washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Barry’s Back Yet Again

If you, dear reader, are a resident of the Washington, DC, metro area, you probably don’t need me to get a fix on the news that former mayor Marion Barry has made yet another comeback by winning a seat on the DC Council. But for those of you who live elsewhere, and may have thought Barry’s show, and its various reruns, were canceled long ago, here’s an explanation:
1) Barry’s Ward: Barry won a surprisingly decisive, better-than-two-to-one victory over Ward 8 Council incumbent Sandy Allen, once his protege. But Ward 8, in southeast Washington, has long been Barry Country, and it probably will be as long as he lives. It’s the poorest part of the District, the most heavily African-American part of the District, and the Ward that has probably benefitted least from the economic development and real estate boom that has accompanied Anthony Williams’ tenure as mayor.
2) Class Warfare: The Ward 8 backlash against the DC status quo was echoed in Ward 7, also in southeast Washington, where another Council incumbent, Kevin Chavous, was soundly beaten. And because these were the only two Wards with competitive Council races, turnout patterns also doomed at-large Council incumbent Harold Brazil, another pro-Williams candidate. The basic argument of the challengers was that Williams and his allies have promoted downtown development at the expense of poorer neighborhoods, and more generally, that the large-scale gentrification of the city has done little for po’ folks other than raise their rents. This, of course, is a common political conflict in reviving urban cores all across the country, but it’s especially tense in DC, which has the largest income stratification of any major city.
3) The Demise of Chocolate City: There is also, of course, a racial element to the economic politics of DC. The white percentage of the District population has been steadily rising in recent years, partly the result of gentrification, and partly because of a major exodus of black middle-class families, mostly into the Maryland suburbs east of the city. A majority of the DC Council members are now white (all the losing incumbents and winning challengers in yesterday’s primary were African-Americans). One of the most enduring myths of DC folklore, going back for decades, has been “The Plan”–the idea, often alluded to publicly by Barry, that shadowy White Power Structure types were maneuvering to restore white leadership of DC government. Some local activists aren’t bashful at all about claiming that Anthony Williams’ tenure as mayor is the penultimate step towards fulfillment of The Plan.
4) What’s Next: The most immediate impact of yesterday’s DC primary could be, oddly enough, on baseball. Williams’ plan for public financing of a District stadium to lure relocation of the Montreal Expos–reportedly the strongest option available to major league baseball–was supported by all the losing incumbents, and opposed by all the winning challengers. Williams may still have the votes for his plan, but the bigger problem is that baseball is getting ensnared in the broader economic and racial politics of the District.
In the longer run, there’s now lots of speculation that Barry will inevitably challenge Williams in 2006, assuming he stays healthy enough and avoids the “personal problems” that have plagued his career, most notably the smoking-crack-with-a-hooker incident that sent him to the hoosegow for a while.
But don’t bet on the Final Barry Comeback. For all the economic and racial conflicts mentioned earlier, the single largest beef of low-to-middle-income Washingtonians of all races remains poor public services, and especially poor public schools (it’s noteworthy that losing incumbent Chavous was the long-time chairman of the Council education committee) . Williams, who’s managed to clean the Augean Stables of several DC government departments in the past, appears vastly more willing and able to do something about public services than any of his critics, especially Barry. After all, Williams tried to wrest control of DC schools from the perpetually feckless elected school board, only to be rebuffed by the Council. And while Barry is best known nationally for his “personal problems,” his enduring political legacy is the proposition that municipal government should function primarily as a jobs program, not as a provider of public services.

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