Robert White’s uphill climb to the DC mayoral suite
At-large DC Council member and newly announced mayoral candidate Robert White is right in asserting that the District government has essentially aged out. “We have been on autopilot for years,” he said during an interview with me last Friday.
White’s antidote to that problem is to jump into the bureaucracy, assessing critical elements with an eye toward transforming them. “A deep dive into government means that our apps and websites are more user-friendly. It means that the head of every single agency is accountable for the mission of that agency and for operating in a way that works for the people that need them. So, we’re not just defending what we do, we’re making government work for people’s real lives.
“It’s something that we have to do across [the] government. It’s not sexy,” said White, adding that now is the time for a reset.
That’s an observation I and others have made repeatedly over the past several years. I also have said that Mayor Muriel Bowser is not a visionary leader. Neither she nor most of her senior managers display any entrepreneurial spirit or skills. There is little ingenuity within the executive branch to take the DC government — a nearly $18 billion public corporation — to the next level.
As evidence of that fact and of an administration that arrived at burnout just after its second-term reelection, residents need only consider the executive org chart where people are doing double-duty without any exceptional results. The director of the Department of Health Care Finance doubles as the deputy mayor for health and human services. The mayor’s chief of staff is also the deputy mayor for planning and economic development. As of this month, the chief technology officer also serves as assistant city administrator for internal services.
Further, not unlike her predecessor (and his predecessor), Bowser has been feeding from the feast left by former Mayor Anthony A. Williams. He helped sculpt the DC many praised prior to the public health emergency.
Now, with a pandemic that has wreaked havoc on the city’s economy, the District needs an executive who aims higher than trying to persuade constituents to get vaccinated, send their mask-wearing children back to schools and visit their neighborhood restaurants. As in 1998, when Williams arrived in the mayoral suite to lead a financially weak government, a workforce without critical 21st-century management skills and neighborhoods in rapid decline, DC needs someone with an expansive, implementable vision. In 2022, that vision must also inspire diversity and equity.
White has suggested he is that person. When I asked him what previous mayor he might model, he invoked both Williams and the late Marion Barry Jr. Speaking figuratively, he said if they “had a baby, that would be me.” While he said he is system- and outcome-oriented like Williams, “I have a heart for the people. And I will not forget that the reason we do all these things is for people. And it is important that people believe that the government is working for them.
“People will forgive you a lot of things if they believe that you are sincerely working for them,” he continued. “We have a shortage of hope in the city because people have felt left behind and pushed aside time and time again. And now here we are pointing to all these shiny things saying, ‘Look, isn’t our city great?’ And you have all these people, most of them people of color, saying, ‘What about us?’ and ‘That’s not fair.’ ”
Undoubtedly, that all sounds good. Words may be the fuel for a good campaign.
Efficiently and effectively operating a government as large and nearly broken as the District requires more than linguistic proficiency, however. It requires talent, managerial skills and competence.
What does White offer and what does he have planned for the city’s future beyond digging deep? The last person who pulled out a shovel promising to clean up the government and usher in a new day nearly bankrupted the city, notwithstanding the magical realism contrivance of a fifth quarter within the fiscal year.
Oddly, during his campaign kickoff and public appearances, White has cited the DC Department of Employment Services (DOES) and the DC Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) as places that need special attention. Those are government agencies that fall within the portfolios of two colleagues up for reelection. At-large Council member Elissa Silverman has had oversight of DOES for the past several years and has advanced several measurable reforms. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson pushed through legislation that split DCRA into two agencies, hoping to improve its performance.
White has held sway over the Department of General Services and the DC Office of Contracting and Procurement, two bureaucracies that desperately need transformation. “I recognize that our construction agency [and] our contracting agency have a long way to go.
And I am incredibly frustrated with both of them,” White told me. “But I also recognize that sometimes if you get too deep into the weeds and people feel like you don’t understand what their key issues are, then you’ve missed them.”
I understand that perspective — that it makes sense to focus for now on reforms that are more likely to resonate with voters — but shouldn’t a political leader, the potential head of a multibillion-dollar corporation, be capable of explaining in plain language the nexus between contracting and workforce development or contracting and affordable housing?
