Founded on July 16, 1790 and named after the first American President, Washington DC was established by the U.S. Constitution to serve, thenceforth, as the seat of the fledgling nation’s federal government. Between 1800 and 1820, DC’s population grew from about 5,000 to more than 13,200, making it the country’s ninth largest city. By 1840 that figure had mushroomed to 23,364, and two decades later it stood at 61,122.
As a Southern city, DC, from its earliest days, always had a substantial African American population that included a growing number of free blacks who worked as craftsmen, hack drivers, businessmen and laborers. Slavery was abolished throughout the capital on April 16, 1862—eight months before President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. The District’s growth rate picked up additional steam after the Civil War, and by 1870 its population had reached 109,199—a 79% increase over the previous census taken ten years earlier.
Beginning in 1871, DC was governed by a three-member Board of Commissioners, two of whom were appointed by the U.S. President after approval by the Senate, and a third who was selected from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The city would retain this political arrangement for nearly a century, until 1967.
During the latter decades of the 19th century, DC continued to grow at a brisk pace; its population reached 147,293 in 1880; 230,392 in 1890; and 278,718 in 1900. Also during this period, signs of commercial and architectural development were ubiquitous throughout the District. Between the 1860s and 1890s, for instance, the German-born immigrant Adolf Cluss became DC’s most influential architect, constructing more than 80 public and private buildings that included numerous schools, churches, business offices, residential properties, hospitals, boarding houses, markets, hotels, military commissions, and museums. In the 1890s many new roads were built in the city, so as to extend, like an ever-expanding network, to its remotest reaches. And in 1900 Congress formed the Senate Park Improvement Commission which drew up an architectural plan for the redevelopment of the National Mall—with an eye toward emulating the grandeur of European capitals such as Paris, London, and Rome.
But as the City Journal reports, “it wasn’t until the Great Depression and World War II, with their expansion of the role of the government in American life, that Washington grew prosperous.” Indeed, average family income in DC during the War years was higher than in either New York or Los Angeles.
Post-WWII, Washington was a destination for large numbers of Southern blacks who emigrated to Northern cities in pursuit of newly available job opportunities. By 1957, DC had become the first major American city with a majority-black population. Six years later, Washington took center stage of the American Civil Rights Movement when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial.
In 1967 Congress passed a law eliminating the three-commissioner form of government that had run the capital since the 1870s, and replacing it with a single commissioner and a nine-member City Council, all appointed by the U.S. President. The President at that time, Lyndon Johnson, selected Democrat Walter Washington for the post of commissioner, which was subsequently retitled “mayor-commissioner.”
Following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination (in Memphis) in April 1968, DC was devastated by four days of race riots that resulted in 10 deaths, at least 1,200 fires, more than 7,600 arrests, and over $13 million in property damages. During the unrest, Walter Washington personally took to the streets and appealed to city residents for calm. “I walked by myself through the city and urged them to go home and help the recovery of people who had been burned out,” he told the Washington Post years later. The violence had a profound effect on the people of DC, causing many whites, middle-class blacks, and business owners to flee the city and resettle elsewhere.
In 1973 Congress passed the District of Columbia Home Rule Act, which for the first time placed DC under the governance of a directly elected mayor and City Council. The first elected mayor under this new arrangement was Walter Washington. And every DC mayor since then has been, like Washington, a Democrat.
Mr. Washington was a man of good character who had no interest in pitting blacks and whites against one another for the sake of his own political advantage. The Washington Post once quoted him as saying, “This city is already too much divided along race and income lines. We have got to take the lead and set the example in bringing this city together. We’ve got to become just one Washington.” He was also an effective administrator; by the time he left office in 1978, DC’s city government was running a $40 million yearly surplus.
Tragically for the District, however, Mr. Washington’s successor as mayor, Marion Barry, was a very different kind of person—wholly self-absorbed, grossly incompetent, and crooked to the marrow. As a young man in the 1960s, Barry had worked as a fundraiser for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), an increasingly militant organization associated with high-profile black separatists (and unapologetic racists) like Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown. Then, in the ’70s, Barry served as president of the DC Board of Education and as a member of the DC City Council. He won his first mayoral race in 1978, and was subsequently reelected by wide margins in 1982 and 1986. “During his tenure in the 1980s,” reports the City Journal, “unchecked corruption, ineptly delivered city services, soaring crime, horrendous public schools, financial chaos, and racial tensions made the city a byword for dysfunction nationally.” By the early 1990s, DC was the site of several hundred homicides per year and was dubbed the “murder capital” of the nation. The city’s economy, meanwhile, was in shambles—notwithstanding the $400 million in federal aid it received each year.
