So Much for One City
UPDATED BELOW Saturday, 11:20 a.m.
As a Census-mandated vote on redistricting the city's ward boundaries vote looms, Tommy Wells has a PR strategy for keeping his territory intact in the face of an attempted land grab by Marion Barry. The important part: Don't make it about Marion Barry.
“With Ward 6, with how well it’s working, the real principle is keeping contiguous neighborhoods together,” he told a group at Arthur Capper Senior Homes on Wednesday, when someone asked what their talking points should be. “I think that’s got to be our message to the council. It’s not about parking stickers, it’s not about personalities of councilmembers, it has everything to do with why our ward is working so well.”
But really Tommy: How much do ward boundaries, in themselves, affect “neighborhood continuity?”
School boundaries aren’t affected. Neither are police districts, or historic districts (someone actually asked about those at another redistricting meeting last night). Nothing’s stopping you from living in one ward and going to church in another. It’s quite possible to organize community events across ward boundaries. Councilmember Phil Mendelson is emphatic that wards don’t affect property values; moving a piece of Chevy Chase from Ward 3 to Ward 4 made no noticeable difference. Wells touted the fact that the Ward 6 ANCs are some of the best-functioning in the city, and work together very well—but why couldn’t they still work well together if one were in another ward? ANCs are largely autonomous bodies; there’s no inherent reason why ANC 6A couldn’t work with 5B as well as it can with 6B. The Ward 6 exceptionalism argument just doesn’t hold.
What ward boundaries do affect: Parking, since residential parking permit policy is decided on a ward-by-ward basis. Also, membership in political clubs, like the Ward 6 Democrats.
Most critically, though, they affect who represents you. And that’s the real reason why border neighborhoods like Near Southeast, Rosedale, Hill East, and Near Southeast are adamantly opposed to leaving Ward 6 for Wards 7 or 8. The Ward Sixers who turned out to last night’s meeting adore Wells, to the point where people asked why the ward populations had to be evened out at all (the answer: Not doing so would be unconstitutional).
“I’m willing to make that sacrifice, and dilute my vote in order to stay in Ward 6,” one lady declared.
But the Wells lovefest is only one side of this story. The other is an intense aversion to Barry, which manifests itself as disinterest in reaching across the river for any reason, and arguments that the Ward 6 "community" is intrinsically and insolubly different from whatever's over there in Barry territory.
It would be a “real travesty” if we have to “mix with Ward 8,” one guy said. “We hope and we wish for success for Ward 8, but they’re not there yet.” The whole crowd yelled in assent at statements that the Anacostia was a barrier that shouldn’t be breached—at least on their end of it. One woman even said she would kill herself if she were made to live under Barry. (Of course, there’s not much love for Ward 7 either. “I know two people there,” said one woman, who lives on the border. “What do Ward 7’s businesses have to do with where I am?”)
Given the outcry, it seems unlikely that Barry will get a big chunk of Ward 6. The “contiguousness” and “compactness” criteria for redistricting create a strong case for pulling all of Fairlawn into Ward 8, which would bring it up to the right number. Ward 7 would then need to cross the river into Ward 5, potentially around the Arboretum. Those neighborhoods haven’t made as much of a ruckus about wanting to stick with Harry Thomas. (Thomas says he’s going to start making a ruckus about it himself, promising to organize meetings with his constituents similar to those held in Ward 6. “I think it’s irresponsible for him to try to deflect it to another ward,” Thomas said, of Wells. “It’s unfortunate that he’s engaging in a political attack, when to me the response is, he has the ward that has the growth, and because of that growth, he should be the ward that’s affected.”)
Does Barry actually think his bid for a piece of river west will succeed? Who knows. But whether or not it does, Ward 6’s unwillingness to be annexed into Barryland is already creating ugly rhetoric about why Ward 6 should have nothing to do with river east—which Wells, in his effort to avoid personally maligning a colleague, doesn't tamp down. I doubt those arguments would be as vehement if Ward 8 were represented by someone who didn't strike such visceral fear in the hearts of greater Capitol Hill people as Barry.
UPDATE, Saturday, 11:20 a.m. –
Wells called to make a case for why ward boundaries are more than just political—as Mendelson, who as an at-large councilmember might not have as good a sense of these things, repeatedly argued. For one thing, there are ward education councils, and Wells says Ward 6's has banded together to create a cohesive plan for their middle schools. For another, ward-specific "public affinity groups" like political clubs are actually important, because they define the boundaries of civic engagement. Finally, pots of money for some things—like alley repaving, for example—are divided up on a ward basis, and if you're not on board with the ward's in-crowd, you might get the short end of the stick.
"Unfortunately, at times, community influence on the allocation of public resources makes a difference," Wells notes.
At the Arthur Capper meeting, he'd spoken of the disadvantage of being split off from a ward's political power center.
"We can not have ANC commissioners that are substantially removed from Ward 6 making decisions about zoning and other issues that directly impact the neighborhoods that are closer in," Wells said. "And that’s another reason why we can’t be balkanized."