Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
As Good as It Gets?
Sandy Allen can work a front porch like nobody’s business. Too bad she can’t work a back room.
Photographs by Darrow Montgomery
It’s a hot August afternoon in Ward 8, and Sandra “Sandy” Allen, trailed by an amateurish band of campaign workers, is unquestionably in her element. The one-term D.C. councilmember is out walking the neighborhoods of her battered domain—the poorest ward in the District—pressing the flesh in advance of the Sept. 12 Democratic primary. Only it looks more like Old Home Week than the usual sterile campaign ritual.
“Hi, Mrs. Gregory! Let me come get a hug,” Allen exclaims, climbing the steps to a red-brick duplex. “I knew Mrs. [Esther] Gregory before I was conceived—she was a friend of my mother,” she tells a reporter and photographer.
Allen greets most of the residents warmly, personally, by name. She asks Esco Millhouse about his sons and the barbershop that one of them owns. “Well, tell him that I said hi.Don’t say ‘the councilmember’; just say, ‘Sandy said hi.’”
It’s like this most of the two hours Allen spends knocking on doors in this neighborhood of middle-class homes with flower-filled gardens, in the heart of Precinct 125, one of the lowest-voting sections of a ward notorious for its abysmal Election Day turnouts. “I’m asking for your vote,” she tells one elderly man. “Let me stay so that I can keep us moving in the direction we started.”
Most of the residents Allen encounters say they’ll send her back to the council. It’s hard to say no, after all, when you’ve seen someone grow up and make something of her life, as Allen has done, moving from pregnant teen to government worker to elected official.
A fourth-generation Washingtonian, Allen grew up in the 1400 block of Morris Road SE; later, the family moved to Parklands, and later still to a community near Camp Simms. Only three of her 56 years were spent outside of Ward 8—two were in Ward 4, and one in New York City. And she looks it—she’s wearing a rayon black-and-brown pantsuit and sipping water from a Popeyes paper cup, apparently a souvenir of her last meal. There is an informality about her that most council candidates would never dare display.
A few of the residents Allen meets on her walkabout hesitate when she comes calling. Although she’s been in office for three years now, they don’t know this woman with the short-cropped, platinum Afro and nasal speaking voice—the result, she says, of a tonsillectomy that included the removal of her soft palate.
“What’s your name?” one man asks. She tells him. Then, to close the gap, she calls on the familial, citing the number of grandchildren she has and how long she’s lived in the area. It’s a Southern thing: using kin to bridge a distance. “We’ll see what we can do for you,” he replies, which is enough for Allen. She knows the door has been cracked open. Years of community work have sharpened her instincts and her understanding of people.
“I may have some shortcomings, but interacting with people is not one of them,” she smiles.
Like her predecessors and many old-school District politicians, including her onetime mentor, Marion S. Barry Jr., Allen has perfected the fine art of personal and symbolic politics. She knows how to convert soothing conversations, well-timed ministerial-style telephone calls, a Thanksgiving turkey, or a box of Christmas toys into votes on Election Day.
“I remember a telephone call I got from her; I still have the tape of it,” says psychologist Trent Tucker, a Ward 8 resident. “She left this message that she hadn’t seen me in several months. That there wasn’t anything in particular, just calling as a friend to say hello. That really touched me,” he adds.
“Symbolism is important at times when people feel dispossessed and disenfranchised,” explains Philip Pannell, head of the Ward 8 Democrats. “It helps knowing there’s someone who cares.”
Yes, Sandy Allen is certainly good at symbolism. She’s a master at manipulating the feel-good quotient of her constituents. But her critics, and even some of her supporters, insist that she has failed the most important test of a truly effective ward boss: turning all those hugs, handshakes, homilies, and fish fries into measurable improvements. During Allen’s first term on the D.C. Council, Ward 8 has gone from bad to worse to godawful. And some residents, so beaten down by the troubles of their ward, say they don’t believe they can expect anything better.
“It’s almost as if we’re hustling backwards,” says longtime Ward 8 activist Eugene DeWitt Kinlow.
