(check out the Dream City website!)
Can the great city that is also the nation’s capital ever be allowed to grow up and become a true self-governing metropolis? Or is Washington, D.C. condemned to live out its days in a kind of student-council-type half-life, a high school homeroom run by Hill nannies and Congressional bullies?
Such questions often dominate my thinking about politics in our fair city, illustrated too well in the recent staring contest over the legalization of marijuana. The majority of D.C.’s citizens voted in a referendum last November to legalize possession and use of small amounts of pot, triggering much Hysteria on the Hill including threats to arrest and jail members of the D.C. Council and the mayor if they even talked about legislation to implement the will of the people. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not wild about dope — and we still prohibit it at Trinity (as it is on other college campuses), along with alcohol, smoking regular tobacco, and overnight visitation (we are a serious school!) — but the most important issue at stake here is not really about marijuana at all, but about the citizenship rights of the people of the District of Columbia.
Unfortunately, over the course of the last 40 years since the Home Rule Charter was enacted in 1974, giving D.C. a modicum of self-governance, the shenanigans of too many D.C. politicians have taunted and triggered the self-righteous twists of the Hill Nannies. And no politician was better at pulling those triggers than the late Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry, Jr.
Dream City tells the story of a great city repeatedly thwarted in its efforts to grow up. Whether due to the fundamental racism of the overseers or the oft-outrageous misconduct of the local politicos, the repression of the potential of the District of Columbia is painfully clear. While there are, and have been some exceptionally fine leaders in the city’s political corps over the years, in fact, the political debilitation of the city represses the opportunity to attract and keep some of the best and the brightest leaders.
Harry Jaffe and Tom Sherwood, co-authors of Dream City, are two of the best journalists in this or any city. Jaffe is the national editor of Washingtonian Magazine, and Sherwood is well known for his hard-hitting interviews on NBC-4 News. Their collaboration on Dream City produced a remarkable account of the promise, potential and devastating setbacks across the last 40 years of Home Rule in D.C., the Dream City of fond hopes and painful realities.
We were fortunate to be able to host Jaffe and Sherwood on February 19 for a great discussion of Dream City and the situation in D.C. today. First Year Students in Dowan McNair-Lee’s class read Dream City as one of their assignments this spring, and that triggered our invitation to the authors who readily agreed to come. Social Hall was packed! The fate of D.C. is so much a part of Trinity student lives, and it’s a big part of Trinity’s life as well.
Dream City should be required reading for every student and faculty member in all of the colleges and universities in the District of Columbia. The authors pay careful attention to factual details of the law, the personalities, the relationships and the actions that are the inevitable web that expands and contracts across time to offer great opportunities and monumental disappointments for D.C. Aspiring politicians in D.C.’s universities must absorb the essential lessons that this book imparts through the rise and fall and rise again of Marion Barry, a man whose gift for connecting with his constituents was as large as the appetites that repeatedly marginalized his potential for greatness. The book offers great case studies of opportunities lost, such as the inability of Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly to keep the football team in town because of a tiff with the owner Jack Kent Cooke. Too many of D.C.’s lost opportunities are about personal pique and pitiful pratfalls.
In the discussion last week, Sherwood and Jaffe engaged a robust debate about whether and how the city can ever break free of its Congressional overlords, most of whom could not find their way to the Anacostia riverfront without a chauffeur. One point of view says that the repeated elections of Barry, despite his felonious behaviors, demonstrated the poor judgment of the citizens of D.C. An aggressive response to that perspective points out that Congress did not intervene to strip the citizens of Illinois of their rights when four out of seven governors went to jail; nobody talks about disenfranchising Virginia over the McDonnell scandal; and let’s not even talk about Congress, itself.
I read Dream City when it was first published 20 years ago, and it really hit home. As a law student in 1975-1977, immediately after the enactment of Home Rule, I worked with the first D.C. Council, and was excited by the potential for a whole new way of life and government in D.C. I drafted legislation for the late Councilmember and Civil Rights Activist Julius Hobson. I met and admired David C. Clarke, Polly Shackleton, John Wilson, and the young firebrand known as Marion Barry.
Too soon, my excitement faded when I realized the extreme limitations that Congressional control imposed. Today I live in Maryland because I want to vote for Senators and Congressional representatives, I want to live in a jurisdiction where citizenship is respected, where citizen voices truly matter, where Congress cannot interfere with local decisions made in self-governing freedom.
Can the political future of D.C. be different? I am grateful for, and optimistic about, the kind of leadership we see today in Mayor Muriel Bowser, and a number of more recent Councilmembers like David Grosso and Kenyan McDuffie, leaders for the long-term in our city. But, in the end, so much depends on the willingness of Congress, itself, to respect the rights of the people of this jurisdiction. On that topic, I remain pessimistic, especially given the current gestalt on the Hill that seems so utterly divorced from real life for most people. Changing the future for D.C. does not mean that all the boys and girls here need to sit up straight and behave. Changing the future for D.C. will only come when Congress is inhabited by true citizen leaders, people who have a large interest in creating a good and just society for all, not just protecting their own narrow interests and strange ideologies about government. Until we get a majority of such true citizen leaders in Congress, full enfranchisement for D.C. is just plain dreaming.
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Read my most recent op-ed on the documentary about campus sexual assault, “The Hunting Ground”