Strange Bedfellow

The District of Calumny

Don’t blame Washington, D.C.’s problems on democracy.

The best D.C. story I’ve heard recently comes from a reporter friend of mine who went to check up on some local property records relevant to the Senate campaign-finance investigation. Inside the municipal building where the office of the Recorder of Deeds was supposed to be located, she followed the “This Way” signs for property records up to the third floor and down a series of long corridors. When she finally found what appeared to be the right office, she opened the door. Inside were three city employees, standing around a Weber grill cooking meat. This was at 11 a.m. They didn’t have any property records, they said, but she was welcome to some barbecue.

In Washington, this kind of anecdote constitutes gallows humor. The city is so badly run that the only real defense is to laugh about it. This is a city where Mayor Marion Barry, after his release from prison, tried to give a contract to lay sewer pipe to his friend Rock Newman, a boxing promoter. It’s a city where politicians court convicts as an important political constituency; where one in 10 residents works for the local government, a proportion that rises steadily as the population hemorrhages; where the mayor once said that the crime rate wasn’t so bad if you didn’t count murder.

It is also becoming known as the city where representative government failed. In a provision of the recently passed budget bill, Congress used its constitutional authority to strip power from the mayor and City Council, and to vest it in the financial control board that was set up in 1995. This effectively suspends, for a period of at least four years, the limited “home rule” granted to District of Columbia residents in 1973. In a column last week titled “Unfit for Home Rule,” George Will labeled Washington a “debacle of democracy.” Quoting John Stuart Mill, he called residents, who elected Barry to a fourth term after his release from prison, “unfit for liberty.” Mincing words even less, Pat Buchanan wrote in his syndicated column that congressional Dixiecrats did a far better job of running Washington in the 1950s. “How can we proclaim as the goal of American foreign policy the ‘expansion of democracy,’ ” Buchanan wrote, “when democracy is being ditched in D.C.?”

Buchanan’s nearly explicit argument that democracy doesn’t work when most of the voters aren’t white is insupportable as well as offensive. Atlanta, a city with a racial makeup similar to Washington’s, has no comparable problems. Even Detroit, a largely African-American city that is far worse off than the District, now appears to be on the mend after voters replaced an ineffectual black-nationalist mayor with a dynamic reformer. But the usual liberal explanations for Washington’s predicament–that the city government is underfunded, and that its citizens are still partially disenfranchised–are hardly more compelling. When it comes to its schools and police, Washington spends more to less effect than any other big city in the United States. In other areas, like housing, it is notorious for failing to tap federal funds for which it is eligible, through sheer incompetence. And while amending the Constitution to give District residents voting representation in Congress might make them feel better, it would probably do little to address their underlying problems.

Conservatives are wrong about democracy being at fault. Liberals are wrong about the problem being too little money and too few rights. So what is wrong with Washington? A better explanation begins with three defects: a less-than-viable governing structure, a sick political culture, and a tradition of gutless journalism.

G overnment structure. In his study Cities Without Suburbs, David Rusk argues that the most important measure of urban well-being is “elasticity,” that is, whether a city’s boundaries can expand to encompass outlying areas. This isn’t just a question of preserving the tax base. It’s a matter of preserving a middle-class interest in urban institutions–the school system, the libraries, and so on. Washington, like New York and Boston, has “zero elasticity.” But it is far worse off than those cities, because District residents who move to the suburbs also move out-of-state, to Virginia or Maryland. Suburban refugees don’t share even the common umbrella of a state government. And Washington lacks even the few powers that other cities have to help retain a fast-disappearing middle-class population. For instance, according to its home-rule charter, the District government can’t even require that its police and firefighters live in the city. This makes Washington, a city that has always suffered from a high degree of racial and economic segregation, a virtual machine for concentrating poverty.

Political culture. The federal government’s relationship with local Washington works like this: Paternalism fuels rebellion. Rebellion fails, or succeeds only in limited ways, which leads to frustration and apathy. The cycle then repeats itself. In 1871, Congress gave Washington limited voting rights to elect a local governor, only to take those rights away a few years later because of accusations of corruption and financial mismanagement, and also because the city had so many blacks. Sound familiar? It took another century for home rule to arrive. But the civil-rights-movement politics that brought home rule never translated into the more regular habits of good government. Opportunistic politicians, namely Barry, kept residents focused on the denial of their full rights–and the threat that even the limited ones that had been granted would be taken away. Congressional overseers played into this paranoia by ignoring home rule whenever it suited them. For instance, in 1992, Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., tried to foist the death penalty on a city that didn’t want it. In 1995, House Republicans threatened to override self-government for the sake of getting rid of rent control. More recently, home rule has been effectively suspended for a better reason–the city has bankrupted itself. Bad management in Washington has the psychological quality of children “acting out.” In no other city is voting for a corrupt and incompetent mayor an expression of protest against condescending parental authority.

Press failure. In a city with a dysfunctional political culture, the role of newspapers becomes paramount. If the public isn’t holding its leaders accountable, the press is the only institution that can spur it to do so. Unfortunately, for most of the period of home rule, Washington has been not just a one-paper town, but a cowardly one-paper town. Out of a misguided sense of white guilt, the Washington Post spent the ‘70s, ‘80s, and much of the ‘90s giving Barry a free ride. It endorsed him in every mayoral contest until he got arrested for smoking crack. The Post has improved a bit in the last couple of years, but its attitude has historically been to hold black politicians to a lower standard. In a shrewd section on Washington in his new book, The Future Once Happened Here, Fred Siegel suggests that the city would have done well to have had a pugnacious tabloid or two like New York’s.

None of this exculpates the citizens of the District, who have elected Barry four times and may well elect him again, though he now plays only the role of queen to control-board Chairman Andrew Brimmer’s prime minister. It does not excuse their bad judgment to point out that there are white precedents for self-destructive democratic behavior. In much the same way that Washington’s blacks re-elected Barry after his release from prison, Boston’s Irish supported their mayor, James Michael Curley, when he went to prison. Curley, like Barry, was a master at playing upon the social resentments of his disadvantaged constituents, doing them a great disservice while proclaiming himself their champion. In ‘90s Washington, as in ‘20s Boston, the voters who fall for this type of demagoguery are ultimately the ones at fault. What it does not mean, however, is that voting is at fault.