A Wilson Building staffer removes Jack Evans name plate after he resigned from the Council. name plate after he resigned from the Council. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Good news, Ward 2 Democrats! After nearly 30 years of waking up to a councilmember who divided his attention between elected office and private consulting, now you have options.

The bad news: You might have too many options. In addition to Jack Evans, the former Ward 2 councilmember who resigned amid ethics violations and dumps his trash illegally, there’s Evans’ 2016 campaign chair, Patrick Kennedy, Brooke Pinto, a 27-year-old who’s never voted in the District, Jordan Grossman, a progressive running in what is perhaps the District’s least progressive ward, John Fanning, a longtime ANC commissioner who lost to Evans once before, and Kishan Putta, a Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat.

Less than two weeks before early voting begins for the Democratic primary, none of the top six candidates are pulling ahead as clear frontrunners. LL respects the dedication of Yilin Zhang and Daniel Hernandez, who are also on the ballot and continue to show up to candidate forums, but he will eat his shoe if either of them win.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the DC Board of Elections’ pivot to encourage residents to vote by mail through a somewhat confusing, multi-step application process, make it hard to predict who is likely to vote, and that makes political prognosticating next to impossible. A BOE spokesperson tells LL about 47,000 people have requested ballots citywide, and more than 5,000 have requested them for the Ward 2 special election, the winner of which will fill the seat until early 2021.

“You cannot talk about an election without knowing [who a likely voter is],” says political strategist Chuck Thies. “The Ward 2 election is extraordinarily unpredictable. No one can poll it [effectively] and no one can know the outcome.” (Thies is running Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray’s re-election campaign, but speaks here on his own behalf.)

The two publicly released Ward 2 polls do agree on three details: more than 40 percent of the residents polled don’t know who they’re voting for, those polled prefer Kennedy over the other candidates, and Evans’ approval rating can better be described with a poop emoji than a percentage.

The first poll, funded by Kennedy’s campaign and conducted in mid-March, shows that 44 percent, or 132 out of 300 Democrats, were unsure who they would vote for.

Evans’ favorability rating is at 10 percent (the lowest of five of the top six candidates), and his unfavorability rating sits at a seemingly insurmountable 58 percent, according to Kennedy’s poll. Still, 9 percent of those polled said they’d vote for Evans, putting him in second place to Kennedy’s 18 percent.

A second poll, taken in mid-April and released by the Baltimore-DC Metro Building Trades Council (which recently endorsed Kennedy), shows that 46 percent, or 161 out of 352 people, are undecided. Kennedy again got 18 percent of the vote, followed by Evans with 9 percent. Both of those numbers dropped after the pollster read information about each candidate. Ultimately, Kennedy kept his lead with 15 percent, followed by Grossman with 12 percent, Fanning with 11 percent, Evans and Putta with 8 percent each, Pinto with 6 percent, and 37 percent still undecided.

“If a neighbor asked me from across the fence, I’d say, ‘Well, look at the three people who’ve held elected office in the city, not counting Jack, who have a record of doing things in the community,” says Monica Roache, an at-large committeewoman on the DC Democratic State Committee, who has endorsed Kennedy. “And start with that.”

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Fanning is a longtime Logan Circle advisory neighborhood commissioner and self-proclaimed “MOCR for life,” referring to his role as a mayoral liaison under every D.C. mayor since Marion Barry’s second tenure in the executive’s office.

Fanning previously ran for the Ward 2 seat in 2000, and some of his notable current endorsements come from the DC Latino Caucus, Teamsters Local 639, Busboys and Poets founder Andy Shallal, and former At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz.

“He organizes, he gets things done, and he’s not glib even though he’s very conversant on all these issues,” Schwartz says, acknowledging that she hasn’t spoken to the other candidates. “I’ve had it with glib, I’ve had it with polished. His experience is relative, and he is substantive.”

Fanning, the only openly gay candidate in the race, is ranked second to Grossman by the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance. GLAA awarded Grossman a perfect 10, while Fanning believes he lost a point for his stance on decriminalizing sex work. (GLAA refused to rate Evans due to his ethics violations. The organization has given him high marks in the past.)

Fanning supports full legalization of sex work, but ultimately, he would prefer to create other employment opportunities for people in that line of work.

“We’re all humans, so we know people are going to have sex,” he says. “It’s how do you go about doing that, and people operating in the street at all hours of the morning are jeopardizing their safety, in my view. So if they’re working at massage parlors, or like in Las Vegas, there’s a hooker hotel, where it’s centralized. Otherwise we’re going to continue to see them be victims of violence.”

Fanning is counting on votes from his neighbors in Logan Circle, seniors, the LGBTQ community, African Americans, and Latinx voters.

Putta’s experience as an advisory neighborhood commissioner stretches back to 2012, when he represented Single Member District 2B04 in Dupont Circle. Since 2018, he’s represented Single Member District 2E01, which includes parts of the Georgetown and Burleith neighborhoods.

In his time as an ANC, Putta has advocated for bus lanes, bike lanes, and more investments in computers for students. Recently, he’s latched onto the coronavirus as a major talking point. A recent television campaign advertisement touts his work on community outreach and enrollment with DC Health Link, the District’s healthcare exchange, as relevant experience in the fight against COVID-19.

His campaign assembled a coronavirus advisory team that includes President Barack Obama’s Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, but Putta’s middling finishes in the polls have political observers looking past him.

