D.C. Politics Loves the Eighties D.C. may have changed, but its local political class is still stuck in 1985.

To many with 1985 syndrome, their ideal mayor is Marion Barry.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery

A debilitating disease is haunting the D.C. mayoral election: 1985 syndrome. And, according to the polls, it may be about to cost Mayor Adrian Fenty his job.

Fenty isn’t in trouble because of any failure to produce tangible results. Rather, his numbers have declined because some residents believe their mayor should be the parent of wayward children, an employment placement agent, a union organizer, a border guard preventing the advance of white suburbanites, and a community pastor, laying on hands under revival tents.

“There are still southern aspects of this city,” explains Ward 8 activist Philip Pannell. “People would still like the mayor to be more empathetic the way they would want to see their pastors more empathetic.”

In the District’s early history as a self-governing municipality, many of its elected officials had the title reverend attached to their names: D.C. Delegate Rev. Walter Fauntroy; D.C. Board of Education President Rev. David Eaton; D.C. Councilman Rev. Jerry Moore. Those who weren’t pastors still waxed ministerial, talking about the downtrodden, sprinkling stump speeches with references to Jesus while wearing shirts with monogrammed cuffs.

In the imaginations of veteran activists like Pannell, the District is still a sleepy town with southern expectations of local political decorum—pretty much what it was in 1985, at the apogee of the Home Rule generation’s political power.


That view stands in sharp contrast to what modern census, retail, and real estate data say about the District: That it’s a polyglot metropolis, with a $9 billion government that requires 21st century professional leadership. “Change has to happen,” says Misty Brown, a Ward 7 resident and special events producer. “Some of our traditions are backward.”

The tensions between Brown’s view of things and Pannell’s reflects the deep, unspoken divide within D.C.’s African-American community as the mayoral election approaches. On one side, people fixate on the glory days of black political power. On the other side, people embrace the reality of 21st century D.C. The struggle isn’t just over who will control the Wilson Building. It’s about who writes the city’s cultural and political narrative.

D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray’s supporters are delighted with the anachronistic political archetype he represents. Race is their primary lens. A debate over professionalizing D.C.’s teacher corps becomes a fight over the survival of black teachers—forget the children. Black unemployment happens because too many whites are employed. White gentrification is an assault on black progress.

African Americans embracing Fenty’s corporate-manager model respect the struggle against racial discrimination fought by previous generations, but they embrace Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream of a character-content driven society. They measure the mayor by results and outcomes. In other words, they refuse to be imprisoned by dated slogans and antiquated covenants.

And the reason the race is so bitter is that the mainstream of local African-American leadership hold tenaciously to the old leadership model that you almost have to think of it as a medical affliction: 1985 syndrome.

People lining up against Fenty can’t really be called the “old guard.” After all, plenty of younger folks—councilmembers like Kwame Brown and Harry Thomas, Jr., themselves sons of former top pols—have 1985 on their minds, too, with all of the reality-denying implications. Consider as proof of their psychosis the fact that they simultaneously acknowledge that the District has improved tremendously under Fenty but insist he doesn’t deserve to be re-elected.

Sufferers from 1985 syndrome assess the value of any government action using the old black vs. white paradigm. In their world there are no Hispanics and Asians, and whites should be at the end of the line. They cast low-income African Americans as victims, incapable of determining their own destinies. The soundtrack to their lives is “We Shall Overcome.” But they don’t really believe we will ever overcome. They are locked in a time warp. Ask them to describe their ideal mayor and most offer a version of Pannell’s response: “Marion Barry, with sense.”

“People are concerned that the progress made in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s have been eroded and the clock has been turned back or we are moving backward,” explains William Lightfoot, a former D.C. councilmember and chair of Fenty’s re-election committee who says he is sympathetic to the 1985ers’ condition.

Interestingly, the 1985 syndrome paranoia was present even when African Americans controlled every lever of power. But its symptoms grew worse as the local government’s actual service to African-Americans improved dramatically under former Mayor Anthony Williams and more recently under Fenty. The problem: Neither man fit the old ministerial mold. So the 1985ers assert that Williams and Fenty neglected the poor. Of course, those saying this were themselves middle-class and fairly well educated.

