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To judge from the frenetic final week of this year’s Democratic mayoral primary campaign, Ward 8 is the biggest prize in District politics. Though the Southeast D.C. ward is Washington’s smallest—it is home to a mere 31,752 registered voters, 10,000 fewer than any other ward—1998’s major contenders all made public shows of working its every side street as primary day loomed.

Populist Councilmember Kevin Chavous tried to rally the faithful by cruising through housing projects and blaring music from a flatbed truck. Ward 2’s Jack Evans sought to demonstrate his biracial appeal by going door to door down Ward 8’s heavily African-American blocks. And front-runner Tony Williams hoped a victory in the working-class ward would show that his audience extended beyond Ward 3 disciples of good government. Williams, his allies, and even his mother made stops in the ward during the campaign’s final days.

With that kind of wooing, you’d think Ward 8’s voters would be feeling pretty good about themselves this fall. No such luck. Although the folks who met Evans at their front doors, waved to Chavous’ flatbed, or shook Williams’ glad hand appeared polite and even enthusiastic, they have little faith that the promises of 1998 will bring anything more than similar promises of Election Days past.

A better gauge of the ward’s mind-set came earlier this summer, when Ward 8’s Democrats invited candidates in this year’s at-large race to an endorsement forum. The party activists demanded that each candidate state how often he or she visited the ward and even asked for a pledge not to support popular Republican Councilmember David Catania’s re-election bid. And before they voted on an endorsement, they asked the candidates for money.

The message was pretty clear: After years of being taken for a ride, Ward 8 was demanding something up front. For the most part, the candidates complied. But it didn’t matter anyway. On both the council and mayoral levels, there were no endorsements. “You have to get over 60 percent of the vote” to get the endorsement, explains Ward 8 Democrats President Mary Parham Wolfe. “No one got it.”

Numbers can’t explain Ward 8’s role in the District’s consciousness. Poorer than any of the city’s political subdivisions, the ward is the ur-D.C., the corner of town most dramatically set off from the federal government’s imperial trappings. Before World War II, it housed part of the Southern white working class of the old, segregated Washington. Later on, its hilly landscape was transformed by shiny new projects built for people displaced by urban renewal elsewhere in town.

In the past couple of decades, however, the ward has come most vividly to represent broken promises. As projects have crumbled, crime has soared, and misery has flourished, Ward 8 has become even more isolated than ever. “I’ve been in the ward 30 years or so,” says Democratic activist Robert Yeldell. “It has steadily, steadily regressed.”

The very decay within Ward 8 has helped elevate it to symbolic status. Descriptions of its citizens as alienated became cliché two decades ago. To cure that alienation—or at least to convince the rest of D.C. that you could do so—was to hold the keys to municipal power. “We’ve been really the stepchildren,” says Yeldell. “And by stepchildren, that means used as a steppingstone for something else.”

No wonder, then, that Marion Barry chose Ward 8 to begin his epic comeback journey in 1992. Fresh out of jail, the once and future mayor ran for the ward’s council seat by promising to speak for the voiceless. Barry said he’d make Ward 8 “second to none.” Voters responded, picking Barry’s high profile over memories of his mayoral tenure, when the ward suffered badly.

“It is a springboard for politicians because they see it as an untapped resource,” says Wolfe. “Marion was more successful at that than any other politician. He walked the streets, he shook hands, he had a machine in place. It was almost like a crusade.”

Barry promised summer jobs, clean streets, and care for senior citizens. He also promised self-respect. “It was a vicarious type of uplift for the people here in this ward,” says Democratic activist Philip Pannell.

In return, Barry got to use the ward to demonstrate his prowess. He convinced the press that only he—not Congress, not other councilmembers, and certainly not then-Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly—could know the unknowable. Though the city media bashed Barry, they conceded him the mystical power that came from representing D.C.’s beating heart: Thanks to Ward 8, Barry was able to sell himself as the embodiment of the entire city.

Two years later, Barry romped to victory in his mayoral comeback on the back of a huge turnout in the ward.