Kennedy, 28, is a neighborhood commissioner in Foggy Bottom, and has chaired ANC 2A for the past five years. Detractors call him “Jack 2.0” for his ties to the business community and support from lobbyists David Julyan and David Catania, the former at-large councilmember who hosted a fundraiser for Kennedy at his office. Kennedy shrugs off the label as an unfounded smear. He embraces his big tent of support, and brands himself a “bridge builder,” preferring consensus over hardline ideology.

“I have people supporting me from my left and from the moderates and centrists,” he says. “And that’s Ward 2. It’s a ward of diverse sensitivity, and it’s a ward that has a business presence. I don’t think having a constructive relationship with the business community is a bad thing.”

His answers during candidate forums show his thorough understanding of the inner workings of D.C. government agencies and commissions, but sometimes to the extent that LL’s eyes glaze over.

Kennedy has a small army of neighborhood commissioners supporting him, as well as the endorsement of Greater Greater Washington, the nonprofit organization that advocates around transportation, housing, and land use issues, Ruby Corado, founder of Casa Ruby and prominent LGBTQ advocate, and Council Chairman Phil Mendelson.

Evans resigned in the wake of multiple ethics investigations into his conflicts of interest and use of his public office for private gain. The D.C. Council was one vote away from expelling Evans had he not stepped down. Federal agents raided his Georgetown house last summer, but he has not been charged with a crime. Evans has insisted that the feds would have charged him by now, but LL wonders if this campaign will only poke the bear.

With no notable endorsements, Evans pitches himself as an ethics reformer and a financial guru who has the budgetary experience necessary to guide a government facing a $1.5 billion shortfall over the next two years. To his credit, Evans’ answers during candidate forums and interviews reflect his three decades’ experience, even when he claims to have “created more jobs than anyone in this city through my economic development policies.”

Evans has also been spotted climbing ladders to hang his red campaign signs throughout the ward—further evidence that he doesn’t have the level of public support he once had. He seems to be banking on his name recognition and a crowded field of opponents to split the anti-Jack vote.

“He’s somewhat of an incumbent, and some people don’t care [about the ethics violations],” Sean Metcalf, a local campaign staffer and former Evans spokesperson, told LL in an interview in March. “They know the value Jack brings to the city. He’s going to miss some votes, but at the end of the day, in Ward 2, you might only need 3,000 votes. And Jack can get 3,000 votes without a problem.”

Even if Evans is elected, LL has to wonder how effective he’ll be. Every D.C. councilmember signed a letter condemning Evans’ campaign as a “willful and arrogant disregard for ethics,” and at least four councilmembers want to continue where they left off with Evans’ expulsion. It’s also difficult to fathom what committee assignments, if any, Mendelson would give to a man who, in the chairman’s words, “lost not only the trust of his colleagues, but the trust of the public.”

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For those who don’t care about an extensive record of elected government service or prefer a pair of fresh eyes, allow LL to introduce you to Grossman and Pinto.

Pinto’s late entrance into the race has befuddled political analysts and opponents, but it didn’t stop the Washington Post editorial board from endorsing her. That endorsement might as well be cursed: In 2018, the board’s preferred challengers included DJ Petar Dimtchevover well-respected incumbent Mary Cheh in Ward 3 and a Bowser-backed small business owner, Dionne Reeder, for Elissa Silverman’s at-large seat. Both lost.

The board acknowledged Fanning and Kennedy’s “solid records and agendas,” didn’t mention Putta, and took a passive aggressive swipe at Grossman for “promising the sky under the banner of progressive justice,” without naming him.

Fanning predicts the endorsement will draw votes from Kennedy and Evans, especially among Georgetown voters, but won’t give Pinto enough of a boost to win.

Still, that Pinto can list the board’s support alongside that of her former boss, D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine, is a great advantage in a race with so many undecided voters. During her two years as an assistant attorney general, Pinto says she litigated tax disputes and wrote legislation on hate crimes, marijuana, and tenants’ rights.

But Pinto’s dark horse candidacy comes with a huge asterisk. She grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut, moved to D.C. six years ago to attend Georgetown University Law Center, and has never voted in D.C. She registered to vote in the District in March 2019, but listed a Connecticut address on her donations to John Delaney’s presidential campaign and Massachusetts Rep. Joe Kennedy’s Senate campaign as recently as November 2019.

Pinto is the only Ward 2 candidate not participating in the District’s public campaign financing program, which restricts contributions from corporations and political action committees. She says she supports the program, but entered the race too late to qualify. She also has the highest percentage of donations coming from out of state; more than 27 percent of her contributions come from donors in New York, according to local activist Keith Ivey’s analysis of her campaign finance records.

Grossman fits squarely in the cast of progressive candidates jostling for Council seats this cycle. He’s secured endorsements from labor unions, many local lefty groups, and Silverman, arguably the Council’s most progressive member. Former California Rep. Henry Waxman also recently lent his support. The former congressman lives in Ward 2, but only registered to vote in D.C. in 2019, Grossman’s campaign confirms.

Grossman, who touts himself as a fifth generation D.C. resident and grew up in Potomac, dishes out progressive platitudes in one breath and slams Evans over ethics violations in the next. According to his campaign slogan, “he’s for you, not for sale.”

Grossman’s perfect score from the GLAA could help in a ward with a politically active LGBTQ community, though LL wonders whether his progressive platform will win Ward 2 voters.

“Some of us are holding onto our ballots to see who ends up in the lead,” says Richard Rosendall, GLAA vice president and political commentator for the Washington Blade. “There’s a bunch of good people, and I’m waiting to see if one of them seems to be doing better in the next few weeks, and if there’s a group who is willing to coalesce around a person as a way of preventing Jack from winning a plurality.” 

Tom Sherwood contributed reporting.