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Talk to Dionne Reeder’s supporters, and they will insist that Elissa Silverman is the most divisive politician in the city.
At-large Councilmember Silverman’s progressive causes, namely the paid family leave law and her opposition to overturning Initiative 77, have made her the top ally of lefty groups in the city, and also turned her into the bane of the District’s business and political establishment. Yet many politicos wonder why Mayor Muriel Bowser is so brazenly working to unseat Silverman in November, given the mayor’s failure to elect allies in the 2016 cycle.
For now, the mayor’s allies are talking big. “I haven’t seen this much distaste for an incumbent since Adrian Fenty in 2010,” claims Joshua Lopez, a longtime Green Team booster.
But the Reeder camp’s focus on Silverman’s divisiveness may be a way to deflect from the controversial figures working for Reeder. A small business owner who entered the race to quash Silverman’s progressive gains, Reeder has patched together a coalition of convenience that includes business heavies, longtime D.C. operatives, and street organizers.
Take Harry Thomas Jr., who the campaign paid $2,500 over the summer for consulting work. Thomas, a former Ward 5 councilmember who served 38 months in prison for stealing more than $350,000 from programs for city children, did not return City Paper’s calls. The campaign says they welcomed Thomas as a returning citizen, and that as of last month he was only a volunteer.
Another returned citizen for the campaign is the venal Ted Loza, who has kept a low profile since serving jail time for accepting illegal gifts as chief of staff to former Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham. He was sporting a hot pink Reeder sticker at a Tuesday night debate in Palisades. Loza said in a brief phone call that he’s “known Dionne for a couple of decades now” and is open to all kinds of volunteer outreach work.
Voters on Nov. 6 will choose their top two picks in the at-large race—enough confusion to disadvantage a challenger. Anita Bonds, who won the Democratic primary in June, is seen as having re-election locked up. The other seat, which has to be held by a non-majority party, is held by Silverman, an independent. Reeder initially described herself as an “independent Democrat” but has since shied away from the term.
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Lopez himself is one of the top reasons the mayor is so sour on the incumbent. At a rally Lopez hosted in April outside the Wilson Building, a man from the Nation of Islam, apparently uninvited, called Silverman a “fake Jew” and referred to Jews as “termites.” Bowser called Silverman to a private meeting at the mayor’s house in April, where Silverman requested Bowser fire Lopez from a city housing board. Bowser was incredulous at the council member’s gall, phoning several close acquaintances after the meeting to vent, according to a source familiar with the individuals the mayor spoke to. Lopez later resigned.
Another faction of support for Reeder is the District’s business lobby. Reeder’s campaign has been jacked with fundraising muscle ever since Bowser’s endorsement last month. After the implosion of the S. Kathryn Allen candidacy over fraudulent nominating signatures, D.C.’s business establishment settled on Reeder as their best shot at clawing back influence at the Wilson Building. Tom Lindenfeld, a former top political strategist for Bowser and former mayors Fenty and Anthony Williams, can’t see how that translates to votes.
“The [campaign] is motivated by the business community, who have never elected anyone in this city,” he says. “Ever.”
The campaign features extensive consultant assistance for a council race, amounting to some dysfunction. China Dickerson, a top campaign aide, and campaign manager Alfreda Davis both individually answer to the candidate. A planned mailer was cancelled at the last minute this week over competing design preferences between Davis and Dickerson, according to a source with second hand knowledge.
“It’s just not a lot of time and they can’t screw around,” said an outside Democratic strategist who requested anonymity to candidly survey the contest. “You need a full throttle effort. I mean, literally, Muriel’s people should be invading Dionne’s campaign offices and take it over.”
On the negative rhetoric about Silverman, the strategist says, “Elissa isn’t involved in any scandal … you have to try and paint her in a negative light to try and motivate voters.”
