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There’s a knock-down, drag-out fight inthe Wilson Building over redistricting, and politically active residents are incensed that they’ll be moved from one ward to another.
“For some, this may seem a logical, easy solution,” says a member of one affected Advisory Neighborhood Commission. “I call it racial gerrymandering and believe it is detrimental to east of the river and to the city as a whole.”
Faced with petition drives and squads of citizen lobbyists, councilmembers plead with residents to accept the changes, saying that political boundaries don’t have much of an impact on how most people live their lives.
“It is not the end of the world,” the D.C. Council chairman insists. “We will still have the same alliances. We will still have the same friendships… All of us need to be one D.C.”
That was 2001.
Then as now, the city was going through the Census-mandated process of redrawing its political boundaries, and Wards 7 and 8—having lost population in proportion to the rest of the city over the previous decade—needed to gain territory. Then-Council Chairwoman Linda Cropp saw the east-of-the-river pieces of Ward 6 as the most logical places to transfer, incensing residents who felt that having a ward span the Anacostia River was essential for the city’s civic life. They said the same thing ten years before that, in 1991, when then-Ward 6 Councilmember Harold Brazil raised a tidal wave of resistance to a plan that would absorb historic Anacostia into Ward 8. That time, he won.
In 2011, the most pitched battle is again on the banks of the Anacostia, with Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells seeking to protect his southern and eastern flanks from encroachment by even more shrunken Wards 7 and 8. Current and former residents of Ward 6 have responded by mobbing community meetings and rallies and deluging members of the redistricting committee with calls and emails, demanding that greater Capitol Hill be kept together.
To hear them talk, ward boundaries are ten-foot-high brick walls over which residents can’t socialize, shop, or coordinate community activities. At a town hall a couple weeks ago, a woman who had moved to eastern Capitol Hill from Kingman Park—which was redistricted into Ward 7 last time around—started tearing up as she imagined the prospect of being kicked out of Club 6 yet again. “Nobody ever came to see us. We were left alone,” she said, of her time in Ward 7. “It’s so frustrating that you want to do that to us.”
This decennial anguish, of course, belies the fact that ward boundaries don’t actually mean much, unless you’re redrawing them. Historically, they’ve dictated residential parking zones, but the council is working to change that. According to Washington D.C. Association of Realtors president Suzanne Des Marais, there’s no discernable affect on property values from being in one ward or another. And meanwhile, the borders that really do matter—historic districts, police districts, and school districts—aren’t affected one bit.
So why does anyone care what ward they’re in?
Most fundamentally, it’s about the virtues of the person who represents you. That’s what you voted for, after all—unless, of course, you’re among the 78 percent of District residents who didn’t care enough about municipal representation to turn out for last September’s primary election, a figure low enough to raise the question of whether anyone cares what ward they’re in, or knows. D.C. is a city of neighborhoods, and that’s the main geographic layer residents identify with.
Still, your ward councilmember can be the ultimate level of appeal for disputes that need resolving, roads that need fixing, and taxes that need abating—constituent service, after all, is the lifeblood of local politics. (Naturally, councilmembers became a lot less useful when earmarks were banned).
Which means many of the arguments from Ward 6 residents for staying in Tommy territory had to do with how attentive he’s been to their daily needs, and how councilmembers Marion Barry or Yvette Alexander might be less eager to oblige.
“I call up Tommy three or four times, he gets it done like that,” one man told redistricting committee member Phil Mendelson at a community meeting. “Two or three days, no problem. Sell me on the services that I’m going to get from Ward 7.”
That’s fair enough. But Wells knows that his constituents’ loyalty—or their aversion to the alternatives—wouldn’t go far with those in charge of redrawing the map. After all, the answer to the complaint, “I don’t like my councilmember,” is the same no matter what ward you’re in: Work to vote them out. So along with parking issues, he asked them to keep their dislike for Barry or Alexander out of their lobbying, and focus instead on their feeling of togetherness. “I really think it’s who you identify with,” Wells said. “You don’t identify as being a suburb of that neighborhood. You identify as being contiguous with these neighborhoods.”
But what does that mean?
