WASHINGTON (CNN) — An overriding question of “who is this guy” can be felt in the room when Tommy Wells stands to take the open microphone at an event about the racial disparities in Washington drug arrests.
The council member is addressing an eclectic, racially diverse crowd: a mix of people personally affected by racial profiling and white 20-somethings with tight jeans and button-covered backpacks. Wells, a suit-clad, oval-faced, gray-haired, white politician stands out.
“I am Council Member Tommy Wells,” he said, before launching into a five-minute mellow talk about the effect of the district’s drug laws and the need to decriminalize marijuana, an issue Wells is spearheading on the council.
Not once does the 56-year-old lawmaker who spent most of his childhood near Birmingham, Alabama, mention that he is running for mayor.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do and I am here to help you do it,” the former social worker said. “This can’t be just one race’s burden.”
For Wells, decriminalizing marijuana — and his appearance at an event earlier this year about race and the law — is as much a product of his job as it is about the fact that he is vying to become the District’s first white mayor.
For nearly 40 years, since Washington was allowed to administer itself by using popular elections, the six people who have led the nation’s capital have been African-Americans. With two white men, Wells and Jack Evans, another council member, running for the office in 2014, that could change.
Demographic shifts changing face of cities
Other cities — like New York, San Francisco, Boston, Atlanta and Detroit — have experienced similar demographic changes that have shaped electoral politics: white flight to the suburbs in the last century and white residents returning to gentrifying areas of inner cities in this century.
In Detroit, for example, the transition meant for four decades a black mayor led the city. That changed in November when Detroit residents elected Mike Duggan to become the city’s first white mayor in more than 40 years. But for many, especially those who have lived in the District for decades, Washington is different because of its rich history of African-American culture and representation.
At least 10 candidates are so far vying to take the mayor’s office from embattled incumbent Mayor Vincent Gray who said he will run for a second term.
In addition to the incumbent, Evans, and Wells, Council Members Muriel Bowser and Vincent Orange, activist Andy Shallal, former State Department official Reta Jo Lewis and at least four other candidates have declared their intentions to run. Others have hinted at a run.
While the election is bound to center on issues like education, livable wages and ethics, race is an issue at the center of the contest, although it’s not regularly addressed in speeches and statements.
“I have a track record and have always been able to win with significant African-American vote,” Wells told CNN before the event. “If I am elected, they (African-Americans) will get someone that is not just a white man.”
Both Wells and Evans have said — quite bluntly — that they are ready and willing to talk about race.
“My history would be one that has been able to represent everyone,” Evans said.
But not everyone agrees. Black leaders, including other members of the council, say electing a white mayor would symbolize a trend that many have seen coming for decades: Washington, a place once known as “the chocolate city” because it was a mecca for African-American leadership, would no longer be able to claim that mantle.
“There are a lot of black people who are not ready for a white mayor,” one-time mayor and current Council Member Marion Barry said emphatically.
But Washington is not averse to electing white leaders; David Clarke served as city council chairman for a dozen years before his death in 1997. The Washington Post in its obituary recognized the liberal leader’s “ability to transcend race.”
Since the late 1950s, many African-Americans proudly knew Washington as the “chocolate city” not only because it was a majority black city, but also because with that majority came a thriving African-American business base and broad representation in city government.
The majority peaked in 1970 when the District was 71% black. To Yvette Alexander, council member for the still predominantly African-American Ward 7, it was more than just numbers.
“I can remember even when I attended college at Howard University, all of my classmates all over the country were fascinated with Washington, D.C.,” she said nostalgically. “Wherever you went there were black people. My classmates were amazed that even if you went into a store, wherever you went, there was black ownership.”
The common refrain from her friends who came from outside the District: “This is amazing to see so many black people, that basically, have it going on,” she said.
But D.C. has changed. In 2012, the percentage of the population that was African-American was 50.1%, according to the Census Bureau.
At the same time, the white population in Washington has grown significantly. While whites made up 27.7% of the population in 1970, they currently make up 42.9%. In terms of economic standing, white Washingtonians make more than the average median income for the District.
The answer to why the dramatic change has happened depends on whom you ask.
Gentrification, socially unequal development, the flight of white young adults to Washington, prosperity of government jobs, income stratification — all have been cited.
During the 1950s and ’60s, large numbers of white people fled Capitol Hill and downtown for more homogeneous suburban and exurban areas in Virginia and Maryland, leaving a higher concentration of African-Americans in the city.