For the most elite sufferers of 1985 syndrome, evoking the east-of-the-river’s poor is a ministerial strategy designed to deflect their chief concern: themselves.

Once many of them were the movers and shakers of the city, a black privileged class. They and their friends held executive-level government jobs or lucrative, sole source city contracts. They sent their children to private schools; lived in fancy houses; dined at expensive restaurants, and vacationed on Martha’s Vineyard. They were aided by liberal whites who thought the best way to lift all boats was to support black leadership that claimed to care about the poor.

In reality, during that era African Americans in the poor communities were living horrific lives. The public education on which they relied was among the worst in the nation; health indices were third world; public housing was dilapidated; social service agencies were under multiple court orders; neighborhoods were war zones. Not surprisingly, the city sunk into the abyss.

And while few people want to admit it now, the first push-back against 1985 syndrome came specifically because the privileged class’ leadership failed so miserably. And it came from a man who was a generation older than Gray and was imposed on D.C. by Congress: Financial control board chairman Andrew Brimmer, who governed as if he were of the Williams/Fenty leadership model. He focused on competence and demanded results.

In 2006, Adrian Fenty may have been an unwitting beneficiary of the 1985 syndrome. Many blacks thought he was the perfect balance between old and new. Fenty was results oriented. But they also imagined him as that ministerial 20th century African-American political leader—talking about the poor, arriving at crime scenes, engaging in group grieving.

“He had all of the activists on board,” recalls radio commentator Eugene Dewitt Kinlow. “He created the image in people’s mind he was their leader. He was the guy that was going to make it happen. He pumped a lot of folks up…. He didn’t deliver for them in the way they wanted.”

It’s easy to blame all this on Fenty. But there really wasn’t any way he could effectively overlay that style and its attending demands across the entire city. The District already had turned the corner under Williams. It was no longer Barry’s city. By 2006, it wasn’t even the city Williams took control of in 1998.

During his eight-year reign, Williams had recreated the District, smothering its southern patina and embracing a diverse, cosmopolitan status. As a result, a new cultural-political narrative began. Officials elected citywide, like the mayor, were required to expand the public policy lens to incorporate the issues of D.C.’s newcomers.

As this happened, 1985ers began to throw temper tantrums, demanding attention while instigating dissatisfaction among low-income residents—even as record investments were being made in their communities. African Americans, then as now, failed to understand the dynamics with which Fenty found himself dealing. He had to make the adjustment or fail everyone—blacks included.

African Americans, particularly the privileged class and their white enablers, may think, yet again, that with Gray they have the ideal leadership model—a hefty portion of the old, with a tad of the new. But they need only look to the White House to understand the movement of history. Even if Gray wins the Democratic primary, the victims of 1985 syndrome, longing for yesteryears, can click their ruby slippers all day long, but there will be no going back.

We aren’t in their District of Columbia any more.

Our Readers Say

WTF! Is this a joke? If you guys are letting anyone write anything how can I sign up to get an articel printed?
After writing a great piece on the school system, Jonetta lets loose with a nutso rant. I'm surprised she isn't trying to sell more copies of her absurd book on Marion Barry. Jonetta, you have really become delusional. Please stick with real journalism and keep your opinions to yourself.
Here is another example of someone that just does not realize that the world has changed. There is no going back to any day. We are where we are NOW. Today is a hyper plugged in social revolution and personal creditability is your only coinage> FYI Jonetta lost hers years ago and WCP is caught on her coattails.

It's like a room full of Detroit CEO and NYC Publishers are giving you Web 2.0 pointers. (btw don't follow them...) Open is good, more is better and we're all in this together DC 1 City Vote Vince Gray.
Thank you, Jonetta, for finally calling out the elephant in the corner of the room. This is an insightful piece for those both new to DC and the seasoned residents and natives. DC is changing, and turning back would be foolhardy. Whoever wins the DC mayoral primary needs to realize that constant glad-handing doesn't solve problems or move the city forward. A chief executive *executes*, moves things along, gets things done - not making empty promises to every constituency, showing up at every neighborhood incident, or answering every single citizen letter or email. It's not always a pretty, genteel or kind process, and Jonetta exposes the folly of expecting as much.

