Fresh Hope in D.C.


September 14, 1990|By Ernest B. Furgurson

Washington SUDDENLY, there is hope. There was a palpable lift in this capital's spirit Wednesday morning, when the primary returns showed that the fresh, confident smile of Sharon Pratt Dixon is likely to replace Marion Barry's sweaty grimace as Washington's face before the world.

But it wasn't just a matter of personalities, or of the District of Columbia itself. There was hope in the way voters black and white ignored openly racial appeals both in the capital and in suburban Prince Georges County. The polarization that seemed so ominous during the Barry trial did not carry over at the polls.

What most of the nation knows about this city is that it is three-fourths black, riddled by crime and embarrassed by its mayor. Maryland knows that Prince Georges is about half black, and that percentage is increasing steadily. Incumbents here and challengers there counted on that racial makeup as they tried to divide voters rather than unite them -- and they failed.

The most blatant, unapologetic racial appeal was in Prince Georges, where a Nation of Islam spokesman ran perhaps the first orthodox political campaign by any official of the separatist black Muslim movement. Abdul Alim Muhammad spoke of blacks' historic grievances and urged them to vote solidly against their white congressman.

But that congressman happened to be Steny Hoyer, who has represented the county in the state legislature and the Congress for 23 years and supported minority concerns all the way. In this campaign, he continued to preach the politics of coalition -- and on Tuesday, he drew 79 percent of the vote, winning all the precincts that Jesse Jackson carried when he ran in the 1984 presidential primary.

County Executive Parris Glendening also turned back a challenger who urged people to vote their race. He got 74 percent, and Floyd Wilson only 17 percent in a four-way race.

Despite the black Muslim campaign in Prince Georges, until a few weeks ago most politicians expected race to figure just as strongly in the Washington primary. For months during the mayor's investigation and trial on drug charges, Mr. Barry played cat-and-mouse about whether he would run for another term. Finally he said he wouldn't, although he still has not disappeared from the political scene because he is running as an independent for an at-large City Council seat.

But during the the run-up to his trial, the mayor's assertions that white prosecutors were after him because he is black stoked rising anger in the black community. When a mostly black jury acquitted him on most charges despite the vivid evidence against him, that too was seen as a sign that the case had polarized the city.

Four of the five Democratic mayoral candidates were black. Only one of them took a chance on defying that polarization, by speaking out directly against Mr. Barry. She was Sharon Pratt Dixon, who said she would clean out City Hall with not a broom, but a shovel. For her independence, she got the possibly decisive backing of the Washington Post. After trailing in opinion polls, she won, and so did a series of new City Council contenders.

Her support cut across racial lines. She carried five of the eight wards, running best in the Third, which is mostly white. She carried some precincts in every ward except the far southeastern Eighth, which is solidly black. But citywide, she did better among black voters than even Mr. Barry did in his first mayoral victory 12 years ago.

She is a lawyer and former utility company vice president, a quick and attractive personality. Her winning quality was her freshness, her freedom from any connection with how the District has been governed in recent years. Up till primary day, the polls favored the clean-cut, well-financed John Ray, but what did him in was his close relation to real-estate developers and especially the fact that he is a City Council veteran.

Mrs. Dixon is not automatically the next mayor. She must run in November against the former police chief, Maurice Turner, who turned Republican thinking he would have a good chance if Mr. Barry did run again. He is not a dazzling personality, but he can mount a law-and-order campaign where law and order are desperately needed.

Mrs. Dixon can, if she will, reply that he was chief while Washington's crime rate was rocketing in the past decade. In practical terms, her greatest advantage in the general election is not on the issues but in the numbers: by registration, the capital is 8-1 Democratic.

But for this brief moment, even Republicans are putting November calculations on hold while the city gets used to the new face on Page 1.

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