A new beginning in DC or the same old thing?
WHEW! Raise your hand if, like me, you are happy to see the end of DC’s 2022 election season.
Don’t get too comfortable, though. There still are unresolved government management and structural issues as well as political battles — not the least of which involve how Mayor Muriel Bowser, who won an unprecedented third term, intends to organize her next administration and whether she will jettison any of her many incompetent and stagnant cabinet members.
Equally important is the matter of how DC Council Chair Phil Mendelson, also back at the helm, will bring order and focus to the legislative branch, including shifting oversight committees. Now that his chief nemesis, at-large Council member Elissa Silverman, has been defeated, can Mendelson minimize division among his members while maximizing his control and leadership?
During her post-election press conference, Bowser named Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt, former director of the DC Department of Health, and Tommy Wells, former Ward 6 DC Council member and current director of the Department of Energy and Environment, as co-chairs of her transition committee. Since then, other individuals, including former mayors, Anthony A. Williams and Adrian M. Fenty joined the group.
Bowser discussed her approach to this new third term: “We are charged with leading the city’s comeback.” She said she and her team are “highly energized and focused.”
“We are also focused on making this a city where we expand our democracy no matter what happens in the Congress, a city where we’re focused on ending gun violence that is destroying families and upending communities,” she continued. “But we’re also focused on reimagining our downtown and our corridors, investing in our middle class and getting young people back on track and continuing to plan to make us the most resilient city that we can.”
“We are going to be focused on big ideas,” she said, but never hinted at what those might be.
Meanwhile, when asked about her relationship with the legislature, Bowser said she would ask, “What is the council’s agenda?”
But let’s not rush ahead yet, especially since this 2022 election cycle may go down as one of the District’s most combustible. It was marked by divisive Trumpian tactics, a late round of conspiracy theories, and a heavy dose of shade thrown, in no small measure by the city’s outgoing attorney general.
In the June Democratic primary, a sitting DC Council member hoping to become the city’s second elected AG was kicked off the ballot after one of his opponents successfully challenged whether he met the statutory qualifications for the office. In that same election, another sitting council member brazenly interfered with the Ward 3 race, using polling results to help persuade three candidates to drop their bids ostensibly to avoid what she called “vote splitting” while ensuring someone she saw as a potential ally would win.
Tuesday’s Nov. 8 general election, however, proved a roosting or karmic moment.
Silverman, an independent and the primary meddler, lost her reelection bid. She and her supporters already have blamed that defeat on the fact that she was cited with a campaign spending violation on Oct. 27 by the DC Office of Campaign Finance.
Don’t believe the hype.
At least one independent poll foreshadowed trouble for Silverman the moment Kenyan McDuffie, who had been kicked off the June primary ballot, pivoted and decided to enter the general election contest. There also was evidence that a campaign designed to stimulate voters to use both of the votes they are allotted in the at-large race could yield favorable results for him.
Further, McDuffie expertly refurbished a campaign organization he had put together for his AG bid; consistently highlighted the more liberal or progressive public policy legislation he has advanced during his two terms as Ward 5 council member; and smartly rode a wave of anti-Silverman sentiments that had percolated among business leaders and average residents, many of them Black and brown. Over the past four years, many of these previous supporters had come to perceive her as racially insensitive. That is a sentiment discussed on Twitter before and after the election by several people, including previous political candidates and at least one elected official.
The at-large contest included eight candidates. However, voters focused their attention on the three sitting council members, including Democrat Anita Bonds, who was generally expected to win one of the two seats rather easily.
McDuffie chased Silverman across the city, keeping the race competitive in wards that were perceived as her strongholds. He nearly bested her in Ward 3, which had been her base in two elections; as of Nov. 24 Silverman received 11,521 while McDuffie received 11,067 votes. Bonds the Democratic nominee walked away with 12,541 votes, according to the unofficial results published on the website for the website for the DC Board of Elections.
Overall, according to the most recent count, McDuffie has 71, 912 votes (21.91%) to Silverman’s 63,462 (19. 34%). He will return to the council as a newly branded independent with the added clout of an impressive citywide victory.
Bonds has 103,980 votes (31.68%), faring better than I and many others had anticipated, particularly after the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development issued a scathing report about the deplorable management of DC Housing Authority, an agency that falls within her oversight purview as chair of the Committee on Housing and Executive Administration.
She was saved by the “D” label behind her name. It’s hard to break DC’s tight blue block.
Wednesday night after the elections board updated the vote count, Silverman released a statement noting that she had called both Bonds and McDuffie to congratulate them on their victories. He likewise put out a press release in which he thanked voters and his family for their support. “Voters have also delivered a message: We need to take bold steps to address some of the greatest challenges facing the District,” McDuffie said in his prepared statement. “And as your next At-Large Councilmember, I’ll continue to work with you and my colleagues on the DC Council to confront head-on our most pressing issues with solutions, not simply paid lip service.”
