After four years of being labeled a carpetbagger, Mayor Anthony A. Williams is shopping for a house with his wife. Right now, the mayor says, he’s got his eye on a Bob Vila special in LeDroit Park. His administration has ushered in such good times, Williams jokes, that even his two-income professional household can afford only a fixer-upper on the margins of dinner-party acceptability.
LL will let the historians fight over the ultimate cause of the late-’90s jolt to the District housing market: low interest rates, dot-commers, canes yanking Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. off the D.C. stage. Politically, though, Williams is intricately linked to gentrification. Over the four years of Williams governance, the District has experienced economic and demographic shifts that have brought luxury condominiums, Starbucks and Fresh Fields, and a critical mass of affluent, largely white newcomers to neighborhoods heretofore neglected by real estate developers and homebuying agents.
Now, instead of crime and unreliable trash collection pushing D.C. residents out to the suburbs and elsewhere, we’re threatened by espresso macchiatos with low-fat milk and marinated organic tofu.
Williams’ campaign trail adversaries focus on the boom’s unsavory attributes. “Progress” has doubled and tripled property assessments—and had an echo effect on real estate taxes and sales. “[Williams] has demonstrated…insensitivity in doing nothing to lessen the impact of spiraling housing costs and rising real estate taxes that is driving many longtime low- and moderate-income residents out of the city— and threatening many senior homeowners with foreclosure,” boomed the Rev. Willie F. Wilson at his Democratic write-in campaign kickoff last week.
“We need a mayor who will make sure that housing is available for those who have—and those who do not have,” added Wilson—a sentiment echoed in candidate forums and campaign literature by fellow mayoral candidates such as the Rev. Douglas E. Moore and even fringe hopefuls James W. Clark and Faith.
Making D.C. hospitable to all economic strata has become the hot-button topic this political season, usurping golden oldies like public safety and public education. At the mayor’s Ward 1 town-hall meeting earlier this year, Williams received question after question from constituents about rising rents, increased property taxes, and what he planned to do to keep housing affordable He deferred answers to representatives from the Department of Housing and Community Development.
Police and fire department representatives remained mum all evening.
Williams’ critics frame the debate in an
us-vs.-them showdown: Williams favors rich over poor, big developers over little businesses, white over black. In the past week, Williams has been more vocal, traveling across the river to tout his administration’s affordable-housing initiatives. “I understand that rising property values and rents are forcing some low-income residents to leave their neighborhoods,” remarked Williams, in a press release announcing requests for proposals for the city’s housing-production trust fund. “This is unacceptable. This money will allow us to preserve our city’s affordable housing and create new opportunities for more affordable housing.”
In between, the mayor also made three visits to Fresh Fields and attended the opening of a new Caribou Coffee on 14th Street NW.
Candidates in the at-large and ward races are also citing gentrification’s scourge as a rationale to oust incumbents. In Ward 1, which includes ground-zero gentrification spots such as the U Street corridor, Mount Pleasant, and Columbia Heights, challengers Dee Hunter and Shelore Williams talk about preserving the neighborhood for “our” community. They point to incumbent Jim Graham’s contributions from developers and other real estate interests.
On the other hand, as those same candidates walk through “our” community along Georgia Avenue NW, they hear residents complain about the lack of retail services along their commercial strip.
The same is true in Ward 6, where challenger Keith Andrew Perry hopes to knock off incumbent Sharon Ambrose, whose five years on the council have coincided with a Capitol Hill renaissance. “Affordable housing in general is at risk in this city,” Perry passionately stated at an AARP-sponsored Ward 6 campaign forum Wednesday. Perry then proposed a “senior discount” for renters to the older audience.
Wilson, Hunter, Perry, et al. have embraced populism over gentrification for one compelling reason: Their opponents are seen as agents of gentrification, so they have to offer a political alternative of some sort.
Demographics and racial
politics are working against these candidates: The city is getting whiter every day, and the anti-gentrification message—even the sugar-coated versions—can’t hide contempt for rich white
couples who can afford a $700,000 town house and tuition at the Maret School.
And the racially divisive campaign platform may not work well with its intended audience. Even residents in transitional neighborhoods have conflicted feelings about the city’s real estate tumult: They applaud the new retail outlets and safer streets, even as they gripe about higher rents and housing prices. A Washington Post poll earlier this year found that 55 percent of D.C. residents favor gentrification.
The populists speak passionately about the antidotes to gentrification: affordable housing, real estate tax breaks for seniors, and the like. A few subsidies and tax-code changes, though, hardly amount to an alternative paradigm to what the past few years have seen—an improved quality of life for many D.C. residents.
In the end, it’s hard to fashion a political career by fighting a movement that has brought new residents, new stores, and higher tax revenues to the city.
* As Williams campaigns as a write-in, he’s struggling to put his past misdeeds behind him. But they keep popping up: On July 25, former Williams Deputy Chief of Staff Mark Jones filed a $50 million lawsuit in D.C. Superior Court against the mayor.
While serving in the executive office from April 2000 through February 2001, Jones spearheaded the administration’s fundraising efforts for civic and political events through nonprofit organizations. In March, the D.C. inspector general determined those practices improper and, in the case of one nonprofit, referred Jones to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Williams denied substantive knowledge about the fundraising techniques, placing most of the blame for his administration’s missteps on underlings like Jones.