Particularly noteworthy is the fact that Barry, throughout his years as mayor, did everything in his power to expand the rolls of Washington’s public employees. Indeed, even as the District’s population fell by nearly 30,000 during the three terms Barry served between 1979 and 1991, the number of public-sector bureaucrats in the city grew by some 10,000. By 1992, an astonishing 52,000 people—one in twelve city residents—were on DC’s municipal payroll. To put this figure in context, consider that Los Angeles—a city with a population five times larger than DC’s—had 14,000 fewer taxpayer-funded workers.
Despite the massive number of public workers in DC, vital city services were hopelessly inefficient and chaotic. As a 1990 Los Angeles Times piece stated: “The city is under court order to correct prison and mental health facilities. Nearly half of all public housing sits idle for lack of repairs. Bureaucrats are so incompetent, arrogant and slothful, critics say, that even 911 calls go unanswered and ambulances may not arrive until tomorrow.” On seven separate occasions between 1987 and 1990, judges cited DC for the systematic mistreatment of people in its custody such as juvenile delinquents, prison inmates, and mentally handicapped residents in specialized facilities. In 1989 the Washington Monthly characterized Barry’s administration as “the worst city government in America.” The mayor, unfazed by such assessments, routinely chalked them up to racism on the part of his critics. On one occasion, for example, he denounced the “white press” for persecuting him via “a new style of lynching.”
Barry’s mayoralty was infamous not only for its gross incompetence but also for the magnitude of its corruption. Consider, for instance, Barry’s appointment of Ivanhoe Donaldson, his longtime friend and ally from the SNCC, as deputy mayor for economic development. In 1985 Donaldson pled guilty to stealing $190,000 from the city, and eventually wound up in prison for his crime. For good measure, Donaldson also obstructed justice by attempting to persuade four individuals to submit false affidavits to DC inspectors.
After Barry’s 1986 reelection, two more DC deputy mayors and ten additional city offficials were charged with corruption. One of these, deputy mayor for finance Alphonse G. Hill, was indicted on eleven counts of extortion, income tax evasion, and defrauding the District government—charges to which he eventually pled guilty.
Beyond these examples of political malfeasance, there were also serious concerns about Barry’s character as an individual. Throughout the ’80s, rumors and allegations abounded that the mayor was a frequent cocaine user. Though the evidence to that effect was highly credible, Barry for years managed to elude the grip of law-enforcement authorities—thanks, in large part, to friends and supporters who helped him stonewall any serious investigations. One such ally, Karen K. Johnson, was paid $25,000 to keep silent regarding the cocaine allegations and was cited for contempt of court when she refused to testify before a federal grand jury that was probing the matter. The truth was finally revealed, however, in a January 18, 1990 sting operation, when Barry—lured to a Washington hotel room by a former girlfriend-turned-FBI-informant—was secretly filmed smoking a crack pipe therein. At his subsequent indictment, Barry raised the specter of race, lamenting that he was the victim of a “political lynching.”
Remarkably, there were no public denunciations of Barry by DC-area activists or preachers. Instead, many locals began donning T-shirts that bore the inscription, “I’ve seen the tapes and the bitch set him up.” Washington’s three black weekly newspapers portrayed the mayor’s arrest and conviction as part of a racist white plot to seize political control of the city. And NAACP executive director Benjamin Hooks denounced Barry’s prosecution as “Nazilike,” charging that “overzealous, hostile—if not openly racist—district and U.S. attorneys will bring a black official to trial on the flimsiest of evidence.”
When Barry was tried for 14 counts of cocaine possession and lying to a grand jury, he was certain that no jury in DC would convict him: “All it takes is one juror saying, ‘I’m not going to convict Marion Barry—I don’t care what you [prosecutors] say.” Ultimately, the mayor’s confidence proved to be well-founded. In spite of overwhelming evidence of his guilt, a jury of ten blacks and two whites convicted Barry of only a single coacine-possession charge, for which he was sentenced to six months in prison. Black columnist Carl Rowan put the Barry case in perspective: “These jurors were saying: The mayor may be a cocaine junkie, a crack addict, a sexual scoundrel, but he is our junkie, our addict, our scoundrel, and we aren’t going to let you white folks put him in jail.”
