DC voters began receiving their ballots for the November general election this week. The contests for mayor, DC Council chair and council seats in wards 1, 3, 5 and 6 are mostly sleepers; the winners of the June Democratic primary are widely expected to prevail.
The at-large council race remains the race to watch. Independents Fred Hill, Karim Marshall, Graham McLaughlin and current Ward 5 Council member Kenyan McDuffie alongside Republican Giuseppe Niosi and DC Statehood Green Party nominee David Schwartzman are challenging the two incumbents — Democrat Anita Bonds and independent Elissa Silverman.
Voters can pick two candidates for the two contested at-large council seats. By law, only one of the winners can be a Democrat. However, nothing in the law guarantees a seat to the Democratic Party. Consequently, voters may choose two independent candidates or any other combination.
Bonds is included mostly because she is the Democratic nominee in a city dominated by Democrats. That has brought her several endorsements, including from unions like LiUNA! Local 11 and SEIU Local 722 as well as community leaders like State Board of Education at-large member Jacque Patterson, Hispanic activist and educator Sonia Gutierrez and Ward 5 advisory neighborhood commissioner Robert Brannum. But Bonds’ lackluster performance during the general election campaign — not to mention her uninspired tenure in the legislature, overseeing housing and the Department of Aging and Community Living — has earned her the title of invisible incumbent. She is present, however, at mayoral groundbreakings and ribbon-cuttings, where Bowser is fond of calling her the “council member for housing.”
In contrast, Silverman, McLaughlin and McDuffie have brought enthusiasm and heat to the campaign. They have each knocked on tens of thousands of doors, met with voters inside their homes, conducted fundraising events, won major endorsements, and debated one another.
Silverman has picked up the support of several unions and progressive organizations like Jews United for Justice Campaign Fund and the Sierra Club DC. Ward 6 Council member Charles Allen, Ward 1’s Brianne Nadeau and DC Attorney General Karl Racine also have backed Silverman.
No endorsement slouch, McDuffie has support from Tom Perez, the secretary of labor in President Barack Obama’s administration and a former chair of the Democratic National Committee. McDuffie has the support of urbanist advocate Greater Greater Washington, which also endorsed Silverman. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson is backing McDuffie and Bonds.
McLaughlin received the support of the National Association of Social Workers DC Chapter. He and McDuffie also have received the endorsement of the Washington Post editorial board.
Noting McLaughlin’s newcomer status, The Post said that he “would bring to the council the best promise of change,” citing his data-driven approach. Further, the editorial board wrote, “Of three incumbents seeking a return to the council, McDuffie is the clear choice,” praising “his balanced approach to lawmaking in which he listens to all sides and carefully weighs issues.”
That’s all good, but what are the candidates selling to voters?
“We need a fresh perspective,” McLaughlin told attendees at a Sept. 12 forum held at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library and sponsored by the Federation of Community Associations of DC. In saying that, he echoed a comment made moments earlier by Silverman.
“We can’t keep using the same road map we’ve been using since 1998,” said Silverman, a member of the far-left caucus of the legislature who is running for a third term. “We need a new road map.”
Identifying 1998 as the year to escape was interesting, especially since that’s when Anthony Williams became mayor. A political moderate, he stands out as one of the city’s most effective and innovative leaders. He placed the District on a path of prosperity and measurable growth, including reversing its population decline, rebuilding its downtown, bringing back baseball, and offering a blueprint for more dynamic neighborhood corridors and public housing. We’ve seen his successors — mayors Adrian Fenty, Vincent Gray and Muriel Bowser — attempt, albeit with less success, to follow Williams’ agenda.
How to innovate from that foundation constructed by Williams is certainly a worthy discussion. Despite a recent upward revenue projection by the Office of the Chief Financial Officer, post-pandemic DC to some extent feels like the DC of the late 1990s, digging out of a near fiscal collapse. The infusion of federal recovery funds will not last forever.
Sadly, neither McLaughlin nor Silverman offered any real glimpse of the new path they claimed the city needed. They also didn’t provide it two days later, at the virtual forum organized by DC for Democracy, a political action committee.
“It’s hard to do something in one minute,” Silverman told me during a phone interview earlier this week.
That may be true. But during my interviews with Silverman and McLaughlin, the ideas they outlined without comparable time constraints seemed more like tweaking than innovating. They were not necessarily bad tweaks, but innovations they were not.
Silverman talked about more job training in areas where the city needs workers, including the health care industry — a sector where most high-paying jobs are held by suburbanites. “As an example, during the pandemic when we look at vaccine distribution, 3 out of 4 doses went to non-District residents.
