Shot of DC

How will a shifting racial makeup on Washington, DC's city council affect the poor and powerless?

There are six days to go before the April 23 special election to fill an at-large seat on the City Council of Washington, DC, a city situated between the entities called Maryland and Virginia which you just may have heard of, as it is the capital of the most powerful nation the world has ever known.

But of course, the issues in the contest are local in nature. As I see it the principal concern is whether the council’s racial composition will remain at six African-American and six white members, not counting the (white) Chairman, or will shift to five African-American and seven white. A closely related question is whether DC’s local government will continue or enhance its halting efforts to ameliorate the bleak situation of its least well off citizens, or will take a step toward throwing them by the wayside under such buzzwords as “reform” and “fiscal responsibility.”

To be sure, in some circles it is considered improper (even racist) to frame the issue this way. Thus in his regular Saturday column the other day entitled “Race doesn’t belong in D.C. Council election,” Washington Post senior statesman (and African-American) Colbert King wrote such things as that “race is no indicator of where a candidate stands on the issues,” and that “the winner is accountable to and will serve the entire city.”

The problem with that, Colby, is that you are speaking as if the District is no longer in the throes of the civil rights struggle but is, rather, in a “post-racial” environment. I remind you that the last mayoral candidate who thought that way, then-incumbent Adrian Fenty, lost badly in the 2010 election. The truth is closer to what George T. Johnson, head of AFSCME local 20, said on the occasion of one candidate withdrawing from the race and his endorsement of another:

People have perceptions about what this city is becoming . . . and they want this council to remain black, and if they don’t get out there and put black folks in there, there will be a white city council, … That is a rough thing to say, but that is the truth.

As to specifics, the candidate who withdrew was former member Michael A. Brown (son of the late iconic African-American politician and Clinton administration figure Ron Brown), who lost his re-election bid last fall and presumably has decided his chances are no better now. That leaves three principal candidates and three minor ones.

The three principal candidates are Anita Bonds, chair of the DC Democratic State Committee and interim appointee in the seat in question, an African-American who leads in the polls; white Democrat Elissa Silverman, a former Washington City Paper and WaPo staffer who is now an analyst at the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute (a relatively progressive organization as far as I can tell); and white Republican Patrick Mara, a school board member and the principal of the Dolan Group, which “provide[s] distribution services to a select group of investment management firms to increase their assets under management.”

To be complete, the minor candidates are Democrat Matthew Frumin, an advisory neighborhood commissioner who worked in the Clinton administration; Democrat Paul Zukerberg, an attorney who specializes in defending marijuana possession cases; and my candidate, bless him, Perry Redd of the DC Statehood-Green Party.

Bonds has the endorsements of several current Council members and three local unions. Silverman has the support of Democracy for America and two former Council candidates, A. J. Cooper and Jon Gann. Mara can boast the backing of WaPo itself (the editorial division, that is), the DC Sierra Club, and various other entities ranging from the LGBT community’s Washington Blade newspaper to longtime local affairs columnist Jonetta Rose Barras.

But the nitty-gritty is this. Mara’s slogan of late has been “don’t split the reform vote,” and the way it looks to me the election turns on whether or not he can siphon off enough of their shared constituency from Silverman to make up the gap that presently stands in the polls between them (13% for each as of two days ago) and Bonds (19%). (Another 12% are divided among the other candidates and 43% are undecided.) He and his organization are certainly hard at this task, as opposed to, say, challenging front-runner Bonds on the issues. He has attacked Silverman’s electoral endorsements when she authored the CP “Loose Lips” column some years ago, and most recently a PAC in his camp paid for a robocall to DC residents urging them to reject Silverman because of a comment she had made about taxation (taken out of context).

It seems possible that Mara thinks of his candidacy as a mission, because he is single-handedly responsible for the loss of the last Council seat held by a Republican. He ran against popular incumbent Carol Schwartz from the right in the 2008 Republican primary, to defeat her, only to lose badly in the general election because his positions on the issues were out of step with the populace. However, a possible campaign violation may undermine his effort. It has been revealed that he agreed to raise funds for a conservative organization for a “consulting fee,” using his 2008 campaign donors list as a base, which at least in principle is a use of that list “for commercial purposes,” a violation of election law.

A couple of weeks ago I thought that a controversy about Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe might become an issue in the election, especially since Mara wanted him fired. But that flap seems to have faded more or less in tandem with Mara taking Silverman to be his adversary, and Ellerbe himself seemed relaxed and confident in an interview conducted a week ago.

There you have it.

Photo by Vinoth Chandar released under a Creative Commons license.