Bill Rice has a drawing of a bicycle on his campaign literature. It is, he explains, a symbol of his knack for visiting every corner of his racially and economically divided city: In his earlier career as a reporter, the bicycle-propelled Rice got used to pedaling into neighborhoods many journalists visit only in locked cars.
The bike, like any symbol, connotes a lot more than Rice intends. No one ever compliments black politicians for showing up on MacArthur Boulevard, yet a white guy pedaling up Sheriff Road gets to profile as a race-blind idealist. Rice’s bicycle ultimately works to allay a persistent local fear: that a white candidate can’t truly know predominantly black Washington.
That concern may soon need to be addressed all across the District. Though the city’s population remains 60.3 percent African-American, the D.C. Council this fall may emerge from the electoral season with a white majority for the first time in its history. Five white incumbents sit on the existing 13-member body, and a glance at the fall campaign suggests that the addition of two new white members is a distinct possibility.
The math tells the story: Two of the five white councilmembers aren’t up for re-election. Another two, Ward 3’s Kathy Patterson and Ward 6’s Sharon Ambrose, look like winners. And three of the other seats up for grabs this fall could easily go to white candidates.
In Ward 1, Whitman-Walker Clinic Director Jim Graham, a white man, is mounting a ferocious Democratic primary challenge to African-American incumbent Frank Smith. In the race for this year’s two contested at-large seats, chances are fairly good that either Phil Mendelson or Bill Rice could use the Democratic nomination to take one of the spots, while incumbent Republican David Catania could hold onto the other one. The result would be a new council consisting of seven white members and six African-Americans.
This scenario is by no means certain: Smith is far from out of it in Ward 1, and African-American candidates Phyllis Outlaw, Gregg Rhett, and Sabrina Sojourner look like strong candidates for the Democratic at-large nomination. In November, Statehood Party incumbent Hilda Mason and Umoja Party candidate Mark Thompson, both African-Americans, could also emerge with seats. Still, depending how the numbers and the turnouts break, there is a better-than-even chance that most of the faces on the next council will be white ones.
To some extent, a shift toward a less black council would reflect a shift toward a less black city. The non-Hispanic black population has fallen to just over 60 percent from 70.3 percent in the 1980 Census. Ward-by-ward breakdowns show new white demographic muscle in Ward 2, which now has a slim white majority, and in Ward 1, which in 1990 was over 50 percent African-American but today has no clear majority. According to data from the District’s Office of Planning, Wards 1, 2, and 3 had the smallest population loss between 1990 and 1998, while Wards 5, 7, and 8 the most heavily African-American all lost more than Washington’s 14.2 percent citywide average.
“You don’t have that consistent in-migration of blacks that built up the black population,” says University of Maryland political scientist Ron Walters, a longtime District watcher. “Blacks are not replacing themselves. Whites are. With the out-migration, the District has a larger proportion of white population than it did in the 1970s when home rule was passed. So the electoral demographics are changing and it’s changing so that the white population has become the swing vote.”
Even if D.C. is less black than it used to be, a white council majority would nonetheless mark a major cultural shift in D.C. politics: A city whose quest for emancipation from white overseers is the stuff of local legend may once again feature a legislature democratically elected, this time in which the white minority predominates. More remarkable still in a city where race is part of so many conversations, almost nobody is talking about it.
The reception area on the seventh story of One Judiciary Square, where the D.C. Council has its offices, is ringed with portraits of councils past. It’s a great place to check out disco-era fashion blunders dig Marion Barry from the ’77-’78 term, in a high-volume plaid three-piece suit but it also presents a nice visual perspective on the evolving history of home rule in Washington.
That history has always included a council with a white member or two, because the city has always had a predominantly white ward or two. Ward 3, in Northwest, has always elected representatives from the white community. White legislators like Betty Ann Kane have also been able to win citywide seats for at-large positions.
D.C.’s most famous white politician, David Clarke, never had to rely on white votes. Clarke practiced the civil rights and social activism of home rule as fervently as the movement’s black leaders. He championed rent control, social welfare, and statehood, running on his movement track record as well as the politician’s standard array of promises and plans. “He didn’t have to say he was white, or apologize for being white,” remembers former Ward 7 colleague H.R. Crawford.
On the mayoral level, there are limits to that we-are-the-world ethos. It’s important to remember that the pan-racial appeal of Clarke petered out when he ran for mayor even though he’d cruised to citywide victory as council chairman. White mayoral candidate Jack Evans has been out front in confronting race. By doing so, Evans acknowledges that it is a crucial question for an office whose occupant is as much civic symbol as government executive.
Council seats, however, have been far less symbolically loaded than the mayoral office. After the last election and the special elections that followed in 1997, the number of white councilmembers jumped from three to five, but the race issue is still rarely a part of council discussions. The ideology foisted on the city by five years of local atrophy and outside interference less cronyism, smaller government, and smaller dreams appeals to voters of all ethnicities in a post-Barry District. In ward races and at-large contests alike, the talk is of potholes and services, not of who marched at Selma or who is more down with the folks. “Not a single person has called attention to race on the trail,” says Rice.
This year’s demographic changes on the council would, in places, reflect the city’s. For instance, in Ward 1, a victory by Graham or fellow challenger Todd Mosley would likely capitalize on the city’s burgeoning gay vote. Most of the homeowning gay men who have transformed several neighborhoods in Wards 1 and 2 are white. So are Evans, Catania, and Carol Schwartz, the councilmembers traditionally most popular with D.C.’s gay community.
