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Deairich R. (“Dee”) Hunter and LL are laughing over breakfast at Timothy Dean’s, that swank new place on K Street in the St. Regis Hotel that is owned by a young African-American of the same name. Head of the DC-Citizens Advocacy Project, Hunter is at times amused, baffled, and downright peeved about the D.C. Council’s move to overturn the term-limits law approved by voters in 1994. More than 80,000 citizens voted in favor of the measure to limit all elected officials to two consecutive terms in the same post.
Hunter and his allies are now pondering their next step, should the council persist. He wants to launch a massive voter-education effort, replete with mass mailings and telephone banks. Others want either to recall certain councilmembers or to target them for defeat in 2002.
Not unlike the protesters at D.C. General who are battling to keep their jobs, councilmembers are motivated by a desire to hold on to their $90,000 per year part-time gigs. By 2006, under the provisions of the term-limits law, all the lawmakers will have relinquished their current positions. Realizing that their days are numbered, the majority of the councilmembers, led by Ward 2’s Jack Evans, earlier this year stepped in to repeal the measure. They argue that the term-limits law is anti-democratic and would strip the city of valuable institutional memory and leadership at a time when both are most needed.
Thanks to that institutional memory, the District got a congressionally appointed financial control board. That institutional memory also is at the root of resistance to changing the city’s health-care-delivery model. And, until the arrival of the control board, District leaders and their institutional memory provided cover for a wholly dysfunctional school system.
As to the preservation of democracy, what could be more undemocratic than elected officials deciding by fiat to alter voter-sponsored and voter-approved laws?
Still, Hunter and LL were amused by last week’s parody of a public hearing on the council’s plan to repeal term limits. Even Hunter injected his own humor, admitting that, although he had threatened to pack the council chamber, the rows of empty seats testified that he might have suffered from mouth-far-ahead-of-action disease. The wolf tickets weren’t totally worthless, however; 30 of the 32 people who appeared before the Committee on Government Operations were supporters of the term-limits law.
The council’s recitation of the we-already-have-term-limits-and-they-are-called-elections mantra also was hilarious, especially because only six of the current 13 councilmembers actually faced incumbents to win their seats: Ward 1’s Jim Graham, Ward 3’s Kathy Patterson, Ward 4’s Adrian Fenty, Ward 5’s Vincent Orange, Ward 7’s Kevin Chavous, and At-Large member Harold Brazil.
Evans, council Chair Linda Cropp,Ward 6’s Sharon Ambrose, and At-Large member David Catania won their positions in special elections held after the incumbents grew more ambitious and won other seats in the legislature. At-Large Councilmembers Phil Mendelson and Carol Schwartz and Ward 8’s Sandra Allen won during regular elections, but each had only token oppositionnot an entrenched incumbent backed by massive political organizations and deep-pocketed contributors.
But the council’s zany rewritten history was no match for the assertions of Race Man Lawrence Guyot. The Ward 1 advisory neighborhood commissioner seems nostalgic for the ’60s race riots and never misses an opportunity to link everything to racial divisions in the city while predicting an impending violent clash. LL is sure, if given the opportunity, Guyot could connect the use of certain brand-name toothpastes with racial tensions. In his support of the council’s repeal effort, Guyot argued that term limits lead to disenfranchisement and racial discrimination. That argument baffled even Evans, who nevertheless was so desperate to find an ally at the public hearing that he declined to question Guyot’s unbelievable stretch.
Despite LL’s appreciation for wackiness, she understands that the repeal of term limits is serious business. Residents hoping to construct an honest and efficient government by making it easier for fresh, untainted political candidates to find their way into the process would see their efforts severely hampered. Young professionals interested in public office might successfully build name recognition, but, as in the past, generating enough financial support to oust an incumbent would prove a near-impossible feat.
The term-limits law doesn’t shut the door on all sitting politicians; elected officials who term out can compete for other positions. Cropp could decide to run for mayor, or Catania could make a bid for council chair. The citizens created just enough room for what they wantedskillful pruning. Consequently, expect them to continue to support term limits without equivocation. And expect many to be equally attentive to council shenanigans when it comes to the impending redistricting process.
