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District of Columbia at a glance

The District of Columbia, the seat of government of the most powerful and affluent nation in the history of the world, is a beautiful city of great achievements and astonishing contrasts.
/ Source: National Journal

The District of Columbia, the seat of government of the most powerful and affluent nation in the history of the world, is a beautiful city of great achievements and astonishing contrasts—and one which finally seems to have a competent local government. For most of a century it was governed directly by Congress, not an ideal state of affairs. In 1974 the District got self-government. But for 16 out of the 20 years from 1978–98 the District government was run by Mayor Marion Barry, a talented politician but disastrous mayor. Under him 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 yet so indifferent to its responsibilities that it destroyed one marginal neighborhood after another. Now things are different. The District’s population has been increasing since 2000, according to revised Census estimates; affluent professionals and eager immigrants are flowing in, gentrifying and giving vitality to neighborhoods long given up to decline—Columbia Heights, Logan Circle, Shaw; new apartment buildings are springing up on land left empty for years. There are still problems: The outflow of middle class blacks from the District to the suburbs continues, and some neighborhoods, especially east of the Anacostia River, continue to be plagued by crime and flight. But overall Washington is safer and more prosperous than it was a decade ago.

The problem of how to govern the nation’s capital is not new. In 1787 the framers of the Constitution, familiar with contemporary London and Paris mobs and remembering how 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, for its own advantage and, later, out of distrust of the city’s large black population. Blacks have consistently made up one-quarter of the population of Washington and surrounding counties since the 1790s, and the city was a center for free blacks even before the Civil War and Emancipation. Radical Republicans gave the District self-government in the era of Reconstruction in 1871, but Governor Alexander ‘‘Boss’’ Shepherd in building great public works spent the District into bankruptcy, and the experiment ended in 1874. Later, Washington’s vast growth, starting with the New Deal and World War II, resulted in the growth of large, mostly white suburbs, and blacks became a larger percentage of the city’s population—a majority in the 1960 Census. Amid the 1960s civil rights revolution, it began to seem absurd to deny the vote to Washington. 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 school board, in 1971 they got to elect a non-voting delegate to Congress and in 1974, they got home rule and could vote for a mayor and city council.

The results were tragic. Marion Barry, a man of great ability and charm, inherited a government that was already overlarge and undermanaged, and over the years made it more so. He 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 using crack cocaine, and was prosecuted and sent to jail. Later that year voters chose a reform-minded mayor, Sharon Pratt Kelly, but she flinched when it came time to cut the payroll. Barry, out of prison and elected to the council in 1992, ran for mayor in 1994 and won the Democratic primary with 47% to 37% for Councilman John Ray and only 13% for Kelly. Against Republican Carol Schwartz, a longtime council member, Barry won 56%-42% in November.

In the meantime, the District had changed. Even as the District payroll was peaking—at 51,300 in 1992—the District’s population was falling, and becoming more white. Washington’s population fell from 802,000 in 1950 to 572,000 in 2000. In the 1950s and 1960s, the District saw white flight; in the Barry years, it saw black flight. The District lost 6% of its population in the 1990s, as blacks headed to majority-black Prince George’s County and other suburbs, where three-quarters of Washington-area blacks live. At the same time, Ward 3 and gentrifying neighborhoods near downtown grew in population, so that the black percentage of the population has declined from a peak of 71% in 1970 to 60% in 2000 and 57% in 2005. With higher turnout in affluent areas, whites may now cast 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 an 89%-9% margin. Whites voted for Kerry 80%-19%—a higher percentage than in any state and almost every county. Bush got over 20% of the vote in only 14 of 142 precincts, and over 30% in only two.

The District’s fiscal crisis after Barry's return in 1995 led Congress to take most of the government out from under his control. This was not a hostile takeover: House Speaker Newt Gingrich appointed as chairman of the D.C. subcommittee Tom Davis, a Republican congressman from Northern Virginia long sympathetic to the District, and Davis worked closely with the District’s elected delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton. They got Congress to establish a five-member financial control board in April 1995, and the control 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 move, encouraged by The Washington Post, to draft Anthony Williams. He was an unlikely candidate. He grew up in Los Angeles, a speechless foster child adopted when he was 3. He was once an alderman in New Haven, Connecticut; when he took the CFO job in 1995, he moved first to Virginia and only later to Washington’s Foggy Bottom. Williams graduated from Yale, Harvard Law and the Kennedy School and worked in Connecticut, Boston and St. Louis. Always dressed in a bow tie, diffident in crowds, he did not seem to have a political touch. But that may have been an asset. In the Democratic primary Williams beat Councilman Kevin Chavous 50%-35%, and in the general he beat Carol Schwartz 66%-30%. The control board immediately delegated power to the new mayor, and in fall 2000, judges returned control of most District departments to the city.