But the era of white flight seems long over. Instead, many young whites are moving back into urban areas, choosing to live close to employment and transportation hubs. With them comes more development and higher prices, meaning black residents are sometimes being priced out of their neighborhoods.
Economic growth pricing some out of their homes
Sitting in a recently opened Right and Proper Brewing Company in the Shaw neighborhood, an area that was the epicenter of economic depression just a few decades ago, Mayor Gray remarks on the changes.
Young, largely white professionals returning to the District have been driving economic growth over the last four years, Gray said, noting that “on any given day, you will have 60 or more cranes that are operating.”
The city is netting around 1,200 new residents a month “and a lot of those people are white,” Gray said. “I have to acknowledge the reality of what the data indicate.” The concerns of largely African-American longtime residents “are legitimate because the cost of living in this city is going up.”
One way Gray said he is looking to combat that is by pledging to spend $187 million on affordable housing projects in the District, a plan he hopes will create or preserve roughly 3,200 affordable housing units.
A few decades ago, the brewery Gray now sits in — with its shiny new floors, unblemished kegs and antique tables — wouldn’t have existed in Shaw. The area that at one time was the heart of African-American culture in the 1960s, was also the epicenter of riots after the 1968 shooting of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Through the 1980s and ’90s, the area was an economic wasteland.
But as has happened to much of Washington, businesses began to come back to the area. One restaurant, then another opened up — and then an apartment building or two were built. Houses that were once vacant became homes again. Then the Howard Theater — a historic music venue that hosted the likes of Duke Ellington, Billy Eckstine and Ella Fitzgerald — went through a $29 million renovation and reopened in 2012, and the area is on its way back.
With that growth came change. According to the Census Bureau, in 2000, Shaw was 90% African-American. In 2010, it was 70%. White population grew from 4% in 2000 to 20% in 2012.
More like ‘chocolate swirl’ city now
The District, Gray said, is no longer the chocolate city. With a laugh, the 71-year-old mustachioed politician with a permanently furrowed brow said it’s more of a “chocolate swirl” today.
As to the question about whether the residents would vote for a white candidate Gray said, “I think people want to see somebody who they feel empathizes with who they are, someone who can address their problems, who can address their challenges, someone they can relate to,” Gray said. “I think that can be a person of any race, frankly.”
But then he continued, saying he understands “the anxieties that people are experiencing” and believes that race “will be a factor for some people” who vote in the election.
While Gray was cautious about addressing the effects of the economic boom, others were not.
“The chocolate city is over,” Alexander bluntly said as she retold stories of what the city used to be like.
The changes to the city have caused a noticeable divide among residents, too.
Streets that were once dominated by the black businesses Alexander remembers are now home to high-priced apartments and trendy cafes. For many in D.C., the polluted river that splits the city symbolizes the growing disparity between the haves and the have-nots.
“There is still a basic segregation that exists with the Anacostia River,” said Clinton Yates, a columnist for the Washington Post who grew up in Takoma Park, Maryland, a town just blocks from the northern D.C. boundary. “It is still real. People west of the river do not have any real reason to go east of the river.”
East of the river, in Wards 7 and 8, unemployment is far higher than the Washington average and poverty has become the norm, not the exception. The tourist money that floods into the city each day rarely is spent in Wards 7 and 8.
What’s more, residents east of the river can see the boom on the other side of the Anacostia — new high-rises and cranes dot the skyline as cars buzz into the capital — but they feel unable to tap into that growth.
Black disenfranchisement ‘a major part of this city’
Yates said, “The overall disenfranchisement of the black resident of D.C. is a major part of this city.”
Because of that, Yates said, “I just don’t think we can see a white person at the helm of the city.”
Are the candidates prepared to talk about race?
Historically speaking, Council Member Muriel Bowser sits in a coveted spot when running for mayor. Not only does she represent a powerful ward in the District, but she is seen as the most viable black candidate in the field other than Gray. She said she is ready to talk about race.
“I have had the great privilege of representing a ward that looks just like the District of Columbia,” said Bowser, a young-looking 41-year-old, fifth-generation Washingtonian with short black hair and direct eyes. “Black people, white people, old people, young people, straight people, gay people, you name it. And unlike any other ward council members, I have been elected in that scenario three times.”
Bowser came up under the tutelage of Adrian Fenty, the former mayor who lost to Gray in 2010. Fenty represented Ward 4 before Bowser and when he won the mayor’s race in 2006, she was the mayor’s pick for the council seat. When she was contemplating a run for mayor, the former mayor told Bowser to, “Go for it.”
