form of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which created a host of new possibilities, particularly in the South. One of them was the defeat, in a 1972 primary, of Rep. John L. McMillan (D-S.C.), who was the latest in a long line of home rule killers to run the House District of Columbia Committee. No single event did more to advance the District's cause. Rep. Charles Diggs, a black Democrat from Michigan, succeeded McMillan as committee chair in 1973, and the House passed the Home Rule Charter that very year. On January 2, 1975, Walter Washington was sworn in as the District's elected mayor, and 13 others took over as elected council members. The whole thing had taken less than two years.

By then, however, the crisis that would undermine self-government was already brewing.

In the two decades before home rule, the Washington metropolitan area doubled in population. The District, however, did not share in that bounty: Its share of area residents plummeted from a high of 50 percent in 1950 to only 25 percent by 1970. The bad news went far beyond the numbers. Among those leaving were those the District needed most – businesses and middle-income taxpayers. And as the tax base shrank, the District changed in other ways.

The school-age population was doubling, especially in the junior and senior high ranks, where more spending was required. The ranks of the elderly grew by 24 percent. The proportion of married people declined. Children from fractured homes became more numerous, as did teenagers from low-income households. Public spending rose for an ever-increasing dependent population. It could have been seen, if anyone was looking. Instead, all eyes were on the prize: home rule. And yet the ability to rule was eroding even as the inaugural bunting was being hung.

The exodus that started in the '50s never stopped, certainly not in the '70s, as Mayor Washington's administration gave way to a Marion Barry regime drawn from civil rights activists. In the '80s, as crack cocaine filled the courts, jails and hospitals, 31,000 residents picked up and left. And in the '90s, as crack brought down a mayor and nearly half the city's black men between the ages of 18 and 35 ended up ensnared in the criminal justice system, the pace only accelerated. D.C. has suffered a net loss of nearly 78,000 residents so far this decade. Its population of 528,964 is the lowest since the Depression.

Marion Barry contends that home rule never had a chance because the city, in a stroke of pride in the 1970s, took on more than it could handle. That is partially true-the District did inherit enormously expensive local and "state type" responsibilities without having a state to rely upon (an imbalance that President Clinton's federal rescue plan goes a long way toward remedying). But this explanation goes only so far.

Home rule also suffered because the mayor used millions of tax dollars to build a personal power base through contracts at the expense of a government that needed upgrading and a community with tragic needs. Home rule suffered because the government became a home away from home for nonproducing workers and the bureaucracy was converted into a way station for members of Barry's political machine. Home rule suffered, to a fatal extent, because of a host of bad decisions by a succession of Barry administrations and weak-kneed city councils hellbent on using a government with a declining tax base to redistribute wealth to create and sustain a black middle class.

This is why the home rule dream of a national capital filled with a stable and growing middle class led by the city's best and brightest gave way to the present-day nightmare: a discredited government, a shrinking city that has become a ward of the federal government, and a voting-age population in danger of losing faith in the ballot.

The District has been here before. And once again the District must begin, as it did at the turn of the last century, the long, arduous process of separating itself from flawed, failed old ways and making a case for a new relationship with the federal leaders for whom this city is a temporary home.

A new local-federal relationship was heralded when the federal government assumed the District's $5 billion pension liability and several state functions. But the city has to do some heavy lifting of its own-and the heaviest burden will come in improving its standing with Congress. This may be galling for some residents who, with justification, feel manhandled by the current Congress. But unless Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17 of the Constitution is changed, Congress is the party that decides whether District residents will be treated politically the same as all other Americans.

The building blocks for this new relationship are not themselves new or exciting, but they are vital. They include the adoption of many overdue management and operational reforms in the city government. The bureaucracy must be upgraded from top to bottom. Accountability must become part of the government's culture. Obsolete technology must be replaced. But only by demonstrating a renewed capacity to manage a broad array of public responsibilities will the city hasten the day when the mayor and the council regain the authority they are elected to wield.

Colbert I. King is a member of The Post's editorial board.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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