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Sherwood's Notebook: Is There a Racial Divide?

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Sherwood: Is There a Racial Divide?

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Sekou Biddle

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DC Council Seat Hangs in the Balance

Days after the election, a D.C. Council seat is still hanging in the balance. One of the leading candidates, Sekou Biddle, is downplaying the evidence of a sharp racial divide in the balloting. Tom Sherwood reports.
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You look at last week’s voting results from the primary and it’s unmistakable.

The mostly white areas of the District voted in the at-large race for Sekou Biddle.

The mostly black areas of the District voted in the at-large race for Vincent Orange.

The Washington Post published a map that was as stark as it could be. It was similar to the map after the 2010 mayoral race between Adrian Fenty and Vincent Gray. With maybe a few slight variations principally around Ward 4, the maps then and now tell the clear story.

But last Friday on WAMU 88.5, Biddle kind of shocked some people when he told the “Kojo Nnamdi Politics Hour” that he wasn’t certain there is a racial divide.

As guest host, we asked a simple question: “Is there a racial divide?”
   
“Well, so that’s an interesting question,” Biddle began his response. “I don’t know because we don’t know … ”

He didn’t finish the sentence as both your Notebook (as guest host) and Washington City Paper Loose Lips columnist Alan Suderman -- sitting in as the analyst -- expressed astonishment.
   
“You don’t know?” we asked abruptly.

And now we give you his full answer.
   
“Well, let’s drill down. We’re looking at where the votes came from and assuming that somehow is a surrogate for who the voters are,” Biddle said. “What I do know, I’ve been across the city and campaigned across the city in front of lots of people and earned lots of votes from various, diverse constituents across the city.

“There may be a racial or class divide as we’re seeing in the electorate,” he continued. “There may not be, but I don’t know because I’m not actually interviewing each individual voter to find out who they voted for … .”

As we stumbled a moment to verbalize our surprise at his answer, Loose Lips cut to the chase. “I don’t buy that,” he said sharply.
   
As the host, we pointed out the census drop in African-American residents in the city, concerns about city services and worries among African-Americans that the city government is less welcoming. We concluded: “There is a concern that the African-Americans are losing out. You don’t see that?”

Biddle, who is African-American, responded, “I’m not saying that doesn’t exist, and that in some ways by continuing to harp on it we’re not actually exacerbating that fact. But what I can tell you in this election was the more that I had the opportunity to interact with voters, the more those voters I won over.”
   
Biddle noted that he has a base of black and white voters in Ward 4 because he represented that area as a school board member.

At this point, David Grosso, running in the November election as an independent for an at-large seat, called into the show. Grosso is white. So we asked him: “What do you think about the racial divide in the city?
   
“You know, Tom, I think it’s more of a divide,” he said. “I mean, I’ve been all over the city now over the past seven months knocking on doors, talking to all sorts of people. And the divide is really about people that want change and want a better city and a better government in the District than it is a racial divide.”
   
Grosso pivoted to what he sees as the hot campaign issue -- ethics in government. “What we really want here is, you know, a council with integrity, that can be held accountable and actually do a good job for us, so, I don’t see the racial divide at this point … .”
   
As a reporter, columnist and radio talk-show participant, your Notebook appreciates that candidates for public office want to emphasize positive change and efforts of bringing people together, but it is nothing short of astonishing to us to look at the stark election maps and say, oh, nothing to see here, move along.
   
The next day, Grosso sent us an email. He said, “Politics around race in this city are deep and complicated and commenting on the ‘racial divide’ cannot be summed up in less than a minute.”
   
So, Grosso added this:

“Clearly when we look at the primary results there is a divided electorate. In my response on the show yesterday I spoke more from my experience walking the streets, participating in house parties, and out of my vision for a united city than from the actual primary results. In regards to the election results, I hope we can take a moment to also reflect on where the electorate was in 2006 when Adrian Fenty was elected. He won every single precinct because he campaigned on the issues that mattered to every single neighborhood.

“Finally, I want to be very clear that race does matter to me,” Grosso wrote. “As an individual, politician and leader, I need to constantly and consistently reflect on race. From my experiences growing up and working in D.C., I understand that I have a duty and obligation to be an active participant in bridging the gap between races.”

Grosso said he’s identified “three things that I need to do to ensure that I am contributing in a positive way to help create a LESS divided city. 1) be present; 2) show respect, and 3) follow through … .”

Ultimately, he wrote, “if we all work toward a city that listens to one another and treats each other with respect we will thrive, become united, and eliminate divisive attitudes altogether.”

Well, Mr. Grosso, that was a much more thoughtful answer. But you and other candidates should realize campaigns are done in the moment, and you won’t get many chances to revise and extend your remarks. They only do that in Congress.

• A final word.

Before our deadline, we tried several times to reach Mr. Orange for his comments. The Board of Elections and Ethics is due to report absentee ballots on Friday, maybe deciding who wins. If it’s still close, there could be a recount or challenge.

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