A crowded D.C. Council race is again exposing the racial undercurrents of city politics, sparking a battle over who should wield power in a gentrifying place once known as Chocolate City.
Washington, D.C., went from majority to plurality Black a decade ago, and the electorate has since grown younger and Whiter. Black moderates worry they are in danger of being sidelined by a new generation of politicians intent on pushing a national liberal agenda.
At-large candidate Ed Lazere (I), a White budget advocate, is the favorite of left-wing activists, who think he would cement a majority devoted to addressing long-standing disparities and shifting resources from the wealthy to the poor.
But some of Lazere’s opponents in the 23-person field say the ascendant left relies too much on White activists and newcomers who, they claim, are out of touch with longtime Black residents.
The criticism, after a summer of Black Lives Matter protests, has prompted some White liberals to shift their support to former council aide Christina Henderson or Ward 8 school board member Markus Batchelor, both of whom are Black and left-leaning.
The top two at-large finishers will join the council. Democratic incumbent Robert C. White Jr. (D), who is Black, is heavily favored to win reelection. But competition for the second seat being vacated by David Grosso (I-At Large) is intense. The outcome will determine if the council remains majority White, as it has been since 2013.
Moderate Black leaders including former mayor Vincent C. Gray have rallied behind independent Marcus Goodwin, 31, as a next-generation Black centrist. Former lawmaker Vincent B. Orange Sr. (I), also a Black moderate, is banking on voters who supported him in past elections.
As the hopefuls debate taxes, policing and more, race looms over the contest.
“Black voters want their voices to be heard. And they want to deliver those messages themselves,” said former D.C. lawmaker Charlene Drew Jarvis, who backs Goodwin. “Sometimes, their messages are delivered by others who have not actually heard the voice of the Black community.”
Ronald Thompson, a young activist from overwhelmingly Black Ward 8, said Black politicians don’t always champion the interests of that community: “As the saying goes, all skinfolk ain’t kinfolk.”
Thompson, 22, favors both Lazere and Batchelor and warns that centrist candidates will prevail unless the left mobilizes Black and Brown voters. “You only open the door to ridiculous criticism when you don’t do the work of trying to bring diverse voices to the table,” he said.
Since the District gained home rule in the 1970s, the city has stood as a beacon of Black political empowerment.
Civil rights activists including Marion Barry, Julius Hobson and Eleanor Holmes Norton won office. In four terms as mayor, Barry built a thriving Black middle class through government patronage, a summer youth jobs program and contracts for minority-owned businesses.
But as the city clawed back from near-bankruptcy in the late 1990s, the government focused on revitalization and growing the tax base — and the clout of Black voters waned.
The share of ballots cast in majority-Black precincts fell from nearly half in 2012 to one-third in the June primaries, according to a data analysis by The Washington Post.
White residents flocked to trendy neighborhoods as thousands of Blacks were priced out. New, left-leaning lawmakers pursued an agenda that critics say ignores the needs of Black business owners and the middle class: promoting alternatives to cars, reducing the influence of money in politics and adopting liberal policies like paid family leave.
Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), a business-friendly moderate, said some self-described progressives don’t grasp the anxiety among Black voters unsure of their place in a changing city.
“There is a segment of the District within the Black community that I hear from who are not sure what the progressive agenda is, or whether the progressive agenda includes them,” said McDuffie, who is Black. “[People] are talking about bike lanes .?.?.while they’re struggling to pay their rent.”
Some longtime residents voiced that frustration at a recent campaign event with Orange, the former council member. He met with Black business owners on H Street NE, a historically Black corridor that burned in the 1968 riots and has gentrified, especially since the arrival of a streetcar.
“I’m here to support my D.C. people .?.?. making sure that our people, especially Black and Brown people, are being taken care of and not being pushed out of the city,” said Pam Williams, who owns an insurance business. “I’m just tired of a lot of the changes that are happening because White people are moving here. .?.?. It’s a hostile takeover.”
Goodwin found similar sentiments when he canvassed in stately, predominantly Black Hillcrest, introducing himself as a native Washingtonian. Jarcelyn Batie, 27, said she liked his pitch to expand technical education in schools — and his perspective.
“If you are not Black, I’m sorry, you have to be in our skin, you have to know what we’ve been going through,” Batie said.
Racial divides also flared up when a group of young, mostly White climate activists who back Lazere protested outside the home of council member Anita Bonds (D-At Large) at midnight, condemning her support for Goodwin.
Bonds, who is Black, likened their tactics to the Ku Klux Klan terrorizing African Americans. Goodwin seized on the exchange to cast Lazere and his supporters as racially insensitive.