“It’s almost as if we have implemented our own mini Plan,” he continues, referring to the widely held, though only privately spoken, view that there is a conspiracy among whites to exploit the failures of black leaders to facilitate a white takeover of
“I call her office and call her office. She won’t return the telephone calls,” says Ward 8 resident Steven Wilson during an interview at a Metro station. He says he wants Allen’s help with getting bushes cut on government-owned property near his home.
“She won’t come out and see the problem. But she came out on Block Party Day. I guess that’s because she’s up for re-election,” Wilson continues. “She’s just horrible.”
In the political arena, a councilmember needs to be good at cajoling, schmoozing, scratching, and fighting. She must learn quickly how to pass out rewards and exact retribution in a single-minded quest to bring her constituents what they need and want. She needs, in other words, to know how to gather clout—and then how to wield it.
Allen, however, is still struggling with these essential political lessons. The result is that Ward 8 has neither a major grocery store nor a pharmacy. There is only one service station, and there is only one sit-down restaurant—Players Lounge. There is no movie theater, no bookstore, and don’t even think about a sidewalk coffee cafe. The streets are filthy, and crime remains high.
“When I first moved to Ward 8, it was beautiful,” says Mary Parham Wolfe, a former president of Ward 8 Democrats, who once considered herself an Allen supporter. “You would see the street sweepers, people out cutting the weeds and picking up trash. I could walk to the grocery store. Now I have to go to Iverson Mall [in Maryland].”
“If you want your nails done, your hair done, your clothes washed, all the greasy fried chicken wings you can eat, come to Ward 8,” says activist Sandra Seegars, 49, one of three people challenging Allen in the Democratic primary next month. (Dion Jordan, 30, a licensed inspector for the D.C. Boxing and Wrestling Commission, and Winfred Freeman, 61, chair of an advisory neighborhood commission in the ward, are the other challengers.)
It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. Hopes for Allen’s tenure ran high when she first joined the council. After all, she had experience with the District government: She had worked for the Department of Corrections and the Department of Human Services. She had been an advisory neighborhood commissioner for 12 years. And residents believed that if ever there had been a politician with the proverbial fire in her belly, she was it. She fought her way through not one but two campaigns, facing the real and imagined power of the Barry machine—and the perception that she lacked sufficient education to master the job.
There was a time when Allen was a Barry acolyte and presumed successor. She had led the disgraced mayor’s successful 1992 political comeback campaign, which won him a seat on the D.C. Council, less than a year after he was released from federal prison for narcotics possession. Allen was his hand-picked campaign manager. When Barry could not find anyone to serve as his campaign chair, Allen persuaded Wolfe to serve in the role.
Although Allen lacked experience running a political operation, as a lifelong Ward 8 resident, she knew the community, and as a former staffer at Barry’s Office of Constituent Services, she knew the candidate. Moreover, while Barry had been incarcerated, she had been a loyal supporter, accepting his collect telephone calls and taking trips to the Pennsylvania prison to visit him. She had even coordinated a Christmas party where Barry’s senior citizen supporters were able to hear him via a conference call patched through by Allen’s mother from her home telephone. After Barry’s election, Allen won a job on Barry’s council staff as director of constituent services.
Allen knew how to stroke and help a lot of people, but from the beginning, she rubbed Cora Masters Barry—Marion Barry’s fourth wife—the wrong way. Within months of joining Barry’s council staff, Allen was pushed out. She landed on a newly created economic-development committee and quietly held that post, and she remained outside of Barry’s inner circle throughout much of his tenure on the council.
In 1994, after only two years on the council, Barry made a successful bid to regain the mayor’s office. Despite the shabby treatment Allen had received, political activists expected Barry to anoint her his successor to the Ward 8 seat. She had proved her loyalty. Instead, Barry insulted Allen, choosing political novice and legal secretary Eydie Whittington. It was the kind of thing that people in Allen’s part of town didn’t take lightly, and the fight was on. Nor was Allen the only one who thought that Barry had spurned Ward 8 and wanted to do something about it. In that 1995 special election, 20 other candidates threw their hats into the ring.
