At a corner table in the Tenleytown Panera, Petar Dimtchev is scrolling through his phone. He wants to show off an audio clip.
Dimtchev, 32, is challenging three-term incumbent Mary Cheh for the Ward 3 Council seat. He’s an independent; Cheh is a Democrat. Dimtchev hasbeen running a shoe-leather campaign since February, claiming to have knocked on 5,000 doors. He says that he’s focusing on “bread and butter issues,” echoing The Washington Post’s recent endorsement of his campaign.
Dimtchev finds the clip and hits play. The voice of Georgia-born rapper 2 Chainz comes through his phone: “2 Chainz checkin’ in right quick DJ Dimmy you diiiig…”
DJ Dimmy is Dimtchev’s stage name when he works as a local DJ—a side hustle he started while he was in law school. But Dimtchev cuts the clip short, as Mr. Chainz apparently went on to say something “inappropriate.” He’ll repeat what the rapper said, but it’s off the record.
Dressed in a blue suit and a white collared shirt, his hair combed nicely, Dimtchev is performing a balancing act. Immediately after the 2 Chainz clip, he pivots to talking points from his campaign. He got into DJing because of a love of music he developed growing up in Ward 3 schools (Francis Scott Key Elementary, Alice Deal Middle School, and the School Without Walls in Ward 2 for high school).
And schools are where he’s focused much of his attention these past nine months. They’re overcrowded, he says. And the only way to fix that is to build a new school in Ward 3.
Education is also the area where he’s most critical of Cheh, who has proposed two bills in the wake of a series of school scandals.
Dimtchev says he sees a lack of urgency from Cheh on some issues, and suggests that constituents in Ward 3 feel ignored.
“The fact that the streets are in the condition that they are, the fact that we have a school overcrowding problem, those are testaments to the fact that we don’t have a councilmember who is engaged with the community as much as she should be,” he says.
Cheh appears mildly annoyed when City Paper presents her with these accusations. She points to her work to increase the infrastructure budgets across all eight wards to address crumbling roads; and she says she’s worked to secure funds to build additions at two elementary schools, Francis Scott Key and Stoddert, where overflow students currently attend class in trailers.
Cheh points to Dimtchev’s resume, which includes unpaid legal clerkships in the U.S. Attorney’s Office and for the House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce, to show his relative inexperience in lawmaking.
Dimtchev also served as a Ward 3 liaison for former Mayor Adrian Fenty, one of the so-called “MOCRS,” an acronym for the Mayor’s Office of Community Relations and Services.
“I would match my record and my attention to everything I do here with any member of the Council,” says Cheh, who is a tenured law professor at George Washington University. “I work harder and longer than I think anybody else on the Council. Frankly, I don’t know what they do with their time.”
Earlier this year, an investigation by an outside consulting firm found that more than one-third of DC Public School students graduated in 2017 despite not meeting the district’s grading and attendance requirements. And in February, former Deputy Mayor for Education Jennifer Niles resigned after it became public that she helped former schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson skirt the school lottery process to transfer his daughter to a different school. Wilson, who also resigned, has since said that Mayor Muriel Bowser knew about his daughter’s transfer. Bowser has denied any previous knowledge.
Cheh’s two education bills address aspects of these issues. The first chips away at mayoral control of D.C.’s education system by removing the mayor’s authority to appoint the superintendent. That responsibility would go to the nine-member elected State Board of Education under Cheh’s bill.
“We need somebody at a distance looking at what’s happening and gathering information,” she says. “We can’t fix stuff if we don’t know what’s wrong. So it’s a way to [make sure] we’re honest about where the problems are and that there are actual recommendations free of any politics about how to proceed.”
Councilmembers Robert White Jr. and Anita Bonds have signed onto Cheh’s bill, but Dimtchev believes removing the mayor’s authority to appoint the superintendent is a mistake.
“When I was growing up, the education system was run by the Board of Education, and we had a lot of issues,” he says. “You have to have centralized leadership in order to hold people accountable.”
The second of Cheh’s bills would establish the Education Research Collaborative in the D.C. Auditor’s office. The collaborative would collect and analyze school data and provide recommendations to improve the system.
A fiscal analysis shows that it would take $500,000 to get the program up and running—money Dimtchev says should be spent elsewhere.
Cheh says the bill would provide necessary information to the Council and the public to effectively reform the school system; eight other councilmembers have given their support.
“Good morning!” Dimtchev bellows to passersby outside the Cleveland Park Library on the first day of early voting in Ward 3. “I’m Petar, and I’m running to be your councilmember. I’m happy to say I’m endorsed by The Washington Post.”
In its endorsement, the newspaper’s editorial board praises Dimtchev’s focus on potholes, small businesses, and school overcrowding. The board says Cheh’s efforts to wrest some control of the education system away from the mayor is “worrying.”
Cheh, for her part, shrugs off The Post’s snub. “If you question the mayor and their scheme about mayoral control, then that’s the end of it. It’s almost like a jihad for them,” she says, referring to the editorial board. “If you’re at all questioning or offering alternatives, it’s like heresy with them.”
Cheh and Dimtchev diverge in other areas. Cheh, for example, supported Initiative 77, the voter-approved, Council-repealed measure that would have forced employers to pay bartenders and servers the full minimum wage, rather than rely on customer tips. Dimtchev believes the law is too burdensome for small businesses, though both say they do not support the Council’s decision to reverse the will of the voters.
Dimtchev also doesn’t support the new paid family leave law, which taxes employers in order to fund paid time off to care for personal and family medical needs for private sector workers. Cheh voted in favor of the law in 2016.
Outside the Cleveland Park Library, 15-year-old Giulio Iacoviello, who has the day off of school, is volunteering for Dimtchev’s campaign. “I really like his policies,” Iacoviello says. “As a high school student, I really like his emphasis on education.”
As voters trickle out of the polling place, some stop to talk about their choices. One woman says she always votes Democrat, so Cheh got her vote. An older couple say they voted for Cheh due in part to her quick response to a problem with their taxes. And another woman, Cortney McCoy, voted for Dimchev because she, too, agrees with his focus on education.
“I think his values align with what the neighborhood needs,” McCoy says. “I appreciate that he’s from the area, and I agree with what he’s running on. School reform is a big one.”