The Chocolate City's Two Faces

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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"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.

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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.

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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.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, 39, was born — and raised by a white mother and black father — in the city's culturally and racially diverse Mount Pleasant neighborhood. After representing the majority-black Ward 4 for six years, he took the city by storm in 2006, when he achieved the unprecedented feat of sweeping every precinct in the District in the Democratic primary for mayor. A majority of voters in all eight of the city's wards — with differences in wealth and race — viewed him in the same way: as a young, energetic mayor who could lead a city grappling with haves and have-nots and a crumbling school system.

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Four short years later, Fenty finds himself trailing in the polls against another Washingtonian, Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, 67, a late political comer who successfully ran for Ward 7 council member in 2004 and for chairman in 2006. (The Democratic primaries, which overwhelmingly decide the winner in this heavily Democratic city, will be held tomorrow.)

Fenty's political goodwill was eroded by a number of missteps that excluded various constituencies around the city, but African Americans appeared to feel his perceived slights more acutely.

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Washington Post poll in August showed a stark racial and geographic divide between the two candidates, with 64 percent of blacks supporting Gray in the Sept. 14 Democratic primary and 64 percent of whites supporting Fenty in the contest. Among whites, 28 percent said that they would vote for Gray, while just 19 percent of blacks said that they would vote for Fenty.

Gray, who integrated George Washington University's fraternity system when he joined a Jewish fraternity in the early 1960s, has seized on the city's frustration over divisions with a campaign that promises "One City."

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In part, Fenty's unpopularity can be traced to his initial decisions to appoint non-blacks to key, prominent positions in his administration, including police Chief Cathy Lanier, who is white, and the city's controversial schools chancellor, Michelle A. Rhee, who is Asian. Despite rumblings about the appointments his first year in office, Fenty remained popular among African Americans. But soon, his policy decisions to reduce government and reform public education affected hundreds of longtime African-American workers and teachers who were laid off in the process.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

"As generations move on, Marion is always going to be an icon," said Michael Brown. "Marion is going to be a part of the fabric of this city."

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The city's poor fiscal health, however, led to a financial control board appointed by Congress. Barry did not have control of the city's budget, creating the right-time, right-place situation for Anthony A. Williams, the chief financial officer.

Williams, a Yale and Harvard graduate, was successful in balancing the city's budget, getting the District out from under the control board, and overseeing an economic boom that brought condominiums to downtown, as well as economic development to some abandoned neighborhoods. But Williams was criticized for the perception that he cared more about downtown than neighborhoods — an image exacerbated by his push to build Nationals Park, a $600 million-plus baseball stadium.

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As council member, Fenty voted against the stadium. He contrasted the effort with the need to modernize school buildings, which were notoriously without heat in the winter and without air conditioning through hot summer months.

But the young Fenty has stumbled as he navigates the city's politics, still dominated by African Americans.

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Brown said their generation watched Barry and the black political power come of age when they were growing up. "I think the interesting thing will be 15 years from now," he said. "When the demographics change, what will politics look like?"

Nikita Stewart covers Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and District politics as a staff writer for The Washington Post. She previously covered Newark politics for The Star-Ledger in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter.

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