But all eyes were on Barry’s girls. Amid claims of voter fraud and other dirty campaigning, Allen lost to Whittington by one vote. She vowed to return.
One year later, in 1996, during the regular election cycle, Allen defeated Whittington in the Democratic primary: 1,746 to 1,425.
Residents believed they finally had a champion in Allen. She was no interloper, as Barry had been perceived to be. People knew her and had watched her blossom. They saw her as a symbol of success: “[She is] a single mother who dropped out of high school, earned her GED. Now she’s a councilmember,” says Pannell. “People in this ward like that kind of thing.” In essence, Allen had escaped the terrain many still traveled. She understood their anguish, and if she could free herself, maybe she could also liberate them from the poverty and social dysfunction that imprisoned them.
Allen held that same dream—which is why she fought for the chair of the council’s Committee on Human Services. The committee is a behemoth, responsible for oversight of the Departments of Human Services, Health, and Child and Family Services, and the Public Benefits Corp. (PBC), which in turn oversees D.C. General Hospital. The combined budget for these agencies during the current fiscal year is nearly $2 billion, representing almost half of the District’s total budget.
Gaining the chairmanship of any committee on the D.C. Council gives a legislator power, influence, and a built-in constituency beyond her own ward base. A committee chair not only introduces legislation but serves as the gatekeeper for public policies that are considered by the council. Furthermore, in her oversight role, a committee chair can bring the executive branch to its knees.
But Allen had to fight for the post. She says Linda Cropp, council chairman, had considered splitting the committee because Cropp reportedly believed it was too large and unmanageable. Allen saw the proposal as another assault on her abilities. Eventually, she prevailed and, in 1997, began her reign over the powerful committee.
“She has done well connecting her committee work with the needs of her constituents,” says Vincent Gray, executive director of Covenant House Washington, a nonprofit social-services organization that has benefited from some of Allen’s committee actions. “Sandy was the first person from the ward who aspired to take on leadership within the legislature.”
Gray says Allen worked with the social-service providers to develop child-welfare-reform legislation, and he praises her work on issues surrounding health care. He cites her efforts to help keep open the doors of Greater Southeast Community Hospital, which last year was on the brink of bankruptcy. The District government provided $8 million that served as a type of bridge loan, keeping creditors at bay while a buyer could be sought and a purchase deal approved by the courts.
“She was involved in all the meetings and was very concerned about the potential political impact,” says one high-placed source in Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ administration, who attended the rescue sessions but requested anonymity. “There were times she did a lot of public chest-beating, but that was all show for her constituency.”
Gray says Allen also has been a friend of the troubled D.C. General Hospital, where one of her sons is employed. She recently received an award from the American Medical Association for her work on health-care issues. Between January 1997 and July 10, 2000, Allen introduced more than 40 health- and welfare-related bills. The only other area to receive such intense attention from her was special-recognition resolutions, which cite the outstanding accomplishments of individuals or organizations. During the same period, she presented 73 ceremonial resolutions, including the Georgetown University Hospital Recognition Resolution, the Greater Southeast Community Hospital Recognition Resolution, the D.C. National Public Health Month Recognition Resolution, and the Iverson Mall Walkers Recognition Resolution of 1999.
O.V. Johnson, former chair of the state legislative committee of the American Association of Retired Persons, credits Allen with helping pass a number of bills of benefit to the elderly, including assisted-living legislation and the Interim Disabilities Act. “We had a strong ally on the council,” he says.
But Allen is a most unlikely savior for the District’s social services, especially when judged against her own failures. Critics say she has failed in her oversight of the Human Services Committee in several fundamental ways. They point, for example, to her handling of the PBC, which is responsible for the operation and management of a citywide network of neighborhood clinics as well as D.C. General Hospital in Southeast.
For the last three years, the PBC has consistently overspent its budget, racking up more than $100 million in overruns that have had to be made up directly from the city’s treasury. “This is a perfect example” of Allen’s failure to provide adequate oversight, says a council staffer. “What happened? Who was in charge?”
