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“Nik Eames is making sure that our community stays safe and secure,” the Ward 1 D.C. Council candidate assured Mount Pleasant voters at a candidates forum two weeks ago. “Young people commit half the crimes in this neighborhood….I can identify with these young people.”
Perhaps a little too much. Eames, a 26-year-old Howard University senior and advisory neighborhood commissioner for LeDroit Park, agreed to serve 40 hours of community service two months ago after threatening to bash a fellow commissioner’s “fucking head in.” The incident occurred after 1B advisory neighborhood commissioner Tom Coumaris testified against another commissioner in a forgery investigation.
That rough-and-tumble image sharply contrasts with the one Eames displayed two Saturdays ago as he stood on the panoramic corner of 13th and Clifton Streets NW handing out school supplies to District youngsters. Eames and his campaign volunteers, trading in ’60s street-level activist fatigues for the more fashionable hiphop uniform of the ’90s, handed out hundreds of backpacks and goody bags filled with folders, papers, and pens for D.C. public school students. Parents thanked him for his direct action. “We can’t talk about our future without talking about these young people,” Eames says.
His aphorism holds true for the political class as well. This fall’s elections will be a watershed in D.C. politics. Hizzoner Marion Barry will descend from the throne supposedly for good this time and a baby boomer will take his place. But the generational handoff is not exclusive to the mayoral contest. This year, a number of candidates under or hovering around the age of 30 born after the March on Washington and, for the most part, too young to remember the fiery riots of the late ’60s have sensed that their time has come and are running at large, within wards, willy-nilly.
In some ways, the young crop diverge quite a bit from their predecessors. Most learned politics not on the streets, but in the classrooms of the District’s prestigious universities. It was Poli Sci 101 that inspired them, not pressing economic or social injustices. And few young candidates ascended from the District’s traditional political steppingstone: the school board. Not that they haven’t served in elected office of some sort half are current or previous advisory neighborhood commissioners.
But there is little fresh rhetoric emanating from the fresh faces. They don’t threaten to derail the status quo so much as become part of its manufacture. History will repeat itself, with a few new mugs in the same old picture.
This election might shut the door on the Barry era, but his legacy lives on in young candidates like Eames and fellow Umoja Party candidate Mark Thompson, who is running for an at-large seat on the D.C. Council. “It’s no secret that the mayor, Congresswoman Norton, and myself are tightly allied,” Thompson admits. “Some of my supporters are upset I’m not running for mayor.”
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Thompson, like Barry, delicately meshes his rabble-rouser activism with academic chops and a nice touch in the hallways of power. He hit the political scene hard when he spearheaded a 1990 protest at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) that shut down the university for 11 days. Since then, he has become reputed for his Barry-like ability to make an entrance; he even emulates the mayor’s wearing of the dashiki to remind folks which part of the term African-American he most identifies with.
But along with his dogged activism on UDC he’s been one of the most sustained credible defenders of the institution Thompson carries some dirty laundry. Last month, D.C. Superior Court Judge Richard E. Morin ordered Thompson to undergo counseling and perform 150 hours of community service after convicting him of assaulting his estranged wife. Earlier this year, Thompson admitted that he had failed to pay $2,500 in outstanding child-support bills for his daughter. “I am sorry for what has happened,” says Thompson. “I take full responsibility for my actions and the embarrassment it has caused my family.”
The blight on his record has even persuaded some Umoja Party supporters to back away. “I thought he had a real chance to win,” says one Umoja activist, who wished to remain anonymous. “But the brother has some serious family problems, and you can’t ignore that.”
Concerns about human failings are sometimes coupled with suggestions that many current up-and-comers are merely serving as new bottles for some very old wine.
“I don’t think that any of the young candidates have spoken anything different than other candidates,” notes Howard Croft, a UDC professor and longtime observer of District politics. Croft points to one of his former students, 31-year-old Charles Gaither Jr., who is chasing after an at-large seat on the D.C. Council. “They’re not talking about the kinds of issues young people are facing in this city.”
Two Sundays ago, Gaither brought his youthful message to the split-level, suburban-style homes of Colorado Avenue NW, a well-to-do section of Ward 4.
As Gaither removed a white handkerchief from his pocket to mop the sweat from his brow, 20-year-old Vaughn Estwick opened his door. Gaither introduced himself and informed Estwick that he had quit his job as a community liaison to the Metropolitan Police Department to run for D.C. Council.
“What are you going to do for us?” Estwick asked.
Gaither explained that his highest priority would be to attract high-tech firms from along the Dulles toll road and Interstate 270 back into the District with tax incentives.
