D.C. Political Corruption? Get a Grip, People
There has been a lot of media head-scratching, pondering, pandering and pontification, and deep thinking about a so-called culture of corruption in District of Columbia politics.
You can hardly blame folks for thinking along those lines: I mean, look what’s happened. Just last week, after a lengthy investigation into his financial activities, District Council Chairman Kwame Brown resigned his position and pleaded guilty to a felony bank fraud charge and a misdemeanor charge.
Earlier, the federal investigation into Mayor Vincent Gray’s mayoral campaign, produced two guilty pleas from campaign aides for making illegal campaign contributions to a third and minor candidate, which has been the subject of investigations since almost the beginning of Gray’s term. The federal investigation is still in progress, resulting in a gloomy, expectant political atmosphere about what else may be coming. Everyone is hearing the sound of shoes dropping.
In the spring, Ward 5 Councilman Harry Thomas, Jr., pleaded guilty to embezzling $350,000 of money meant for nonprofit youth programs and was sentenced to three years in prison by a federal judge.
The name of former “mayor for life” Marion Barry, now and perhaps for always Ward 8 Councilman came up often in discussions. Barry, after all, went to jail on a single drug charge after a tumultuous, divisive trial and then returned to become mayor yet again.
People are now talking about all of that as if it was one big bag of bad coals, a black mark for D.C. politics. There are fears that Congress will take up its anti-D.C. cudgel again and beat down home rule.
It’s always trendy to see trends where none exist. But let’s take a look at things. Mayor Barry’s history in this city—and it’s a history of great accomplishments as well as transgressions, past and continuing —is fit subject for a novel, but not any part of a trend.
Vincent Gray’s election was supposed to be about bringing the city together: “One City,” remember? But his problems are about his election, or more accurately, his election campaign. What we know is that his aides, at the very least, lacked any sort of respect for the electoral process and were none too sharp in how they went about it, enlisting a known political loose cannon to assist them.
The acts of Brown and Thomas destroyed two promising political careers and the faith their communities had in them. It’s not fair, however, to suggest that what has happened—and that includes Barry—is indicative of the D.C. political culture, which grew out of the late arrival of home rule in the 1970s. The city was lucky, in fact, to have for a first mayor a man like Walter Washington, who had size, common sense and authority to which every D.C. candidate for anything ought to aspire.
We’ve had what were basically successful terms as mayor by Anthony Williams, the sometimes maligned but very pragmatic, effective and even visionary mayor, who changed the D.C. landscape in his two terms. Williams was not especially popular with the public, but won two terms easily, in spite of not having a natural gift for politics.
There are plenty of good and fine people on the current council, as there have been in the past—chairpersons like John Wilson, Linda Cropp, David Clarke, and Gray, the popular Republican Carol Schwartz, Bill Lightfoot, Hilda Mason, and others, none of whom came close to dishonoring their offices.
So, we should get a grip. We might remember one other thing, besides the problems of lacking statehood: It’s that often you get the government you deserve. And when you repeatedly have miniscule and embarrassing voter turnouts that send individuals to the council, or to high office, then maybe the results that we see now should not be so surprising. ★