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.
Though Fenty has championed a summer youth-employment program just as Barry did during his tenure, the city's unemployment rate, particularly in predominantly black wards 7 and 8, has also affected his favorability among African Americans.
One of Fenty's campaign themes has been to paint Gray, who ran the Department of Human Services under Mayor Sharon Pratt, as a bureaucrat who would take the city "back to the '90s." But the attack has appeared to backfire as middle-class blacks see it as an indictment of their longtime service and careers in government.
Nearly every labor union in the city is backing Gray. With the exception of Bowser, whom Fenty picked to be his successor to the Ward 4 council seat, Gray enjoys the support of his fellow black council members and two white council members, Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) and Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3).
Gray isn't the only one who is accused of being old-school in his politics. Thomas, 49, said that he is criticized for his support of the city's unions and workers with accusations that he is trying to roll the District back to a time when it had financial troubles. "People try to put you in a box and say you want to go back to the old D.C.," he said.
But Thomas said there are pockets of the city and residents who are not benefiting from its new status, with a population that is steadily increasing as urban centers become more attractive. "The issue becomes not just about race but about economics, salaries and opportunities," he said.
That harks back to the 1960s and 1970s, when the city was under the thumb of Congress.
Some members of Congress "ran this city like a plantation until Marion Barry came into office," said Bernard Demczuk, assistant vice president of District of Columbia relations at George Washington University. "Blacks made up 70 percent of the city and did not have those jobs."
Barry, who took office in 1979 as the city's second elected mayor, is credited with administrative policies that enforced and expanded minority-contract laws and hired more blacks in government. His efforts helped build the city's black middle class and provided momentum for billionaire BET founders Robert L. Johnson and Sheila Johnson, as well as real estate mogul R. Donahue Peebles.
But Barry's personal troubles with drugs during a time when the city was struggling with a crack epidemic, record homicides and fiscal problems overshadowed his accomplishments of leveling the playing field for African Americans in government and business. (Barry, who has endorsed Gray for mayor, declined to be interviewed for this article.)