As a native of Washington D.C., a D.C. homeowner, and former government appointee, I naturally keep up with DC politics by reading its many daily and weekly newspapers. Since I moved to New York two years ago, I missed D.C.'s entrenched political culture. I have missed how people have various ways of getting elected or appointed, and how that breeds nascent political ambitions in even the most ordinary individual.
As an elected Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner, one has the opportunity to represent the interests of numerous households and get a yearly allowance from the city to plant trees, put up signs, and have block parties. Like many other cities, there are Neighborhood Watch groups, have organizations that represent political parties, elected members of the school board, mayoral appointees to many of the city’s commissions, PTA presidents, community association presidents, and the list goes on.
In my days working in constituent services, I felt like the morale in D.C. was high and people were generally very supportive of our elected officials. People were inspired, if not encouraged to participate. Lots of community level stuff was getting done – banners and signs were being hung, block parties were colorful and well attended, relationships between council members were not antagonistic. The one or two sour grapes in office didn't really affect the whole city and its political morale. But, what happens to community participation and pride when corruption and dishonesty become rampant in government?
Recently I've been following what my mentor calls the “circus” – the D.C. Council and mayor – and the mess that they have created for themselves and the city. Several of the 12 council members are in some type of hot water – either being investigated by the FBI after mismanaging funds, or committing some other humiliating act that has become public. Chairman Kwame Brown resigned last week and pleaded guilty to bank fraud and campaign finance violations. Disgraced former Ward 5 Councilman Harry Thomas, who will soon be headed to prison, stole more than $350,000 by funneling the cash first through the Children & Youth Investment Trust Corporation, a city-funded nonprofit, and then to different organizations, which shuffled money back to him. Marion Barry, the Ward 8 Councilman notorious for all sorts of violations, recently had to apologize to the Asian American community after saying, "We got to do something about these Asians coming in and opening up businesses and dirty shops. They ought to go. I’m going to say that right now. But we need African-American businesspeople to be able to take their places, too”. Even the mayor has recently been accused of being corrupt and inefficient.
What affect does crumbling politics have on its politically charged constituency? Do people just sit back in awe of how ridiculous this has gotten? Are you seriously thrilled that your thieving councilperson is gonna show up at your block party? A lil drama, just enough to keep politics juicy is one thing. Maybe a story of infidelity, or a politician caught in public after a few too many gimlets. But the cocktail of racism, theft of public funds, drug use, and misogyny is a whole different challenge to reckon with. As we saw during the previous mayor’s run for second term, residents were not participating in the political process as educated voters, they were voting for the “other”, voting out of fear, voting for anyone to replace who was currently in office, regardless of their baggage and how that would affect the city.
I love D.C. and its politics, and look forward to seeing if the storm will pass. There are several elected officials in that city who truly give a damn and I wish for their success and continued support. D.C. residents are long overdue for some effective, inspirational leadership.