Tommy Wells showed up one evening last fall at a home in Barnaby Woods, a wealthy, predominantly white neighborhood west of Rock Creek Park, where some 30 people had come to hear the DC councilman explain why he should be the District’s next mayor. This wasn’t Wells’s territory—he represents Ward 6, a racially mixed area that stretches from Capitol Hill to the western bank of the Anacostia River. Wells was here because he’ll need votes from Barnaby Woods, and other communities like it, to prevail over his many rivals.
After he made his pitch, a middle-aged white man approached Wells with a question that the councilman, who’s also white, has been hearing a lot these days: “Do you really think a white candidate can get elected mayor in DC?”
Outside Washington, the musing might sound reminiscent of “a different century,” as the event’s host put it to me. But inside the District, and particularly in the minds of its most longstanding residents, there may be no more germane a question suffusing this year’s mayoral race.
DC has never had a white mayor during its 40 years of self-governance. Since Congress passed the Home Rule Act of 1973 and gave residents the power to choose their local leaders, they’ve installed only six mayors, all African-American. Marion Barry, a.k.a. “mayor for life,” won four terms—including one that came after a six-month stint in prison for smoking crack. The last time the District had a white chief executive was 1874, when Alexander “Boss” Shepherd finished his tenure as territorial governor.
This year’s race has no precedent. Mayor Vincent Gray is running for reelection under a cloud of suspicion that formed after federal authorities disclosed that his 2010 campaign had been partly financed by $650,000 in illegal funds. Other federal corruption investigations have brought down three city-council members—resulting in a sudden dismantling of DC’s black power base. And for the first time, just as the city’s white population is spiking, voters are likely to have three proven white candidates to choose from: Wells; Jack Evans, the longest-serving council member, who represents Ward 2; and David Catania, an at-large council member who may run as an Independent in the November general election.
As of now—the Democratic primary is April 1—the field is crowded. Besides Gray, Evans, and Wells, Muriel Bowser, an African-American councilwoman representing the voter-rich Ward 4, is a serious contender. African-Americans Vincent Orange, an at-large councilman, Reta Jo Lewis, a former State Department official, and Andy Shallal, an Iraqi-American restaurateur, are less so.
Is DC ready for a white mayor? It’s not out of the question, but only because of this unlikely confluence of crackdowns and demographic changes, not because the city finds itself at the advent of a post-racial age or because a powerful white leader who transcends race has emerged. As one of the white candidates told me: “I have to thread the needle.”
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Until this year, few white Washingtonians had ever made a run for DC’s top office, and only three notched double-digit votes.
Carol Schwartz, a popular and charismatic Republican, sought the job four times, beginning in 1986. But in a city where Democrats have historically outnumbered Republicans by as many as 9 to 1, she was able to garner more than 40 percent of the vote in a general election only once. Democrat Dave Clarke, who chaired the city council in the 1980s, made a bid in 1990 and finished fourth in the primary with a measly 11 percent of the vote. Eight years later, Evans, who represents the central business district, from Georgetown to Logan Circle, did no better—he captured about 10 percent of primary voters.
Why haven’t white candidates ever gained traction? For one thing, none of the three brought the passion to capture the imagination of voters. More important, they were the wrong race. For nearly a century, District residents—the majority of whom have been black since 1957—lived under the thumb of white segregationists in Congress. (Three commissioners appointed by the President ran the city.) After home rule opened the door to black leadership in the 1970s, many African-Americans vowed never to lose their hard-won political control over what became known as Chocolate City.
For the last 40 years, African-Americans have controlled the DC government. Now that’s changing. Corruption investigations recently sank several black leaders. Young whites are moving into the District in droves. The result: a stark shift in the racial balance of power at city hall.
“Some elements of the black community will not vote for a white candidate, no matter what,” says longtime local pollster Ron Lester, who has worked for Barry and is now polling for Gray.
Most white Washingtonians were, and still are, liberal. They, too, saw the mayor’s office as a prerogative of African-Americans. The white vote was instrumental in bringing Barry to power in 1978; he edged out his two rivals by consolidating his support among white voters west of Rock Creek Park. In the 1998 mayoral election, white voters in Ward 3, on the city’s west side, backed Anthony Williams over Evans.
“DC is unlike most cities,” says pollster Ron Faucheux, president of Clarus Research Group. “White voters here are more interested in racial harmony than voters in other major cities.”
African-Americans have also monopolized the city’s highest political office for so long because of sheer numbers. In 1970, African-Americans made up 71 percent of the city’s population; in 1980, they accounted for 70 percent; in 1990, 66 percent.
Black voters, historically, have been much more connected than whites to the city—to its schools, its health centers, Metro—making them more invested in its politics. There’s even a bloc that politicians and pollsters have identified as “super-voters”: black women over age 50 who consistently go to the polls. Women such as 73-year-old Johnnie Scott Rice, a third-generation Washingtonian who lives in Ward 7. “We are still Chocolate City,” Rice says. “People want to see it differently, but we are registered to vote, we control our communities, and we will turn out.”
