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March 20, 2014 3:50 PM Will D.C. Politics Ever Change?

By Ed Kilgore

It’s now been about 16 years since I lived in the District of Columbia (not counting many weeknights later on when I stayed there on sublets or at a B&B). So I haven’t paid as much attention to D.C. politics and government as I did back in the days when I was mugged twice, or when I was told I would have to get a learner’s license because my stolen driver’s license was never entered in the DMV system, or when an illegal structure in the alley behind my home filled the drains with raw sewage which flooded my house, or… well, you get the idea. Most of my tenure in D.C. coincided with the last mayoral term of Marion Barry, who was pretty clear about his belief that the purpose of local government was to provide jobs for people living in the suburbs who loyally supported him, and who was in any event supervised by Republican Members of Congress who invariably treated District residents like the sub-citizens they technically are by some definitions.

The most amazing thing to me as someone who grew up in the Deep South was how thoroughly and poisonously racialized every aspect of D.C. politics and government seemed to be, and I don’t just mean Barry’s blatant race-baiting, either. Plenty of my liberal neighbors and colleagues talked routinely about the African-American leaders and employees of the District in ways that would have embarrassed my rural relatives back in Georgia. And it was impossible to separate the politics of race from those of class, either, as Our Nation’s Capital’s staggering disparities of income and wealth were visible in every direction, accentuated by the city’s compact size.

It’s with that background that I check in now and then on the D.C. scene, and I have to say this report from Slate’s Dave Weigel shows some things haven’t changed:

Washington D.C.’s got an early Democratic primary this year—April 1 (no jokes!)—and the most competitive race for mayor in more than a decade. Four D.C. Council members, most of them with constituencies in D.C.’s gentrifying Northwest, have piled in to take on Mayor Vincent Gray. With every week, every revelation of the illegal money that aided his 2010 victory, Gray looks weaker. He leads in polls, helped by the splintered field, but he needs a base to come out for him.
Enter Marion Barry, who to the occasional disgust and amusement of the gentrifiers remains on the D.C. Council. (He retired from politics in 1999, got bored, and defeated a protege for a council seat in 2004.) Barry, 78 years old and visibly struggling, endorsed Gray at a press conference in his ward, in Southeast D.C., an event clearly designed to shore up black votes. In 2010 Gray successfully primaried Mayor Adrian Fenty by romping with black voters. Gray won 82 percent in Barry’s Ward 8, for a margin of 8,453 votes. He did even better in Ward 7, also east of the Anacostia, racking up nearly 12,000 votes over Fenty. Gray’s citywide margin: 13,124 votes.
And so Barry, who recently got out of the hospital, showed up and turned the subtext into text. “I think it’s up to white people to be more open-minded,” he said, “and blacks are more open-minded than they are. Simple as that.”

And maybe it is as “simple as that,” meaning it’s all about race. As the Democratic mayoral primary follows its usual patterns of a rivalry between voters in Northwest D.C. and in neighborhoods East of the Anacostia choosing between black candidates, waiting in the wings is white gay former-Republican-now-independent councilmember David Catania, who has a real chance of winning in the most Democratic city in America, probably on a racially polarized vote. Demographic change has ensured that Washington isn’t exactly “Chocolate City” any more, and that seems, ironically, to have undermined any strong impetus for the kind of multiracial “reform” politics one would think the place needs.

Since PA has many current residents of D.C. in its readership, I invite you to offer more informed evaluations of the current political climate in the comment thread.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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