Joshua Lopez
Joshua Lopez Credit: Darrow Montgomery

In a letter to University of D.C. President Ronald Mason, two local lawmakers are asking him to reconsider the selection of the school’s Founders’ Day keynote speaker, Josh Lopez.

The letter, signed by At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman and Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, says Lopez’s “documented history of being divisive and disrespectful” should disqualify him from the distinguished role at the event this Thursday morning.

The letter, first reported by the Washington Post, refers to a “unity rally” that Lopez organized to support Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White after he repeated an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory about a wealthy Jewish family controlling the weather.

The letter appears to be too little, too late.

Mason says he has no plans to withdraw Lopez’s invitation to speak at the celebration.

“I still have a couple board members to speak to, but so far we’re coming down on the side of free speech and the free exchange of ideas,” he says.

The Founders’ Day committee recommended Lopez as the keynote speaker, Mason says. He says he is aware of the controversial rally, but after conversations with Lopez and a local rabbi about his efforts to mend broken relationships, Mason approved the recommendation.

“I think there’s going to be a lot about people talking to each other, about redemption, and about the need to understand where people are coming from,” Mason says. “I haven’t seen his speech, but he tells me it’s going to positive and uplifting.”

Lopez did not respond to a phone call seeking comment, but posted on Facebook recently that he is “honored” to speak at UDC, his alma mater.

During the rally last year, Lopez held a megaphone as a representative of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan called Silverman a “fake Jew” and referred to Jews as “termites.”

Lopez, an ally of Mayor Muriel Bowser, did not pull the megaphone away, but reportedly nudged the man and asked him to stay positive. He later denounced the hateful speech as “despicable.” Bowser resisted councilmembers’ calls to remove Lopez from his post on the D.C. Housing Authority board, but he later resigned.

Lopez also worked as a paid consultant in Bowser’s 2014 campaign and last year supported the mayor’s preferred candidate, Dionne Reeder, over Silverman in the heated at-large race. He also called White a “bitch” in a text message encouraging him to get involved in the race.

But Silverman and Cheh’s objections go beyond the unity rally.

“Mr. Lopez has a pattern of bullying others in both public and private settings,” the councilmembers write. “In fact, following last spring’s divisive rally, several of our Council colleagues recounted exchanges with Mr. Lopez that they characterized as vitriolic and pernicious.”

Yet others are more willing to accept steps Lopez has taken to repair the damage. 

Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Shalom — The National Synagogue was a vocal critic of Lopez following the rally, but says he has since worked to build relationships with Jewish people. Lopez has accompanied the rabbi on a trip to Pittsburgh after 11 people were killed in a mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue, Herzfeld says.

“Since that incident I’ve seen a man who has gone out of his way working to build better relationships in Washington,” Herzfeld tells LL. “But he’s involved in politics. It’s a tough business.”

In their letter, Silverman and Cheh commend Lopez for his efforts, but they are not swayed.

“His actions caused our city significant hurt and harm, as well as embarrassment that cannot be erased easily,” they write. “We ask that you choose a UDC graduate for the keynote address who has a demonstrated history of embracing our community’s values of inclusion, equity, and respect.”