It is true that D.C. General was in trouble long before Allen joined the council. As far back as 1993, when Barry became the Ward 8 representative, D.C. General was on everyone’s radar. Then as now, the question on everyone’s lips was: Should it be closed? The PBC, created during Barry’s final mayoral term, was supposed to be the vehicle for making the hospital whole and improving health services to needy populations, including those in Ward 8.
But since Allen has been the legislature’s official health-care watchdog, the PBC has never received the intense scrutiny a new organization requires to keep it on track and to ensure the successful implementation of its mission. Allen vigorously defended the PBC’s controversial former executive director, John Fairman, regarding him as a “black man under attack” at a black institution that needed protection from mainstream powers that wanted to destroy it. Her attitude seemed to be: The hospital may be broken, but it’s our broken hospital.
“She always says she is the only person looking out for poor black people. Well, there is a lot you can do with $145 million for poor black people, other than what was done,” adds the council staffer, referring to the estimated total of three years’ worth of overspending by the hospital administration.
Williams had an idea last year about what to do with some of the money that was going to D.C. General: provide health insurance to nearly 80,000 D.C. residents who lacked it. But Allen led the assault against the plan, arguing that such a proposal would mean the death of D.C. General. Moreover, she contended that the newly insured would have no place to go if D.C. General were to close—an argument that conveniently ignored the reality that more than 90 percent of Medicaid and Medicare patients are now choosing to be treated at private D.C. hospitals rather than D.C. General, according to D.C. Department of Health figures.
Allen’s reluctance to call the PBC to account for its overspending has now resulted in the very thing she claimed to have wanted to avoid: the downsizing, or possibly even outright closing, of the District’s only public hospital. Last month, the PBC came under congressional examination for its overspending. Williams reconstituted the PBC board, and its new members promptly dismissed Fairman and terminated dozens of other workers. The board is contemplating cutting services at D.C. General, consolidating buildings, and further reducing staff. Some of the neighborhood clinics may also close.
Then there was the travesty of the Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Administration (MRDDA), a division of the Department of Human Services. Between 1993 and 1997, more than 100 persons in government-funded group homes were neglected, abused, or allowed to die without the benefit of medical attention; many of the dead were buried in unmarked graves. This information was revealed not by any oversight of Allen’s committee, but by the Washington Post’s Katherine Boo late last year, in a series of articles that led to both firings and federal investigations.
As a former District government employee, and specifically a former Department of Human Services worker, Allen might have been expected to understand the bureaucracy better than any other councilmember. She might have been expected to know how it protects itself, circling the wagons to prevent the detection of any incompetent personnel or failing program. Yet she failed to probe deeply into the troubled agency.
Allen says she had planned an oversight hearing into the troubles at MRDDA even before the Post articles were published. “I was on the case,” she says. But the oversight hearing to which she refers was to occur after the second series of articles had appeared.
Eventually, Allen’s committee, along with the Committee on Government Operations, headed by Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson, did hold a series of investigative hearings—but only after the Post series and only after the investigations were launched by the federal Department of Justice and the General Accounting Office.
“Supposedly, she was to be there to help the poor-class residents,” says Wolfe. “I don’t know how helpful or effective she’s been in those areas.”
Nor have Allen’s efforts on the housing front been more effective. By her own admission, 4,000 mostly low-income residents have been pushed out of Ward 8 during her term—a consequence of the demolition of several public housing units and construction of new, more costly apartments and single-family homes. Yet she hasn’t introduced any legislation to protect this population. By comparison, At-Large D.C. Councilmember David Catania has offered a bill that would allow poor and working-poor residents to use federal Section 8 subsidies to pay for mortgages, potentially increasing homeownership in Allen’s ward and reducing the impact of gentrification caused by new, upscale housing construction.
“Sandy’s most enduring legacy will probably be in her support of developments that benefit those outside of the ward over those in the ward, and the mass removal and relocation of the poor,” asserts Kinlow.
