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After months out of work, Elissa Silverman is tapped out. Her 401(k): vanished. Her credit: teetering on the edge of maxed out. Silverman is even paying personally for access to Shaw’s Wonderbread Factory so she has an office from which to tell LL how broke she is.
“I basically have no savings and no retirement money,” Silverman says.
At this point, the only thing separating Silverman from any other broke Gen X-er is a D.C. Council seat. Silverman came in second last month in the race for two at-large Council seats, making her part of a wave swamping the Council in two parts next year, first with three new members in January and then a few more after April special elections in Ward 4 (vacant because Councilmember Muriel Bowser will become mayor) and Ward 8 (vacant after Councilmember Marion Barry’s death). By May, nearly half of the thirteen faces on the Council will be new.
After months or years of campaigning—Ward 1 Councilmember-elect Brianne Nadeau started raising money in 2011—the new class is about to start its freshman year, usually a time where the legislative ambitions of the campaign trail wither for lack of seniority.
Recent history doesn’t bode well for the newbies. Ward 5’s Kenyan McDuffie spent his first year on the Council with his head in ward matters, while At-Large Councilmember David Grosso tagged along on issues with more established legislators. At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds is the head of the District’s Democratic Party, but that couldn’t stop what would have been her signature legislative achievement thus far—property tax breaks for elderly homeowners—from getting kicked in the teeth by D.C. Council chairman Phil Mendelson.
The freshmen will face life under Mendelson, a once-retiring type who lately has been doing his best Duvalier of the Dais routine, bending councilmembers to his will on the D.C. United soccer stadium deal and with veto overrides. Mendelson likely won’t repeat predecessor Kwame Brown’s interior decorating theories and boot a new arrival into the hallway to enlarge his own office. Still, there is one strict rule of Mendoland: You don’t get to chair a committee if you’ve just arrived.
“He doesn’t think that freshmen members should have committees, and I’m not interested in challenging his worldview,” Silverman says.
Mendelson won’t publicly commit to keeping freshmen from helming committees—an increasingly difficult task as veterans leave the Wilson Building or are helped out by voters—but it’s no secret, according to Nadeau. (Nadeau didn’t take to LL’s suggestion that she follow prison tactics and establish her bona fides by picking a fight with the toughest councilmember.)
“It’s not such an unspoken rule,” Nadeau says.
Which isn’t to say there aren’t some benefits to being a councilmember-elect. Among other things, Nadeau’s double-digit April primary victory over 15-year-incumbent Jim Graham earned her the right to send a staffer to Graham’s final Thanksgiving turkey giveaway last month.
“Let’s keep everything friendly with Nadeau, please,” Graham urged his turkey handlers outside one apartment complex. “We’re trying to make everything cooperative.”
Maybe playing the lame duck has mellowed Graham, because he’s undergone a transformation since the bitter primary campaign. Then, he called for an inspector general investigation of Nadeau’s condo loan and confronted her over it at the Wilson Building’s go-to Starbucks. (Despite post-election meetings, they still haven’t talked about that, Nadeau says.)
The freshmen councilmembers’ staffs and even future office suites are still undetermined, but don’t tell their constituents. Since winning the April 1 Democratic primary, Nadeau and incoming Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen have been swamped with the sort of constituent service requests that are usually left to actual officeholders. Nadeau has had to get creative, routing pothole requests and the like through Grosso’s office.
Campaigning for an easy general election win this fall, Allen recalls being asked why he was running for re-election again so soon after April.
“Basically, on April 2, everybody started treating me like a councilmember,” Allen says.
In the lame-duck period (nine months for Nadeau and Allen, two months for Silverman), the freshmen can each start working through the baggage they’ll bring into their office suites. For Allen, that means getting out of the shadow of his big brother——er, former boss——outgoing Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells. After working on Wells’ staff for seven years, Allen won the seat as his heir apparent when Wells ditched it to run a losing mayoral campaign.
“As a staffer, you know what I was facing,” Allen says. “People were saying, ‘How are you different?’”
For one thing, Allen can’t see himself following Wells’ lead and sloganizing his agenda anytime soon. Adios for now, “livable, walkable.”
“It’s hard to follow ‘livable, walkable,’” Allen says. “It just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?”
Taking over an office previously run by Graham, the recipient of a rare reprimand from his Council colleagues, Nadeau plans to make her staffers agree to a code of conduct. And she’ll train them on the extra scrutiny she says women pols receive in the District.
“The same way that I have to be mindful of being new, or young, or white, but you know, this is who I am,” Nadeau says.
All three new councilmembers fall somewhere under the squishy “progressive” label, but Silverman, a crusader on campaign finance laws, may be most associated with it. On the Council, she plans to take on a hell of a task: proving that being “progressive” isn’t just for whites with money to splash on dog parks, bike lanes, and streetcars.
Though she won Barry’s endorsement, Silverman’s at-large opponents accused her of not knowing enough about wards 7 and 8 (a liability in the citywide at-large seat). In one memorable debate, Silverman said she wanted more businesses to move to the District’s poorest wards, only to inspire her rivals to list their favorite businesses that were already east of the Anacostia River.
“I think it was unfair,” Silverman says. “I’ve certainly spent a lot of time east of the river. But I think it speaks to a greater tension about who the city is for.”
The freshmen are tight-lipped or otherwise unclear about what they’d like to get done in office. After touting his interest in early childhood education, Allen clams up on what he’d actually legislate. “I don’t want to give you all my secrets,” he says.
That doesn’t stop them from having some vague sense of big plans. “We’re going to walk in the doors ready to get things done,” Nadeau says.
The question, starting on Jan. 2, is whether those doors will be open.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery