Census Violence: Redistricting Ward Boundaries Could Fracture D.C. Council
The 2010 Census wasn’t just a convenient source of temporary jobs, or a controversial Super Bowl advertiser. If the last few counts are any guide, it could also be the source of some of the harshest in-fighting the D.C. Council has seen in, well, a decade.
The feds will turn over the results of their count of District residents to city officials this spring. And then, most likely, things all go downhill from there. If the city’s population is evenly distributed among all eight wards as they currently exist: no problem. But that’s not likely. Which means we can expect bloody turf battles between the ward councilmembers as each one tries to come out the winner in a complex, zero-sum game that has many moving parts. If history is any guide, then we’re likely in store for plenty of hard-core politicking, community outrage, charges of racism, hurt feelings, and, eventually, lawsuits.
In other words, lots of fun!
“Changing ward boundaries ...causes a lot of angst,” says Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, who has been on the council during the last two redistrictings. “People get very angry.”
The main event in this year’s battle royale could very well be between Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells and Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry.
Barry frequently decries the income gap between white households and black households in the city, and he says he plans to mount a campaign to draw new lines that make wards more economically diverse. He says the wards, including his own, need to get more racially diverse, too. Redistricting, Barry says, is a good way to do both.
“This is an excellent opportunity to become one city for real,” Barry tells LL, referencing Almost Mayor Vincent Gray’s campaign slogan. Barry points to the last redistricting—which expanded the predominantly black Ward 4 west across Rock Creek Park to include whiter, richer residents—as a model.
“This is going to make for a beautiful city,” Barry says.
Barry says his home ward, which is almost entirely African American and has extremely high poverty and unemployment rates, has long been the city’s “dumping ground.” Making it more diverse will likely involve expanding across the Anacostia into the whiter, richer Southwest, Barry said.
“We can’t go south,” Barry joked.
There’s some speculation in the Wilson Building that Barry wouldn’t mind expanding his political influence over the Southwest Waterfront development, a $2 billion development that’s well underway to transform the area into a glitzy urbanist dream that people actually visit. That would let Barry take credit for the project, even though the groundwork was already laid. And it would also let him hit up developers for campaign contributions as the councilmember who represents the ward. (Adding some white voters to Ward 8, though, could give Barry new political problems to deal with.)
Wells says Barry has already told him in casual conversation that Barry would like redistricting to bring more “economic diversity.”
“I think what he meant was he wanted to take some from Ward 6 for Ward 8,” Wells says.
Wells gave LL a bunch of reasons why moving parts of Southwest to Ward 8 wouldn’t be a good idea, including the fact that the neighborhood was just subsumed by Ward 6 from Ward 2 during the last go-round. (It wasn’t entirely clear to LL why switching wards twice in 20 years would be so bad for the neighborhood.) But the basic message seemed to be: over my dead body.
For his part, Barry says he’s going to let only cold hard census data guide his thinking (“I’m a scientist,” he says). He bristles at any notion that politics could be a motivating factor (“Absolutely not, that’s ridiculous,” he says) before adding that his political popularity is such that he could give any of his colleagues a run for their money, save for in Ward 3.
Whether Barry’s ward will actually need to expand is still a big question. Last redistricting, the city had to deal with a declining population, particularly east of the river. This time, the city’s census numbers will reflect a growing population.
The way the redistricting law works is that once the city’s total population is official, that number is divided by eight. Each ward has to have a population that’s within a 5 percent range, plus or minus, of that average. The city’s most recent count was 599,657, so the average would be 74,957—which means each ward would have to have between 71,209 and 78,704 residents. District law also requires that wards be “compact and contiguous” and conform as much as possible to census tract boundaries.
One set of projections based on recent counts floating around the Wilson Building has Ward 8’s projected population falling just inside the 5 percent cushion. Ward 6’s projected population, on the other hand, would require it to add at least 4,600 residents. (Despite the development and population growth of Southwest, Ward 6 came out of the last redistricting with the smallest number of residents, so it starts with lower numbers than the other wards.)
When told that his ward might have to add people, Wells gave a quick quip that shows Barry’s not the only councilmember whose got an eye on another’s turf.