The Reeder campaign released a list of endorsements last month, including local titans like Cora Masters Barry, the widow of former Mayor Marion Barry. Incidentally, Marion Barry endorsed Silverman in 2014. Ron Moten, a Reeder campaign volunteer who ran the now defunct anti-violent Peacoholics group until caught in a scandal of misused city funds (Moten settled with the city for $10,000 in 2016, admitting no wrongdoing in the matter) rues following Marion Barry’s lead last time.
“What has she done?” Moten says, referring to Silverman’s record in Ward 8. On the differing factions supporting Reeder, Moten says “People are going to support who they think will support their interests.”
Moten, a registered Republican and former Fenty pal, is joined by a Democrat who’s made a recent slide down the right wing. Former Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin P. Chavous also backs Reeder. Chavous was an early crusader for charter schools in D.C., but nowadays his praise for Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and leadership at a for-profit online education outfit is too much to stomach for most Democratic school advocates in the city. His two sons, Kevin B. and Eric Chavous, also list their support for Reeder.
As a lesbian, Reeder would be the only open member of the LGBT community on the D.C. Council if elected. Victory Fund, which supports LGBT candidates, endorsed her.
On the flip side, Reeder has the endorsement of Rev. Willie Wilson, whose storied 30-year history of leading Union Temple Baptist Church in Anacostia includes tirades against lesbianism. When he backed gay candidate Clark Ray’s failed bid for Council Chairman in 2010, gay rights groups criticized Ray for accepting Wilson’s support. Ray, who heads the DC State Athletic Association, endorsed Reeder, too.
In the first poll on the general election race, commissioned by Silverman’s campaign, more than three times as many people said they would pick Councilmember Silverman over Reeder as their first choice at-large candidate in November. Reeder polled at 7 percent, with 23 percent undecided.
Some argue that the tie binding the various factions supporting Reeder—beyond repealing paid leave—is a motivation to elect another black woman to the council. “The people [endorsing her] out of [wards] 5, 7, and 8 would like to see someone on the council better representing those constituencies,” says the Democratic strategist, who believes Silverman will win.
Bill Lightfoot, the chair of Bowser’s re-election campaign, defends names like Thomas and Loza. “One of the D.C. values is to give people a second chance,” he says.
In another oddity that caricatures the idea of a political mercenary, longtime Green Team foe Chuck Thies is on the same side as the mayor’s allies. Or, as Thies calls it, on the “anyone but Silverman coalition.” Thies, former campaign manager and treasurer for Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray, is convinced that Reeder, endorsed by Bowser, will somehow be a more aggressive check on the mayor than Silverman. He says he has neither worked for the campaign nor donated.
“If I’m Elissa Silverman, it’s cause for concern, because when factions that are rarely on the same page are lined up against you, it generally means you’re … ticking off a lot of people,” Thies says.
Maybe that’s a good thing, says Lindenfeld, who was cut from Bowser’s campaign in 2014 after pleading guilty to his ties to a Philadelphia corruption scheme that earned him four years of probation. He sees Silverman as paying “a great political cost” for standing tall on anti-Semitism and blasting the speech at Lopez’s rally.
“Say what you will, but these are all people who may feel that they don’t have the ability to be able to control Elissa,” Lindenfeld says of Reeder’s backers. “Dionne Reeder is not her own person. She’s a wholly owned subsidiary of the business community and the power elites.”
Meanwhile, Bowser ally and recently departed deputy mayor for greater economic opportunity Courtney Snowden has been privately unloading on Silverman and backing Reeder online. In one Facebook post, Snowden knocks Silverman for requesting a spending limit on the Congress Heights basketball arena project, calling it a “ridiculous effort to limit the progress of Ward 8.” On another day, she hits Silverman for trying to reform the Summer Youth Employment Program, even though the legislation from Silverman has the support of all but one councilmember, Brandon Todd, the mayor’s sole dependable vote on the council. Snowden is riled up that Silverman wants to tighten eligibility requirements for the legacy jobs program of Marion Barry.
“I know he probably rolled over in his resting place,” Snowden writes.
This post has been updated.