Bowser may have been elated by her historic victory to a third term, hedging her political longevity closer to that of Marion Barry. She is only the second DC mayor to win a third consecutive term, a feat achieved by Barry in 1986. He later won a fourth term in 1994. Nationally, Bowser is the first Black woman elected to a third consecutive four-year term as mayor, an accomplishment highlighted this week by her chief of staff and deputy mayor, John Falcicchio.
For his part, Mendelson — who endorsed both Bonds and McDuffie — was probably relieved by the council election results.
If Silverman had won, he faced a revolt by so-called progressives that she likely would have led. Reaching the magic number of seven votes in order to advance his agenda would have been increasingly difficult.
While the far left includes a solid four members — Ward 1’s Brianne Nadeau, Ward 4’s Janeese Lewis George, Ward 6’s Charles Allen, and incoming Ward 5 member Zachary Parker — Mendelson could face a less hostile environment than he would have had with Silverman still on the dais, with more moderates or self-described pragmatic progressives, including Ward 3’s newly elected Matt Frumin. That doesn’t mean there won’t be a ruckus on the fifth floor of the John A. Wilson Building as Mendelson develops the proposed committee structure and identifies potential chairs for Council Period 25, which begins January 2023.
There already has been acrimony around whether he should create a separate Committee on Education rather than retain oversight within his own Committee of the Whole. Sources told me that at-large Council member Christina Henderson has been lobbying for the assignment.
If residents and advocates weren’t enamored of former at-large Council member David Grosso’s tenure as chair of the Education Committee, they may want to think again about a Henderson appointment. After all she was the lead staffer for much of the time that Grosso was in charge. Everyone knows that council staffers do more than shuffle paper; in many instances they are making key decisions for their bosses.
The other committee that some members hope is resurrected — one that has induced salivating among potential chairs — is finance and revenue. Three members had been vying for the job — although Silverman, who had dreamed of leading the committee long chaired by her former colleague Jack Evans, is of course out of the running.
With McDuffie’s return to the council, he likely will remain chair of the Committee on Business and Economic Development, which currently includes oversight of the Office of the Chief Financial Officer and the Office of Lottery and Gaming. Those were among the agencies added to McDuffie’s portfolio after the dissolution of the Committee on Finance and Revenue.
What about other committees? “I think Phil is in a conundrum,” said Ward 7 resident Ambrose I. Lane Jr., chair of the community-based Health Alliance Network. “One of the reasons he’s absorbed so much in the Committee of the Whole is that he hasn’t found the right people to chair those key areas.”
When I spoke with Mendelson before the general election, he said what he has said prior to the start of almost every new council period. “I’ll be sitting with each council member individually. I’m trying to give members what they want. I try not to be disruptive to the committee.
“You do have to look at people’s competence,” said Mendelson. “If there are multiple candidates for one committee, then we have to go to other criteria.”
He didn’t explain what those criteria might be. “The challenge is going to be that some members don’t want to give up things that are already in their committee.
“It’s important to look at the entire package. It’s not enough to look at one committee alone.
“Continuity is important as well. [But] everything is on the table,” Mendelson added.
There are two complicating factors this year. First, Henderson, Lewis George and Ward 2’s Brooke Pinto are all entering the second half of their first terms, and recent practice suggests they will get a committee to chair. Meanwhile, the departure of Ward 3’s Mary Cheh means that there’s an opening atop the Committee on Transportation and the Environment; Silverman’s loss frees up the Committee on Labor and Workforce Development.
Some would like to see fewer committees, not more.
Chuck Thies — a political consultant who made clear he was speaking as a private citizen, not as communications director for Ward 7 Council member Vincent Gray — urged for retaining the “big six” committees: finance and revenue; health; judiciary and public safety; housing; education; and public works/environment/transportation.
“Maybe he could go to seven,” said Thies, adding that everything else could be placed with subcommittees. “None of this expanding so everyone gets a medal.”
Whatever happens, Mendelson should resist continuity. The current 10 committees are mostly a hodgepodge. For example, the DC Board of Elections and the Office of Campaign Finance are within the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety. The Board of Ethics and Government Accountability is lodged within the Committee on Human Services. The Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, a juvenile detention agency, is within the Committee on Recreation, Libraries and Youth Affairs. And consider that the second part of the Committee on Housing and Executive Administration’s name is there solely to justify its purview over the offices of the mayor and city administrator. That kind of illogical construction hinders the possibility of smooth and effective oversight.
God knows that the one thing residents need most — and deserve — from the legislative branch is solid, robust, professional oversight that can ultimately enhance the quality of life in DC. Can Mendelson deliver?
A version of this article was first published on The DCLine.org