INCREASINGLY the question is being asked: Who ``owns'' Washington, D.C.? Does it belong to the residents who are reaching out for statehood status? Or are the citizens all around the United States correct when they view Washington as ``their capital''? As of now, those within the city who want more autonomy are losing ground simply because Washington's image grows worse with each day.
Last year 438 people were killed in the District of Columbia, and the pace of killings is even larger this year. Crime capital of the United States! This widespread perception certainly isn't doing much to convince members of Congress that they should vote for D.C. statehood.
Then there's Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr., who soon will be tried on charges of perjury and cocaine possession. He's admitted to ``substance abuse'' and submitted to several weeks of treatment - but he acknowledges only that he has an alcoholism problem. The prosecuting attorney claims he has a videotape of the mayor using cocaine.
Mayor Barry isn't helping to persuade people around the country and members of Congress that the District is in good hands - or being run in a responsible manner. He's doing much to bolster the argument that D.C. doesn't deserve seats in the House and Senate.
After finishing his treatment program, the mayor has bounced back into the public limelight with vigor. He says he's the victim of a ``vendetta'' and that he fully expects to be ``vindicated'' in the upcoming trials.
He's a smiling mayor today as he fills his long hours with one public appearance after another. He apologizes to some groups for having let them down. His defense as it seems to be shaping up is that the government entrapped him into whatever he did on the night he was arrested.
But most of the time the mayor is telling people that he's been good for them and that he's once again in fine fettle. The inference to be drawn, of course, is that Barry is in shape to run for reelection later this year.
Will he run again, seeking a fourth, 4-year term? He's not nearly as popular as he was, even among the blacks who make up about 70 per cent of the District's population. And there's another popular black politician - D.C.'s non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives, Walter E. Fauntroy - who doubtless would take many votes away from Barry.
But a number of polls have shown that nearly one-third of the black voters would be with Barry - even if he is convicted. This might well be enough for Barry to win the primary, when only a plurality is needed. And the Democratic candidate, whoever he would be, would likely triumph in the general election.
Meanwhile, Americans outside the beltway are voting on the District and its current government, including Mayor Barry, with their feet. They are staying away from the city in droves. Tourism was down in Washington last year - by 17 per cent at the memorials and monuments - and the people who count the visitors say the trend is continuing.
The reason is evident: The record crime rate is scaring people away. Also, the Mayor's escapades - the charges of womanizing as well as drug use - aren't enticing people to visit a city over which he presides.
Barry received a standing ovation when he met with black mayors recently in New Orleans. Blacks present seemed to accept Barry's argument - that had he been white, the prosecution wouldn't have worked so hard to get the evidence it needed for an indictment. He keeps implying that this was merely whites vs. blacks - and that he was the black victim.
So the racial issue remains paramount in the District, kept there in large part by the Mayor, himself.