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At-large DC Council candidates Robert White and Rodney Grant are fed up

“This is going to be the Super Bowl of elections,” predicted Rodney “Red” Grant, a Democrat who is challenging incumbent at-large DC Councilmember Robert White in the June 4 primary.


An entertainer by trade, Grant has a sizable social media following, which may not mean much unless they are all registered DC Democrats — although, when he ran as an independent against Mayor Muriel Bowser in the 2022 general election, he received 29,000 votes.


That was a race he couldn’t possibly win since the Democratic Party is the dominant political machine in the District. Bowser was running for a historic third term and Grant was dismissed by many as a mere “comedian,” as if in our time some brilliant people haven’t worn a similar moniker.


“I don’t want you guys to think that because he’s an incumbent, that he’s like the mayor,” Grant told me during one of several recent interviews via Zoom. “He’s not. Actually, he’s five times worse than the mayor to me because he stands on the fence. He doesn’t want to go right or left, and that’s worse than a person that goes on either.


“People are fed up, and people will come out on June 4, and this will be the biggest election in DC history,” Grant added confidently.


Unquestionably there is an undercurrent of dissatisfaction in the city among voters with the present group of political leaders. Parents are unhappy with funding for schools. Working-class residents decry the cost of housing. Then there is violent crime, which officials report has dropped; the decline hasn’t been significant enough to make residents less afraid or criminals less brazen. 


The political operatives and observers I spoke with don’t think that a pox-on-all-their-houses mood will necessarily favor Grant, even if some voters are disillusioned with White’s alleged fence-riding.


Running for a third term on the council, White remains a darling of many progressives. In the 2022 Democratic primary, White challenged Bowser for the party’s mayoral nomination. She won 49% of the vote; he came in at nearly 41%.


In 2020, White ran unopposed in the Democratic primary for the at-large council position. When he was one of two dozen vying in the general election for the two at-large seats up that year, he prevailed with 139,208 votes or 25.96% of the votes cast. Four years earlier, in 2016, White defeated two other candidates in the Democratic primary, including incumbent Vincent Orange. In the general election that year, White brought in a whopping 233,983 votes — 52.8% of the votes cast for the two at-large seats up that year, twice as many as independent David Grosso received to win the other post. 


Asked to rate his performance in this recent term, White gave himself a “7 or 8. At no point do I think I won’t have a lot of room to grow,” he told me during an interview via Zoom last month. “But I would put myself on the higher end because I do believe I’m growing every year deliberately and getting more results every year deliberately.”


He counted among his top achievements legislation that established a free master’s in social work program at the University of the District of Columbia. He also gave himself points for pushing reforms at the DC Housing Authority (DCHA) as chair of the council’s Committee on Housing since January 2023.


In late 2022 the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development issued a scathing report about the mismanagement at DCHA. Bowser had stacked the board with her allies, who chose a child welfare expert with no background in real estate or property management to lead the agency. After that federal assessment, Bowser proposed appointing a new board. A fight ensued over its composition. In the end, White and others on the council got what they wanted, including a new executive director.


“You have to build a car before you can drive it. Too often politicians and others do this window-dressing stuff to distract people long enough, and then they move on,” said White, arguing that he came to believe a new board was the only path toward a better agency. He also said that seeking to head the Committee on Housing was part of his strategy for improving DCHA and affordable housing in general.


And yet, many housing advocates complain that there haven’t been any major improvements. They are worried that proposed budget cuts beginning in fiscal year 2025 will mean retrenchment — not advancement.


Grant told White at a recent candidates' forum that “nobody is feeling the effects of what you’re doing.”


“You’re saying that you’re helping out young people, but no young people in the neighborhood know who you are. You cannot legislate from inside the Wilson Building only,” said Grant. He went on to discuss two programs he founded — Don’t Shoot Guns, Shoot Cameras, which helps youth from underserved communities learn filmmaking, and Beyond Your Block, which sends participants to visit U.S. sites such as California, where Grant once lived. 