Just two months after his release from prison in 1992, Barry—disgraced but not chastened—filed papers to run for DC’s Ward 8 City Council seat in that year’s upcoming election. Campaigning under the slogan, “He May Not Be Perfect, But He’s Perfect for D.C.,” Barry won the race easily. Two years after that, he decided to set his political sights higher and was elected to a fourth term (1995-99) as mayor.
After taking some time away from politics, Barry in March 2002 announced that he intended to run for a DC City Council seat that year. A few weeks later, however, U.S. Park Police found traces of marijuana and cocaine in Barry’s vehicle. Thus he opted to put off his campaign until the political dust from this revelation had settled, and in 2004 Barry won election to the City Council with no less than 95% of the popular vote. He continues to hold that seat to this day.
The trail of corruption that Barry blazed as DC’s mayor has continued unabated during his years in the City Council. For example:
Barry disgraced his office not only by way of his blatant disregard for the law, but also by engaging in ugly, racist rhetoric against his non-black constituents. At a primary-election victory party in April 2012, for instance, the councilman disparaged Asian-owned businesses based in his majority-black ward, saying: “We got to do something about these Asians coming in and opening up businesses and dirty shops…. They ought to go. I’m going to say that right now. But we need African-American businesspeople to be able to take their places, too.” Soon thereafter, Barry criticized local hospitals for hiring non-black nurses who were “immigrants … particularly from the Philippines,” declaring: “[L]et’s grow our own teachers, let’s grow our own nurses, and so that we don’t have to go scrounging in our community clinics and other kinds of places, having to hire people from somewhere else.” And not long after that, he referred to members of DC’s Polish community as “Polacks.”
Such racially charged remarks, coupled with a long trail of malfeasance such as Barry had compiled, would have ended the career of any white political figure guilty of similar transgressions. But Barry, in a city where unquestioned loyalty to Democrats and to racial politics is now a way of life, has long been immune to any such consequences. He continues to sit on DC’s City Council, and will likely remain there for as long as he wishes.
Moreover, it should be noted that Barry represents merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg vis à vis the corruption that has been a hallmark of DC politics for decades. Some lowlights:
In addition to political corruption, the District of Columbia has long been plagued by criminality and violence. Though the city’s crime rates today are well below the stratospheric levels which they reached during the dark days of Marion Barry, DC remains an unsafe place by many measures. Today it is America’s 5th most dangerous city among those with populations of more than 500,000, and the 21st most dangerous city overall. Indeed, fully 95% of all urban areas in the U.S. are statistically safer than Washington, whose rates of homicide and robbery are, respectively, 3 and 5 times higher than the national average. In 2012 alone, there were 7,448 violent crimes and 29,264 property crimes reported in DC.
Yet another major problem area for the nation’s capital is its abysmal public school system. While spending an incredible $30,000 per year on the education-related costs of each K-12 student in its jurisdiction, that system has a lengthy track record of abject failure. When the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests were administered, most recently, to fourth- and eight-grade students in 2013:
Further, a mere 56% of students who attend DC’s non-charter public high schools manage to graduate within four years, and a large percentage of those who do earn a diploma are nonetheless functionally illiterate. Indeed, DC high-school students nowadays score, on average, a dismal 1220 out of a possible 2400 on the SAT exam—lower than their counterparts anywhere else in the United States, and light years below the national average of 1500.
DC’s public school system is run by a Board of Education dominated almost entirely by Democrats and progressives. In this regard, it has much in common with all the other failed, urban school systems that currently pepper America’s educational landscape. As bestselling author and columnist Jonah Goldberg points out, Democrats and progressives have “controlled the large inner-city school systems for generations.”
In 2004, over the shrill objections of the Washington Teachers Union and the National Education Association, the District of Columbia instituted its DC Opportunity Scholarship Program (DCOSP)—a federally funded tuition voucher initiative that provides scholarships to help some 1,600 low-income students in the city enroll in private schools of their choice, rather than remain trapped in their disastrously inferior public schools. Not only does the DCOSP produce far higher student-graduation rates than the city’s public schools, but it does so for a small fraction of the cost: $8,000 per K-8 student, and $12,000 per high-school student. Moreover, notes the Heritage Foundation, “the DCOSP has a stellar track record of increasing academic success, student safety, and parental satisfaction.”