Kudos for City Paper for running this article.
I tip my hat to you. This is 100 percent correct.
"WTF! Is this a joke? If you guys are letting anyone write anything how can I sign up to get an articel printed?"

Well, let's see, the first step to getting published might be to learn how to spell correctly....

Ms. Barras' piece is spot on.
I agree with you Tom - she's the absolute worst.
It's really irresponsible for her to accuse Gray supporters of viewing the District primarily through the lens of race. That's the thrust of this article, and it's totally unsubstantiated here.

Yes, it's convenient for Fenty people to use race-baiting like this, trying to corral White voters into their camp by thinking Gray's running an African-American uprising. But anyone who's dealt with Vince Gray for a minute, or just taken a glance at his biography, knows Gray wouldn't tolerate that for a second.

The District has real problems, and Fenty has glossed past many of them. His last hope for reelection is to play off the prejudices and fears of people who just moved to the District.
Kudos. This article is insulting to pretty much anyone who isn't a white newcomer to DC. I'm voting Gray, so I must be a complete moron. Screw the children!
Jonetta, self hate is a horrible disease.
In your article, "A border guard preventing the advance of white suburbanites" I think this is a racist statement.
When I get on the bus in the morning to go to work, I am happy to see White Americans on that Bus as I am happy to see Black
Americans on that bus, because in DC it so few of us these days on the bus going to work. So when I see an American, I smile, they smile back. We talk and we say have a good day when we get off the bus. So for you to try to paint DC as a racist city is so offensive and disrespectful. I am an American who was born black. Jonetta Rose Barras I think you need to grow up before you write another article like this.
I don't need Fenty to be "an employment placement agent, a union organizer," but I do need him to be a competent executive who can ensure that the District has a functioning workforce agency. Instead, we've had a nonfunctional workforce investment board for over two years and been forced to give unused funds back to the US Dept of Labor at a time of record breaking unemployment. That's pathetic and to deny it is intellectually dishonest.
I guess the City Paper dedicated today to insulting its black readership. I am going to forward all your Pro-Fenty articles to my friends to remind them to get out there and vote for Gray.
Jonetta Rose Barras has really outdone herself this time. And I thought some of her past rants were bad.

I think the person who is back in the 80s is Barras. And I guess she likes going back to the future as she is back in the Washington City Paper. I wonder for how long?

This piece is offensive to both White and Black residents of the District. She infers that White residents are not supporting Vince Gray and I just ask her to go to the www.formerlyfenty.com site to see how many hundreds are. She also impugns the ability of African American citizens of the District to understand what is so bad about Fenty.

Both Black and White residents of the City can see a secretive, non-transparent government with a Mayor giving millions to cronies and fraternity brothers. They can see a Mayor who promised to be one thing when he ran and became another after he won. They can see a Mayor who thinks he is another Bloomberg, a good corporate manager, but who really isn't. Bloomberg built a billion dollar empire before he ran for Mayor of NY. Fenty actually did nothing. Fenty was elected on vigor and a promise. Well the vigor is there as we can see when he rides his bike with city paid security clearing the way, but the promise is gone. Bloomberg has a loyal staff because he is a good CEO. He wants other people's opinions and values them. Fenty has had a huge turnover in personal staff because he can't stand someone telling him he is wrong. Fenty borrow's constituents homes when he travels on his secret weekends and the taxpayer's pay for his security.

Fenty has mismanaged the District's budget using gimmicks of the kind we haven't seen since just before the Control Board took over. He has been warned by the Bond agencies that our bond ratings are in danger of being lowered because of his spending.

Fenty has fired people without due process and although Barras seems to think that is OK the City was forced to rehire them. No good CEO would ever do that and keep their job for long.

Fenty doesn't read and skips forums on education, healthcare and HIV/AIDS because he doesn't know enough about these issues to talk about them.

