Sherwood’s Notebook: Racial Politics Factor into D.C.’s At-Large Council Race

Anita Bonds
Tom Sherwood,

Radio host Kojo Nnamdi has a knack for asking a complicated question in simple language.

“What do you see as the disadvantage of having a council that is not African-American?” he asked Monday during a two-hour candidate forum on WAMU 88.5.

His follow-up question had gone to veteran political operative Anita Bonds, the African-American woman who holds an interim appointment to the at-large D.C. Council seat that will be filled in the April 23 special election.

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During the forum, Bonds had noted African-Americans were a smaller part of the district's population -- now just 50 percent compared to 70 percent two decades ago. Currently, seven of the 13 council members are white; that number will be eight unless Bonds or Statehood Green candidate Perry Redd wins.

“Well, I think I just try to make it clear that people want to have their leadership reflect who they are,” Bonds responded to Nnamdi.

Redd, whose small party has had trouble winning recent city elections, is an advocate for progressive social spending on urban problems. He was much blunter than Bonds.

“[It’s] not just Washington’s history, but America’s history,” Redd said to Nnamdi. “That whites, when Europeans, are in control in any elected body, they do not care for the most vulnerable who happen to be people of color.”

Redd said the council and city government should strengthen its “inclusionary zoning” policy that requires new residential projects to include low- and moderate-income housing: “holding these developers accountable … taking away their tax incentives. The council doesn’t have the will to do that.”

The four white candidates -- Elissa Silverman, Pat Mara, Paul Zukerberg and Matthew Frumin -- each contended that they would represent all of the District citizens fairly. Several gave examples of their inclusiveness.

The race issue in city politics always is close by, either below the surface or, as in this case, in your face.

It’s relevant now because the best-known candidate on the ballot is Michael A. Brown. He’s African-American. He was an incumbent who lost his council seat last fall to David Grosso, who is white. Brown was trying to make a comeback in this campaign but dropped out for “personal and family matters.”

Brown’s name remains on the ballot and as of Monday he had not formally pulled out of the race. But he told NBC4 his letter to the elections board soon would be on its way.

Brown’s withdrawal opens the field for Bonds to claim African-American votes that might have gone to Brown. The Statehood Green Party also wants to capitalize on Brown’s exit for Redd, but the candidate is significantly less well known than Bonds.

Bonds is the longtime chair of the city’s Democratic Party. She has been directly involved in any number of campaigns going back over several decades. She has to get her voters out to the polls.
But she has never been “the” council candidate. It’s a whole new world. Her side has made the calculation that she’ll win if she maximizes the African-American turnout.

That would mean Mara, the lone Republican and presumed leader in the field with endorsements and organization, would have to split votes with political activist and former journalist Silverman, defense attorney Zukerberg and community leader Frumin, who has an 18-year record of civic activism in the Northwest.

However it turns out, racial politics are part of this city’s and this country’s history, its present and by all accounts, the future.

More thoughts:

  • Early voting. Your Notebook voted on Monday, the first day of early voting (which runs through April 20). We voted about 11:30 a.m. The polls had been open since 8:30. We were only the 67th voter. If you’re for a candidate, it’s truer than ever that in this low-turnout election, your lone vote could make a real difference. There is no runoff. The person who gets the most votes wins. Period. Whomever you are for, please vote.
  • Feds in our future? The federal Office of Personnel Management is preparing rules that would govern federal workers who run for local elected office in the District. It’s part of legislation altering the Hatch Act that was signed into law last year. Since the 1940s, federal workers in Maryland and Virginia have had limited rights to run for local public office. Soon, those in the District will, too.
  • And the mayor’s race? At-large Council member David Catania is more than hinting that he could seek the city’s top post in 2014. On Monday, he was the only council member to slam Mayor Vincent Gray’s 2014 budget. Even announced mayoral candidate Muriel Bowser was cautiously critical. Ward 2’s Jack Evans, who says he’ll run for mayor, praised much of Gray’s budget. And Ward 6 Council member Tommy Wells was absent on vacation. But Catania, as usual, was direct and withering. He said the city budget had grown 23 percent in two years. “A budget that has grown 23 percent,” he said, “and I’m still searching to see what we have to show for it. Most families in our city have not seen their personal household budgets increase by 23 percent. … In fact many residents are still trying to make up for the losses of the last recession.” The scheduled mayoral primary election is almost exactly 12 months away.

Tom Sherwood, a Southwest resident, is a political reporter for News 4.

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