Consider the 1999 tax fight: Faced with a massive budget surplus, reports that the District would continue to see its revenues increase, and claims that the city had some of the highest tax rates in the region, the council pushed for sweeping tax cuts on property and personal income. The package was designed by Catania and Ward 2’s Jack Evans. The pair convinced eight of their colleagues, including Allen, to sign on to the measure. Meanwhile, the mayor, financial control board Chair Alice Rivlin, two councilmembers—Ward 1’s Jim Graham and At-Large member Phil Mendelson—and a host of social-services providers argued that the time had not come for such cuts. The loss of revenues, the critics argued, might jeopardize infrastructure and program improvements that had only just begun.
Phyllis Campbell-Newsome, director of the Washington Council of Agencies, told the Post that it would be “unconscionable” for legislators to cut taxes. “The mayor and council and [control board] need to honor that promise to restore cuts to social programs,” she added.
Allen did not take the side of the poor in this fight, even though an analysis of the proposal by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, distributed prior to the council vote, showed that 25 percent of the benefits of the personal-income-tax cut would go to the richest 1 percent of District residents, while the poorest 40 percent of residents would get only 8 percent of the total benefits.
Mendelson protested loudly enough that he won some concessions in the design of the tax cut, which took effect in fiscal 2000. As a result, working-poor and middle-class residents came out with a larger piece of the pie than originally planned. Allen could claim no part of that victory, although it stood to benefit a sizable portion of her constituency. She said she had supported the original Evans-Catania plan because there were middle-class residents in her ward who could benefit.
One of Allen’s most perplexing missteps occurred when Ward 5 Councilmember Vincent Orange introduced a resolution calling for his colleagues’ support for a technology high school in his area. Allen was among the 10 councilmembers who voted for the measure effectively killing any chance to locate the school in Ward 8. The new high school promised to better position residents east of the Anacostia River for jobs in the high-tech sector. Allen says she thought the bill was intended to support another high school in the city, not to “take away” the one that had been proposed for her area.
“If I thought that’s what it meant, I would have never voted for it,” Allen says.
Allen’s failure to press issues of benefit to her constituents, her critics assert, is directly linked to her close association with Catania, a white, intellectual, openly gay Republican who is about as different from Allen as any politician could be.
“Sandy, unfortunately, gets co-opted a lot,” says a council colleague, who asked not to be named. “She gets co-opted by the industry, and she gets emotionally played into identifying everything as a black issue.”
“David can always get a vote out of Sandy,” says challenger Seegars.
“I think she’s over her head. It forces her to make alliances that are not always healthy alliances,” says another Ward 8 activist, who also requested anonymity.
Catania squarely disputes such criticisms.
“Sandy and I have a mutual-admiration society,” he says. “I have the highest regard for her. I think she is an absolutely extraordinary member.
“I never trust a person without passion, and she has passion,” Catania continues during an interview at his council office. “Sometimes we have cussed each other out. She tempers me, opens my mind and my eyes to things I have not thought about before. She has good insight into what will work.”
Catania says that while he and Allen have different political ideologies, together they represent a “third way” and have developed a partnership that is good for the city. “Either one of us on our own probably couldn’t make this stuff happen,” he adds, citing the recent legislation that gives substance abusers the right to choose which treatment type and organization they want to use; the recently passed Health Benefits Plan Members’ Bill of Rights, commonly called the Patients’ Bill of Rights; and the efforts to keep the PBC and Greater Southeast Hospital in operation.
Pushed to explain why some regard Allen as overly reliant on Catania, the at-large councilmember says, “I’m more of a public performer, and she’s a private performer.” He says his relationship with Allen is not about his political future, although he does admit he likely will run for re-election. And it certainly won’t hurt his showing in Ward 8, or with black voters in general, if Allen is at his side.
“David and I do think alike as far as services for needy people,” Allen says during an interview in her own office at One Judiciary Square. Perched in a high-back blue swivel chair, seemingly comfortable with the hodgepodge of mismatched furnishings, she defends her record and her alliances.
Allen is adept at appearing imperturbable: When confronted by the media, or when an opponent pricks a sore spot, she rarely allows her emotions to show. Even now, she reflects a coolness that belies her irritation at the suggestion that Catania pulls her strings. She asserts that there have been many times when Catania has come to her office with some proposal and she has refused him. “I have my independence from David; David has his from me,” she explains.
