- The Washington Times - Friday, April 6, 2001

D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson, chairman of the Subcommittee on Labor, Voting Rights and Redistricting, yesterday held the first of several scheduled public hearings on redistricting following the 2000 census. Mr. Mendelson, an at-large Democrat, wields this privilege despite the fact that barely 14,000 Democrats supported his candidacy in the 1998 primary. Now he gets to decide where to draw the line.
Now you have to understand that redistricting is as important to D.C. politics as reapportionment is to national and state politics. Whereas state legislatures have to divvy up congressional districts, the District has one delegate to Congress, and that candidate runs citywide. But lawmakers do have to redraw boundaries for the eight wards (pretend counties) and school board races and for what they call Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (pretend cities and towns). Also, whereas state legislatures have to consider such factors as Republican vs. Democratic strongholds, or rural vs. urban, even ethnic enclaves, D.C. lawmakers have no such worries.
D.C. politics is about as partisan and racially undivisive as they come. Of the Districts 13 lawmakers, all are Democrats except two Republicans hardly cut from conservative cloth. Whats more revealing is the fact that registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 11-1. Also there is absolutely nothing rural about the District, and most of its population (although declining thanks to the black middle class) is 60 percent black. Moreover, outside of perhaps the gender issue, the redistricting panel itself is what D.C. politicians would consider "diverse." All three are Democrats one white, one black and one homosexual.
With demographics like those the Mendelson panel should have a fairly easy go of things. Indeed, the census underscores the fact that, notwithstanding the decline in overall population, not much has changed in this city. While 35,000 new residents now claim residency here, the new census figures cap the population at 572,059 nearly 35,000 fewer than the 1990 count and about 230,000 fewer than its 1950 record of 802,178. The good news is that 35,000 may just mean the exodus that began following school desegregation in the mid-1950s has been stemmed. The most notable population shifts were in Wards 2, which stretches from Georgetown to the Southwest Waterfront and gained new residents, and Ward 8, which abuts the eastern side of the Anacostia River and lost residents.
To be sure, no ward is safe. All eight stand to either lose or gain new neighborhoods because D.C. laws dictate two things. One says each ward must represent about the same number of residents (about 71,00 according to the latest census). Another law says redrawing those boundaries must not dilute the voting power of racial minorities. This presents a considerable dilemma because in the District the "racial minorities" are white residents. Oh well.
For the Mendelson panel, that means a couple of things. Regarding the 37 Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (ANCs), the population decline and shift means a loss of 30 or so of the 299 ANC commissioners. (The District originally had 323 in the 1970s.) But, with each ANC representing about an equal number of residents and with some neighborhoods having lost entire public housing communities while new condos and single family-home developments in the making, remapping those communities and the "racial minorities" who live in them will take longer.
However, the panel has about a month to make its recommendations for redrawing ward boundaries. Each ward has to encompass 71,000 residents, and that presents an interesting dynamic for some lawmakers. For example, for council member Jack Evans, a Georgetowner who represents the wonderfully economically and ethnically diverse Ward 2, if the southern boundaries are redrawn too far north, and he loses the waterfront, he loses longtime political clout and if the northern boundaries are redrawn too far south or east he might have to move.
On the other hand, panel member Vincent Orange, who represents Ward 5 is in an enviable position. While Ward 5 stands to snatch about 5,000 residents, Mr. Oranges options include gaining a couple thousand from Mr. Evans and from Jim Graham, who (coincidentally?) is a fellow committee member.
Of course, the race baiters (excluding The Washington Post) have yet to have their say but they shall, and sooner than you think. Its been a very long time since race really and truly grabbed center stage in the District. So Ill leave you with a sampling of what to expect. During the 1991 redistricting debate, it became apparent that predominately black Anacostia, which is technically part of Ward 6 but physically separated by the river, might be better off if redistricted into Ward 8. That led one lawmaker to make a rather inciteful, er, insightful comment regarding a redistricting recommdendation. "Our redistricting plan should not look backward, making the area … a Soweto on the Anacostia, but forward to Washington in the year 2000." And thats the way it is.
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