District of Columbia
RepresentativeDel. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D)
The capital of the most powerful and affluent nation in history, Washington is a physically beautiful city of great achievements and astonishing contrasts. It is also a polity that has its hopes pinned on achieving representation in Congress now that there is a Democratic president sympathetic to the cause. That history goes back more than 200 years. In 1787, the Constitution’s Framers, familiar with contemporary London and Paris mobs and remembering how unruly crowds had threatened Congress in Philadelphia, purposely gave the new federal government control of the 10-mile-square enclave that came to be called the District of Columbia. (The portion across the Potomac River was retroceded to Virginia in 1846.) Over the years, Congress kept control of the District for its own advantage and, at times, out of distrust of the city’s large African-American population. Since the 1790s, blacks have consistently made up one-quarter of the population of Washington and surrounding counties, and the city was a center for free blacks even before the Civil War and emancipation. Radical Republicans gave the District self-government during Reconstruction in 1871, but Gov. Alexander (Boss) Shepherd, in building great public works, spent the District into bankruptcy, and the experiment ended in 1874. Later, Washington’s growth spurts, starting with the New Deal and World War II, resulted in the development of large, mostly white suburbs, and African-Americans became a larger percentage of the city’s population, reaching a majority in the 1960 census. Amid the 1960s civil-rights revolution, it began to seem absurd to deny the vote to the District of Columbia. So in 1964, after the Constitution was amended, District residents began to cast three electoral votes for president; in 1968 they were allowed to vote for the school board; in 1971 they got to elect a nonvoting delegate to Congress; and in 1974 they got home rule and could vote for a mayor and D.C. council.
For some time, this self-government worked no better than it did in the 1870s. The Boss Shepherd of modern times was Marion Barry, a talented politician but a disastrous mayor who held office for 16 of 20 years between 1978 and 1998. Under Barry, the District was a dysfunctional polity, a city with above-average incomes and a vibrant commercial property base, but with a local government so bloated with employees (up to 51,000 at its peak) and so indifferent to its responsibilities that it destroyed one marginal neighborhood after another. Crime flourished despite a 1978 law that essentially outlawed possession of handguns acquired after that date. Barry raised money from public employee unions and real estate developers and increasingly won votes from poor blacks by attacking any critic as racist. In January 1990, he was arrested in a D.C. hotel for using crack cocaine, and was prosecuted and sent to prison. A reform-minded mayor, Sharon Pratt Kelly, was elected that fall but flinched when it came time to cut the payroll. Barry, out of prison and elected to the D.C. Council in 1992, won a fourth term as mayor in 1994.
The District’s fiscal crisis after Barry’s return led Congress in 1995 to take most of the government from his control. This was not a hostile takeover. House Speaker Newt Gingrich appointed Tom Davis as chairman of the D.C. subcommittee. Davis was a Republican member of Congress from Northern Virginia long sympathetic to the District, and he worked closely with D.C.’s elected delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton. They got Congress to establish a five-member financial control board in April 1995, and the board’s CFO, Anthony Williams, hacked away at the payroll, reformed management practices, and literally cleaned up messes in District government offices. When Barry announced in May 1998 that he wouldn’t run again, there was a push, encouraged by The Washington Post, to draft Anthony Williams as mayor. An unlikely candidate who was diffident in crowds and could be spotted wearing an unfashionable bow tie, Williams had lived in Washington for only a few years, but he beat council member Kevin Chavous 50%-35% in the Democratic primary and defeated Republican council member Carol Schwartz 66%-30% in the general election. The control board immediately delegated power to the new mayor, and in fall 2000, judges returned control of most District departments to the city.
Over the next decade, the District thrived. Its population has been increasing since 2000, according to revised census estimates. Affluent professionals and eager immigrants flowed in, gentrifying and giving vitality to neighborhoods long given up to decline—Columbia Heights, Logan Circle, Shaw. New apartment buildings sprang up on land left empty for years. In the process, the African-American percentage fell from a peak of 71% in 1970 to 55% in 2007, as whites moved back to the city and middle-income blacks moved to the suburbs, to majority-black Prince George’s County and other suburbs, where three-quarters of metro Washington blacks now live. Whites cast approximately half or almost half of the District’s votes. But the electorate remains overwhelmingly Democratic. In 2004, John Kerry carried the District over George W. Bush by 89%-9%. In 2008, Barack Obama won it 92%-7%. Whites voted 80% for Kerry and 86% for Obama. The District is the one jurisdiction where Hispanics are more likely than whites to vote Republican.
