Harry Jaffe: Apathy and race lift Anita Bonds to D.C. Council win

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Local,DC,Harry Jaffe,D.C. Council

There was Marion Barry whooping it up with Anita Bonds Tuesday night after it was clear she had prevailed in the special election for city council.

Why not? The "mayor for life" probably figures he has two votes now on the 13-member council.

It would be so easy to chalk up Anita Bonds' victory in Tuesday's special city council election as a win for Washington's political establishment and Barry. Not so fast.

Ms. Bonds got her start with Barry back in the late 1970s when he was a fresh-faced mayor. She's been a stalwart in the local Democratic Party ever since. The party put her on the council on an interim basis to fill the seat vacated by Phil Mendelson's rise to chairman, so she could run as an incumbent.

Many of her council colleagues endorsed her.

But it would be too glib to say Bonds' victory showcases the power of the old-line Democrats. I see a few other forces at work.

Elissa Silverman was a winner on Tuesday. She came in a close second, with about 28 percent of the vote. It was the first foray into local elective politics for the former journalist and budget analyst with the Fiscal Policy Institute. She came off in the campaign as honest, genuine and articulate. She never veered from her progressive stands on affordable housing, education and ethics. Silverman connected with voters. Hopefully, she will again.

The Republicans were clear losers. Patrick Mara is a seasoned candidate. His best chance of winning a council seat was in this special election, a beauty contest as opposed to a primary leading to a general election. He positioned himself well as an ethically clean, socially progressive Republican. He had plenty of endorsements from the press, the DC Chamber of Commerce, the Sierra Club. But D.C. voters -- registered Democrats 10-1 -- were not buying. After Mara went down a dismal third, I doubt the Republicans can elect anyone to anything.

So how did Anita Bonds win with 32 percent of the vote? Two words: apathy and race.

On my way to vote, I asked my buddy Bennie Barnes who he was with. Born and raised in the District, Barnes follows D.C. politics as well as anyone.

"Not voting," he said. "These people are all the same."

Outside the polling station at the Foundry United Methodist Church at 16th and P streets NW, I asked a young white guy if he would vote to re-elect Mayor Vince Gray, if he were on the ballot. "Not sure who that is," he said.

We are a city of newcomers who don't have a clue about local politics, and many longtime residents are losing interest. That's why fewer than 10 percent of registered voters bothered to cast ballots in this election. And that's one reason Anita Bonds barely beat Elissa Silverman. It took relatively few votes.

And there's race. African-Americans fear they are losing control of the government. Bonds played the race card, which played into their fears.

So, no, this was not a muscular political party on display. It was a city where voters have a weak connection to the system.

Harry Jaffe's column appears on Wednesday. He can be contacted at hjaffe@washingtonexaminer.com.

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