Much like Gray, race seems to be a tightrope for Bowser. She regularly both downplays the role of race in the election — “There is really no black- or white-mayor way to pick up the trash around the city,” she said — while also knocking her white opponents for being out of touch with what residents east of the Anacostia need and want.
“You have to go all across the city and make sure that whatever agenda we have for change and growth can be inclusive of all eight wards of the D.C.,” she said, criticizing Evans, her mayoral rival who has made “urban renewal” — the idea that every neighborhood should have grocery stores, pharmacies and restaurants within walking distance — a centerpiece of his campaign.
Evans, the longest-serving member of the Washington council and a high-priced lawyer, put his campaign headquarters near the U Street corridor, ground zero for Washington’s gentrification. All around Evans’ headquarters are new high-rises, classy restaurants and trendy bars where before there were historic clubs that had seen better days.
‘Retail on every block’
Evans, a thin, direct, 60-year-old who lives in the posh Georgetown neighborhood, is proud of that change.
“My goal is to create livable communities like 14th Street, where you have a street that 20 years ago was known for two things: prostitution and drugs,” Evans said, pointing to the street from his headquarters. “Today, you have hardware stores, supermarkets, restaurants, retail on every block.”
But what comes with the livable communities is rising prices. Just a block up from Evans’ headquarters, a one-bedroom apartment starts at $2,200 a month. In 2012, a study found D.C. one of the most expensive places to own an apartment, finding that an individual must be making more than $60,000 a year in order to afford the market rate for a two-bedroom apartment.
While black leaders like Barry said this issue could hurt the mayoral candidate among African-American voters, Evans said he isn’t worried because he feels he can answer the two pressing questions on African-American voters’ minds.
“The concern in the African-American community is twofold, No. 1, if you get elected, will you forget about us? And No. 2, if you get elected, is this the last time we will have a black mayor?” he said.
To say the race for D.C. mayor is crowded would be an understatement. But the massive field, although typical early in mayoral races, could be a byproduct of a vulnerable incumbent.
When Gray first won the job, he defeated incumbent Fenty in the Democratic primary before cruising to victory in the general election in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans by 12-1. Despite the win, though, Gray’s first campaign has dogged him for the first three years of his term.
His 2010 campaign has been the focus of a long-running federal investigation, with prosecutors saying his victory was tainted because his campaign was infused with $650,000 in illegal funds. Four of his top campaign aides from 2010 have pleaded guilty to felony charges, but the mayor has not been implicated.
In 2012, Gray acknowledged he knew that members of his staff had not properly reported funds raised for his campaign, leading some in the council to call for his resignation.
“I have already responded to that again and again and again and again and again,” Gray said about his 2010 shadow campaign. “I didn’t do anything — period.”
Big field could be advantage for embattled mayor
Political experts all over D.C. thought the nagging federal investigation would lead Gray to shy away from a second run. But now that the mayor has declared his intent, the fractured field against him is looking like an asset, not a liability. With more people in the running to oust him from office, the likelihood that those other challengers will splinter the “anti-Gray” vote is high, meaning the incumbent mayor could win the Democratic nomination on April 1 with far less than 50% of the vote.
Despite that, multiple candidates have raced to become the anti-Gray option. And no one has run harder to claim that mantle than Wells.
He goaded the mayor in a statement after Gray announced, stating the mayor was “elected under false pretenses and doesn’t deserve a second chance because he ran a corrupt campaign” and in an interview with CNN, Wells stressed his ethics, an obvious way to contrast himself from the incumbent.
“The city is doing well, but we will derail our progress if we are seen as corrupt, pay-to-play, and that the only way you get contracts or are able to work with the city is if you either buy us off or pay us off,” he said after mentioning the federal investigation into Gray’s campaign. “I am known and have a brand of being honest.”
Before the event on decriminalization, Wells confidently said his vision for the city transcended race and economic groups.
“I think that what I have found is that everybody wants the same thing,” he said, pointing out that he doesn’t change his message when he speaks to different audiences.
While many in D.C. disagree with that — “I would not buy into this idea … every Washingtonian wants the same things,” Bowser said — Wells seems like he confidently believes it, falling back on his time as a social worker in the District as to how he knows.
In possibly his most animated moment of the interview, Wells, whose entire district lies to the west of the Anacostia, began to use the dividing body of water as a metaphor for what he will do for the city.
“The Anacostia River is a symbol of social injustice in Washington,” he said before addressing high rates of imprisonment and failing schools east of the river.
“My experience is that when I get a chance to make my case,” he said, “I have truly found fairness in the African-American community whenever I have run.”