Fenty cuts workforce development programs and disregards the University of the District of Columbia and the new Community College. He tries to put only developers on the zoning commission disregarding any community input. He recommends unqualified people to head Homeland Security and friends of his wife for other jobs for which they aren't qualified. You can be Black, White, Asian, Latino or a member of the LGBT community and know that Fenty is not a great manager and is destroying all the confidence people of the City once put in him.

So Barras trying to make this election all about race is actually racist in itself. This election is about decency, inclusion, a real understanding of the people of the District and Fenty fails in every regard.

I am voting for Vince Gray even though I was a major player in Fenty's 2006 campaign chairing his issues committee and drafting most of his platform. Fenty is a huge disappointment.

It is time for an intelligent proven manager, a decent human being, one who believes you can't tell people what to do all the time you have to ask them what their thoughts are and work to move this City forward together.

Vince Gray for Mayor!!
I forgot to add, that I find it interesting that readers were complaining about the lack of black writers on the City Paper in the comment section of the hackneyed Fenty endorsement, and lo and behold, an article by Jonetta. You are outdoing yourself City Paper.
I wonder, How do you reconcile white people who support Gray? Are they also suffering from 1985 syndrome or white guilt. What if a person legitimately thinks Gray would be a better mayor that would move the city forward?

I am not sure why people think that Gray is unable to move things around quickly. He clearly moved himself to the front position in the polls. It was what he wanted and he got it done. Makes you wonder if he would also be as efficient as mayor.
This reporter doesn't realize that she is OLD enough to be considered "OLD GUARD" herself. Isn't she Barry's age?

Her brighter days are LONG GONE.
Good point, LOL.
Hey Jonetta, the Mayor himself certainly shouldn't be an employment placement agent, but his Director of DOES certainly should be. For as ineffective and costly as that agency has been under Mr. Walsh's watch, it should be shut down under Fenty long ago to save the taxpayers money! It should be put into Federal receivership! Even better those funds spread around would cure the employment problem. No Jonetta what we need is a effective manager like Mayor Williams, instead of an arrogant, pick pocket, spendthrift attorney that should have been disbarred long ago! Another thing, can you please stop your parsing discussions with Ward 8 residents like Philip Pannell and Eugene Kinlow. Respect them enough to tell us everything that they said, which would certainly not only be unflattering to Fenty, but also relevant to the times. Oh and take off those rose colored glasses that you are wearing when it comes to Fenty before you tumble over and bump your head again!
"A border guard" at work.

Did you know that until 1999 there was a law (recently eliminated) that required all DC Firefighters to live within a 20 mile radius of the US Capitol. The law was created with common sense of security regarding the safety of the residents of our great city.

Those who have no common sense of security, (nor any allegiance to DC besides collecting a paycheck), wanted to make sure that DC Fire Department (DCFD) jobs were available for their relatives and friends in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, etc.; and lobbied successfully to eliminate the aforementioned law.

Did you know every minute a fire burns it doubles in size? So what happens when a plane goes down in DC or there are several major fires in our city and we need assistance? We have to wait for help to come from MD or VA. Common sense of security says that you need your firefighters in close proximity to the city they protect.

Looking at it another way, what US city (besides DC) do you know of that would allow its firefighters to live hundreds of miles away in another state? There are none.

Did you know that there is a DCFD plan that in times of dire emergency, all DC Firefighters would be activated? (Activated - called back to duty.) Probationers and cadets included. (Oh yeah, they eliminated the cadet program. Silly me.) So how is the DC Firefighter who takes a flight from North Carolina, (where he lives), to DC in order to work for the DC Fire Department going to help? How are the DC Firefighters who live in New York City and drive to DC to work for the DCFD going to help? (DC Firefighters work 24 hours on 72 hours off.)

Is this what "homeland security" is supposed to be about? (Don't tell me that you didn't know that many of our DCFD Firefighters live that far away.)

Obviously the residents of upper northwest DC feel there are enough qualified individuals in close proximity: the Bethesda Chevy Chase Rescue Squad crosses the state line to respond to calls in upper northwest DC everyday.

Did you know that there are many DC Firefighters who could not pass a GED exam, but because of "prior certification" are first to be hired on the DCFD? "Prior certification" means that they were certified volunteer firefighters in the cities where they live; they will be "experienced White firefighters".

