The Chocolate City’s Two Faces

In this first of a three-part series profiling the nation's capital, The Root takes a look at who really holds the political power in this very political town.

Getty Images
Getty Images

There’s Washington.

And there’s D.C., the District of Columbia, a city long fractured by race, class and its very geography. A park and a river act as natural fault lines between blacks and whites and low-income and wealthy residents.

Those divisions and congressional oversight of the city’s legislation and budget have framed the African-American political power structure — one that observers say is still defined by the rise, fall and rise again of iconic former Mayor Marion Barry.

With the hard-fought Home Rule Act, District residents were finally able to elect a mayor and a 13-member council in 1975 to upend a government that did not reflect the city’s predominantly black population.

Today, African Americans hold a majority of the limited number of major elected offices: mayor, council and congressional delegate. Thirty-five years after the city ushered in elections, the leadership is not only mostly black but also made up of District natives. Six of the council’s seven black members were born in the city.

The exception is Barry, who is originally from Mississippi and is now a council member representing impoverished Ward 8. Meanwhile, none of the council’s six white members is from the District. (Despite the District’s rapidly growing Latino population, there are no Latinos serving on the city council. Nor are there any Asians.)

“We’re products of our parents’ work in civil rights,” said 45-year-old Michael A. Brown (I-At Large), son of the late Ron Brown, chairman of the Democratic National Convention and first black secretary of commerce. “For folks like me … we chose to get involved [in politics].”

There are other chips off the old block: Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) is the son of late council member Harry Thomas Sr.; Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large) is the son of political operative Marshall Brown; and council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) is the daughter of local, politically active parents.

Council member Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7), born and raised in the District, said her family was not heavily involved in the city’s politics when she was a child, but they were active in the community, which was just as important in shaping her later interest in politics.

“They were just a working-class family, but as third-generation Washingtonians, they knew everyone,” said Alexander, 48. Civil rights leader Rev. Walter Fauntroy, elected the city’s first delegate in 1970 and credited with pushing the Home Rule Act, attended school with her mother.

Though the black political power players are not monolithic and the leaders differ on issues, they are part of a government that has pushed significantly progressive legislation, from a tax on plastic and paper bags to cleaning up the polluted Anacostia River to the legalization of gay marriage.