“These are no low-hanging fruit here,” she acknowledged. “Training people in jobs requiring higher education can be difficult.”
Silverman argued that the council’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety should have a smaller portfolio, focusing just on public safety without responsibility for unrelated matters; she cited her Committee on Labor and Workforce Development as an example of how that could sharpen its focus. And she said inclusionary zoning could increase affordability downtown and in the neighborhood commonly called NoMa.
The Williams administration focused on attracting empty nesters and unmarried young professionals, but now the District needs to look at retention, Silverman argued. “When those people grow families and need family housing, we need to meet those needs so they can buy homes where there are good schools and good city services.”
What’s more, the city “should make greater use of DOPA,” a law that allows DC to purchase private properties that are in disrepair or in financial trouble in order to increase the affordable housing stock.
“Williams used developers to improve economic development. It’s time for a course correction,” added Silverman, without providing any details about how that might happen.
McLaughlin told me, “We need a council that says what is its macro vision and how do we take action to get there,” adding that DC needs a “macroeconomics in support of DC.”
In recent years, only 16 of the 120 corporations that moved to the region chose to locate in the District, he said — an indication that “we’re not doing something right.”
“In general, we don’t have a tax incentive strategy that focuses on our competitive advantage; we don’t target specific groups,” continued McLaughlin. “The regulatory environment in DC is less certain. A number of businesses talk about lost opportunity. They are going through a Kafkaesque nightmare.”
Sounding more like a corporate manager, he offered that the council should be analyzing more closely what is going on in the city and “thinking less about ideology” — an obvious dig at Silverman, who is considered a leading legislative ideologue. McLaughlin said such an analysis would help legislators understand “where to make investments and where to focus to make sure we have capital to make those investments.”
He asked a bunch of questions: “How do we help individuals thrive? How do we help the community thrive? How do we create connectivity?
“Is [the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act] working for things it’s supposed to create or are we creating buyout structures” that harm tenants in the long run?
“No one wants to have that conversation,” added McLaughlin.
Actually, I along with many District residents do — but it wasn’t clear that he has the answers to his own questions. That leaves me, at least, wondering whether he would be learning on the job.
My concern was amplified when he proposed setting aside $1 million that would be used by residents “to host dinners as a way of breaking bread together with people from different backgrounds.”
It’s a kumbaya moment on the public dole.
So, what is McDuffie’s view of DC’s future?
“My macro vision resonates with people for safe and healthy communities with expanded opportunities so residents and small businesses can thrive,” McDuffie told me during an interview. At forums I hadn’t heard him offer any declarations about opening a new frontier in the legislature; still I was curious.
“Voters don’t have to speculate about my abilities,” said McDuffie, who initially won the Ward 5 seat in a 2012 special election. “I can build coalitions of residents from diverse backgrounds and with council members.
“I have conducted rigorous oversight of agencies to ensure that laws are implemented as intended,” he said. “I have the historical context that is critical now more than ever as we try to recover from the pandemic.”
McDuffie suggested a reformer’s temperament, noting that “for 10 years I have worked for the passage of transformational laws.” He sought to cut into one of Silverman’s signature legislative achievements, noting that he and then-at-large Council member David Grosso introduced and pushed through the city’s first Paid Family Leave Act in 2014. It provided eight weeks of benefits to DC government employees.
“I guess I have been a victim of not talking about what I’m doing. Elissa has been good at talking about legislation that other people have introduced,” said McDuffie.
(The subsequent law pushed by Silverman, among others, deals with private-sector workers. She acknowledged McDuffie’s involvement but asserted that it was her follow-through and hard work that resulted in that second paid leave bill, which is financed by a tax on DC businesses and provides benefits to their workers regardless of whether they live in Maryland, Virginia or DC.)
McDuffie also cited success with getting the legislature to approve campaign finance and ethics bills he introduced. He pushed through police reform, establishment of a comprehensive public health approach to community violence, formation of an Office of Racial Equity in the council and in the executive branch, and creation of economic equity programs like “baby bonds” and guaranteed income for select low-income families.
“I was able to get $100 million [in] business grants to shore up businesses decimated by the pandemic,” continued McDuffie. “Folks know I was not working virtually but I was out helping.
“They know me: I eat where they eat. I breathe the air they breathe. I attend their churches and mosques. I am one of them,” added McDuffie.
Undoubtedly the other contenders are trying to make a similar claim. But we won’t know until Nov. 8 which two candidates voters believe best represent their values and aspirations.
A version of this article previously appeared in The DC Line.org