White said he has been on the campaign trail for only a few days and wants to take the pulse of voters before identifying goals. “I will be very clear about our goals, but I do want to have conversations with our communities in that process.
“I’m not, on day three of my campaign, going to say I’m going to …[lower] unemployment by X percent. But if I’m mayor, I’m going to tell you what my unemployment goal is. I’m going to tell you what the achievement gap goal is. Because I have to be clear about what my goals are so that everybody knows what we’re working towards — but also so I can be held accountable,” he said.
“I’m not going to do this double Dutch [where I] don’t set any clear goals and hope that nobody ever pins me down,” he added.
To be fair, it’s not as if White doesn’t have a record that can be used to measure his areas of interest. He was one of the first legislators to propose converting vacant office buildings into affordable housing. He persuaded his colleagues to join him to restore voting privileges of people who are incarcerated. He also has pushed for improvement in services to returning citizens.
Obviously, his mayoral platform will come into better focus as the campaign matures. For now, the question on most minds is: Can White beat Bowser? He was careful during our interview not to put himself in the ring with the incumbent. “Mayor Bowser has not declared a candidacy,” he correctly noted.
Bowser may not have announced her candidacy for a third term. However, it seems clear she will do so on her own schedule. Already, she has been courting her constituents, making herself seem omnipresent in the past several months while throwing out millions of dollars to satisfy their interests and concerns. Her administration may look tired and worn, but she remains a shrewd politician when she decides she wants to play. And she always plays to win.
In the 2018 primary election, Bowser received 61,855 of the votes cast or 79.99%. A nonpresidential election cycle, turnout was extremely low, with only 18.66% of the 479,723 registered voters casting ballots, according to the DC Board of Elections website; even among Democrats, with more contested races on their ballot, turnout was just 22.34%. In the general election, with independents and Republicans voting, Bowser received 171,608 votes.
But White is no slouch. He presents himself as a somber and deliberate legislator. He is, however, calculating and not easily dissuaded from a hard fight. He has spent years building a solid base, especially among the far-left wing of the Democratic Party. When he first ran for office in 2014 as an independent, he won only 22,198 votes and was bested by Silverman and Anita Bonds, then chair of the DC Democratic State Committee.
White came back in 2016, running in the Democratic primary against Vincent Orange. White won 38,805 votes (42.72%) while Orange received 37,009 votes, or 40.74%. Having lost the Democratic nomination for another term on the council, Orange subsequently resigned, choosing to accept the position of executive director with the DC Chamber of Commerce. White took office in September, appointed by the Democratic State Committee to fill out Orange’s unfinished term.
Last year, as an indication of his political growth, White scared off potential challengers for the Democratic primary, ultimately amassing 93,264 votes in an uncontested race. That showing may have been advantaged by the fact that it was a controversial presidential election with every Democrat and her mama determined to cast a ballot. In the general election that November, White took in 139,208 votes in what could have been his most challenging election. Although he’s participating in the Fair Elections Program in the mayoral race, White was worried enough last year to forgo public financing for his council campaign, which alienated more than a few progressive leaders for a while.
Now, nicely situated without risking his council seat if he should lose, White has decided to make a move on Bowser’s territory. It might be a good time. A lot has happened since 2018, including a debilitating pandemic and growing unhappiness among some voters over Bowser’s handling of the eviction crisis and the perception that her administration has rushed reopening schools, possibly jeopardizing the health of thousands of children.
Still, White is perceived as a tax-and-spend progressive by members of the business community and many average voters. “I don’t accept the premise. I do not think that there is a universal distrust and I’m positive about [that],” White told me, pushing back on my analysis. “Just like there is not a universal liking of me in the progressive community. I’ve been independent since I’ve been on the council, and there is no ideological group that loves everything that I do.
“I have voted against tax increases more than I have voted for them,” he continued. “People often derive a lot of conclusions from a most recent vote. But look at my record — it’s balanced, it’s independent.”
You can bet Bowser — generally seen as a moderate — and the city’s progressives are going to make it difficult for White to claim the center or the “independent” label. That will ensure his climb to the mayor suite will include more than a few hills.
A version of this article was initially published on TheDCLine.org