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The field looks so unfamiliar this year largely because of US Attorney Ronald Machen, Since 2011, with exceptional zeal, he has pursued public-corruption cases against the city’s most successful African-American politicians, beginning with the mayor himself. A handful of Gray’s top campaign aides have pleaded guilty to felonies for illicit fundraising. Machen is still trying to nail down whether Gray was involved.
The mayor has said he did nothing wrong. But that’s all he has said. He won’t answer specific questions about what he knew of the unreported campaign funds that a local businessman allegedly amassed for his benefit. Gray is asking constituents, basically, to give him the benefit of the doubt.
At this point, the mayor is the front-runner by virtue of being the incumbent. He’s managed the city well enough over the last three years: Unemployment is down, development is up, school reform is ongoing, and the crime rate, while not flat, hasn’t spiked.
Still, Gray’s stonewalling may hurt his standing among voters, especially whites. A Washington Post poll taken in mid-January shows that only 37 percent of whites approve of the mayor, compared with 57 percent of African-Americans.
Machen, meanwhile, has forced three sons of prominent black leaders from power for committing federal crimes: council chair Kwame Brown for bank fraud, Ward 5 councilman Harry Thomas Jr. for stealing public funds, and former at-large councilman Michael Brown for taking bribes. Kwame Brown, who did one day in jail and six months on home detention, had been groomed to run for mayor. Michael Brown campaigned for the job in 2006 before dropping out. Now he’s awaiting sentencing. Thomas is doing 38 months in a federal prison.
A criminal record hasn’t disqualified past candidates from public office in the District. (See: Barry.) But eliminating three leading African-American officeholders almost at once created a vacuum.
“Those three guys would have been our next generation of leaders,” says Barbara Lang, outgoing president of the DC Chamber of Commerce. “There’s an absence of folks ready to run. We have no bench.”
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Machen’s timing could be seen as particularly inopportune. That’s because sheer numbers no longer give African-American candidates as stark an advantage at the polls.
Home rule coincided with a record time of racial imbalance in the city’s population: After years of white flight, the number of black residents in DC peaked at 537,712 in 1970, compared with 209,272 whites, according to US Census data. But in every decade since 1970, the black population has declined. Today about 646,000 people live in the District; around 50 percent of them are black and 43 percent white.
Simultaneously, and for the first time in decades, the city is growing—at a clip. The DC Office of Planning estimates that more than 1,000 new residents are moving into the District every month. Most are young and white. Between 2010 and 2012 alone, the number of white Washingtonians increased by 20,058, according to the Census. Only 6,103 African-Americans moved into the city during the same period.
Will this racial rebalancing translate into more white votes, for any candidate? Not necessarily. What matters is how many new residents actually register and then turn out.
In the past, many newcomers have delayed declaring their residence here, put off by DC’s purely symbolic representation in Congress. As Brendan O’Hara, a Minnesota native who was reluctant to give up his right to vote in his home state, like many of his friends, says: “They want to vote where they come from. Most of them are involved in national politics, and they understand the limitations of being a DC resident.” O’Hara, who’s 26, registered in the District soon after arriving in 2010 because his job with a PR firm that wanted to burnish its city credentials encouraged him to do so.
Registrations are on the rise, “no question,” says Kathy Fairley, special assistant to the DC Board of Elections. The city now has almost 450,000 voters on its rolls—more than a quarter of whom signed up over the last three years.
Evans and Wells stand to benefit the most because their wards are home to many of the newcomers. And for them, a candidate’s race isn’t a priority. “Doesn’t matter to me at all,” says Ben LaRocco, a 32-year-old lobbyist who moved to DC in 2007 and owns a home on Maryland Avenue, Northeast, in Wells’s district. “Who’s the best candidate? Whose ideals are most closely aligned with mine? With a child on the way, it puts schools and crime high up on the list.”
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Because so many candidates are on the primary ballot, the winner is likely to claim victory without even netting a majority of votes.
In 2010, about 134,000 Democrats, or 40 percent of those registered, cast ballots in the primary. Assuming a similar turnout, this year’s top-tier candidates—Gray, Bowser, Evans, Wells—believe that the city’s next mayor will need at least 40,000 votes.
Gray got almost that many Democrats—39,180, to be exact—to cast ballots for him last time around in just three wards: 5, 7, and 8, all of which are largely African-American. His campaign is hoping to hold onto those voters and is targeting Democrats in Wells’s Ward 6 and in Ward 4, Bowser’s territory.
The winning arithmetic assumes, of course, that Gray can overcome voters’ doubts about his ethics. In the Post’s January poll, Gray had the support of 24 percent of registered Democrats, while Evans, Wells, and Bowser attracted 11 to 12 percent each.
That means if the mayor’s base holds up, his challengers will be battling for votes in predominantly white wards 1, 2, 3, and 6, where Gray’s opponent in 2010, former mayor Adrian Fenty, picked up a combined 41,610 votes.
