Mayor Muriel Bowser at Town Danceboutique, Darrow Montgomery/Washington City Paper
On Tuesday, June 19th, D.C. held primary elections for mayor, city council, and non-voting delegate to the U.S. House. In the reliably Democratic District, the primary invariably determines the outcome of the general election. The most exciting race was not the actual election, but rather a ballot initiative extending D.C.’s $15 minimum wage to tipped workers, which passed by 55 percent approval. The primary elections for executive office and city council, in which all incumbents won their bid at re-election, shed light on gender and racial representation in the District’s government.
The city council races highlight continued gender disparities within the council. Currently, women hold only four out of the 13 (30.8 percent) seats on the city council, and this will continue to hold true if all the incumbents win in November as expected. Despite D.C.’s image as a progressive city, this percentage is actually lower than the average for the top 100 most populous cities in the U.S., which is 34.0 percent. Because D.C. has historically had strong women’s representation on the city council, it is a shame that it is backsliding on progress. Women first held a majority on the council in 1979, and have periodically regained that majority since. Two incumbents, both black women, were defeated in the 2016 primaries, bringing the council to the low level of representation it has today. D.C. could create a more consistently gender-balanced council by introducing multi-winner districts with ranked choice voting, a reform that RepresentWomen has found can increase the number of women elected to city councils.
One good sign from the city council primaries was that the challengers were gender-balanced: five men and five women ran against incumbents. This implies that parties are doing a decent job of recruiting women candidates. However, the top three challengers who raised the most money for their city council bid were all men. This is actually an unusual trend, since female challengers have typically raised more money than male challengers in the past few federal election cycles. If this trend expands beyond this election, top D.C. donors ought to become more gender-conscious in their contributions.
Black women are particularly underrepresented on the city council. Six out of the 13 (46.2 percent) councilmembers identify as black, which is fairly representative of the population at large since 47.7 percent of D.C. residents identify as black. However, there is only one black woman, Anita Bonds, on the council. Bonds was also the only black councilmember up for re-election who faced a serious primary challenger, though she still managed to capture a slim majority of votes.
The fact that there is only one black woman on the council is important because black women make up a huge portion of the city’s population. According to 2016 Census estimates, black women make up 25.6 percent of the city’s population, the largest demographic group by far. There are about 30,000 more black women than black men living in DC, and 56,000 more black women in D.C. than either white women or white men. The city council is where many important decisions that affect black women are made. For example, the newly elected council will have the power to approve incentives to attract Amazon’s new headquarters, a decision that could have profound impact on the District’s economy. Since black women have such a large stake in the city’s continued wellbeing, it is essential that their voices are included in these discussions.
In the primaries for executive office, incumbents Mayor Muriel Bowser and Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton both held onto their seats. Both are prolific black female politicians. Bowser’s primary was fairly uneventful. She had few serious opponents and captured 83.0% of the vote.
Holmes Norton’s race for re-election was more interesting as it encapsulated divisions among women candidates by age. Holmes Norton’s challenger was 37-year-old Kim Ford, who is also a black woman. The narrative of the race became that of the young newcomer challenging the older incumbent (Holmes Norton is 81). Though women are underrepresented in all levels of office, young women like Ford are particularly poorly represented. Currently, there are only 14 women under the age of 50 in Congress, a measly 12 percent of all women currently serving in Congress. By contrast, 1 in 5 congressmen are younger than 50. Given the results of this election, where Holmes Norton safely retained her seat with 76.7 percent of the vote, it seems that young women will not represent D.C. for a while.
Though D.C.’s primaries were not momentous, they cast an interesting light on the representation of both race and gender in the city’s government. While D.C. has historically been on the cutting edge of representation, these primaries show that it still has plenty of ground to cover
All election results are from the New York Times