More than raw demographics is at work in amplifying white power in a majority-black city. White candidates have an easier time pulling in money in a city economy still by and large white-controlled. The informal network of donors that is crucial for any candidate tends, at first, to consist of folks who share a candidate’s background, neighborhood, or profession. For years, the well-connected Evans has outpaced most council colleagues in fundraising. Whitman-Walker Clinic Director Graham, meanwhile, has had access to another branch of the giving tree through his connections as a longtime nonprofit fundraiser. Catania would have been just another who-was-that in the pantheon of also-rans if he hadn’t been able to put together money for his nascent campaign last December.
As well-funded white candidates have increasingly integrated the council, racial dynamics have begun to play a different role in people’s decisions. Umoja candidate Thompson says white Washingtonians are less eager to vote for African-Americans today. “The liberal white community does not feel the same sense of obligation that they once felt to elect black elected officials in a majority-black city,” he says. Thompson says media attacks on D.C.’s black elected officials have “Willie Horton-ized” them in the eyes of some white voters.
But Vickey Wilcher, a former Ambrose aide who helped her boss become Ward 6’s first white representative, says whatever changes the council may see will be due to less cross-racial suspicion, not more. According to Wilcher, a younger generation of black voters will help shape D.C.’s political future. “We’re smarter now,” says Wilcher. “We’re not going to just vote for the ‘Vote for me, I’m black’ guy, because we know that guy is just as likely to turn around and pardon my language fuck us as the white guy is.”
Where Wilcher sees sophistication, others see fatigue. After five solid years of government atrophy, federal usurpation, and the forced dismantling of D.C.’s Great Society-civil rights movement heritage, some fear that talented, concerned African-Americans are just a lot less eager to run for office. According to former University of the District of Columbia urban affairs department chair Howard Croft, black Washingtonians ran for office in the ’70s and ’80s because they believed it would win them the city they wanted. Now that custody of the city is in the hands of Congress, some potential warriors wonder what they would be fighting for.
“More and more African-Americans in this city believe that politics does not work for them,” says Croft. “On the other hand, you do have a white population that believe that politics works for them they’re getting the kind of city they wanted.” In the 1997 special election that elevated Ambrose over Croft and a slew of others to her Ward 6 council seat, Capitol Hill Precincts 85, 88, and 89 historically whiter parts of the ward had an average turnout of 42 percent, according to information on the D.C. Board of Elections Web site. Much more heavily African-American Precincts 133, 114, and 112, east of the Anacostia River, averaged just 18 percent.
Those who don’t want to read demographic or cultural trends into the council’s changing makeup can always opt for the coincidence theory. The council has taken on a certain musical-chairs quality of late, with candidates like Ambrose and Catania winning office through little-publicized special elections and, in both cases, achieving their considerable popularity after gaining office. When Catania won last December’s special election the third in a year his victory certainly had more to do with inept opposition than shifts in ideological or racial sensibilities. Yet given that the demographic change on the D.C. Council has been concurrent with a major shift in the city’s political priorities, pure happenstance remains a pretty hard case to make.
It’s been a subtle process of adding cream to the coffee it’s a nuanced, little-remarked change that has taken place in a number of obscure elections over time. But trust that people will wake up and smell that coffee if the D.C. Council gets a white majority.
For some white people, the change would be a heartening one, more important than the simple election of three candidates. Of course, few will admit it and those who will won’t do so on the record. “I think it’s a good thing,” says a politically active Democrat. “Because it shows we’re a racially blind city, that we’re moving past all this stuff.” The Democrat says Capitol Hill and business will be particularly impressed with such a result something that could wind up aiding the District’s economic development. Call it the Plan, or call it a zany coincidence, but some folks would have a kinder, gentler view of a whiter D.C.
Some black Washingtonians are whispering the same calculation albeit in less exultant language about white candidates pleasing the outside powers.
Wilcher says D.C.’s African-Americans know that it’s their call. “How is there going to be a backlash?” she asks. “If it happens, we’re going to be the ones who did it.” Meaning that if whites end up dominating the D.C. Council, people can say it’s the black community’s own damn fault.
Of course, all of the speculation, math, and potential outcomes depend on who turns out on Election Day. Thompson, for one, fears African-Americans may be the minority of voters in the primaries.
To many in the city, a white council would just be the latest reversal of black-majority home rule. The past two years have featured the removal of major agencies from mayoral control, the installation of an unelected school board, the appointment a white woman from Texas as chief management officer, and the elevation of a white woman to run the control board. With Congress bearing down on them, it’s likely that a council of any racial composition will keep working with these folks to maintain the belt-tightening agenda that has left many poorer people feeling cut. According to Jim Gibson of D.C. Agenda, D.C.’s lack of a white working class means flaps over proposed cutbacks can, inaccurately, be perceived as racial. “If it were Seattle or Portland, they’d call it a class reaction,” he says.
With such a backdrop, particularly if the national economy goes in the drink, D.C.’s white leadership of both the elected and the unelected variety could become a lightning rod for people alienated by retrenching government. It’s fine and well to say that potholes are nonracial, but when things get tight, resentment has a logic all its own.
For a century, the city was run like a plantation. The past few years’ worth of demographic changes, electoral coincidences, and political-cultural shifts haven’t quite buried that history the way they’ve buried the home rule dreams of building Chocolate City. “Race is a factor we can always count on as injecting an element into politics that is irrational and pathological,” says Gibson. A change that has up to now seemed organic and incremental, once realized, could end up having a radical impact.