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.
The switch to an appointed government energized a fairly downtrodden black community. The change came at a propitious time: Washington is situated near the Mason-Dixie Line, more Southern than Northern, where white segregationists, Dixiecrats, racists and demagogues ran the place as their plantation, right up to the civil rights movement — one small toe in the North, and a big foot in the South.
Blacks and their white allies had used all the tactics the movement borrowed: sit-ins, kneel-ins, boycotts, lawsuits and mass arrests. The change occurred as America was struggling through the biggest social eruptions of the century: school integration, women's liberation, gay rights, campus revolts, anti-war protests, urban rioting, American Indians protesting at Wounded Knee, Latino farmworkers rising up under the leadership of César Chávez.
Today is a different story. The temptations and influence of money are too great for some to overcome. The innocence of that earlier period is gone forever. The best talent in town considers local politics not worthy of participation. Such low stakes lead to tainted leaders. For example, other councilmen being scrutinized are:
*Harry Thomas Jr., sued by the city for $1 million for diverting public funds to companies he owns; the suits are pending. He agreed to relinquish chairmanship of the powerful economic development committee, pending outcome of the legal action. It was also brought out that he still owes $13,000 on college loans from the 1980s.
*Marion Barry (yes, he's still around), censured by his colleagues and stripped of his committee chairmanship after an investigation disclosed that he had given a girlfriend a personal contract to perform city work. That incident followed several brushes with the law, as well as prison time on well-publicized drug charges (remember "Bitch set me up!"?). Besides his serious personal failings, Barry's administration was also saddled with charges of cronyism and corruption.
*Jim Graham, whose chief of staff was recently sentenced to prison for taking bribes from taxi-industry officials. While the councilman himself was never accused, it was disclosed at the aide's sentencing that the aide had given Graham an envelope containing $2,600 in cash. Graham returned the money to the aide but never reported the incident to authorities.
*Michael Brown, another newly elected councilman, under scrutiny for activity associated with securing passage of an online gambling bill. The Washington Post reported that he worked for passage while employed by a firm that lobbies for the gaming industry and that will benefit from Internet gambling in Washington. Brown denied any wrongdoing, but the paper called for an investigation.
Thus, citizen concern is not without basis. Last year's elections featured the usual racial conflicts. Many whites supported incumbent Mayor Adrian Fenty, believing that his policies were the right ones for the city. They were fearful of Gray as the reincarnation of Barry.
The current scandals seem to be causing high anxiety in both camps. While perhaps not gloating, people in my overwhelmingly white Ward 3 are telling me, "I told you so," as their worst Marion Barry nightmares seem to be coming true. The ward was the only one to go to Fenty last year. Some residents have called for a return to a government appointed by the president or selected by backroom bosses — either of which, for them, would be better than the present situation.
Many blacks are holding their breath, hoping that Gray can beat the rap, name some competent people to his staff and get his administration going. The greatest fear at the moment is that, if this government does not get its act together, Congress will take over, as it did in 1995 following Barry's high jinks. They definitely do not want to go backward now that the city has experienced a measure of self-government.
Today's scandals and controversies reveal some of the same fissures evident in last year's elections, most of them racial and historical. They mirror black-white tensions occurring in other urban areas that are experiencing population shifts involving not only blacks and whites but also other ethnic groups. Besides race, the battles are exacerbated by class and economics, especially during the recent deep recession.
The cities are becoming much more attractive to younger whites, who are moving into black neighborhoods and driving up housing prices and the cost of living, making the areas unaffordable to poorer black. In addition, other ethnic groups — Latinos, in particular — are also displacing blacks, fueling the tension.
If 2014 brings a white mayor to the nation's capital, Washington will be just one more town that, for a time, enjoyed black rule. It will mark the end of "Chocolate City," as some residents affectionately refer to it — at least until the next inevitable major population shift.
Paul Delaney, a longtime resident of the District of Columbia, is a regular contributor to The Root.