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On a recent Sunday morning, Dustin Canter stretched his muscles and took the lead at a yoga studio in Shaw. The studio was nearly empty but for the seven practitioners who’d come for one of the ambitious 32-year-old’s weekly hatha, or “force,” yoga sessions.
Despite sparse support, Canter is aiming for a much higher position than those he assumes while teaching yoga. Earlier this year, he launched a bid to unseat Muriel Bowser and become, if elected in 2018, D.C.’s next mayor—the first to have ever been certified as a personal trainer.
That’s a gargantuan if. Having received only a little over $2,100 in campaign contributions as of July 31, according to the Office of Campaign Finance, Canter doesn’t stand much of a chance against Bowser’s developer-stacked electoral apparatus or her 67-percent approval rating among District residents, per a June Washington Post poll that appears to have unsettled even her potential name-brand opponents.
But money and popularity don’t seem to concern Canter too much. “It doesn’t take millions of dollars to win this campaign,” he says. “Polls are a dinosaur way of knowing what’s going on.”
A local, politically inclined Don Quixote (without an apparent Sancho Panza), Canter says he’s in it to represent the people, and isn’t taking corporate contributions. To compensate for his lack of cash, he’s hitting the streets with volunteers to meet voters. Yet another outlet for his guerilla campaign is the “Politics and Poses” class he sometimes teaches, which joins his two passions.
Until this month, Canter lived in a Mount Pleasant group home with four other people. But now he shares a two-bedroom with a roommate in Northeast’s burgeoning Edgewood neighborhood. By day, he runs a fitness scheduling- and payment-platform called Routeam, whose goal, according to the company’s website, is to “champion human movement as a means to connect humanity, spread love, and promote peace.”
On his own campaign website and materials, the yogi markets himself as “D.C. Canter.” But after describing himself as a “fourth-generation Washingtonian” in an interview, he later admits he grew up in Rockville and attended a public high school there before shipping off to the University of Illinois, where he earned an accounting degree and joined a fraternity. He says his grandfather opened a furniture store on 14th Street NW after World War II and that his father was born in D.C.
Canter was wearing a T-shirt and jeans when he strolled into Torrie’s Restaurant near Howard University Hospital and shuffled into the last booth on the left for our interview. Canter says he likes to sit at this booth, dedicated to late D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, “because it reminds me I have to be a mayor for everyone.”
Except for those he calls “the real estate vultures,” that is. When asked who these birds of prey were, Canter couldn’t precisely say. He pointed to D.C.’s shrinking number of affordable apartments and small businesses as proof that the District needs a change in leadership.
Canter plans to crowdsource policy ideas from those who reach him on social media. “I’m a curator of the issues,” he says, noting that his platform focuses on economic development, homelessness, criminal justice, and jobs.
If only it were that easy. Jasmine Chehrazi, Canter’s yoga mentor and the founder of Yoga District, espouses his political venture, but warns against his impatience.
“Big systems don’t move fast, and sometimes people who are really sharp like Dustin are used to things moving really fast,” Chehrazi says. “He’s a very capable person, but when we’re dealing with larger systems, it’s just going to be that much slower and that much more patience is going to be needed.”
Canter has experience challenging District officials when issues hit close to home. In 2014, Canter biked to the Wilson Building to decry a proposal that would require gyms and health clubs, including yoga studios, to collect sales taxes. In the end, however, the proposal—part of broader local tax reform—passed.
Beyond yoga and his day job, Canter volunteers at the Midtown Youth Academy, a boxing and tutoring center on 14th Street NW, as head of community outreach. The academy’s CEO Khalia Jackson is one of his most vocal cheerleaders. She’s worked closely with Canter for five years, and says he’s not the type to throw in the towel.
“He’s not completely wrapped up in what D.C. is becoming. He also understands what it was like before [and] understands all different types of people,” Jackson explains. “He is dedicated to this venture. I think that he is going to run again and again.”
For now, Canter stands outside of the powers that be, and he probably will for the coming years. But the quixotic yoga teacher vows to run again in 2022 if he is not elected mayor in this cycle.
Running the city, however, isn’t Canter’s only immediate aspiration. Soon, he hopes to host a political radio show dubbed “Breakfast with Dustin.”
Other ideas in the works: On Sept. 24 Canter polled interest on Facebook for his idea to couch-surf with eight different D.C. families. “During the final 8 months of the campaign leading up to the election, I would crash couches in all 8 wards. The idea would be that I would stay with 1 local family for up to 1 month in each ward,” reads his post. A volunteer host in Ward 3 has already emerged.
This article has been updated. The original version stated that Canter said he would seek office again in 2020. In fact, he said he would run for mayor again in 2022 if he does not win the current race.