Sterling Tucker (left) in 2006
Sterling Tucker (left) in 2006 Credit: Ronald T. Bennett/U.S. National Archives

Gun control. Rent control housing. Voting rights of felons. Race discrimination.

All hot topics today. All first addressed here in the District back in the 1970s, when civil rights activist Sterling Tucker became the first elected chairman of the D.C. Council in 1974.

Tucker died this week at the age of 95. His public career was a keystone to the foundation of local elected government under Home Rule. 

“He was fundamental to the leadership of the city,” says Arrington Dixon, a former council chairman and longtime activist with the Anacostia Coordinating Council. Dixon, in 1974, was the first elected councilmember from Ward 4. He recalls how the mild-mannered Tucker dealt with a progressive Council anxious for popular reforms.

“Sterling would shake his head. We were progressive and he was, too. But he was measured … that’s the job of the chairman,” Dixon says, comparing the post to current Council Chairman Phil Mendelson and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. “You can’t be too much of an advocate.” 

Anita Bonds, now an at-large councilmember, recalls Tucker’s old-school demeanor, a consummate leadership model. “He was no nonsense. Conduct a meeting, ask for ayes, bang the gavel. It was done.” 

Bonds was an integral field organizer for Marion Barry in the famous 1978 mayor’s race when then-council member Barry defeated Tucker and incumbent Mayor Walter Washington by the thinnest of margins, just 1.5 percent ahead of Tucker. What would a Mayor Tucker have been like?

Bonds says Tucker would have been more collegially business friendly and less confrontational than Barry advocating for job training and other policies. “What Barry brought to the table, what many didn’t see at the time, was a compassion for those that were left out.”

In the early Tucker council years, the members passed one of the toughest handgun control laws in the nation, which remained in place from 1976 until the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutionally restrictive in 2008. The rent control law, modified over the years, was a leader in the nation. Voting rights were restored to felons. Dixon says the early council even tried to take up gay marriage, and marijuana decriminalization based on a similar law that had passed earlier in Oregon. 

After his elected career, Tucker served as an assistant secretary of housing under President Jimmy Carter, then ran his own consulting firm. Prior to entering politics, Tucker was a civil rights leader and head of the Washington Urban League chapter from 1957 until 1974. 

Betty King, another leader in the 1978 Barry campaign, says Tucker gave his life to doing public good. “The District is indebted to him for his many years of remarkable service.”

Funeral services, being handled by the McQuire Funeral Home on Georgia Avenue NW, are incomplete as of this writing.