Four years ago, as Mayor Adrian M. Fenty faced an increasingly disaffected electorate, a trio of D.C. Council members began positioning themselves for greater power.
One would ride Fenty’s troubles to become the city’s next mayor. Another would rise to capture the council chairmanship. A third would assume more influence over the District’s economic development projects with an eye on citywide office himself.
Vincent C. Gray, Kwame R. Brown and Harry Thomas Jr. were viewed by their supporters as homegrown heirs to the best parts of former mayor Marion Barry’s legacy. They were African American Democrats who understood the city’s complex racial history and hoped to shape its future. They would redeem a generation of black political leadership tainted by Barry’s personal foibles and fiscal mismanagement.
Instead, the men have plunged the District into a new round of crisis, triggering reminders of the worst aspects of the Barry era and fears that the city’s political culture is regressing.
Last week, Brown resigned the council chairmanship before admitting to bank fraud and a campaign-finance violation. Thomas relinquished his council seat in January and is on his way to jail for embezzling $353,500 in taxpayer funds intended for children’s programs.
Federal investigators have secured guilty pleas from two campaign aides to Gray on felony charges that include making illegal campaign contributions and destroying records. The probe is ongoing; the mayor, who ran for office with the slogan “Character, Integrity, Leadership,” has denied wrongdoing.
“Politicians will say there’s a culture of corruption, and often people say it’s rhetoric,” said Bryan Weaver, a Democratic activist who has campaigned for the council. “But when it comes to D.C., there’s a culture of corruption that really exists. What gets passed off as politics as usual are huge ethical lapses.”
Yet for all the familiar talk of malfeasance engulfing the D.C. government, Washington — with its cash-rich treasury and booming downtown — is far different from when Barry presided.
The city is wealthier and no longer majority black, and its relationship to its political leadership is more remote. Under Barry, whose rise from modest Mississippi roots to the mayoralty crystallized the aspirations of African Americans, black professionals obtained city jobs and contracts that had long been the domain of whites. Legions of black youngsters got work through Barry’s summer employment program, winning him the loyalty of a generation of District natives. White Democrats embraced Barry as well, at least in the early years of his mayoralty, when they viewed him as a symbol of racial progress.
“People were personally invested in his administration, and there was a lot of pride around it,” said William P. Lightfoot, a former at-large D.C. Council member. Now, with the waves of affluent newcomers who have moved to the District, many of them disengaged from local politics, “many people in this town do not rely on the government,” he said. “Their personal daily lives are not affected.”
Race remains a strong undercurrent to the rhythms of the city, but home rule and black empowerment are no longer novelties.
“We are not vested emotionally with the idea that these are our black politicians,” Lightfoot said. The scandals, he said, “aren’t viewed as racial failure. It’s a failure of individuals.”
The current spate of investigations is distinct from those that defined the District during the 1980s and early 1990s. Fourteen officials in Barry’s administration were convicted or pleaded guilty to crimes stemming from their official duties.
Yet what caught the world’s attention was the FBI surveillance tape capturing Barry smoking crack at a downtown hotel, a crime for which he was convicted of a single misdemeanor drug-possession charge. A federally imposed control board took over the District’s finances during his fourth term, but no elected official was convicted of a felony.
The current investigations concern a “breach of public trust,” said Anita Bonds, an aide to Barry during his mayoralty who chairs the D.C. Democratic Party. Barry’s troubles, she said, centered on personal weakness.
Now, she said, “We’re disappointed, and we’re disappointed in a different way.
“People thought they had made the best choices, and people were pleased with those choices,” Bonds added. “Whenever things don’t work out the way you envisioned it, you can second-guess yourself.”
Barry, in a telephone interview, said: “The people in this city know of all the outstanding concrete things I’ve done in my 16 years as mayor, in my years on the city council — people can touch and feel a lot of things, so I don’t have to defend my excellent record. The people already spoke. They elected me four times, and they’re not dumb people.”