Role of race in D.C. council race Franchise: Majority-black Washington is poised to elect a majority-white City Council.

Sun Journal

October 28, 1998|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- As she finishes the fried croaker special at the Florida Avenue Grill, a downtown soul-food hangout, Marion Wilson heaves a heaven-have-mercy sigh. The majority-black city where she has lived for decades may be about to elect a majority-white City Council.

The prospect leaves her in a state of glum disbelief.

"They're not concerned with what's going on down here -- with the people who are working and barely surviving," she says about the white candidates. "I wouldn't vote for any of them."

As Election Day approaches, Washingtonians are poised to elect the first majority-white council since the district gained home rule in 1974.

And the city is divided: Some voters argue that competence, not color, is the issue. Others insist that their candidates must represent the experience of the urban black residents who make up most of the district.

And so an ordinary race for a largely powerless local seat has taken on a racial supercharge.

The campaign has even drawn the fascination of onlookers from far outside the district's borders: Today, the Rev. Al Sharpton, who lives in New York, is expected to appear at a rally for Malik Shabazz, an African-American council candidate who is campaigning to "save Chocolate City" from a mostly white council.

Whether the council scale tips to seven white and six black members depends on what happens to two "at-large," citywide seats. The outcome of most of the other council races is largely decided.

In the primaries, Democrat Phil Mendelson and Republican David Catania, both white, made powerful showings, and political oddsmakers gave them good chances to win.

The development may seem stunning from the outside, but political analysts have watched this trend emerge in recent years as black residents have increasingly stayed home on Election Day.

Many feel disenfranchised, fed up with a government that they feel answers to Congress instead of to their needs, says University of Maryland government professor Ron Walters.

"When David Catania, a white Republican, could do so well, that was a sign that in a city that is predominantly black and Democratic, people are not voting," says Walters. "It's a systematic pattern in this city."

Further diminishing turnout, over the past three decades Washington has lost 180,000 people, 77 percent of whom have been black.

Many of those residents were part of the middle-class voting base that helped elect black candidates -- an older, politically active, well-educated crowd.

Now, in a city that is about 63 percent black, only about 42 percent of all its elected officials are African-American, says David Bositis, a senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political Studies.

Most of the candidates -- black and white -- insist that race is not an issue. They urge voters to judge them by their views and experience.

The federally appointed control board is expected to restore sweeping powers to the council over the next two years, and many candidates are eager to portray themselves as the right statesmen for the job.

"The voters are not totally colorblind. They talk about it, but it's clear to me that their first and foremost concern is competency," Mendelson says.

Still, noting that voters are interested in his stand on the issues, he often mentions his support for Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr.'s signature causes, including the survival of the University of the District of Columbia.

Throughout the campaign, the race issue has been slow to fade. On a recent Sunday, a minister at a northeast Washington church introduced at-large candidate Sandra Seegars as a black woman who could help rescue the council from a white majority.

Last year, her critics accused her of turning her back on fellow blacks by launching a Marion Barry recall drive.

But when it came to the campaign, Seegars says, the color of her skin, not her past opposition to Barry, is the headline.

"I told the folks at the church, I don't want you to vote for me because I'm black, but because you think I can do something for the city," Seegars says.

"I told them, 'Remember, everyone who's black is not good for you, everyone who's white is not bad for you.' "

Others are not shying from the topic. Shabazz, a 32-year-old lawyer and activist, is making "the black agenda" the cornerstone of his campaign.

"No one else even mentions that word -- 'black' -- in their literature," Shabazz says. With a majority-white council, he contends, "blacks will be slightly overlooked, they won't be given the adequate attention and concern they deserve."

L "We need a majority-black, competent City Council," he says.

Meanwhile, critics have renewed attacks on Shabazz and another African-American council candidate, Mark Thompson, both of whom made slurs against Jews at a Howard University event in 1994.

In a side skirmish, some residents attacked Seegars for campaigning with her initials, "S.S.," saying it was offensive because it suggested Hitler's police force.

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