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A recently released campaign video from Lisa Hunter, a Democrat challenging Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, opens with a spooky piano riff reminiscent of the Halloween movies.
Hunter is then shown leaving her home in the dark with campaign signs under her arm as she narrates: “For 12 years, your D.C. councilmembers have been two men from Homewood, Alabama.”
Hunter is referring to Allen and his predecessor, Tommy Wells, under whom Allen served as chief of staff. She goes on to say that, during the time Wells and Allen have held the Ward 6 seat, economic and racial disparities have grown nationally, displacing neighbors and sowing fear. Eventually she breaks into Spanish—Hunter’s mother is Mexican-American—and says that she’ll keep talking to the people they don’t talk to.
“Because this isn’t Homewood, Alabama,” she concludes, in English, as the video ends. “This is your ward. Este es tu ward.”
The reaction to the video, released February 5, was swift and mostly one-sided on Hunter’s social media accounts.
“If you are truly interested in representing all residents in Ward 6 and in the city,” wrote Jonetta Rose Barras, a local journalist and former Loose Lips writer for City Paper, on the Facebook page for Hunter’s campaign, “you might start by throwing away your dog whistle.”
“So basically your argument [is] that Allen doesn’t have #ward6’s best interest in mind because he wasn’t born in DC (underlying subtext because he’s a southern born white male),” tweeted a user named Wards United.
Hunter claims the total feedback she received on the video was “overwhelmingly positive,” but acknowledged that it rubbed some the wrong way. “If the message that I sought to deliver was not received, then that’s on me,” she says. “I should be more clear.”
Raised in Malibu, California, Hunter, 33, volunteered with the Peace Corps in Guyana after graduating from Vassar College, then hooked up with Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign as a field organizer in St. Louis, Missouri.
She moved to the District in 2009 to work on the Hill, first as an intern for former California Rep. Howard Berman, then as a staffer for California Rep. Judy Chu. Eventually, she joined the Department of Health and Human Services in a policy role. She currently works in the private sector as a health policy consultant and lives on Capitol Hill with her husband and their young daughter.
As for the video, she stands by it.
“Part of the reason why I made the video is I don’t think people see this line of succession [from Wells to Allen] unless they’re paying attention,” she says, describing it as a kind of political “incest.” “I think people have been looking around and we’ve got all these flashy new buildings and cranes everywhere, but we still have people living in tents, struggling to make ends meet, and to me that’s not okay.”
Allen, who says he has only seen snippets of the video, found it puzzling. “It’s a strange line of attack from someone who moved here from Malibu,” he says. “It just seems odd to criticize the voters’ will.”
Allen won nearly 60 percent of the vote in the 2014 Ward 6 primary and nearly 80 percent of the vote in the general election.
And if the number of campaign signs sprouting up around Capitol Hill is any indication, Allen remains popular.
As of the end of January, Allen also had about $75,000 in campaign cash on hand to Hunter’s $17,000. Of the $100,000 or so Allen raised by the January 31 filing deadline, about 90 percent came from local donors. Of the $23,000 total Hunter raised, more than 70 percent came from outside the District, excluding donations from her and her husband, Ian.
“I am proud of every single dollar I’ve raised because I know it doesn’t come with strings attached,” says Hunter. “And that is something that I don’t know that Charles Allen can say.”
Hunter clarified that she was referring to campaign donations Allen has received from individuals with known connections to real estate development. A City Paper analysis determined that as of January 31, about 15 percent of the money Allen raised in this election is from individual donors who listed their employment at real estate-related companies.
“If she is having that much trouble finding Ward 6 neighbors to support her campaign, this is where you go,” says Allen.
Hunter, who comes off in person as earnest, passionate, and less harsh than her messaging, has nevertheless made a number of assertions about Allen and others involved in Ward 6 politics that strain credibility or have been flatly denied.
A case in point is one of Hunter’s “flashpoints” that she says pushed her to run. A little more than a year ago, she noticed No Parking signs in Spanish around her neighborhood, which is close to the new housing development on the old Hine Junior High School site.
She believed the signs were posted by local residents and directed at Latinx workers on the Hine project. In a letter Hunter sent to the PoPville blog, which was posted without her name, she wrote: “At risk of hyperbole, these signs may as well say ‘white homeowners only’ because that is the result they seek to achieve.”
Hunter says she reached out to Allen twice about the signs, but didn’t hear anything substantive back until the PoPville post.
Allen disputes Hunter’s characterization of the exchange, claiming that he had been in contact with Hunter’s husband via email to explain that the signs were part of a construction management plan approved by ANC 6B and designed to minimize the impact of the construction project on nearby residents. The plan included off-site parking for workers as well as the No Parking signs, which were not stipulated in the contract but were a measure taken by the developer to abide by the agreement.
“Our recollection is that the developer added No Parking signs to the adjacent blocks to remind the construction workers of the prohibition on parking within 1/4 mile of the construction site,” says Steve Hagedorn, an ANC 6B commissioner.
Hunter, who says she would look to champion issues including fair wages for tipped workers, campaign finance reform, and affordable housing if elected to the Council, appears more focused on being taken seriously at the moment. And she believes she has not been in many cases because of her gender.
“Nobody has ever asked [Allen] whether or not he’s having trouble putting his kids to bed at night or whether or not he’s qualified for the job because he’s got two kids,” she says.
Hunter also claims she has also been repeatedly taken aback by the entrenched nature of Ward 6 politics. She recounted a meeting with Chuck Burger, president of the Ward 6 Democrats, shortly after she announced her campaign last fall.
According to Hunter, Burger told her in the meeting that he personally selected the last three candidates for the Ward 6 council seat, that she was not his choice, and that she’d be better off running for a Board of Education seat. Burger denies saying it. Hunter also claims that Burger made disparaging remarks about the importance of Ward 6 voters in Southwest. “What?” asked Burger, when told of Hunter’s assertion. “I don’t even know how to respond to that.”
Whether or not Hunter can mount a serious challenge to Allen might come down to her ability to make all the mud she’s throwing at him stick—and if her aggressive style will resonate against a seemingly popular incumbent.
“I am salivating at the opportunity to debate him,” she says. “He’s going to have all the statistics you could ever want. But what I have is a perspective and an emotional intelligence that I think is lacking in our current leadership.”