Every 10 years, the District, like other states, receives new population statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau. The local government uses those numbers not only to make its case for more federal dollars, but also to divvy up the political landscape, redrawing boundary lines for each wardwhich could, in turn, redraw some political careers. Council staffers say each ward must have 71,502 persons, give or take 5 percent.
Although Guyot’s racial arguments about term limits are misdirected, when he testifies before the council in early April about redistricting, he’ll be absolutely on point when he raises the specter of racial and class divisions. Poor and working-class folks are likely to get the worst end of the deal. They historically do not make donations to political campaigns and have proved to be unpredictable when it comes to voter turnout. Consequently, each councilmember will attempt to minimize this population in his or her ward. For example, in 1990 when the council last had to redraw boundary lines, then-Ward 2 Councilmember John Wilson didn’t choose to tap predominantly African-American, working- and middle-class Ward 5, which borders his territory. Instead, he opted for moving west, further into more wealthy Georgetown. No surprises there.
As LL is writing this, the council has yet to receive official Census population numbers. But government and civic sources predict a fight over boundary lines for Wards 1, 2, 3, 6, and 8 that will be filled with lethal doses of race and class. They say that things are already heating up, pointing to an announcement made earlier this month by Ward 1’s Graham that he wants to expand his territory by stealing Ward 3’s Woodley Park.
But why didn’t Graham opt for portions of Shaw in Ward 2 or the southern tip of Ward 4? Both also border his ward.
Consider these facts: If Graham were to snatch a slice of Shaw, he would be adding more of the same kinds of people he already has in his wardmostly working-class, African-American residents. Although Shaw is experiencing serious gentrification, it remains a community dominated by several low-income apartment buildings. It is hurting for business, because years ago, Metro construction decimated the commercial corridor along 7th Street NW, and ongoing construction for the new convention center has destroyed 9th Street NW. In other words, economically, the neighborhood ain’t there yet. And capturing a part of Ward 4 could spell disaster for Graham, one of the council’s two openly gay members. Ward 4 is predominantly African-American; that community, though accepting of gays, is not likely to elect one to represent it.
On the other hand, Woodley Park is tony, white, liberal, and both cash- and voter-rich. By connecting it and its string of upscale Connecticut Avenue businesses to his Ward 1, Graham would achieve many things. He would increase the average income of his wardone factor that helps to determine a community’s attractiveness to both new residents and businesses. He would also balance off the eastern portion of his ward, which extends from 16th Street NW to Georgia Avenue NW and New York Avenue, where many low-income and working-class African-Americans reside. This is the section of the ward that supported Graham’s predecessor and kept him in office for years. By taking Woodley Park, Graham, who in the last election appealed more to white and gay Ward 1 voters, has a better than even chance of getting re-elected, even if he can’t pull a large part of the eastern edge.
The issue is no less controversial in predominantly black Ward 8. During the last redistricting battle, residents there saw a piece of their territoryAnacostiagiven to Ward 6. Things have never been the same, with more than a few residents in that Ward 6 area complaining that, because they are east of the Anacostia River, they are disconnected from the rest of the ward and that their interests aren’t fairly represented by Ambrose, who, they point out pejoratively, is white.
Allen will want to take back Anacostia, which over the next few years is slated to undergo major economic development and will become more attractive to middle-class residentsthe minority in the current mix in Ward 8. But there could be an effort by Evans in Ward 2 to lop off the section of his territory that lies in Southwest and butts up against the river and attach it to Ward 8, preempting Allen’s efforts to annex Anacostia. That section of Ward 2 is what one council staffer called “funky,” populated by public-housing developments whose residents frequently register low voter turnout and are therefore perceived as the least desirable kind of constituency for a politicianespecially one looking to hold on to his seat until he can run for mayor in 2006.
Regardless of the case Guyot and other residents may make at those public hearings next month, the final decision will rest with the politicians, who, as the term-limits fight indicates, believe in only one rule: self-preservation. Jonetta Rose Barras
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