Early this morning, in the Langston Room of the Busboys and Poets 14th Street restaurant, the owner, Andy Shallal sat with friends from radio, journalism, communications, executive and former executive directors and board chairs of NGOs, non-profits and think tanks, political operatives…and me. With his signature peace mural that Andy painted himself in the backdrop (featuring a collage of activists, writers, leaders, and history makers), the question was finally put on the table: “Should Andy run for Mayor of Washington, DC?”
In a city where Black and White are bookends for most of the local political, economic and social discourse and drama coded and otherwise, what does Anas “Andy” Shallal bring to the race? Contrast? Especially in comparison to the declared Democratic mayoral candidates now on the campaign trail: two white men, two black women.
Here’s how NBC4’s DC politics reporter Tom Sherwood frames it:
A white mayor? The city’s demographics certainly are changing. The African-American population has dropped from nearly 70 percent to about 50 percent in the past 20 years. But African-Americans still have a strong presence at the polling precincts.
And then there’s this on the NBC4 DMV politics tab from political communications and advocacy consultant Chuck Ties in response to the results of a recent poll of the current declared candidates.
My message to anyone who might be thinking about getting into the race: go for it.
Is a new history about to be made in Washington, DC?
Rev. Rob Hardies of All Souls Church, Unitarian once said from his pulpit — “People come to Washington to change the world.”
So much in Washington has changed as I can remember from the first Mayor of Washington, Walter Washington who was appointed by President Nixon. This was the mayor who told J. Edgar Hoover to his face not to shoot looters and turn the 1968 riots into a blood bath. Washington got a 2nd term when Home Rule was passed. The civil rights movement brought a former SNCC member and chemistry major to the Mayor’s office, Marion Barry who created the DC Commission on the Arts, services for seniors, jobs for youth (real jobs, not just something to do). He was friends with developers. But his vices became a political liability. Sharon Pratt Kelly carried her signature broom like Teddy Roosevelt’s big stick. A clean house was in order. She made history as the first woman (Black woman mayor); but you need more than a broom to build a footaball stadium. Some say that was Kelly’s downfall. (read Men)
Marion Barry in political disgrace managed an electoral comeback, but that democratic exercise didn’t prevent Congress from assigning a Control Board (read White) to the city which produced the next Mayor, Anthony Williams. Williams crunched the numbers on the Control Board and as Mayor put the city on a growth track. Williams completed two terms and then Adrian Fenty benefited and expanded on the Williams vision with one of his own including a green agenda that appealed to newer residents (read White). Fenty gave the broom to a new Chancellor of Schools, Michelle Rhee. Education Reform was born in DC but the leadership lacked the emotional and social intelligence to endear its practices to long-time residents (read Black). Mayor Vincent Gray, known for efficiency and responsiveness brought an “Old native DC” (read Black Middle Class) narrative back to the table. Though the broom may be in the closet, the symbolic sweeping gestures continue to move swiftly. Yes people do want clean floors when they’re paying $4,000/month rents for 2 bedrooms; stagnating salaries for mid-level professionals; federal jobs on hold; the traditional middle class buffer between rich (read White) and poor (read Black and Brown) practically gone.
[Note: Reading the city’s race codes was part of today’s discussion. Add “gentrification” to this list.]
Otherwise, from first impressions the city looks good. Crime’s down. Student test scores are up. Marriage equality passes. Some people are happy with the responsiveness of city services. More fine restaurants you can shake a
broom stick at. And for those of you who can afford it, the city is your’s for the taking.
What does an entrepreneur, artist, restaurateur, activist offer today’s Washington, DC? Can the “community space” Andy created in Busboys and Poets be the inspiration for a citywide vision? When Andy was building Busboys and Poets, I told him he was creating the place where I wanted to be. A meeting place and space where art, music, good food, literature, where ideas flurished, collaborations are born and people meet, greet and play in, what used to be said in diplomatic spaces, “peaceful co-existence.” It was the DC I was waiting for. And I would’ve done it myself, if I knew how. This blog comes close.
The question may not be “should” but “Will Andy run?” Though concerned friends expressed fears of the intrusive and invasive nature of politics on personal lives, it seems Andy will take his lickins and keep on tickin’. Veterans of the local campaign scene reminded us that DC campaigns are not the blood sport you see in Senate, Congressional and Presiential races. But under the current cloud of campaign finance scandals among some of the city’s most prominent local politicians, DC is starting to get some unwanted attention. It also opens the door to opportunity.
I would say Washington, DC could benefit from leadership with emotional and social intelligence. So would the nation. Leadership that doesn’t engage their constituents via talking points prepared by admin staff and afterwards retains no memory of the event or encounters the moment he/she steps from behind the microphone. Someone who actually visits a gallery because they love art, attends a music, drama, film event or reads a book because they’re actually curious about what happens next and the human narrative — and not just a recommendation by a colleague or based on the number of Twitter followers to earn cool points with a younger demographic.
The meeting ended with more questions. “What are our Next Steps?”– Is that a “yes” to the “should he” “will he” questions? Who’s a good campaign manager? Who would make a good treasurer? Where will signs go? Can a poet be a king maker?
I Dream A World
by Langston Hughes
I dream a world where man
No other man will scorn,
Where love will bless the earth
And peace its paths adorn
I dream a world where all
Will know sweet freedom’s way,
Where greed no longer saps the soul
Nor avarice blights our day.
A world I dream where black or white,
Whatever race you be,
Will share the bounties of the earth
And every man is free,
Where wretchedness will hang its head
And joy, like a pearl,
Attends the needs of all mankind-
Of such I dream, my world!