Under Williams, city services began to improve. Departments were removed from court control, and the city’s finances were in excellent shape, as gentrification and rising real estate values swelled revenues. Williams was pleased when in September 2004, Major League Baseball decided to move the Montreal Expos to Washington, and he got the council to agree to build a stadium on a long-neglected site next to the Washington Navy Yard at a cost of $611 million. Williams announced in September 2005 that he would not seek another term, and the front-runner to succeed him was council President Linda Cropp, who had years of experience in city government, going back to the time when her husband was a top aide to Barry. But the winner of the mayoral election was 35-year-old council member Adrian Fenty. The son of a black father and a white mother who grew up over their athletic-shoe store in the diverse Mount Pleasant area, Fenty had an undistinguished record as a practicing lawyer. He did, however, possess a strong ambition for political office. In 2000, Fenty ran for the council seat in Ward 4, an affluent, mostly black area just east of Rock Creek Park. Campaigning relentlessly, he beat a longtime incumbent. On the council, he opposed Williams on closing D.C. General Hospital and building the baseball stadium. He specialized in constituent services, winning a reputation for getting almost instant action from the D.C. bureaucracy. He had little time for the intricacies of legislation. In council meetings, he constantly worked on his BlackBerry.
Fenty started campaigning early and hard. Accompanied often by some of his many volunteers, he knocked on about half the doors in the District of Columbia. He ran less on issues than on energy. “Government, like business, is about follow-through, responsiveness, attention to detail. That’s what I do,” he said. “Some people say I am too eager. I am very hungry. I want this job more than anybody else.” Political reporters interviewing voters heard dozens of stories about how he had solved people’s problems, and fast. Every neighborhood in the District sprouted green Fenty signs. By August 2006, Fenty’s energetic campaigning had put him ahead in the polls. Cropp had the support of most of the local business community. But Fenty got most of the voters. In the September 12 primary, he trounced Cropp 57%-31%. He carried all eight wards and all 142 precincts in the city. Electoral politics in Washington has often divided voters on lines of race. Fenty did not do so. “There’s no question that gives me a tolerance and an appreciation for the views of everyone. I always heard politicians talk about race, but not the people.” In the general election, he won 89% of the vote.
In office, Fenty showed as much energy as on the campaign trail. He signaled his new style by literally knocking down walls. His office is in the middle of a large room resembling a Wall Street trading floor, with desks for 33 staffers and two conference areas separated by glass partitions. On the advice of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, he proposed that the mayor’s office, and not the elected school board, run the public schools. Williams’ proposal for a similar schools takeover had been rejected in 2004, but within days, Fenty got most of the incoming council members to agree with him in principle, and he carried the issue by a 9-2 council vote in April 2007. The District’s school system, despite some of the highest spending levels in the nation, has long been considered abysmal, with enrollments declining every year. By 2006, 25% of the students were enrolled in charter schools, one of the highest rates in the country. Fenty installed as his schools superintendent Michelle Rhee, an alumna of the Teach for America program and the founder of the New Teacher Project. An outside-the-mainstream choice who didn’t come from a government background, she promptly ordered the closing of 23 schools and indicated support for charter schools. She took on the teachers union in another area: Rhee promised teachers higher pay in return for relinquishing tenure.
Other long-standing District programs felt the lash of change. Washington’s taxi zone fare system, purportedly imposed by Congress to reduce lawmakers’ fares on trips downtown, was abolished with an assist from Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and taxi meters were installed by May 2008. The sale of Greater Southeast Community Hospital was finalized. The baseball stadium was finished in time for Opening Day in March 2008 (capped by a game-winning Nationals’ home run), and offices and entertainment facilities started going up in the District’s once derelict neighborhoods. High-rise condominiums and rental apartments targeted at singles (only 22% of District households are married-couple families, while 45% of residents have college degrees) were built in what had once been high-crime areas. Congress even included the District in Treasury’s quarters program commemorating each state, thanks to Democratic Rep. Jose Serrano of the Bronx, who wanted Puerto Rico in and included the District and the other territories as well.
Fenty’s one setback came on the District’s handgun ban, passed when he was 7 years old. In March 2007, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that the ban violated the Second Amendment. Judge Laurence Silberman’s opinion skillfully recounted the recent legal scholarship (liberal as well as conservative) that has concluded the amendment recognizes an individual right to keep and bear arms. The U.S. Supreme Court in June 2008, with an incisive opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia, reached the same conclusion, albeit by a 5-4 vote. The 1978 law, though it was followed by a 10-year decline in gun violence, had not prevented a high rate of gun crime in the 1980s and 1990s, and it required even legal guns to be disassembled when kept at home. Fenty and Norton criticized the decision. Fenty ordered the police department to draw up regulations to register handguns, and District Attorney General Peter Nickles said that the District would have to develop an amnesty program for those who had possessed them in violation of the District law. The D.C. Council prepared legislation imposing various requirements for legal gun possession, and opponents prepared litigation.
The Democratic takeover of Congress in 2006 and the election of Barack Obama as president two years later foreshadowed another milestone in D.C.’s quest for full political rights. After Obama was inaugurated in January 2009, Congress immediately took up the long-languishing legislation to give D.C. a vote in the House of Representatives. In a push led by its long-suffering, nonvoting Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the U.S. Senate passed a bill giving D.C.’s representative a vote, with a filibuster-proof 61 votes for the first time. The bill was a compromise between the two parties. It expanded the House by two seats, one for heavily Democratic D.C. and one for Republican Utah. But the Senate also added a provision to the bill that in effect overturned D.C.'s regulations on guns. The provision was unacceptable to gun control advocates in the House, and the legislation bogged down.