When Adrian Fenty became mayor in 2007, the teacher-to-pupil ratio in Washington’s public school classrooms was approximately 12-to-1, while taxpayers provided nearly $29,000 per year to educate each child therein. This massive sum was equivalent to the cost of tuition at the most elite private schools in the country, where children received the best education that money could buy. A contrarian Democrat, Fenty tried to do something about this outrage. He hired Michelle Rhee, an education reformer, as the new school chancellor. He closed dangerous and underused schools, and laid off incompetent teachers. He waged a two-year successful battle to get a new union contract, which ended lifetime tenure and connected financial reward to teacher performance. Michelle Rhee fired 241 incompetent teachers and put another 737 on notice for being rated “minimally effective.”
The results were dramatic. At Sousa Middle School—located in one of the district’s most impoverished neighborhoods—84% of the students had math and reading scores below the minimal standards when Fenty and Rhee took charge. In just one year of the Fenty-Rhee reform administration, students at Sousa gained 17 points in reading proficiency and 25 in math, meeting the federal benchmarks for progress for the first time in the history of the school.
But the teachers’ unions struck back in 2012, supporting another Democrat, Vincent Gray, who would turn back the clock on Fenty’s reforms. The party backed Gray, and the head of the AFL-CIO himself came into town to campaign against Fenty and seal his defeat. In the process, he also sealed the fate of the many students, most of them black, who were stuck in the city’s atrocious public schools.
In contrast to Washington’s trademark corruption, rampant crime, and failed school system, one area where the city has made noteworthy progress in recent years is on the economic front. Whereas in the 1990s DC was a virtually insolvent city with a runaway budget deficit, a crumbling infrastructure, and a diminishing population, since 2000 these trends have improved markedly. In part, this reversal was kick-started by Anthony Williams, who in 1995 was appointed as the city’s independent chief financial officer and strove to undo the colossal damage done by the Marion Barry years. Then, from 1999-2007, Williams himself served as DC’s mayor.
During the first decade of the 21st century Washington’s population not only grew for the first time since the 1950s, but grew more quickly than the populations of all but three other U.S. cities. Also during that decade, DC ranked second among American cities in job growth, second in per-capita GDP growth, and first in per-capita income growth. But this seemingly good news has a dark underside. The City Journal notes, for instance, that in the 2000s, “two wars, plus 9/11-related defense and homeland-security procurement, fueled the boom” by allowing Washington to “redirec[t] some of the gigantic money flow through the federal pipeline to itself”—creating a situation where “about a third of the Washington-area economy [now] depends on the federal government.”
Urban analyst Aaron Renn points out, further, that the current boom is also a by-product of “an ever-expanding regulatory state” whose hallmarks include such programs as the Sarbanes-Oxley and Dodd-Frank Acts governing financial matters, the federal takeover of the automobile industry, the Environmental Protection Agency’s designation of carbon dioxide as a pollutant, and the “annexation by the federal government of one-sixth of the American economy via [Obamacare’s] 2,000 pages of byzantine legislation, not counting the thousands of pages of implementing regulations still to come.” In response to these and other extensive, intrusive government measures, says Renn:
“[A] wider and wider variety of businesses and organizations must be located [in DC] to lobby the government that decides their fate…. These firms pay local taxes. So do their workers, who also buy houses, patronize stores, pay tuition at private schools, employ local doctors and lawyers, and so on. The regulatory superstate is turbocharging Washington’s local economy.”
But this superstate, Renn explains, “depends on inflicting pain on the rest of the country, pain that only Washington itself can relieve—if you pay up and have the right connections…. [Washington] is prospering because it’s becoming something that would have horrified the Founders: an imperial capital on the Potomac.”
As a result of these trends, Washington today is a city of extreme economic disparities between one region of the city and another. Areas in the west, including virtually everywhere between the Georgetown and Chevy Chase neighborhoods, contain some of America’s most affluent neighborhoods. By contrast, sections on the eastern periphery of the central city, and east of the Anacostia River, feature enormous levels of poverty and crime. From July 2010 to July 2011, for instance, DC’s Sixth and Seventh police districts alone—both of which are situated in this eastern region—saw the commission of 2,635 violent crimes, including almost 60% of all homicides in the city.
This piece was posted in May 2014.