D.C. Council member Marion Barry wants as many Blacks as possible on the council.
The winner of the non-Democratic at-large seat on the D.C. Council in the Nov. 4 general election will hold the key to the balance of the legislative body in terms of race but also political philosophy.
There are two D.C. Council at-large seats up for grabs in the general election. D.C. Council member Anita Bonds (D-At Large) is generally expected to get one of the seats because of the city’s strong Democratic base but the second seat, by mandate of the Home Rule Charter, must go to a non-Democrat.
There are 11 independents, and the nominees of the Republican, Libertarian and D.C. Statehood Green parties vying for the second spot to replace D.C. Council member David Catania (I-At Large) who is running for District mayor. The Black independent candidates are Robert White, Calvin Gurley, the Rev. Graylan Hagler, Courtney Snowden, Wendell Felder, Eric Jones, and Khalid Pitts, with Kishan Putta as an Asian hopeful.
The White candidates are Michael D. Brown, Elissa Silverman, and Brian Hart. The Republican and D.C. Statehood Green nominees, Marc Morgan and Eugene Puryear are Black, while Libertarian candidate Frederick Steiner is White.
If the victor in the non-Democratic race is Black, the D.C. Council will become Black majority, the first time in several years. Presently, there are seven Whites and six Blacks on the council.
D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) said it is important to have as many Blacks on the council as possible. “The demographics are changing drastically,” Barry, who was the featured speaker at a D.C. Federation of Democratic Women fundraiser and book signing event on Aug. 24, said. “The Black population is now down to 49 percent. When I was on the council in 1974, there were only two Whites, David Clarke representing Ward 1 and Polly Shackleton representing Ward 3, and now there are seven.”
Barry, who served as an at-large council member in the 1970s and four terms as the District’s mayor, said there is a possibility that Black representation on the council could get smaller in the near future.
“We might have eight Whites on the council,” Barry said, inferring that Bonds could lose if she is not one of the top two vote-getters in the general election.
Marlena Edwards, a political activist who resides in Ward 4, agrees with Barry.
“I think it is most important that all groups have equal representation based on their percentages of the city’s population on the council,” she said. “That includes age, diversity and the city’s racial composition.”
Former D.C. Council member Frank Smith agreed with Barry somewhat but said that other factors should be considered when voting for a Black candidate for the non-Democratic spot.
“We cannot vote for a person based just because he is dark-skinned,” Smith said. “ Clarence Thomas is a good example of that. He is Black but he has voted against our interests since he got on the Supreme Court.”
The leading candidate for non-Democratic spot is Elissa Silverman. Silverman, a former journalist and budget analyst for the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, has the combination of name recognition from a prior at-large council race and resources unrivaled by any of her competitors.
The racial balance is not the only factor that could tip the council in a definitive direction. While all D.C. Council members can be considered progressive as far as social issues, Barry, Bonds, Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7), Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), and David Grosso (I-At Large) believe meeting the needs of the poor should be the priority. Others such as Catania, Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), and Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) are focused on growing the city’s economy and preserving neighborhoods.
For example, an economic development-focused council member may not want additional funds in the District’s budget spent on social service programs but may support tax incentives for businesses to create jobs and generate revenue for the city.
Douglass Sloan, the vice president of the D.C. chapter of the NAACP, said there are progressive candidates who want to help economically challenged Washingtonians. “Of the at-large candidates that I know of, Elissa Silverman and the Rev. Graylan Hagler are the only ones who I know are in the progressive mode,” Sloan said. “They favor programs that champion the underserved. They also want to keep the middle and working class residents living in the city.”
Smith said that electing council members who are passionate about social services is critical.
“I want a council member at-large who cares about the things I care about,” he said. “We need someone who will not defund schools and cut government services. I want a council member who wants to help people get jobs and supports minority set-aside programs in government contracting.
Edwards said that she will support a non-Democrat who will help everyone. “I want someone who will be fair,” she said. “That person will be fair to long-time residents as well as newer people in the city. I want someone who will balance the needs of the middle and upper class and work to create jobs for our children.”