Is Chocolate City Over?

A spate of local scandals in the nation's capital has black residents worried that an emerging white majority -- or even Congress -- will soon seize political power.

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In a who-woulda-thunk-it scenario, about half of Washington, D.C.'s elected city officials are under one kind of cloud or another, a situation that has left residents angry, embarrassed, racially divided and fearful for the political future of their shaky and shaken local government.

The controversies include the two top leaders of the district government -- the mayor and City Council chairs, both Democrats voted into office last November -- and a number of councilmen. Mayor Vincent Gray is under federal and local investigations on charges that during the election, his campaign paid off a rival candidate to verbally attack the incumbent mayor and then gave the man a job in his administration.

In addition, several of the mayor's top staffers were forced to resign after a series of breaches of public trust, including being paid higher salaries than their predecessors, hiring the children of staff members and inadequate vetting of some hires.

Embattled Mayor Gray has denied all accusations. Nevertheless, the mayor's popularity has taken a beating, sinking 13 points since the election, according to a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll. Shortly before the vote in November, 60 percent of those polled held favorable opinions of him, versus 16 percent with negative views. The latest survey found that 47 percent held favorable views and 40 percent unfavorable.  

Council Chair Kwame R. Brown is being investigated by the city's Board of Elections and Ethics over more than $270,000 in funds and donations from his campaign that are unaccounted for. He blamed discrepancies on "administrative errors." He is mockingly referred to around D.C. as "fully loaded Brown" after he ordered not one but two fully equipped Lincoln Navigators as his official limousines. The first one was not the correct black-on-black color scheme he desired, so he ordered a second. The city is paying the leases on both vehicles.

Such bad news comes at a time when Washington is undergoing its biggest population change since the 1950s, when it became majority black. It is still so, but white migration, combined with losses in black numbers, promises a white majority in the not-too-distant future. Some African Americans are convinced that the time is not far off -- maybe by the next election cycle in 2014 -- when the first white mayor may be elected.

That would end nearly 40 years of black city administrations, and Washington would go the way of New Orleans, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco in abandoning black rule. Such a change would affect jobs, contracts, image and bragging rights. And loss of clout and political power for the city's black middle class.  

I recall fondly that initial taste of power and independence, Washington's first predominantly black government of the 20th century, in 1967 -- surely an eclectic, odd collection of personalities and amateur politicians. Change that to would-be politicians.

From boyish-looking Walter E. Fauntroy -- a black Baptist minister and veteran of the civil rights movement -- to tall, gangly, awkward, white Polly Shackleton -- a product of the New Deal and the tony Georgetown section of the city -- five blacks and four whites were appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson to replace an antiquated, antebellum-type governing commission traditionally made up of three white men (a black man was first named to the body in the mid-'60s). Johnson also selected Walter A. Washington as the city's first black mayor.

Those were truly days of innocence, with a bunch of conscientious, naive nonpoliticians who were honest as Abe, governing as best they could, holding the interests of residents first and foremost. There was no cronyism; no playing footsie with crooks, lobbyists and greedy developers; no personal baggage; no serious drinking problems or fooling around (that we journalists could find, hard as we looked); no arrests for drugs or schemes to defraud taxpayers. Compared to today, they would be deemed, well ... out of it.