“I would love to redistrict the Anacostia back into Ward 6,” Wells says, before launching into a pitch that includes his good work in revitalizing the long neglected H Street NE corridor and his expertise in multimodal transportation.
Though every councilmember will get a chance to vote on the final plan, the councilmember who gets to head the committee that draws up the first draft of a redistricting plan will likely have a bigger say in what the next map looks like. So far, Almost Council Chairman Kwame Brown has been mum on future committee appointments (except to say that Barry, who was stripped of a committee chairmanship by the current council, would get some kind of post back).
There’s some speculation that one of the four at-large councilmembers, who wouldn’t have any dog in a ward boundary fight, will be picked to head the redistricting effort. But whether anyone wants the job is another story. A politically adept councilmember might be able to use the committee to score political points, but most likely whomever gets the gig will find it a pretty thankless task that is a surefire way to make enemies.
A decade ago, then-rookie At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson was in charge of the redistricting process. Mendelson says redistricting wasn’t the most contentious issue he’s ever faced—but it ranks up there.
The plan Mendelson oversaw drew a lawsuit from the Kingman Park Civic Association, alleging racial discrimination. The association’s complaint said that transferring 1,840 predominantly black voters in Kingman out of Ward 6 would dilute the power of the black vote there and “waste” black votes in Ward 7, court records show.
As part of the same suit, the association also teamed up with the Chevy Chase Civic Association, whose members were unhappy about having to switch from Ward 3 to Ward 4, to allege that the entire citywide redistricting had violated the federal Voting Rights Act. The lawsuit was dismissed by a federal district judge.
Not every unhappy constituent group sues, or makes lofty claims of injustice. But they still complain. Evans says a group of residents in parts of Palisades was unhappy about being moved from Ward 2 to Ward 3 because of their zoned parking passes.
“A lot of them worked in downtown Washington, so they could drive to work and park” using their residential zone stickers, Evans says.
And finally, there’s the prickly issue that sometimes comes up of councilmembers being zoned out of their own ward. Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowserfaces a slight chance that her residence in Lamond-Riggs could move into Ward 5.
That sort of dilemma can lead to unusual outcomes. Twenty years ago, when most of Georgetown went from being part of Ward 3 to Ward 2, the council approved a plan to keep just two blocks in the neighborhood in Ward 3. As it happens, then-Ward 3 Councilmember Polly Shackleton lived on one of them.
All politics is local, former House Speaker Tip O’Neill used to say. He just never knew how local.
WHERE'S THE BEEF?
Campaign season is a great time to learn about political candidates’ dirty laundry, if you’re into that sort of thing.
Political operatives have the time—and more importantly, resources—to dig deep into an opposing candidate’s past, sometimes unearthing stuff that overworked or lazy beat reporters miss.
Republican challenger Tim Day’s recent look-see into a non-profit run by his opponent, Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr., which Day alleges is a city-funded slush fund, led to a story and an editorial in The Washington Post, and then a probe by Attorney General Peter Nickles.
But where Day scored a solid stand-up double with his opposition research, D.C. GOP Executive Director Paul Craney whiffed badly when he recently sent LL what he described as “juicy” court records related to Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh.
After the Post reported that Cheh’s Republican challenger, Dave Hedgepeth, had a lien filed against him for owing back taxes, Craney sent LL an e-mail promising dirt on Cheh.
The dirt, it turned out, wasn’t to be. In 1988, a woman who was living in a rental property in Linden, N.J., that Cheh co-owned with her brother apparently tripped on a piece of broken sidewalk on her way down the staircase in front of the house. She broke her ankle, and then sued the Chehs for negligence. Court records show they settled.
Cheh seemed pretty annoyed when LL told her of the GOP’s research (and even more annoyed when he told her he was writing about the lawsuit). “This is what we’ve come to, huh?” she said. She’s got a pretty good point.
Like any political reporter, LL doesn’t have any moral objections to opposition research. But he does object when it’s done badly. You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, D.C. Republicans. Otherwise, you just look dumb.
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Photo by Darrow Montgomery