By most accounts, the mayor got a lot more out of the bargain than did his adopted neighborhood. While Barry lost the power to deliver on his campaign promises, the impoverished ward shouldered more than its share of service cutbacks and watched its businesses close their doors. “Our community, for all practical purposes, has hit rock bottom,” says Democratic activist Eugene Dewitt Kinlow. “We have no goods and services. We have St. Elizabeths and Blue Plains [waste-water treatment plant]. Nobody wants to live here. In the last two years, we have lost CVS, we have lost Rite Aid, and we are getting ready to lose Safeway.”

Two summers ago, a recall movement against Barry began, in part, right back where his comeback had been launched. “He lied about what all he was going to do for Ward 8 when he was mayor,” explains activist and independent D.C. Council candidate Sandra Seegars, who helped lead the failed effort. “He said he’d bring jobs, get those little thugs off the street. He didn’t. Business is leaving. McDonald’s left, and the man there said that Barry did not support them.”

The recall petition avoided mention of any specific ward. However, it did include a sentence born of Ward 8’s disillusionment: “[H]e deceives, reneges on, lies to, and is apathetic towards the residents…”

Now, in turn, some residents are using the same terminology to say they’ve been swindled by Councilmember Sandy Allen. Two years ago, Allen herself won election over Barry ally Eydie Whittington by presenting herself as someone who’d represent the real ward rather than a politician who would only use it to become mayor.

According to Kinlow, the councilmember has sold out her constituents by not opposing a proposed new private prison in Ward 8. For her part, Allen says she is simply surveying the ward in order to support whatever her constituents want. She notes that she’s already written a letter to zoning officials urging them to follow the law and give “great weight” to the desires of local advisory neighborhood commissions on the issue.

But Kinlow won’t call it just a tactical or political disagreement. “She has refused to do the will of the people and has worked for special private interests,” he says. Kinlow says he’s launching a recall campaign against the councilmember—meaning the language of authenticity and betrayal will linger on well after the current election cycle.

For all his campaigning, Tony Williams has never led a crusade in Ward 8. He hasn’t promised a promised land. He hasn’t used the rhetoric of liberation. Nonetheless, if he becomes mayor, Ward 8 voters will have a long paper trail to measure him against. Williams has said he doesn’t support building the prison. He has pledged to build a high-tech high school in Southeast. He came to the ward’s Parklands-Turner Library to pledge seven-days-a-week, 12-hours-a-day library schedules. He’s promised to clean up the Anacostia River. His campaign has released volumes of material on child care, welfare-to-work, east-of-the-river economic development, and other themes targeted at the ward’s low-income voters.

A lot of locals have heard stuff like that before. “They’ve always talked about economic development in Ward 8, and it has never come,” says Kinlow. “They have talked about creating stable communities, and they haven’t—not even safe ones. In effect, no promises have been kept.” Kinlow says he’s planning a lot more follow-up on stump pronouncements.

Yet if he and other leading lights are in more of a mood to scrutinize their leaders, they’re now in less of a position to punish. Ward 8 split its votes, and its endorsements, this September, dividing itself between Williams and Chavous. Even Evans, a white resident of Georgetown, pulled in a couple of key endorsements. In politics, if you can’t tell people you made them, you can’t tell them you’ll break them.

“When you say things like ‘How many times have you been in the ward?’ it reveals that you expect to be nonrespected,” says a council candidate who has campaigned in Ward 8. “So you go to unproductive lengths.”

Local activists, though, say there’s value in showing that Ward 8 is nobody’s ward but its own. Yeldell says the party endorsement process was set up that way for a reason. “You keep coming to us, promising, promising, promising,” he says. “We said, ‘Put your money where your mouth is.’ We did it differently from the others. We were the first ward to have all the candidates out there. We figured that a gesture about collection was all right: Don’t listen to talk all the time—you gotta do some work to get our votes.”

“I think, politically, that the ward is very skeptical and is divided in its decisions on who the next mayor should be,” says Councilmember Allen. “We have people in our ward working in every campaign, which means that we are growing politically. It shows that the community is not a community you can take for granted. It is not a community that just accepts things for face value. Everyone is thinking for themselves.”

Ward 8—long dismissed by the media as D.C.’s exotic heart of darkness—is thus now sporting the exact same dubious snarl as the rest of the District is this fall. And even as its voters ponder a future without the symbolic status as Washington’s aching heart, they’ve got the same uncertainties about the city’s brave new future as everyone else. CP