Do the 1,000 gun carrying reserve/volunteer Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) officers get to live as far away as the DC Firefighters? Heck no!

Common sense of security: There are approximately 4,000 paid MPD officers buffered by 1,000 gun carrying reserve/volunteers and every other police agency in DC. (There are over 30 police agencies in DC.)

Lack of common sense of security: There are less than 1,500 DC Firefighters and no corp of DC volunteer firefighters.

Unfortunately this long distance commuting by DC Firefighters has gone on for many, many years; even when the "within a twenty (20) mile radius of the US Capitol" law was in effect. It goes back to when, in 1990, the DCFD switched working hours to the 24 on, 72 off shift.

If you are wondering how they have gotten away with it; the #1 answer is COWARDICE. Our DC Firefighters are heroes for fighting fires, but cowards for not standing up for what is right and fighting against what is wrong. I dare any one of them to debate me on this.

The DC firefighters union, Local 36, (which controls the DC Fire Department), lobbied for the change in the shift so that their families and friends in far away places would get career jobs with the DCFD, and never have to move.

I could expound on the history of Local 36 and the DCFD, but let's save that conversation for another day. I will simply say that if you consider who a few of the the "Honorary" members of Local 36 are; Dave Statter of Channel 9 News, former Republican Congressman Curt Weldon from PA (he was made and "Honorary" member when he was an active Congressman), current Democratic Congressman Steny Hoyer from MD, ect.; you will begin to understand the strategic political influence that the DC firefighters union has sought and obtained. (There are NO elected DC officials who have ever been "Honorary" members of Local 36!)

With 36's direct connection to Capitol Hill, they get what they want; thus DC firefighters live where they want; in the same states as their Congressmen who are "Honorary" members of one of the oldest firefighter unions in the country!

Consider that in 1997, the DCFD was 68% African-American; today it is 40%!!

She said "border guard"??
Let's see, Rhee drives out experienced teachers, including those who have been highly effective (certainly true at Wilson and Deal) and hires a boatload of TFA'ers and that's professionalizing the workforce??!! She hires someone who was selling ad space at the Post to be her second-in-command and she herself has minimal classroom and zero school administration experience.

I'm starting to think that Jonetta's definition of a professional is someone who likes to wear/looks good in a suit and insists upon a six-figure income.

Is the Washington City Paper progressive? Sounds like a racist rag to me.
Jonetta has put in more hours on DC politics than all the rest of you idiots put together. She is spot on in this article. Of course, all people have the right to move elsewhere. Those who will pay for the ignorance of DC citizens will be their children, usually black children, for yet another generation. Sad but true. So, those who don't like this new DC, head elsewhere and don't feel you need to be the keeper of any poor lost souls in DC. They get what they deserve.

I'm glad that you like this article.

I'm wondering, though, what the hell are you talking about? All people have the right to move elsewhere? What is that supposed to mean?

"Those who will pay for the ignorance of DC citizens..." You are both ignorant and condescending. In your own mind, I'm sure that everything you think is correct, and that no one else could possibly have legitimacy. By saying things like this, however, you make yourself sound foolish. I've said this to others elsewhere on WCP recently, but I'll say it again: You have not cornered the market on being right.

It doesn't matter to me whether you vote for Fenty. But it does matter that you are forcing the debate into the gutter by accusing the other side who disagrees with you of being ignorant.

“The tensions between Brown’s view of things and Pannell’s reflects the deep, unspoken divide within D.C.’s African-American community as the mayoral election approaches. On one side, people fixate on the glory days of black political power. On the other side, people embrace the reality of 21st century D.C. The struggle isn’t just over who will control the Wilson Building. It’s about who writes the city’s cultural and political narrative.”

You are wrong again, what’s at the heart of the issue is that who is ever elected in this city, will need some of the black vote to win and there are some folks who don’t like that.
Yeah I said it.

Folks like yourself continue to marginalize those who are dissatisfied with Fenty as if we are ignorant. I don’t know one group who willingly allows a political official to disrespect them. Where your logic failed is that Williams (although some were critical) still received black votes while implementing the changing Washington.

