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Get ready for a wild election season in DC

THE ritual of signature gathering in the District may seem perpetual — although dozens of candidates for political office, including four incumbent DC Council members, hoping to claim a space on the June primary ballot submitted their qualifying petitions by the deadline earlier this week. 

At-large Councilmember Robert White, a Democrat seeking a third term, boasted that he turned in “400 pages of petitions.” 

“That’s double the required signatures to get on the ballot,” he added in a statement released shortly after he filed his petitions with the DC Board of Elections (BOE).

Despite the impression of a major burdensome task, truth be told, the number of signatures required is minimal. By law anyone running for an at-large office in the primary must collect “2,000 signatures or 1% (whichever is less) of duly registered voters in the same party as the candidate,” according to the BOE website.

Those competing in ward races must gather “a minimum of 250 signatures or 1% (whichever is less) of duly registered voters in the same party and residing in the same ward as the candidate.”

Candidates, like White, generally establish a higher goal as a safeguard against the 10-day challenge period that allows anyone, including non-candidates, to question the legitimacy of signatures gathered on petitions. For the June primary, that process begins tomorrow. In the past, it has resulted in individuals being kicked off the ballot, including one famous case involving an incumbent mayor.

That never-ending feeling of being confronted everywhere, every day by someone holding a clipboard trying to persuade you to sign sheets of paper persists right now because there are also organized campaigns to place ranked-choice voting and open primaries before voters as Initiative 83 and to recall Ward 6 representative Charles Allen. Residents hoping to dump Ward 1’s Brianne Nadeau likely are coming soon to the sidewalk at a supermarket or a subway station near you (at least if you live in or have occasion to visit Ward 1).

In other words, the political landscape is hot. Watch out. Expect loud and intense skirmishes filled with conspiracy theories, claims of dark money interference, and theatrical performances by untethered egos.

As a political obsessive, I can’t wait. As Ray Charles might sing: Throw me smack dab in the middle so I can rock and roll to satisfy my soul.

Don’t misconstrue that comment as an indication that these aren’t serious times. This is a critical moment for the entire country, especially with an aspiring despotic ruler on the precipice of winning the presidential nomination of one of the nation’s major political parties. Still, our attention cannot be focused solely on Donald J. Trump. Locally, the city is facing a challenge similar to that experienced in the mid-1990s when poor political leadership in the executive and legislative branches resulted in the imposition of a financial control board. 

Ironically, earlier this week Council Chair Phil Mendelson estimated that as Mayor Muriel Bowser prepares her Fiscal Year 2025 Budget and Financial Plan, she will have to consider how to close a spending gap of between $600 million and $800 million. In the 1990s the shortfall was about $750 million. 

Those amounts may seem like pennies in a multibillion-dollar budget. However, Bowser, Mendelson and crew are without many more hat tricks. 

DC leaders have relied on federal COVID-19 recovery money and the city’s various reserve accounts to get the government through a time when the local economy remains weak and key revenues are flat. Last month, with the release of the Annual Comprehensive Financial Report for FY 2023 and the DC Council’s hearing on the subject, it became clear that officials will need to reimburse one or two of those accounts for money removed to deal with last year’s spending — a substantial constraint on the forthcoming financial plan.

The city’s chief financial officer, Glen Lee, brought smiles to a few faces when in a recent letter he certified that revenue estimates for the Fiscal Year 2024–2028 Budget and Financial Plan of the District of Columbia were being “revised upward” by $67.6 million for FY 2024, $64.3 million for FY 2025, $62.1 million for FY 2026, and $10.7 million for FY 2027 compared to his December projections. 

Lee also offered, however, that, “There are headwinds in the medium to long term, including a weakening commercial property market, a slowing DC labor market, slower wage growth, and an expected decline in consumer spending as excess savings built up during the pandemic are exhausted.”

Already there have been conversations about tax increases as well as personnel and program cuts. Anyone paying attention should have known this time would come. The DC government and its spending have grown at a recklessly fast pace in response to demands from vocal and, somewhat self-serving, advocates — and without solid evaluation of the effectiveness of programs and policies. 

We’re at the checkout counter without enough money. Some things have to be returned to the shelves. 

Are political leaders and wannabes ready for tough times? If the fight over the Secure DC legislation is any indication, probably not.

Still, most people believe White has a good chance of making it through the primary process. There are mixed reviews, however, about incumbent Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George; she has strong competition with Paul Johnson and Lisa Gore, who ran a robust council campaign in 2022 against incumbent at-large member Anita Bonds. 

Lewis George may not have helped herself with her vocal and sustained opposition to various sections of Secure DC, a comprehensive public safety bill that included prevention and enforcement components embraced by large numbers of DC residents — including those in Ward 4 who have become increasingly fearful of the level of violence being witnessed throughout the city. Lewis George voiced her concerns so forcefully that it may not matter that she ultimately voted in favor of the legislation.

Ward 8’s Trayon White also opposed parts of the bill — yet when the final vote was taken, instead of saying nay, he asked to be marked “present.” White, who wore a dashiki at the most recent council meeting, seemed to be channeling deceased mayor Marion Barry, a famous self-described situationist. 

Masquerading may be an entertaining strategy to help separate him from the four candidates seeking to replace him. However, it may be insufficient. This is the first time Trayon White is standing for reelection after redistricting in response to the 2020 census, which led to thousands of former Ward 6 residents being transferred to Ward 8.

What happens in Ward 7 is anyone’s guess. With the health-instigated decision by incumbent Vincent C. Gray not to seek reelection, it seems like every politically active individual is running for his seat — 12 candidates turned in petitions for the Democratic nomination. Many people are watching savvy leaders like DC State Board of Education President Eboni-Rose Thompson; Democratic State Committee member Denise Reed; and Nate Fleming and Veda Rasheed, both of whom have run for the DC Council before. The winner of the Democratic primary will be the person capable of not just rallying their existing base but also growing it.

There can be little doubt that if DC is going to escape the past-as-prologue prediction, it will need new leaders with the skills, talents and vision to create a less federally dependent economy. That goal, alone, requires someone prepared to shake or break the existing model while raising the right questions about the city’s priorities in this post-pandemic era.

Just as many citizens have concluded that in this national election season they will be responsible for saving America’s democratic republic, a vitally important task rests at the hands of District residents.

The strong rally for passage of Secure DC and the rising recall movements suggest that many residents who have been mostly silent about the operation of the city have decided enough is enough. They appear ready to assign responsibility and to hold elected officials accountable. 

Could that translate into significant change at the ballot box?

This article first appeared in

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