In his complaint, Jones alleges that the mayor attempted to “hide, disguise and disavow” information and set up Jones as the chief fall guy for this episode. “The mayor…published the aforementioned false representations deliberately, willfully and purposely, despite full knowledge of their falsehood and with complete disregard for the accuracy thereof,” reads Jones’ complaint.
He sues Williams on three counts: defamation, false light, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. “As a direct and proximate result of the [mayor’s] extreme and outrageous conduct, plaintiff continues to suffer severe emotional distress, irreparable injury in his professional and community standing and permanent damage to his reputation as a law-abiding citizen of high moral character,” the complaint continues. “He has been subjected to ridicule, embarrassment, shame, disgrace, and humiliation among friends, professional colleagues and the general public.”
Williams spokesperson Tony Bullock declined to comment on the complaint.
Jones will likely have his testimony well-honed if his case reaches a jury: Last week, he received a subpoena to testify before the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance, which is still investigating the fundraising imbroglio.
* For most D.C. pols, a Washington Times endorsement has its drawbacks: Though the daily features straightforward reporting and commentary in its Metropolitan section, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon-owned newspaper’s A Section and editorial pages often read like the internal newsletter of the Republican National Committee.
D.C. Council at-large hopeful Dwight E. Singleton accuses the Times of another kind of bias: In a meeting with the newspaper’s editorial board on Monday, Singleton announced in his opening statement that Deputy Editorial-Page Editor Deborah Simmons has been actively campaigning around town for at-large opponent Beverly Wilbourn. As evidence, Singleton pointed to Simmons’ showing of support at Wilbourn’s June 13 kickoff. LL, as well, noticed that Simmons attended the event without the usual journalistic baggage: notebooks, pens, and some veneer of objectivity.
Singleton also says that Simmons plugged Wilbourn in conversations with Singleton supporters, though Simmons seemed unaware of their affiliation at the time.
With Times editors, Wilbourn, and at-large incumbents Phil Mendelson and David Catania in attendance, Singleton asked Simmons to recuse herself from the editorial board’s discussions. Simmons denied the allegations. So Singleton decided to recuse himself—and walked out of the meeting. “I had no other option but to remove myself,” says Singleton. “I didn’t feel it was fair to me or the other candidates.”
Wilbourn did not return calls for comment.
In the meeting, according to those in attendance, Simmons explained that she attended the Wilbourn kickoff as a “citizen.” “I attended the Wilbourn kickoff because my youngest daughter will be voting for the first time this year, and she wanted to sign up as an unpaid volunteer with the Wilbourn campaign,” Simmons told LL. “That’s why you didn’t see me taking any notes.”
Singleton insists that her actions taint the endorsement process. “When she speaks, people don’t resonate to her as Deborah Simmons—people resonate to her as a Washington Times columnist,” responds Singleton, who currently represents Wards 3 and 4 on the D.C. Board of Education.
“Mr. Singleton was a rude as I have ever seen him, and he disparaged the integrity of this newspaper,” Simmons says. “I am not actively campaigning for any candidate.”
* In August 1999, Mayor Williams and D.C. Council Chair Linda W. Cropp took civic heat for affixing their names to a fundraiser for Oklahoma Republican Ernest J. Istook, who chaired the House Appropriations subcommittee on the District of Columbia at the time. The mayor, it appears, shares his passion for Istook with one of his Democratic challengers: According to the Center for Responsive Politics, mayoral hopeful Moore contributed $300 to Istook in August 2000. Moore, who runs Moore Energy Resources Corp., a minority-owned business that supplies coal and natural gas to PEPCO and Washington Gas, also made contributions to Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) in 1996 and 1997 and Rep. Ron Klink (D-Pa.) in 2000.
Moore offered a very precise explanation for his financial contribution to the Republican: “He’s a life member of the [National Rifle Association], and I support NRA members,” says the Democratic candidate for mayor.
As a member of the D.C. Council from 1974 to 1978, Moore proudly mentions, he was the only councilmember to vote against a prohibition on handguns.
* Last Saturday, LL received our first installment of the Williams campaign’s voter-education effort: The colorful mailing, which featured Hizzoner in a hard hat and Home Depot apron, explained how to write in the mayor’s name on the ballot Sept. 10.
Some of the mayor’s Democratic incumbent friends will also assist with the education efforts on Election Day: This week, Williams and Mendelson agreed to create a coordinated campaign, meaning that poll workers for the at-large incumbent will also hand out Williams pencils and self-inking stamps. “People who want to work for me will also work for Tony,” Mendelson explains.
The Williams campaign hopes to create similar relationships with Ward 1 Councilmember Graham, Ward 5 Councilmember Vincent B. Orange Sr., and Ward 6 Councilmember Ambrose.
* Though Ward 3 historically has high voter turnout, the affluent ward lags behind its peers in one Election Day category: poll workers.
The D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics has the most trouble recruiting volunteers from the Wisconsin and Connecticut Avenue corridors, notes Shirley Jackson, program specialist for poll-worker training. Given the unique write-in campaigns as well as new voting equipment this year, the board needs all the help it can get.
Jackson reports a shortage of volunteers from Wards 1 and 2, as well. Anyone interested in working the Sept. 10 or Nov. 5 elections may contact the board at (202) 727-2525. CP
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