In response, another group demonstrated outside Lazere’s home with signs reading “Protect Black Women.” Lazere, whose wife and sons are Black, defended the anti-Bonds protesters and said demonstrations outside the homes of elected officials are appropriate.
Will Cole, a Black fitness trainer who has praised Goodwin, organized the protest outside Lazere’s house. He said he was outraged by what he saw as the far left’s disrespect of Bonds — and their inability to recognize the longtime contributions of other groups.
“They’re trying to be the saviors,” he said. “You can’t speak, because you don’t know historically what we’ve been through.”
Who deserves the mantle?
Left-wing D.C. activists agree they need more Black Washingtonians in their ranks.
But they contend the city’s Black political class has often failed poor residents by focusing on businesses and the affluent. They see the protest outside Lazere’s house as a cynical attempt by Goodwin’s allies to exploit racial divides.
“You have this weird situation where you have the Black moderates pushing policies that make it difficult for Black people to stay in this city, using their race and pretty much nothing else to try to gain Black votes,” said George Derek Musgrove, a Black D.C. historian who supports Lazere.
Local Black Lives Matter activists have been particularly critical of Goodwin, whom they blast as a business-backed candidate trying to hoodwink voters.
Even as liberal D.C. candidates say they are best suited to end persistent racial disparities, however, they struggle for support in the District’s disadvantaged Black neighborhoods.
Lazere garnered far fewer votes in Wards 7 and 8 than in the rest of the city when he challenged council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) in the 2018 Democratic primary. On Nov. 3, he is determined to do better.
He campaigned last weekend with Black and Latino volunteers outside a Safeway off Benning Road — one of only three supermarkets east of the Anacostia River. When Tanner Raboya, 60, asked where Lazere was “really” from and how long he’d been in the city, the volunteers replied that their candidate had been a resident for decades and sent his children to D.C. Public Schools.
But they understood Raboya’s point.
“You know as well as I do that we have sellouts,” said Ambrose Lane Jr., a Black health-care advocate who believes Lazere proved himself by spending decades advocating for policies to help the poor.
Raboya nodded, listing Black politicians he said had let him down. But he wasn’t ready to vote for Lazere either. “I don’t trust anybody anymore,” he said. “They say a whole bunch of stuff, man, but there’s no change.”
Lazere said in an interview that he and his peers need to do more to persuade such voters. “It obviously will take time, but when Black residents actually see elected officials who don’t just say they care but govern like they do, that will make the difference,” he said.
Younger voters like Michael Watson, 32, who was at the Safeway wearing a “Support Black Colleges” T-shirt and a “Demand Justice” mask, were already on board.
“As Black voters, there’s a comfort when we see a familiar face,” he said in an interview. “But at the same time, that doesn’t mean they are there for you.”
Left-wing activists say they have lifted up Black liberals, too. They point to Janeese Lewis George, a native Washingtonian and self-described democratic socialist who triumphed in the June Democratic primary over council member Brandon T. Todd in Ward 4.
But Batchelor, 27, who grew up in Ward 8, says the left needs to elevate more Black residents from his part of the city, which has not benefited as much from the District’s economic revival.
“Folks in our most marginalized communities shouldn’t just have a platform or a voice at the table, they should have power,” he said. “The people closest to the pain should be closest to the power.”
Dilemma for White liberals
White Democratic voters locally and nationally are supporting more candidates of color, especially after this year’s racial justice reckoning. Sarah Yeiser, a federal worker who lives in Ward 6, said that’s one reason she voted for Batchelor and Mónica Palacio, a Latina candidate, for the at-large seats.
“I had in the back of my mind that D.C. is predominantly non-White people who live here,” Yeiser said after dropping off her ballot Monday outside a Capitol Hill library. “It’s important to have representation for those communities and those backgrounds.”
Several older White women who met Henderson, a former Grosso aide running with his endorsement, at the farmers market in wealthy Palisades last week said they had already voted for her. They liked her legislative experience and her pitch for “pragmatic” policymaking. The chance to put another Black woman in office was an added bonus.
Henderson, who has been endorsed by Ward 3 council member Mary M. Cheh (D) and The Washington Post editorial board (which operates independently from news reporters), said representation is key to creating a more equitable D.C.
“When folks say, ‘How do we dismantle the system?’ I say, ‘Step one, elect more Black women,’ ” she said. “Step two, focus on policies that are going to make differences in the lives of communities you say you care about.”
Race has also infused past D.C. election cycles, including in 2018, when Black restaurant owner Dionne Reeder challenged incumbent Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), who is White and part of the council’s left flank.
Reeder’s argument that the city needs more Black elected officials who understand disadvantaged communities helped her win Wards 7 and 8. But Silverman prevailed everywhere else in the city, handily winning a second term.