Tommy Wells, who is the DC council member representing the ward that includes Capitol Hill, who is most known for his slogan calling for “a liveable, walkable city,” and who is white, is said to be considering a run for mayor when the term of the incumbent Vincent Gray is up. The all-important Democratic primary will take place a bit over a year from now, in April 2014, and as Washington Post columnist and editorial board member Colbert King writes,”the councilman expects to take his first step Monday [February 4], filing papers to create an exploratory committee.” The path after that will not be easy if Wells does decide to pursue it: as King goes on to point out, “In 40 years of [what King calls] self-rule, the District has never elected a white mayor.”

Indeed, here is some of that history as related by The Washington Informer, supplemented by me. Carol Schwartz, a Republican at-large council member (who managed to get there because two of the four at-large seats are reserved for non-members of the majority party), ran unsuccessfully against powerhouse Marion Barry a couple of times. Apart from her the last white person to make a really serious run was the late Dave Clarke. He was a civil rights activist who got his law degree from the prominent black institution Howard University, who launched his mayoral bid from the status of Chairman of the city council, and who was well respected by the city’s African-American populace (as Wells is probably not). Yet he lost the 1990 Democratic primary to the relatively unknown Sharon Pratt Dixon [Kelly] in 1990, perhaps thanks to WaPo’s endorsement of her (Clarke being too liberal for its tastes).

And as recently as 2010 white politics in the city seemed in retreat when then-mayor Adrian Fenty, the “post-racial” African-American with Caucasian features who had busied himself with building bicycle lanes in the city’s roadways and the like, and who was heavily backed in the white wards, lost the primary to Gray. The main reason, it is generally thought, was that he had tied his star to his protege and appointee, the union-busting schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, who had fired too many experienced educators in pursuit of her vision of “reform” (shared by the Obama administration BTW), thereby getting the city outside of the white wards angry.

But that was then. Since 2010 black politics has suffered something of a setback because of scandals involving office-holders. Our corruption is probably no worse than Chicago’s or Detroit’s when averaged over time, but perception is all in politics, and there has been something of a revolving door lately of special elections to fill the seats of council members who had to resign in disgrace after guilty pleas for embezzlement, etc. Mayor Gray himself is currently under federal investigation.

One can add demographic trends to the mix: The white percentage of the population has increased in recent decades as developers have pushed gentrification and middle-class blacks have been happy to escape the city’s problems by fleeing to neighboring Prince Georges County, Maryland.

Just to be complete, here in a nutshell is the rest of the political background. Colbert King’s “self-rule” rubric means that the U.S. Congress allows the District to elect its own municipal government and pass laws to govern the place, as long as we do not attempt to go too far by, say, using our own money to finance family-planning clinics, in which case the relevant House committee or subcommittee (whose exact identity has changed several times over the years) swoops down to squelch the idea. Although the winner of the spring Democratic primary for mayor or council member of a given ward is virtually guaranteed election in the fall, the Republicans do hang around, and pick up a council seat from time to time. They have none at present, after an extreme rightist defeated Schwartz in the Republican primary a while back and then got trounced in the general election. The two non-Democrat at-large seats are currently held by people calling themselves “independent,” whether or not that is an accurate description of their voting patterns. Then there is the DC Statehood-Green Party (of which I am a member for want of a better alternative). The “Statehood” portion held an at-large council seat until 1998, but lately the party has seemed incapable of anything but wallowing in the memory of that era.

There you have it. I would not rule Wells out, although if he were to win it would likely do nothing to improve race relations in the city.

Update 1/4/13 10:00 PM (Eastern). The local NBC station reports that Wells did file papers for an exploratory committee today. The report also cites some other possible mayoral candidates in the context of the federal investigation of the incumbent. Stay tuned.

E. F. Beall

E. F. Beall