Where your boy Fenty F-up is that he alienated the poor and middle class African-Americans, many who have the same self interest as Caucasians or Asians or Hispanics. But you can't alienate both.

I would love for you to publish a piece such as this and replace all references to blacks/AA's and insert Cuban or Jew. Have Cuban’s slowed Miami’s progress? In the Miami politically arena one has to denounce Fidel Castro to receive any type of recognition if they are going to run for a politically seat. The first wave of Cubans was like the 50’s. I promise you that one it would have never be written or two you would be receiving death threats.
Jonetta is so correct. I am tired of the old timers who want to take us back to the bad old days. They love to whine and complain but hate anyone that actually fixes the problems. This city should be for everyone, black, white, Latino, Asian, etc. I'm thrilled that Fenty has done so much to support affordable housing and help the down and out as well as attracting new comers. The old guard claims that providing any amenities whatsoever for newcomers is racist. I wasn't aware that dog parks, bike lanes, improved schools, world-class mass transit, walkable neighborhoods and lowering crime were bad things or racist. 1985 syndrome indeed! know if Grey
Hey, DCer, either you were just born or you are just plain dumb! Mayor Williams days were not the bad old days and neither were the beginning of the Barry administration. If Fenty is re-elected and keeps up his program of mismanagement and squandering money, we will be back to the bad old days of the Control Board. People need a job more than they need a dog park. Just think treating dogs better than people! Metro takes care of the mass transit. Fenty can't take credit for that, particularly since his appointee to the Metro Board always has an excuse for missing the meetings. Improvement of schools has been miminal under Rhee's slash and burn union busting approach. Even the Examiner reported that DC should be getting more for the money being put out. This is what can happen when your agenda is to privatize public schools. The corporate executives get rich. A walkable neighborhood, that is a laugh, congestion like in West of the Park is what we don't need more of.

Manor, who are you calling idiots! Jonetta if you have been reading her articles for the past few months is telling one side of the Fenty story. She doesn't want to talk about the mismanagement and scandals. She acts like those things don't exist. It ain't about the bad old days!. It is about integrity. She wanted this in Barry. Why should she not want the same in Fenty. Since Fenty doesn't have it, and Gray does. That is why we want GRAY as the next Mayor of DC. You and Jonetta may not be tired on Fenty picking your wallet or purse to waste money, including on crony contracts, but a lot of DC residents do.

Don't worry both of you, when Fenty gets booted out of office, a lot of those new comers holding DC jobs will be going right with him! As Jonetta says, Halleujah!
I was here in 1985. Who's smokin' crack now, Jonetta ?
Preach! This is the best thing I have ever read in my entire life about DC politics ever- The End.
At one point will we move beyond the accusation that anyone who has serious qualms about the creeping implementation of neoliberal economic policy that's going on in DC is backwards, stuck in the past, or supporting the status quo?

You put this up against Cherkins' phenomenal piece on the absence of any discussion of poverty in the current Mayoral race and this whole argument just rings hollow.

Jonetta really needs to clearly define what she means when she says things like "21st century professional leadership" and "21st century DC" because all I hear is "smooth bureaucratic management" and Margaret Thatcher's "There is no alternative".

At what point. D'oh. Typo
Not the worst article but certainly missing some things. Fenty is a pompous frat boy who has lost touch with the people. But he has made DC a better place. The thing is that in a position as his it is imperative to let the people feel as though you are actually representing them. After all this is a democracy and if the people feel as though you are no longer relating with them they will quickly redirect themselves. It is unfortunate for him because with just a little bit a guidance he could be a great leader, but on his current war path he has completely lost touch with his constituency. Vince Gray is a new opportunity to the DC populace. I hope that is he wins, he will be humble enough to adapt some of Fenty's plans, while keeping the charisma that made him popular. Unfortunately though with power comes corruption, and the chances are that Vince gray will lose himself as quickly as Fenty did.
Generally speaking, you can tell the accuracy of an article by the volume of unhinged shrieking coming from the political opposition. Yes, JRB has described DC's racial politics here to a 'T' Bravo.

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