As local politics in Washington, D.C. melts into a messy finger soup on a toddler’s bib, there is an elephant in the room that few want to talk about or admit … at least publicly: it’s the definite end of Black political power in what was once affectionately called “Chocolate City.”
Not only is Kwame Brown the last Black Chair of the District of Columbia City Council, but Mayor Vincent Gray is the last Black Mayor of D.C.
Some are saying, off record, that it’s like a big, quiet cultural coup is taking place within D.C. government. Most saw it coming for some time. It was just a matter of when. And, this round, it’s difficult to put any blame on shadowy old money White guys or the enigmatic Federal City Council paving the way for more gentrification, yuppies, bike paths and dog parks. Some longtime local observers of D.C. politics point to the federal financial control board put in place in 1995 and suspended in 2001 as the tipping point toward where it ended up now. Some say it was the last Mayor Adrian Fenty, booted out after one term, who was like a cruel nurse ripping off band-aids. Others view former Mayor and now Ward 8 Councilman Marion Barry as the original culprit. If it hadn’t been for him, some say, the mysterious old money White guys, joined by resentful Republicans on Capitol Hill who want some local influence in a largely Democratic town, would not have been so mad at the city’s Black political guard.
A few say none of the above made any difference – it is what it is. The city is being dramatically reshaped with or without its Black population in charge.
Or even present.
The recent passing of Go-Go music Godfather Chuck Brown was a sad metaphor for many things happening in D.C., but none as prominent as the end of its Black politics. You can’t ignore the fact that every D.C. politician caught with a hand in the proverbial cookie jar these days is Black. Now former D.C. City Council Chairman Kwame Brown is the most recent in what has grown into an uncomfortably long list of city leaders, political aides and government staffers now under probe, managing plea deals or starting prison sentences. All Black.
To say that they are all African American is by no means an indictment of anti-corruption activities that have clearly taken a very aggressive and interesting turn in recent years. Law enforcement must do what it figures it has to do. Much of it is pure numbers: the city government is a reflection of a place that is still largely Black – just 50% Black. Although, many of the city’s bureaucrats live in neighboring Prince George’s County (known as “Ward 9” and now the replacement for that foregone conclusion known as “Chocolate City”). But, it’s difficult and undeniably painful to watch the Black political power structure in D.C. fall apart this fast: Brown as Chairman; former Ward 5 Councilman Harry Thomas is on his way to a 38-month sentence in prison for embezzlement; Mayor Vincent Gray is under constant probe for campaign improprieties, with senior officials in his administration already resigned and two aides from his 2010 bid now pleading guilty to felony charges. “Who’s next?” ends up the next question, with folks rumor-mongering over the fates of other African Americans currently on the City Council who are sweating over their campaign war chests, personal finances and staff budgets as we speak.
A circus side show to all of this is Barry, the aging icon of D.C.’s dying Black political guard drifting away into irrelevancy in every other section of the city other than his home base of Ward 8 – a place where the voters who do vote just don’t know any better or anyone else better. He’s steadily damage controlling comments he made about Asian businesses in largely Black Ward 8, calling them “dirty shops … [that] ought to go” during a primary victory speech in April. The incident put doubt on whether or not he’d be attending the Democratic National Convention as a delegate. And, let’s not forget about the meltdown match in which fellow At-Large Council colleague David Catania, who is White and openly gay, got into a profanity-laced shouting match with the elder “Mayor for Life”
Barry, however, can find comfort in the fact that, this time, it’s not him. In the past, when discussion centered on corruption in D.C. government, fingers always seemed to point in his direction. In a peculiar twist of fate, as if a parallel universe of Black political misfortunes has suddenly appeared out of nowhere like anti-matter, this school of Black politicos is the most corrupt. It – really – wasn’t this bad under Barry: for all the control boarding, federal oversight and court receiverships, no one in Barry’s administration was getting arrested for felonies. His infamous crack pipe moment was simply a moral lapse on his part which was in no way connected to his official handling of the public trust (“public money” didn’t pay for the crack, the mistress or the hotel room – although you can argue he was on the public’s dime when he did it).
