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Fire the Fire Chief II: DC Politics Update

The process of de-African-Americanization of the Washington, DC City Council stalled on April 23, when the special election for an at-large seat that I’ve previously written about (most recently here) resulted in a victory for the interim appointee in the seat, Anita Bonds. Thus the racial composition of the Council remains at six African-American, seven white (including the Chairman). Her plurality was 32.2%, with white Democrat Elissa Silverman getting 27.6% and white Republican Patrick Mara 22.8%. (The Statehood-Green candidate Perry Redd lost badly, coming in 6th at 1.9%, barely ahead of the tally for a candidate who dropped out too late for his name to be removed from the ballot, although I am happy to say that six other people besides me voted for him in my precinct.)

Apart from the composition question, the most significant result here is probably the collapse of the Republican candidacy. In spite of support from the Washington Post, the local Sierra Club chapter, the local LGBT weekly, and numerous others including a robocall endorsement from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Mara could manage no better than a third place finish in his third (and, one would think, last) attempt to win a Council seat. One report published the next day suggested that part of the problem was differences of opinion on how to proceed between the Mara campaign itself and the local Republican chapter, for example on whether Mara should sign an NRA pledge. In any case, it is safe to say that the District’s Republicans are demoralized at least for the moment.

But all that said, our beleaguered fire chief Kenneth Ellerbe is in the news again. A little over a month ago, I wrote on a controversy over inadequacies in the city’s ambulance response. Among others, the chairman of the Council’s public safety committee Tommy (“liveable, walkable city”) Wells castigated Ellerbe over the issue and warned him that his job was on the line. But now it seems that there is a dispute involving arson statistics. The District has loosened its definition of what actually constitutes arson, and Ellerbe seems not to have known this when he reported on success in closing arson cases at a Council meeting last month. The upshot was that he attributed an increase in success rate to employees getting better at their jobs when at least in part it was due to the redefinition. This has not been good for his image, and seems likely to refuel a drive on the part of the city’s white establishment to get rid of him.

There are two other items of interest. First, adding to the momentum to dispense with the football team’s racist nickname, Council member David Grosso intends to introduce a resolution to change the name to “the Washington Redtails,” in part as a tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen (i.e., a commemorative group known as the Red Tail Squadron honors the Tuskegee Airmen), and in part because redtailed hawks frequent the area.

Second, the District actually has a budget surplus, and our supposedly controversial mayor Vincent Gray actually wants to spend part of it on the city’s libraries! In part this is a matter of renovation of and improvements to the main, downtown branch, which is housed in a 40-plus-year old building (it needs asbestos abatement, for starters). This is an urgent matter since use of the facility is on the rise (a 40% increase from 2011 to 2012).

Even more importantly imo, the mayor wants to restore Sunday service in all 25 neighborhood branches outside the downtown facility (the only one with Sunday hours at present), which would require hiring 150 new employees. This is important because many residents only have Sundays free, and rely on public transportation, which is quite problematic on Sundays, so that it is not possible for them to get to the downtown branch. They need the library not only for books, but because they lack an internet connection at home and need the internet for a wide variety of practical reasons (such as comparing the programs operating under the Medicare Part D prescription drug program).

The mayor’s overall budget for FY 2014 has been in the hands of the Council since March 28, but hearings on various parts of it are only just beginning. It will be interesting to see if any member dares assert that it is more important, say, to increase the number of bike lanes than to improve library service.

Update Thursday, May 2, 11:50 AM Eastern The statement that hearings on the budget are only beginning is in error; see comment #1.

Also, in today’s Washington Post local columnist Robert McCartney writes about DC’s “young urbanists” and says that the strong showing of their candidate in the April 23 election, Elissa Silverman, who “placed second in a campaign marred by low turnout and the winner’s explicit playing of the race card,” is a challenge to DC’s “Old Guard.” People from the real old guard here, embodied in such institutions as the Federal City Council, of course accuse African-Americans of “playing the race card” whenever they act in a manner that shows their solidarity with the (unfinished in DC) Civil Rights Movement.

“Young urbanists” looks to me to be code for “people who recognize a post-racial situation” in the US, given such points as the Obama presidency. The concept was discredited locally in the last mayoral election and its reputation nationally falls further with every new Obama sell-out.

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E. F. Beall

E. F. Beall