One of the questions leading up to DC’s April 1 Democratic primary was whether young, educated, mostly white voters who have poured into the District since 2010 would vote, possibly shifting the city’s political fulcrum. Mostly, they didn’t. But a surprising upset in the race for Ward 1’s DC Council seat showed that even if they don’t turn out to the polls, the millennials can still matter.
On Primary Day, Brianne Nadeau, a young communications adviser for nonprofits, knocked off 68-year-old, four-term council member Jim Graham in the race for the Ward 1 seat, beating him by 18 percentage points. To look at her, Nadeau seems like the face of a new Ward 1, which has seen wealthier white residents streaming into Adams Morgan, Columbia Heights, Mount Pleasant, and the U Street corridor, lured by new apartments, shops, and restaurants. After her win, Nadeau admitted, “I am well aware that as a 33-year-old white woman, my experience in Ward 1 is very different.”
The politics turn out to be more complicated. Nadeau ran an exemplary race, outraised and outspent Graham, and knocked on thousands of doors, wooing the long-term residents who actually stir themselves to vote, as only 11,387 of 40,976 registered Democrats did. She even lifted votes from members of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, an LGBT group that for the first time declined to endorse Graham, who is openly gay. But Graham, who rose to prominence in the 1980s as head of Whitman-Walker Clinic, no longer connected with this core constituency. “Some people may take for granted they’re going to get the support of a specific community,” club president Angela Peoples says.
After a slow start, Graham ran a desultory and sometimes mean-spirited campaign, counting on his once-reliable coalition—which also included older African-Americans and Latinos—to pull him through. “People could see Graham tired out,” says Terry Lynch, who has lived in Mount Pleasant since 1982. “You can’t keep beating that drum.”
It’s true that Ward 1’s demographics have changed as much as Graham’s appeal has—nowhere more than in the Latino neighborhoods he counted on for support. While DC’s Latino population grew faster than its population at large last year, according to the city’s Office on Latino Affairs, it’s declining in Ward 1. “Affordable housing has decreased, and people, especially Latino people, cannot afford to live there anymore,” says Roxana Olivas, director of the Latino-affairs office.
In their place is a political vacuum, as millennials show up for new clubs and brewpubs but not at the polls. Until they do, local elections will be won by fighting not for the gentrifiers but for the older residents who are still hanging on.
This article appears in the May 2014 issue of Washingtonian.