“I’ve started a lot of productive things and made a lot of good relationships,” Allen adds, rating her tenure. On the purple flier distributed earlier this month by her campaign workers, Allen takes credit for nearly everything short of the renovation of the Washington Monument. The flier says she has “increased funding for Ward 8 schools, [and] led Ward 8 to an economic renaissance highlighted by the construction of Wheeler Creek, Oxon Creek, Walter Washington Estates and the Oxon Run Learning and Tennis Center.” (Taking credit for the tennis center, a project long promoted by Cora Masters Barry, is scarcely likely to mend fences with the former mayor’s wife, even if D.C. Public Housing Receiver David Gilmore and private developer H.R. Crawford don’t mind that Allen snatches their kudos for the other projects.)
She also claims credit for re-establishing the Burial Assistance Program, which allows low-income families to receive up to $600 for burials and $800 for cremation. She has held four health festivals in Ward 8, passed out 4,500 turkeys, and held the ward’s first Easter-egg hunt, giving away 14 savings bonds.
“The community is coming together much better,” Allen continues. “When I ran, there were actually 21 people running. I made it my business to work with all facets of the Ward 8 community.” (When Allen ran for her first full term in 1996, there were in fact eight challengers, including one Republican and one Umoja Party candidate.)
“We worked to come up with one agenda, and the biggest thing everybody was interested in was economic development,” Allen adds. But that statement prompts a question: What could she have done to help Ward 8 hold on to its last full-service grocery store, the Safeway on Milwaukee Street SE, which closed in 1998?
Allen says she hadn’t known anything about the pending shuttering of the Safeway. She says she learned of the corporation’s intentions when everyone else did—and then did all she could to save the store, including introducing legislation that would have made it harder for any business to close. The council passed the measure, but the control board rejected it on the grounds that it was not business-friendly.
The Safeway saga offers a glimpse of Allen’s ultimately counterproductive legislative approach. Months before the store actually closed, residents began complaining about the conditions in the facility—less and less stock on the shelves, evidence of rodents, and an overall unkempt appearance. On the surface, Allen appeared to do the right thing: She responded by sending in the city’s health inspectors. But that action set up an antagonism between her office and the manager, according to council staffers and community activists. When the inspectors went in, they authenticated the complaints, citing the store for various violations. Safeway responded by deciding to close the store.
At roughly the same time, across the river in Ward 4, a similar story was unfolding at the Safeway at Georgia Avenue and Randolph Street NW, but the outcome was quite different. Residents there had complaints that echoed those of Ward 8—rodents, poor refrigeration, wilting produce, inadequate stock, rude clerks, and long lines.
Working with local Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Willie Flowers, residents began pressing their case. They demanded—and got—meetings with regional Safeway corporate officials. Meanwhile, Ward 4 Councilmember Charlene Drew Jarvis went into action. Unlike Allen’s proposed bill, which was punitive in nature, Jarvis’ legislation offered incentives to stores that remained in operation and made significant improvements to their facilities. The bill, which passed, was specifically designed to help the Georgia Avenue Safeway stay put.
While Allen and her supporters contended that the opening of a new Safeway in Ward 7 had prompted the closing of the Ward 8 store, the Ward 4 case suggested otherwise. Safeway had a newer, more modern store not quite a mile from its store at Georgia Avenue and Randolph. But the corporation did not permanently close the Georgia and Randolph location. Instead, it made repairs, and the store reopened within two weeks.
“I’ve been working with the executive branch to try to bring a grocery store and new economic development [to Ward 8],” Allen says. “I have been in numerous meetings.” There was talk earlier this year of relocating a government agency, either the Department of Human Services, welfare programs, or the Department of Employment Services, to her ward. But Allen says she fought to get the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) instead.
“That hasn’t panned out,” she adds, failing to note that her Ward 4 colleague won that battle decisively: Williams is making a $111 million investment in Georgia Avenue redevelopment, including relocation of the DMV.
