It’s the middle of May, and the only chance the District has of electing an openly gay councilmember this year is sweating his way through Dupont Circle.
“I’m energized to do it,” David Garber, 32, tells an older male resident on S Street NW, who’d commented on his youthful figure. With Garber are three canvassers, whom the resident coyly refers to as an “entourage.”
“How many people are running in this race anyways?” the resident asks.
If Garber wins and takes the citywide D.C. Council seat Vincent Orange has held since 2011, he’d fill a void left by Ward 1’s Jim Graham and at-larger David Catania last year. The latter lost in a failed mayoral bid against Muriel Bowser and now works as a white-shoe healthcare lawyer. Graham got ousted from the Wilson Building by Brianne Nadeau, and has pivoted to promoting male strippers. The Council dais has been manifestly less queer ever since.
Garber’s chances seem slim given Orange’s name recognition and the endorsements leading challenger Robert White has amassed in recent weeks, including one from his former boss and a man he describes as his “mentor,” D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine. But what’s befuddling about Garber’s campaign— at least at first glance—is the fact that the District’s politically active LGBTQ groups aren’t interested in elevating the former substitute teacher and advisory neighborhood commissioner as the next gay councilmember.
“I never heard of him until about a year ago,” says Rick Rosendall, president of D.C.’s Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance. Rosendall personally supports White, and he says Garber is “a nice guy…but he has not impressed a lot of people on the campaign trail. Whereas Robert… has actively worked with us for longer and is more plugged-in.”
Garber hasn’t shied away from his gay identity since he came out via Facebook last year, but he isn’t exactly capitalizing on it either. “My level of experience and the issues that I’d be fighting for are so much broader than that,” he says, rejecting the “gay candidate” label. “But it’s definitely a part of who I am, and it’s something I’d fight for and be proud of on Council,” he says, whether he’d be tackling LGBTQ youth homelessness or discrimination against gay seniors.
Meanwhile, his opponents are doing plenty to cover their bases with the District’s queer community. For one thing, all three are set to march in this weekend’s Pride Parade, something of a tradition for politicians here. In April, though, Orange and White split acclaim from the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, at an endorsement forum for D.C.’s LGBTQ establishment. Garber won just two votes, reported the Washington Blade, compared with Orange’s 44 and White’s 37. After a runoff, no candidate was officially endorsed.
“It would be nice to have a[n LGBTQ] person [on the Council], but just to have a person for the sake of having a person is not necessarily the winning formula,” Stein Club President Earl Fowlkes says. “We’re looking at their ability to get things done… and [whether they’re] on our side.”
Rosendall echoes that notion, pointing out that GLAA scored White plus-8.5 on its candidate scale, which ranges from minus-10 to plus-10 and is based on a candidate’s record as well as questionnaire responses. While Orange earned only plus-4, Garber got a relatively modest plus-6.5. He contends that he has “quite a bit of support” from queer folk across the District. Besides, he says, “there are infinitely more LGBT residents in D.C. that are not part of these political clubs than are.”
That’s true, and political campaigns have long skewed Stein Club endorsements by covering supporters’ membership fees. This effectively permits politicos to “pack the meeting,” Rosendall notes. For Fowlkes, Garber’s paltry showing illustrates that “he’s a bit of an unknown quality.”
The candidate, who grew up in nearby Virginia and moved to D.C. when he was 24, can’t count on a geographic base either, having bounced from Anacostia to Navy Yard to Shaw. (“At-large, that’s a lot of doors to knock on,” the S Street citizen tells Garber.) And in a progressive city that helped lead the charge for legalizing same-sex marriage, the line between LGBTQ voters and their allies remains thin, particularly in 2016.
Still, former Councilmember Graham says it’s “terribly important” for the Council to have a sitting LGBTQ member. “We have the votes on issues,” says the ex-executive director of Whitman-Walker Health, now in his 70s. “But you don’t feel the issues in your heart unless you’re one of us… and take initiative.”
Will D.C. have a queer councilmember again? “I think it’s going to happen,” Graham, an Orange supporter, says, speaking on the phone from his convertible. “It’s definitely going to come about. Maybe not this election but maybe in the future it will come about. And maybe it’s already happened… Maybe it’s already there.”