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Wednesday, September 15, 2004


Interesting results in District of Columbia elections yesterday. (Note: These were Democratic Party primaries, but in real terms, these are tantamount to the real election, since members of other parties only win seats earmarked for people affiliated with some other party - whether Republican or Green or something else.)

The story that will attract the most attention is the return of Marion Barry to city politics, reclaiming his old Ward 8 seat from former protege Sandy Allen. Ward 8, for those not in the know, is the most southeasterly (it's the only ward 100% east of the Anacostia) of the city's 8 wards, is almost entirely black, and predominantly poor. (The city's sizable middle-class black population generally lives elsewhere in the city.) The ward has no grocery stores and most business establishments are fast-food carryouts, liquor stores, check cashing establishments, and pawnshops. Though there have been some new development in the area, as housing projects have given way to townhouse developments designed to lure middle-class people back into the city from Maryland and Virginia. There's sort of a catch-22 going on here if you're unfortunate enough to find yourself living in Ward 8. Desirable businesses (restaurants, retail, grocery stores) have no interest in investing in the area as it presently exists, but to make such establishments want to locate there would be to bring changes of the sort unwanted by most of those who would want Marion Barry back in power again.

Obviously, most people - myself included - find the notion of a Barry comeback unpalatable for a variety of reasons. His time in office was marked by people in general and the middle class (both black and white) in particular fleeing the city in droves, inept management of public resources, and a city with whom no one wanted to be associated. His continued presence in the public eye feeds into stereotypes about the pathology of D.C., since in most places, as the Good Charlotte song goes, he'd be hard-pressed to get a job at McDonalds after his actions as Mayor. Returning Barry to office - any office - is also not the way to convince a Republican-dominated Congress and White House, or the American electorate at large, that the District deserves more autonomy. Any event that gives him more power is an unfortunate one for the District. That he still has his defenders in the area (including a couple co-workers of mine) did perhaps more than anything else to convince me that I would forever remain alien to the political cutlure of the District.

On the other hand, I'm in a sense proud of the District's voters for decisively ousting incumbents in general, since it's easy in most places for incumbents to hold office as long as they want it without doing much of anything to warrant their long tenures other than showing up. Perhaps in part because the population is so transient here, new blood regularly finds its way into city government.

The pattern seems to be that new talent is able to break through in City Council elections, but that one politician after another gets too comfortable in office, disappoints too many people, and is taken down. Vincent Gray taking down incumbent and former mayoral candidate Kevin Chavous in Ward 7 is an exemplar of that pattern, insofar as I can't think of anything good or bad I especially associate with Chavous.

The citywide rejection of Harold Brazil has interesting implications, since Brazil has been perhaps Williams' most consistent ally on the council. Brazil was also widely seen as the best friend of the business community on the council, which made him unpopular in some areas; what really brought Brazil down, however, were allegations of the improper use of his staffers to work in his private law practice. New council member Kwame Brown gives the area of the city east of the Anacostia River another representative on the council, which nonetheless remains majority white despite the city's demographics. Brown's victory over Brazil can be attributed to some degree that the two wards that had the most contested council races (and hence the most incentive to turn out) were the two trans-Anacostia wards; four of the wards had no council election, and Jack Evans in Ward 2 (predominantly white and affluent, covering essentially most places a tourist would go in DC other than Ward 6's Capitol Hill) and Adrian Fenty in Ward 4 (the northernmost parts of the city, racially mixed but generally at least middle-class) had only token opposition.

(Scary thought: To what extent does Kwame Brown owe his election to sharing his name with the starting power forward for the Wiazrds?)

The addition of Barry, Brown, Gray in the aggregate seems to be a protest against the gentrification being pushed by the city establishment, that longtime residents are being pushed aside in favor of more "desirable" (i.e. yuppies and well-off empty nesters) residents, and to that extent it's perfectly understandable. Unfortunately, as I've said before in this space, it seems as if "gentrify or stagnate" are really the only two options for the future of the District and its neighborhoods. Read blogging celebrity and former Answer Guy neighbor Matt Yglesias' take on these issues here.

All in all, the triumphant return of Marion Barry is one those things that makes me glad Answer Guy Central is on the other side of the Potomac for now.


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