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DC Elected Its Own Mayors Under Home Rule Before Congress Intervened

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Tuesday’s primary elections in DC mark nearly half a century since Congress extended home rule to the district in 1973. But there was an earlier, mostly forgotten chapter when local residents — some of between them, at least – voted in local elections until Congress shot them. immediately in the 1870s.

In 1820, Congress amended the DC charter to allow white men who owned property to vote for mayor, and it lifted the property requirement in 1848. As a young congressman, Abraham Lincoln drafted a bill to end slavery in the district, but in an early nod to self-rule, he made the legislation conditional on gaining the approval of a majority of white male residents. (Women did not gain the right to vote until the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920.)

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The beginning of the end of the district’s home rule probably came in 1867, when Congress made it significantly more democratic by extending the vote to black men in Washington. President Andrew Johnson, an opponent of black enfranchisement, vetoed the bill, but both houses of Congress overrode it by wide margins at the height of Reconstruction. As Sen. Charles Sumner (R-Mass.) hopefully said, DC was to be “an example for the whole country, and especially for the South.”

Testifying in favor of a DC state bill before the US House Oversight Committee last year, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) described the local government that followed the Black Emancipation as a Brief Success Story:

The city’s biracial government desegregated city bureaucracy, provided jobs for a burgeoning black middle class, implemented massive public works projects, and supported the expansion of what became the best black public school system. from the country. Yet that very success sparked a backlash from white conservatives and business leaders who persuaded Congress to back out of biracial democracy.

After the Civil War ended in 1865, radical Republicans in Congress pushed through civil rights measures, including the 14th Amendment, which granted citizenship to former slaves, and the 15th Amendment, which granted black men citizenship. right to vote – three years after the extension of this right. direct current

When Matthew Gault Emery, the city’s last mayor of this period, took office in 1870, he inherited a government that had accumulated large debts. While criticizing the extravagant spending of his predecessors, Emery announced that more spending would be needed to deal with debt and fund public works projects. He built schools and cleared the streets of pigs, goats and geese.

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At the time, Congress was seeking to undermine the domestic regime, including a proposal to make the city a territory, which Emery, unsurprisingly, opposed.

“If the people of the district are not able to govern themselves, the people’s government will be seen as a failure in the national capital. I am not ready to make such an admission,” Emery said. Congress voted for the proposal anyway, and in 1871 President Ulysses S. Grant signed the bill into law.

The resulting hybrid form of government significantly eroded local control, with the president appointing a new governor and legislative council, while residents could vote for members of a new House of Delegates and for a delegate without the right to vote. vote in the United States House. But it didn’t last long: Congress abolished this system in 1874 after a congressional investigation found cost overruns, untendered contracts, and other problems under the head of the Board of Works. public appointed by the president, Alexander Shepherd.

“Alexander ‘Boss’ Shepherd’s massive public works projects had bankrupted Washington’s short-lived territorial government elected by black and white voters,” wrote Harry Jaffe and Tom Sherwood in their 1994 book, “Dream City : Race, Power, and the Decline”. from Washington, D.C. »

In its place, Congress proposed a temporary plan for the city to be run by three commissioners appointed by the president.

The Nation, a magazine founded by abolitionists in 1865, condemned the abolition of home rule, writing: “Under this bill there remains no vestige of popular municipal administration: aldermen, town councillors, mayors , boards of directors, school boards, police boards, primaries, conventions, everything is swept away, and the whole government is handed over to three men, appointed by a foreign authority, responsible not to their fellow citizens, but to the president and the president. Senate.

In 1878, Congress—which was now divided after the Southern Democrats returned—made this system permanent.

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“The men of the district, white and black, rich and poor, lost their right to vote. They wouldn’t have cast another meaningful vote for a century,” wrote Chris Myers Asch and George Derek Musgrove in their 2017 book, “Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital.”

If there was any doubt about the role race played in the denial of autonomy less than a decade after black men won the vote, a U.S. senator from Alabama and former Confederate general named John Tyler Morgan made the link explicit. In the Senate in 1890, he compared Congress’s decision to abolish self-government in DC to the slaughter of animals in Kansas to prevent the spread of disease affecting livestock.

Sen. John Ingalls (R-Kan.) continued the metaphor: “Burn down the barn to get rid of the rats.

“Yes, burning the barn to get rid of the rats,” Morgan replied, explaining, “The rats being the black people and the barn being the government of the District of Columbia.”

Morgan, a plantation owner, said that after black people “flooded” into Washington, Congress had no choice but to strip the vote of everyone in DC:

Faced with this influx of black people from surrounding states, the Senate and House of Representatives, in order to preserve property rights and administrative decency in the central government of the United States here around the very walls of the Capitol, have deemed it necessary to disenfranchise every man in the District of Columbia, whatever may have been his reputation or character or property holdings, in order thus to get rid of that charge of black suffrage which has been inundated upon them.

Nearly 70 years later, DC residents won the right to vote in presidential elections after the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1961. But it wasn’t until Christmas Eve in 1973 that President Richard M. Nixon – plagued by the Watergate scandal – signed a law giving DC the power of the house that Washingtonians could vote for leaders in their own city.

“As the nation approaches the 200th anniversary of its founding, it is especially appropriate to assure those who live in our capital city the rights and privileges long enjoyed by most of their countrymen,” Nixon said in a statement.

The president said he voted for a self-government bill as a congressman in 1948 and called himself a “longtime supporter of self-government for the District of Columbia,” although a Washington Post article at the time said the White House had not actively lobbied for the bill.

The following year, the city’s president-appointed mayor, Walter E. Washington, became DC’s first modern elected mayor. He was sworn in on January 2, 1975, by Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

Teresa R. Cabrera

The author Teresa R. Cabrera