Gentrification Doesn’t Mean D.C. Will Elect Its First White Mayor

Yes, Washington’s demographics have changed. But the race of its mayor likely won’t.

National Journal
Elahe Izadi
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Elahe Izadi
April 1, 2014, 8:30 p.m.

Ward 4  coun­cil mem­ber Mur­i­el Bow­ser has won D.C.’s Demo­crat­ic primary, best­ing May­or Vin­cent Gray.

Gray con­ceded to Bow­ser, who got 44 per­cent of the vote to Gray’s 33 per­cent, with al­most 90 per­cent of pre­cincts re­port­ing. 

The fi­nal weeks of the race were dom­in­ated by ques­tions over a polit­ic­al scan­dal in­volving a shad­ow cam­paign con­nec­ted to Gray. But in the run-up to 2014, many ex­pec­ted the demo­graph­ic changes that have swept through the city over the past dec­ade to like­wise res­ult in a polit­ic­al out­come that would have been un­think­able dec­ades ago: a white may­or for “Chocol­ate City,” a nick­name that’s a nod to the city’s large black pop­u­la­tion.

Ever since home rule in 1973, every may­or has been black. While res­id­ents can de­bate plenty as to how much hav­ing a white may­or would res­ult in a dif­fer­ent dir­ec­tion for the city, at the very least it would be a highly sym­bol­ic change in a town that has been Chocol­ate City for dec­ades.

Tues­day’s out­come in D.C., where nearly 76 per­cent of voters are Demo­crats, seems to have cast aside the pos­sib­il­ity of a white may­or, giv­en the Demo­crat­ic primary typ­ic­ally de­term­ines the gen­er­al-elec­tion res­ult.

Bow­ser, who is black, will still have to face in­de­pend­ent Dav­id Catania, who is white, in Novem­ber. Catania is a former Re­pub­lic­an who has won five city­wide races for the D.C. Coun­cil. Bow­ser is the fa­vor­ite in a gen­er­al-elec­tion match­up with Catania. A Wash­ing­ton Post poll in March had her de­feat­ing him by 56 per­cent to 23 per­cent in a hy­po­thet­ic­al match­up.

The pos­sib­il­ity that the city would elect a white may­or would have been markedly high­er if Gray had won. Two re­cent Wash­ing­ton Post polls showed him stat­ist­ic­ally tied with Catania in a the­or­et­ic­al Novem­ber race.

It’s not very sur­pris­ing at this point in the game that D.C. won’t likely elect a white may­or this year. The field of eight Demo­crat­ic primary can­did­ates in­cluded just two whites, Coun­cil­men Tommy Wells and Jack Evans, both of whom were polling well be­hind Gray and Bow­ser, who were in a dead heat to the fin­ish line.

While the ra­cial makeup of D.C.’s polit­ic­al land­scape may not have changed much, its over­all demo­graph­ics have. In the past dec­ade, the Dis­trict’s black pop­u­la­tion dropped by 18 per­cent while the white pop­u­la­tion in­creased by 25 per­cent. Census fig­ures in 2010 ba­sic­ally meant the end of Chocol­ate City, demo­graph­ic­ally speak­ing; even though blacks are still the largest single ra­cial group in the city, they are no longer the ma­jor­ity.

There’s been plenty of soul-search­ing over what all of this means and how big of a role gentri­fic­a­tion has played in the pro­cess. And polit­ics in­ter­sect­ing with race is noth­ing new in D.C.; in 2010, then-May­or Ad­ri­an Fenty, who is of mixed race, pushed con­tro­ver­sial school re­form and was viewed poorly for his ma­na­geri­al style. He epi­tom­ized the mark­ers of gentri­fic­a­tion and ca­ter­ing to the “new­comers” in the eyes of many, and won the white vote while los­ing the black vote.

Oth­er “chocol­ate cit­ies” have elec­ted white may­ors in re­cent years. In 2013, De­troit elec­ted its first white may­or in 40 years. When now Gov. Mar­tin O’Mal­ley won the Bal­timore Demo­crat­ic primary in his bid for may­or in 1999, The Wash­ing­ton Post ran the head­line, “White Man Gets May­or­al Nom­in­a­tion in Bal­timore.” (A head­line that the pa­per later re­gret­ted).

It doesn’t look like D.C. will fol­low suit, but that could change; the gen­er­al elec­tion is still many months off, and Catania has only of­fi­cially been in the race for a few weeks, so he has plenty of time to inch closer to Bow­ser.

But while D.C. has nev­er elec­ted a white may­or, it also has nev­er elec­ted someone who isn’t a Demo­crat. And in the end, Catania’s past life as a Re­pub­lic­an and ties to con­ser­vat­ives may end up be­ing big­ger is­sues for voters than his race.

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