Bowser, a fifth-generation Washingtonian, has already shown she can appeal to voters across racial lines. Since 2007, she has represented Ward 4, a racially mixed district that includes parts of white Chevy Chase DC as well as black neighborhoods along 16th Street and Georgia Avenue, Northwest. Against Fenty, Gray won her ward with 12,815 votes, but Bowser has spent the past seven years drilling down on issues dear to her constituents, working to spur development along Georgia Avenue and trying to tamp down crime. She was born and raised in neighboring Ward 5, so she might cut into Gray’s base there as well. Fenty, her mentor, won nearly 80 percent of mostly white Ward 3, with 13,892 votes; she’d have to match that and cut into Gray’s base east of the Anacostia River. She has opened an office in Ward 8 there.
Evans needs all the backers he can get in his own Ward 2, which had 28,042 registered Democrats as of this past December and which Fenty won in 2010. Evans will also have to make a strong showing in Ward 3, which has 35,018 registered Democrats. But even with a commanding victory in these wards, the councilman likely has no path to victory unless he can erode Gray’s base. As the longest-serving member of the council, Evans can argue he’s best suited to manage the city and can count on name recognition.
That’s where Wells falters. He has never run citywide and is new to voters in Ward 3, where he’d need to beat Evans and Bowser. The good news for Wells is that his base in Ward 6 is rich in votes. The Board of Elections reported that at the end of 2013, Wells’s ward had the second-highest number of registered Democrats, at 47,712. What’s more, new voters are registering in Ward 6 at astounding rates—a combined 14,000 signed up in 2012 and 2013. If Wells can get his constituents to turn out, and pick up support in neighborhoods like Barnaby Woods, he stands a chance.
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When I ask Elissa Silverman, who narrowly lost an at-large council seat in 2013 running as a Democrat, whether DC could elect a white mayor, she says, “Some Washingtonians might think DC already has had its first white mayor: Adrian Fenty.”
A native Washingtonian whose mother is Italian-American and whose father is black, Fenty ascended from his council seat to the mayor’s office in 2007. Casting himself as the energetic, young face of the new Washington, he won every precinct in the Democratic primary, crushing Linda Cropp, the council chair and a fixture in the black political establishment for decades. Race didn’t seem to be a major factor.
But once in office, Fenty polarized the city. White Washingtonians adored him for building bike lanes and dog parks, for taking over the public schools and pushing a radical set of reforms that included firings and school closings, primarily in black neighborhoods. Those moves enraged the crucial African-American female voters, many of whom had taught in the system or had educators among friends and family. Fenty also angered many African-Americans with slights: canceling meetings with activists Maya Angelou and Dorothy Height, for instance.
Gray, then the council chair, easily won over African-Americans who’d become disenchanted with Fenty. In a Post poll of likely voters published two weeks before the 2010 primary, black Democrats favored Gray over Fenty by 64 to 19 percent. Whites preferred Fenty over Gray by 64 percent to 28 percent.
“It was a classic racial cleavage,” pollster Ron Faucheux says. “Adrian Fenty was perceived as the white candidate; voters saw Vincent Gray as the black candidate. So it was a black-versus-white race, functionally.”
Gray won with 72,648 votes, and as the polls predicted, the racial split was stark. In largely white Ward 3, Fenty took 80 percent of the vote, compared with Gray’s 20 percent. In Wards 7 and 8, the results were opposite: Gray got 82 percent of the vote, Fenty 16 percent.
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The DC Chamber of Commerce’s Barbara Lang believes that four years later, race will be just as central a factor for many voters—perhaps even more important than in the past.
“The African-American population sees a city that’s becoming more white than black,” Lang says. “They will see a majority-white city council, a white council chairman. They will look at that and say the whole government structure used to be for African-Americans. Many hold the view that they would not be getting anything from a white mayor. I don’t subscribe to that, but it cannot be ignored.”
Whoever wins the Democratic primary might have to face David Catania in November’s general election. He wouldn’t be a long shot. Catania has been campaigning citywide since 1997, when he first won his at-large council seat, and he has a direct manner that has endeared him to African-Americans. As chair of the health committee for seven years, he helped establish community health centers and increase the number of insured. Now he chairs the council’s committee on education, an issue that’s key to voters of both races. He’s toured more than half of the public schools and sat in on PTA sessions throughout the District.
True, Democrats still make up three-quarters of registered voters, but the disenchantment with Gray can’t be discounted. What’s more, the number of registered Independents tops 17 percent. In a Gray/Catania matchup, without a slew of candidates to split the vote, Catania can’t be written off.
“If we’ve had black mayors since 1975 and our schools are still failing—if we want to play race politics—to what extent are black politicians responsible?” asks Joe Clark, an African-American lawyer for Jones Day who lives in Shepherd Park, part of Bowser’s ward. Clark describes political discussions among his neighbors, many of whom are black professionals, as robust. “There are some who see some value in having a black person serve as mayor,” he adds. “But the majority of us are beyond it.”
This article appears in the March 2014 issue of Washingtonian.