Nationwide Lessons from the D.C. Mayoral Election
Sam Fulwood III explains that progressives should take note of Washington, D.C.’s recent contest because race still matters in politics.
Part of a Series
The midterm congressional elections in six weeks dominate our national political conversation these days, especially after a number of high-profile primary races to determine the final Republican and Democratic candidates in these elections. But to understand more enduring political divides across our nation as this century unfolds, take a deep dive into the District of Columbia’s mayoral race.
The contest came to a dramatic conclusion with relatively little fanfare beyond the city’s beltway. D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray scored a decisive victory last week over incumbent mayor Adrian M. Fenty to earn the Democratic Party’s nomination for next month’s general election. But there is neither a Republican primary nor as yet a GOP challenger. Not that it would matter. Washington voters cast their ballots overwhelmingly for Democrats. In effect, Gray’s primary victory makes him the presumptive mayor-elect.
So why pay any attention to this local election? After all, aren’t bigger political stakes to be won in November? Polls suggest conservatives have the momentum, supported by insurgent Tea Partiers. All this, according to the conventional wisdom of the pundits and talking heads, suggests progressive causes may lose ground after the midterms.
But even if the worst-case scenario actually plays out, it’s a nearsighted view of national politics. Instead, take a step back and regard the D.C. mayor’s race from a long-term political perspective. Then, a totally different picture emerges—one that offers clues to the future of progressive policymaking at local, state, and federal levels of governments across the land.
In fact, progressive candidates for state and national office should glean three valuable lessons from a case-study of the D.C. mayoral race:
- Race still matters in politics.
- Successful policies are not universally embraced.
- Inclusion is the key to success.
Let’s unpack each of these observations in more detail to get to the lessons offered by D.C. voters earlier this month.
Lesson one: Race still matters in politics
In Washington, white voters showed a 4-to-1 preference for Fenty over Gray. But black voters went the other way, casting their ballots at a 4-to-1 rate for Gray.
Why such stark differences in a race between two black candidates with similar political ideologies? In short, it boils down to demography and the separate worlds that black and white voters inhabit. Although Washington has a majority-black population, white residents tend to live in isolation across the northwest of the city, away from the swelling numbers of black, Latino, and other racial minorities in the city’s other neighborhoods. This stratification by race and class emerges when voting patterns are revealed.
A Washington Post analysis of the primary brought the differences between white and black voters into stark relief, noting that Fenty won 53 of the city’s majority-white census tracts, while he won only 10 of the predominately black tracts. By contrast, Gray captured 108 largely black census tracts, but only five that were majority-white.
As a majority-minority city, Washington isn’t unique. It’s actually at the vanguard of a trend. Several major cities, among them Miami, San Antonio, and El Paso, have majority-Latino populations, while Atlanta, Detroit, Baltimore, and Gary have predominantly black populations. Los Angeles is in a class to itself, with a minority plurality—no majority racial or ethnic group. Four states have majority-minority populations—Hawaii, Texas, New Mexico, and California—and Arizona, Maryland, Georgia, and New York aren’t far behind.
It is true that racial attitudes are no longer as important as they once were in elections, but voters continue to vote along racially defined lines. Despite wishful thinking that President Obama’s historic election signaled a postracial society, that’s simply not the case. Not yet. Not by a long, long shot. At present, the progressive movement relies on votes that come increasingly from minority population groups. Progressive leaders cannot allow themselves to take any group for granted or delude themselves into thinking race is a relic of the past.
Lesson two: Successful policies aren’t universally embraced
Four years ago, Fenty cruised to the mayor’s office by downplaying race and pledging to bring competence to City Hall. It worked. He won every precinct in the general election and went on to become a mayor with a record of accomplishments. Even his critics offered praise for the mayor’s efforts at cutting crime, boosting school test scores, and improving city services.
But where Fenty saw success, many black voters saw heavy-handed arrogance. In particular, Fenty’s focused and aggressive efforts to reform the city’s perpetually underperforming schools played far more harshly with black voters than it did with whites. School Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, who led the education reform efforts, was a racially polarizing figure. With Fenty’s unqualified support, Rhee laid off hundreds of teachers, many of them black and established in the city’s politically empowered middle class.
Gray never criticized his opponent’s record. Instead, he recognized that policy success was only a part of the equation. Gray understood that personality is just as important. Gray successfully exploited Fenty’s weakness at maintaining respectful relationships in the city’s black communities. “As mayor, Fenty retained his overwhelming popularity among white voters,” The Post reported. “But he lost the support of vast numbers of black voters who derided him for ignoring their communities and slashing government jobs. Many of those jobs were held by African Americans, who since the advent of D.C. home rule have used city employment as a stepping stone to the middle class.”
Progressives need to understand what apparently escaped Fenty—some progressive reforms will burn bridges with progressive voters. In a majority-minority political movement, understanding how different voters will fall on an issue will determine electoral success.
Lesson three: Inclusion is the key to success
What Washington voters did last week by picking one black candidate over another, by turning out Fenty, a once-popular mayor with a demonstrated and generally agreed upon record of accomplishment, illustrates the challenge and opportunity that progressive policymakers are likely to face more often as the country’s electorate becomes increasingly diverse. Issues of importance to progressives must be framed and discussed in ways to inspire all segments of their coalition to become involved and participate in public policy decisions.
A winning coalition brings together components from all sectors of the progressive community. Minority voters can’t only be courted before Election Day then tossed aside when vital decisions are being made. Quite the contrary, the tools employed to win an election must be sustained and nurtured even after the votes have been cast.
So now, as national attention turns to the midterm congressional contests, progressive politicians must not lose sight of the long-term battles that will come well after November’s voting. Those who win should study the D.C. mayor’s race. What’s more, they would be wise to embrace its lessons.
Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.
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Sam Fulwood III