While everyone had motive in the redistricting process, there was only one legitimate motive: serving the interests of the citizens and their neighborhoods. But, sadly, neighborhoods were not a priority when the D.C. Council passed a redistricting plan last week. The council placed political interests over the manifest needs of communities all across the city.
The citizens who came together to draft an alternative redistricting plan knew that the only workable option was the creation of a plan that would give precedence to the wishes of communities, which were not in conflict with one another, rather than to the political interests of councilmembers, which were. Unlike the council’s plan, the citizens’ plan adhered to the legal principles of redistricting when it redrew ward boundary lines that respected neighborhood cohesiveness, natural geography, and compact wards and advisory neighborhood commissions. It made only the minimum number of changes to existing ward boundaries, disrupted the fewest number of people necessary, and split the fewest number of census tracts. The council’s plan did the opposite, and Ward 4 is a perfect example of the contortion advocated by the council. That ward went from being the only one in total compliance before redistricting began to being the largest after the process was completed.
Councilmembers who cloaked their motives and political agendas in statements about balancing ward population numbers or blurring racial ward boundary lines did a tremendous disservice to their constituents and to the city as a whole. It was reprehensible for Councilmembers Kathy Patterson and Phil Mendelson to justify the unnecessary breakup of the Chevy Chase community into Ward 4 by suggesting that there was a need to blur the psychological boundary lines between the “haves and the have-nots.” Moreover, they didn’t accomplish a ward-population balancing act anyway, because there’s a swing of more than 6,000 people between the smallest and the largest wards.
There was no more naked display of self-interest in the process than the treatment of the Chevy Chase community. That neighborhood was split because Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans refused to absorb the community of Glover Park into his ward. Had he done so, it would have solved Ward 3’s overpopulation problem and kept Chevy Chase intact. Everyone, including Evans, knew this was the best solution. Reuniting two similar communities (Glover Park and Burleith) and a previously split census tract across Whitehaven Parkway was far more practical and less disruptive than splitting yet another intact community and its census tracts across an unprecedented mile-wide stretch of Rock Creek Park.
If you follow the money, the self-interest of the process becomes even more apparent. Evans has built his reputation on moving money, and his ward is designed to maximize fundraising opportunities. With the new redistricting plan in place, Ward 2 now has more office buildings, businesses, and businesspeople than any other ward in the city. Evans understands that when a constituent is satisfied with a councilmember, he or she can vote for that person at election time. But when a businesspersonparticularly one who doesn’t live or vote in the cityis satisfied with a councilmember, he or she can show it by writing a check or hosting a fundraiser.
The other councilmembers appear to have acquiesced to his strategy. Anyone studying the invitations for incumbent councilmembers’ re-election kickoff campaigns (including Linda Cropp’s, with Evans as the chair, held just hours after the redistricting bill passed) might draw the conclusion that there’s a quid pro quo between Evans and his colleagues for support on redistricting and term limits. It’s not hard to spot the councilmembers who bought into such dealmaking. They’re the onesin the face of enormous community protestwho voted for a redistricting plan that went against the wishes of their constituents and that violated the legal principles of redistricting.
It is apparent that the redistricting process cannot be entrusted to the members of the D.C. Council and should instead be given to an impartial and objective body, as is done in several states and many foreign democracies. By so doing, we wouldn’t undo the damage done to our city this time around, but we would be protecting the interests of our communities down the road.