Allen proudly points, however, to the record housing construction in her ward as proof that development has already arrived. But others can take credit for that success as well, particularly Gilmore, the housing receiver. He demolished shoddy public housing units and with federal money replaced them with more modern homes, giving former tenants the opportunity to purchases those houses.
And, although these developments have pushed out many poor residents, Allen thinks that when the dust clears, the community will benefit from the arrival of young, tax-paying professionals, who will make the area more attractive to developers.
“I’ve never been a horn-tooter about what I’ve done,” Allen continues, echoing Catania’s description of her. “I have always been the type of person who gets in there, gets it done, and sees results.”
Yet some middle-class residents of Allen’s ward say she hasn’t focused on their issues. “I expect to live in civilization. I want a clean environment—law and order, not chaos,” says psychologist Tucker, who says he likes Allen’s style but not her inability to achieve solid results. “I think she’s going to have to discover the middle class over here.”
And poor residents who can’t tap into government services say Allen has done nothing for them. “What about somebody like me, who doesn’t have a child, isn’t on welfare—why can’t you do anything?” asks Marilyn Wyche, sporting a white
“Re-Elect Allen” T-shirt during a recent meeting of the Ward 8 Democrats. Allen won the group’s endorsement, receiving 116 votes out of the 166 cast that day by registered Democrats in the area, but the endorsement doesn’t count for much given the ward’s low voter turnout, beyond providing a $100 donation to her campaign coffers.
When it’s pointed out to Wyche that the person responsible for not providing her with assistance is the same person she’s supporting, she replies, “I know. We’re going to make her come around.”
But getting better results won’t happen until Ward 8 residents and civic leaders successfully battle their own twin demons: low self-esteem and low expectations.
“Maybe the expectations over here are low. Maybe people have been run a game on so long, they don’t expect anything,” says a frustrated Pannell.
For years, Ward 8 has seemed resigned to its distinction as a place suffering from chronic urban dysfunction. It is home to the District’s poorest residents, the greatest number of teen pregnancies, the highest crime rate, the largest stock of decrepit housing, and the greatest percentage of residents in need of government-funded programs. Home, in other words, to the last and the least.
Residents have often marketed their community using this negative cultural narrative, adopting a belief system that coincided with the widely held view that they were somehow inferior. Symbolism became an acceptable surrogate for accomplishment—talking a good game became synonymous with playing a good game, maybe even with winning the game.
“Sandy didn’t run [in 1996] on a platform of values, or issues, or programs,” says Kinlow. “It was all about personality.”
Little has changed in the intervening years. During the nearly two-hour debate sponsored last month by the Ward 8 Democrats, Allen never presented a legislative platform, or a strategy for encouraging economic development, or a plan for making the streets clean and safe or the schools better.
Yet many Ward 8 residents and civic leaders seem disinclined to expect such a platform, or even to hold Allen accountable for her performance. They refuse to raise the performance bar to a level comparable to that faced by other ward representatives. When Covenant House’s Gray is asked to assess Allen’s council tenure against that of other first-term councilmembers, he bristles.
“It’s hard to make comparisons because expectations would be different than somebody in, say, Ward 3,” Gray answers.
Tucker says Allen hasn’t delivered improvements to him or other middle-class residents, yet he is swayed by the good feelings conveyed by Allen during an unprompted telephone call. Wolfe, Allen’s former political ally—who has fallen inexplicably out of favor with the councilmember—can’t bring herself to publicly demand better. She thinks that no one individual should be blamed for the decline of the ward; she suggests that “city planners and the legislature [in general]” are responsible. And Pannell blames “market forces” for the closing of the Safeway.
A council staffer, conceding Allen’s limitations, says, “This may sound strange, but she’s the best representative Ward 8 has ever had.”
Allen’s own expectations are depressed as well. Asked how many votes she hopes to win in next month’s primary, she responds: “I’m shooting for 3,000. If I can get 3,000 people out to support me, I would be very happy.”
That might be an improvement over her tally in the 1996 primary, but there were 28,798 registered voters in Ward 8 as of June 27, 2000, according to the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics.
So it’s not just Ward 8 residents who have low expectations for themselves. It’s also their leader. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.