To many with 1985 syndrome, their ideal mayor is Marion Barry.
To many with 1985 syndrome, their ideal mayor is Marion Barry. Credit: Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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A debilitating disease is haunting the D.C. mayoral election: 1985 syndrome. And, according to the polls, it may be about to cost Mayor Adrian Fenty his job.

Fenty isn’t in trouble because of any failure to produce tangible results. Rather, his numbers have declined because some residents believe their mayor should be the parent of wayward children, an employment placement agent, a union organizer, a border guard preventing the advance of white suburbanites, and a community pastor, laying on hands under revival tents.

“There are still southern aspects of this city,” explains Ward 8 activist Philip Pannell. “People would still like the mayor to be more empathetic the way they would want to see their pastors more empathetic.”

In the District’s early history as a self-governing municipality, many of its elected officials had the title reverend attached to their names: D.C. Delegate Rev. Walter Fauntroy; D.C. Board of Education President Rev. David Eaton; D.C. Councilman Rev. Jerry Moore. Those who weren’t pastors still waxed ministerial, talking about the downtrodden, sprinkling stump speeches with references to Jesus while wearing shirts with monogrammed cuffs.

In the imaginations of veteran activists like Pannell, the District is still a sleepy town with southern expectations of local political decorum—pretty much what it was in 1985, at the apogee of the Home Rule generation’s political power.

That view stands in sharp contrast to what modern census, retail, and real estate data say about the District: That it’s a polyglot metropolis, with a $9 billion government that requires 21st century professional leadership. “Change has to happen,” says Misty Brown, a Ward 7 resident and special events producer. “Some of our traditions are backward.”

The tensions between Brown’s view of things and Pannell’s reflects the deep, unspoken divide within D.C.’s African-American community as the mayoral election approaches. On one side, people fixate on the glory days of black political power. On the other side, people embrace the reality of 21st century D.C. The struggle isn’t just over who will control the Wilson Building. It’s about who writes the city’s cultural and political narrative.

D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray’s supporters are delighted with the anachronistic political archetype he represents. Race is their primary lens. A debate over professionalizing D.C.’s teacher corps becomes a fight over the survival of black teachers—forget the children. Black unemployment happens because too many whites are employed. White gentrification is an assault on black progress.

African Americans embracing Fenty’s corporate-manager model respect the struggle against racial discrimination fought by previous generations, but they embrace Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream of a character-content driven society. They measure the mayor by results and outcomes. In other words, they refuse to be imprisoned by dated slogans and antiquated covenants.

And the reason the race is so bitter is that the mainstream of local African-American leadership hold tenaciously to the old leadership model that you almost have to think of it as a medical affliction: 1985 syndrome.

People lining up against Fenty can’t really be called the “old guard.” After all, plenty of younger folks—councilmembers like Kwame Brown and Harry Thomas, Jr., themselves sons of former top pols—have 1985 on their minds, too, with all of the reality-denying implications. Consider as proof of their psychosis the fact that they simultaneously acknowledge that the District has improved tremendously under Fenty but insist he doesn’t deserve to be re-elected.

Sufferers from 1985 syndrome assess the value of any government action using the old black vs. white paradigm. In their world there are no Hispanics and Asians, and whites should be at the end of the line. They cast low-income African Americans as victims, incapable of determining their own destinies. The soundtrack to their lives is “We Shall Overcome.” But they don’t really believe we will ever overcome. They are locked in a time warp. Ask them to describe their ideal mayor and most offer a version of Pannell’s response: “Marion Barry, with sense.”

“People are concerned that the progress made in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s have been eroded and the clock has been turned back or we are moving backward,” explains William Lightfoot, a former D.C. councilmember and chair of Fenty’s re-election committee who says he is sympathetic to the 1985ers’ condition.

Interestingly, the 1985 syndrome paranoia was present even when African Americans controlled every lever of power. But its symptoms grew worse as the local government’s actual service to African-Americans improved dramatically under former Mayor Anthony Williams and more recently under Fenty. The problem: Neither man fit the old ministerial mold. So the 1985ers assert that Williams and Fenty neglected the poor. Of course, those saying this were themselves middle-class and fairly well educated.

For the most elite sufferers of 1985 syndrome, evoking the east-of-the-river’s poor is a ministerial strategy designed to deflect their chief concern: themselves.

Once many of them were the movers and shakers of the city, a black privileged class. They and their friends held executive-level government jobs or lucrative, sole source city contracts. They sent their children to private schools; lived in fancy houses; dined at expensive restaurants, and vacationed on Martha’s Vineyard. They were aided by liberal whites who thought the best way to lift all boats was to support black leadership that claimed to care about the poor.

In reality, during that era African Americans in the poor communities were living horrific lives. The public education on which they relied was among the worst in the nation; health indices were third world; public housing was dilapidated; social service agencies were under multiple court orders; neighborhoods were war zones. Not surprisingly, the city sunk into the abyss.

And while few people want to admit it now, the first push-back against 1985 syndrome came specifically because the privileged class’ leadership failed so miserably. And it came from a man who was a generation older than Gray and was imposed on D.C. by Congress: Financial control board chairman Andrew Brimmer, who governed as if he were of the Williams/Fenty leadership model. He focused on competence and demanded results.

In 2006, Adrian Fenty may have been an unwitting beneficiary of the 1985 syndrome. Many blacks thought he was the perfect balance between old and new. Fenty was results oriented. But they also imagined him as that ministerial 20th century African-American political leader—talking about the poor, arriving at crime scenes, engaging in group grieving.

“He had all of the activists on board,” recalls radio commentator Eugene Dewitt Kinlow. “He created the image in people’s mind he was their leader. He was the guy that was going to make it happen. He pumped a lot of folks up…. He didn’t deliver for them in the way they wanted.”

It’s easy to blame all this on Fenty. But there really wasn’t any way he could effectively overlay that style and its attending demands across the entire city. The District already had turned the corner under Williams. It was no longer Barry’s city. By 2006, it wasn’t even the city Williams took control of in 1998.

During his eight-year reign, Williams had recreated the District, smothering its southern patina and embracing a diverse, cosmopolitan status. As a result, a new cultural-political narrative began. Officials elected citywide, like the mayor, were required to expand the public policy lens to incorporate the issues of D.C.’s newcomers.

As this happened, 1985ers began to throw temper tantrums, demanding attention while instigating dissatisfaction among low-income residents—even as record investments were being made in their communities. African Americans, then as now, failed to understand the dynamics with which Fenty found himself dealing. He had to make the adjustment or fail everyone—blacks included.

African Americans, particularly the privileged class and their white enablers, may think, yet again, that with Gray they have the ideal leadership model—a hefty portion of the old, with a tad of the new. But they need only look to the White House to understand the movement of history. Even if Gray wins the Democratic primary, the victims of 1985 syndrome, longing for yesteryears, can click their ruby slippers all day long, but there will be no going back.

We aren’t in their District of Columbia any more.