“I’m not going to work in Northeast, Southeast, or Anacostia. I only park my car in Georgetown and along Wisconsin Avenue,” Estwick continued.
“I wouldn’t park my car in a lot of District neighborhoods either,” Gaither said. But instead of making a resident feel good about the place he lives, Gaither seemed to be suggesting to one more member of Ward 4’s black middle class that crossing the District line was a viable response to troubles in their neighborhoods.
“I’m not an idealist; I’m a realist,” Gaither notes in an interview. His political record largely reflects that attitude. After losing an ANC election in 1988, Gaither won a spot on the D.C. Democratic Committee in 1992 and was re-elected two years ago. He served as the party’s executive director for one year, at a time when its endorsements had zero impact and Republicans began to show their faces in the District without fear of being laughed out. He has served, but to what end?
It’s not all hack work and bromides on the hustings for Gen X. Two candidates who market themselves on the strength of their visionary qualities are Todd Mosley and Baruti Jahi, who are vying for the Ward 1 D.C. Council seat. Mosley, a 34-year-old former Madison Avenue advertising director and current resident of Adams Morgan, has made his youth enterprise program, Thumbs Up, a prominent part of his campaign literature. Thumbs Up employs 36 predominantly black youngsters from Mosley’s 17th and Euclid Streets NW neighborhood in recycling and neighborhood cleanup projects. Mosley, like any good ad man, knows that pictures of kids doing what looks like a good thing sells. And he’s earned the right. While many of the younger political hopefuls have been trying to speechify their way to the next level, Mosley has organized and delivered in the trenches.
Mosley promotes Thumbs Up as a prime example of his creative approach to solving the District’s problems: He pays youngsters up to $10 an hour for work at three recycling drop-off sites and various landscape projects. He came up with the idea when the city first ended its recycling program in May 1995. “The money Thumbs Up provides gives young people power to purchase,” Mosley explains. But, even Mosley admits, it provides little formal help in critical areas like education and job training. In the end, Thumbs Up, like many other District programs targeted to youth, offers fish, not a lesson in how to catch them.
Mosley calls what he does “economic activism,” but even he has hard time explaining what he means by it. “I don’t know exactly what an economic activist does,” he admits at one point.
Nomenclature is just as important for 29-year-old Ward 1 candidate Baruti Jahi right down to his name. “I wanted a name closer to my personality,” Jahine Dexter Davis, explains. “Both are words from African languages: ‘Baruti’ means ‘teacher,’ ‘Jahi,’ ‘dignity.’” But the name doesn’t exactly roll off a voter’s tongue, or his friends’ for that matter, so Jahi has reduced his name to “BJ.”
Jahi, a graduate of Howard University and a current doctoral student writing his dissertation on D.C. statehood, has the look, walk, and talk of a new brand of young Democrats. Make that “new Democrats.” “I use the term ‘The New Democrat,’ even though many of the ideas that I propose have been used before,” Jahi acknowledges in his campaign literature. So instead of talking about what government can do, he begins with what it can’t. “Government is limited in what it can do,” he adds. “We need to take back our neighborhoods ourselves.”
It’s not exactly the kind of rhetoric that will have voters going through walls to get to the next generation of leadership. “I think what’s missing is a certain creativity,” says Bernard Demczuk, a former Barry staffer and advisor who is now an assistant vice president at George Washington University. “If they studied some of the more creative political positions, say from the Green Party in Germany or the young students in Asia, I think they would come up with some more interesting ideas.” The two youngest candidates, Ian Alexander and Joseph Romanow, have distinctive political affiliations but have not exactly broken new ground in their platforms.
Alexander is a rare species in District politics, not only because he has just reached the legal drinking age of 21: He’s a Republican running for the D.C. Council seat for overwhelmingly Democratic Ward 5. At times it almost seems like a college prank, given that Alexander is still a senior at Catholic University. His Ward 5 address is a dorm room on Catholic’s campus.
“When I decided to run, people told me I had no shot….’You’re too young and inexperienced,’” says Alexander, who is an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Brookland. “The fact is, I’m here. I disagree with people when they say, ‘Young people are the future’ and then when you show up they say, ‘You need to pay your dues.’”
Romanow, a 24-year-old member of the D.C. Statehood Party, is running against Linda Cropp for chair of the D.C. Council. When asked about a politician he admires, Romanow settles on an interesting choice. “Jimmy Carter’s pretty cool,” he answers. “He wasn’t all that effective as a president, though.”
The biggest problem, though, is that young candidates don’t even take advantage of biology. “I think in some ways they’re simply being out-hustled by the older candidates,” says Croft. “[At-large candidate] Bill Rice isn’t a spring chicken, though he does have a youthful face.”