Williams proved to be an impolitic but successful mayor. There was sharp criticism when he closed down D.C. General Hospital. He sought control of the school system in July 2004 but the city council blocked his plan. He won reelection in 2002 by defeating Schwartz again, 61%-34%. Quietly, city services began to improve; departments were removed from court control; 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, provided the city built a new stadium to replace Robert F. Kennedy stadium, where the 2005 season would be played. Williams proposed a $440 million stadium next to the Washington Navy Yard, on the Anacostia River, in a neighborhood of empty lots and little-used industrial sites. But many council members bridled at the cost, and there were continuing adverse votes and negotiations in public and behind the scenes, placing the city in jeopardy of losing the team. But with help from City Council Chair Linda Cropp and Councilman Marion Barry, the council after missing a December 2005 deadline approved a plan in March 2006 that capped the District’s share of the cost to $611 million. The stadium is scheduled to be ready by Opening Day 2008.

By that time the 2006 race for mayor was well under way. Williams announced that he would not seek another term in September 2005. The frontrunner to succeed him was 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 was 35-year-old Councilman Adrian Fenty. The son of a black father and white mother who grew up over their shoe store in the diverse Adams-Morgan area, Fenty had an undistinguished record as a practicing lawyer and a strong ambition for political office. In 2000 he ran for the council seat in Ward 4, an affluent mostly black area just east of Rock Creek Park. Campaigning relentlessly, he beat longtime incumbent Charlene Drew Jarvis (who had beaten Cropp 12 years before). In the council he cast dissenting votes on issues like D.C. General, the baseball stadium and, in summer 2006, an anti-crime bill. He specialized in constituent services, and won 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 his BlackBerry. He did initiate two major pieces of legislation that passed—an indoor smoking ban and a flow of funding for a major school repair program. But the details on the latter were worked out by Council members Kathy Patterson and Jack Evans, with assistance from Cropp.

Fenty announced an exploratory committee for running for mayor in January 2005, much earlier in the cycle than usual in D.C., and began to campaign door-to-door. Accompanied often by some of his many volunteers, he knocked on about half the doors in the District of Columbia, clicking his BlackBerry on the way to the door. He ran on his strengths, his energy and his ability to get government working as it should. “Government, like business, is about follow-through, responsiveness, attention to detail. That’s what I do. 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 was sprouting green Fenty signs. By August 2006 Fenty’s energetic campaigning had put him ahead in the polls. Cropp responded with ads criticizing Fenty sharply for his lack of experience, for his thin legislative record and for his mishandling of legal cases. Fenty’s response: “It’s right out of the political playbook. ‘He’s young, he’s inexperienced,’ they say, and they have to say that because they’re defending the politics of patronage, and I represent the politics of accountability.” She had the support of most of the local business community. But Fenty got most of the voters. In the September 12 primary he led Cropp by 57%-31%. He carried all eight wards, with his highest percentage in Ward 4, his home and Cropp’s; he carried all 142 precincts in the city. Electoral politics in Washington has often divided voters on lines of race. Fenty, with his biracial background, 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. They were just talking about making sure every neighborhood gets the same attention.”

Fenty spent much of the fall traveling around the country, seeking the advice of the mayors of Baltimore, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco. The general election was an anticlimax: Fenty won 89% of the vote. Soon afterwards, on the advice of New York’s Michael Bloomberg, he proposed that the public schools should be run by the mayor. Williams’s proposal to do that had been rejected in 2004, but within days Fenty got most of the incoming council members to say that they agreed with him in principle. In April 2007, the city council approved Fenty's plan by a 9–2 vote. The official takeover still required congressional approval. The District’s school system, despite some of the highest spending levels in the nation, has 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. As mayor, Fenty 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.