You identify with the places you shop and eat. Maybe you spend lots of time on Barracks Row and H Street, and would like to have some small measure of influence over how it develops, perhaps through activity on an ANC. But say you live 10 blocks away, and all of a sudden don’t belong to Ward 6. Will you all of a sudden be completely voiceless? Hyperlocal government should consider the views of those within a reasonable radius, even if their address isn’t on the right side of the line. If government agencies don’t, business and civic associations are much more forgiving.
You identify with the school your kids go to. Wells used the popular Eastern High School and Eliot Hine Middle School as rallying points, saying that the schools in Ward 6 had developed a unique working relationship with each other that would dissolve if they got booted off his turf. But no matter how the political lines get drawn, no voter’s kids will be forced to switch schools. Can Wells possibly have that much more influence than the school chancellor’s choice of principals, or the degree of parental involvement? And besides, shouldn’t clusters of schools be working across ward boundaries, anyway?
Perhaps your concern lies with something that isn’t built yet, like the 67-acre mixed-use neighborhood that’s supposed to rise on the site of D.C. General Hospital and the buildings around it. Residents of eastern Capitol Hill have pushed for development there for years, and fear all that work will be wasted if they’re suddenly no longer in the same ward. But whether development moves forward has much more to do with the priorities of the mayor and the guy who chairs the Committee on Economic Development, and attractiveness of the site for financing and tenants, than the ward councilmember; development follows the demographics of a neighborhood, and whether the people behind it think they can make money, not the politician who represents it.
Most of all, though, you identify with the people you say “hi” to on the street, the church you attend, the parks where you picnic, the friends’ houses you visit. As much as Wells has worked to foster a sense of community, those bonds know no ward boundaries—but they do tend break down more along racial and socioeconomic lines. And a lurking presence in every redistricting discussion is the degree to which people don’t want to have anything to do with the other people over there.
That means that like many disputes in D.C., there’s a race and class element to the ward fight—even if it doesn’t fall out the way many of them do. Gladys Mack, the ANC commissioner from Rosedale who is protesting the plan to put her district in Ward 7, admits this: She’s the only black person on the commission, and says that redistricting would put her mostly black constituents into an almost entirely black ward, which does nothing for racial understanding.
“We have a mixture. It’s not all one view,” she says, of her neighborhood. “Whites don’t learn from whites, blacks don’t learn from blacks. Poor don’t learn from poor, rich don’t learn from rich.”
If there is any positive value to havingdiverse groups in one ward, asking people on both sides of the river to work together can’t hurt. That’s what residents of Chevy Chase found out after being redistricted against their will from posh, white Ward 3 into predominantly middle-class, African American Ward 4, which is mostly on the other side of Rock Creek Park. ANC Commissioner Gary Thompson says it’s been “refreshing” to stretch past that historically inviolate social boundary. And despite the apocalyptic rhetoric of a decade ago, the only way to know which parts of the Barnaby Woods neighborhood are in Ward 3 or in Ward 4 while wandering the area is to look at whose campaign signs are posted.
The redistricting committee tried to build some connections, by putting enough of Ward 6 into Ward 7 that whoever represents Ward 7 won’t be able to ignore the turf west of the river. That seems like a better solution than annexing pieces of Ward 5, which have even more green space and fewer bridges to cross from one side of the river to another.
Still, those about to be redistricted are dead-set against it, despite Mendelson’s protestations that they shouldn’t be. Which raises the question: Should the line-drawers care? Should simply demonstrating a desire to be in one ward or another be enough to get you there, even if it’s based on affinity for a given councilmember, instead of more nebulous arguments about neighborhood cohesiveness?
Well, yes and no. After all, during redistricting, councilmembers get to choose whom they represent. In a democracy, people are supposed to be able to choose who represents them. Obviously, the law itself is a built-in check on redistricting-as-popularity-contest. The more people who move to a given ward, the more territory that ward will have to lose next time around.
Maybe instead of balancing wards as perfectly as possible, the committee should try to move as little territory as necessary to keep wards about the same population. Why split more people up from their elected officials than required by law? Equal representation is important, of course, but only to a point: Practically speaking, having more or less of a fraction of a councilmember’s attention matters a whole lot less than being suddenly represented by someone you never voted for.
But should the groups that come out and yell loudest to stay in one ward or another be obeyed? Not if they make arguments like the ones I heard most often during meeting after meeting after meeting. It’s nice to feel like part of the club, but in this case, membership matters a lot less than it seems.