What we’re seeing now are moral lapses raised to the level of blatant malfeasance and disregard for the code of ethics ruling elected office. One reoccurring theme and ingredient is money and … well … bling. Everyone snagged in the ongoing federal dragnet of D.C. corruption can’t let go of lifestyles beyond their means and the need to feed ego.
Thomas couldn’t resist the temptation of expensive SUVs and loud motorcycles, such as his fully-loaded Audi Q7 that stuck out like a diamond-studded thumb as he drove around in poverty-infested Ward 5.
Brown has a thing for expensive rides, too, and the Council Chair had brought in a new era of office expansion in which he, literally, tore down council chamber walls for more space and staff. He couldn’t wait to get his new Chairman’s seat warm before he was driving around in an equally expensive and “official government” SUV before succumbing to public pressure.
And, there are the dozens of D.C. government employees caught in a myriad of scandals, schemes and quick-money hustles all in the name of more money beyond their meager public salaries.
It’s a problem in D.C., indicative of the excess within the nation’s capitol driven by globs of federal money (from contracts to sub-contracts and procurement pay-offs) feeding the area in the best of times and shielding it during the worst. Houses must be bigger, cars must be German and clothing must be sharp. You don’t look good, you don’t survive. It’s a place where the first question asked when meeting someone new is: “Where do you work?” What’s not helping the matter any is that the cost of living in the area is not cheap and many Black communities, in places like D.C. and P.G., must face substandard school systems, thereby forcing many middle-class Black families to not only pay taxes for them, but to pay more for private schools.
Hence, “Chocolate Region” is the undisputable center of the African American middle class. As bad and controversial as this sounds, it just can’t stop itself from constantly struggling to keep up with the Joneses (or the Kardashians, or the Atlanta housewives or take your pick of a slew of unrealistic reality shows). It’s what’s fueling a continuing mortgage crisis in Prince George’s, Maryland’s largest county with the highest number of foreclosures in the state and in the D.C. region – a place that just so happens to be nearly 75% Black. And, I’ll argue a provocative point here as someone who has lived in the region for nearly two decades, it’s partly to blame for the local political corruption.
But, what’s also very telling this round is that as Black political power in D.C. crumbles, Black folks in the D.C.-area don’t seem as defensive about it. Maybe bothered a bit – but, not indignant or running to the immediate aide of Black politicians.
An odd scene during a recent Alpha Phi Alpha beautillion at Howard University was when Gray entered the ball room to offer remarks. In previous years, the Black mayor of a major city – particularly one under investigation showing up at a Black university – was certain to get rousing applause. But, Gray received scattered and light clapping at best, a sudden hunch in his shoulders a sign that he could tell. Even when he tried to raise D.C. voting rights in Congress as an issue, putting a sermon-like boom in his voice to get the crowd going, the response was more polite agreement than a foot-stomping call and response.
There is an acceptance – perhaps a resignation – that the pendulum has made its final swing. Many in the African American community have grown tired of the corrupt politicians who use civil rights themes to shield them from their dirty secrets. Others just want their trash picked up on time, their public schools to function correctly and their police to keep their neighborhoods safe. Some are resentful, in the Joneses rat race that is “Chocolate City,” that their neighbors would dare try to surpass them in the lifestyle arms race by using an unfair advantage. A few really don’t care.
In the meantime, as it all shakes out, the D.C. City Council will continue to change dramatically in complexion as the city demographics move away from its previous chocolate calculus. Out of 12 council members, half are White and the other half is Black, with the Council Chair sure to go to one of the eager Caucasian members, such as Phil Mendelson, who have argued for a cleaner government all along. Gray, to save himself from further public humiliation, will more than likely bow out of a re-election bid and all eyes will look for Chocolate City’s Great White Hope to come in and save the day.