“You have to have a boots-on-the-ground effort,” he said as he revealed a deeper, serious side while also destroying the myth that he is running to enhance his entertainment career.


After graduating from DC Public Schools, Grant told me, he enrolled at Savannah State University and took an aptitude placement test. He was placed in “all the lowest classes” — and “I graduated from Dunbar with a B average.”


“When they asked us to write an essay, I wrote a letter, because I’ve been writing letters to [my grandmother] from DC to Virginia.” 


When the instructor returned his paper, it was filled with corrections, Grant recalled, suddenly becoming emotionally overwhelmed as he was telling the story. “I took that class in essay writing, and it changed my whole life. 


“It changed the way I write films, the way I write scripts. I write books. I write my material on stage. I write for others,” he said, adding that “I wrote over 25 shows for Viacom.”


“That’s all I want to teach these young people. And so that’s like a real big component to it,” he said. 


White has his own life-altering story about growing up in DC before the cost of living forced his family to move to Maryland. Then a car accident almost claimed his life. As with Grant, the personal narrative informs some of his public policy choices. 


Elections aren’t won by mining similarities, however. Highlighted differences are what snap voters to attention. Grant and White have worked hard at distinguishing themselves.

 

Truth be told, the core of their platforms is synchronized with concerns of DC residents. Their ambitions mirror each other: Both ran for mayor and lost. No one should think either has given up on that quest.


“When I joined the council, it wasn’t in my life plan to be mayor. I muted my work to avoid that criticism and my work suffered,” White said. “So, now I’m just going to do my work. If people want to make hay of it or say, well, he’s running for mayor, I can’t get distracted by that anymore because I don’t think it served me or residents well.”


He has been pushing a list of reforms that he hopes to include in the FY 2025 Budget Support Act, including the creation of a congressional-style budget office, which would be staffed by professionals “who don’t get replaced by the elected officials and that do the council’s oversight because it is all over the place and we’re often left chasing our tail.” 


He also wants a “financial performance review across all of government. I’ve studied what some states have done in their financial performance review, where I believe we could find $100 million inefficiencies in our government.” 


White said the city needs a “a sunset commission” to determine whether agencies have outlived their usefulness or mission. “Are there programs we created a decade and a half ago that are on autopilot and we just kind of throw stuff on their plate? They had capacity, but it wasn’t in their lane.” He cited as an example the mayor’s recent truancy legislation; she assigned implementation to the Department of Human Services instead of the Child and Family Services Agency, which he thinks should have the responsibility.


He also suggested the need for a “downtown economic development corporation.”


“If we think about the Rust Belt cities that either didn’t or couldn’t pivot when manufacturing moved internationally, that’s what is going to happen to the cities that don’t know how to respond to the fact that people are not going back to work in the office five days a week.


“Any strategy that relies on that happening is a strategy that is already failing,” he added, noting that he is working with the council chair to get his ideas in the BSA.


Grant doesn’t support eliminating agencies. “I feel that DC has always had people from Washington, DC, working in the government. So, my mother, her friends, their friends have always been a part of DC government. That means we’re eliminating DC employees. It’s hard enough out here for DC residents already. 


“I do think the communication between agencies has failed. In any corporation or any business, if you don’t have great communication, it will fail,” he said.


“I think the most difficult decisions that every member of the council should be thinking of is resetting our city. [They] have to start actually piecing what is going on: Why is crime where [it] is? … Why is our education system where it is? And why is our equity not being shared properly in the communities that need it most? 


“These are the things that I want to attack immediately,” Grant added.


When I asked him to name three significant things he would have achieved in his first term on the DC Council, he offered this: “One, I would have reduced crime through helping young people see life differently. 


“I would have been a stout proponent to make sure vocational education became a norm in Washington, DC, and putting four new vocational schools in the city. 


“Third, people would say he did not stay in the Wilson Building — he was always in the street. He had his offices in the neighborhoods. His family was a part of the neighborhoods,” continued Grant. “And he was always reachable.”


Is that enough?



This article was first published on TheDCLine.org

photo credit: Chris Kain

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