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D.C.’s Home Rule Charter, which gives us the limited independence from Congress that we have, turned 40 years old this week, and municipal powerbrokers, elected officials, and former lawmakers all joined together to celebrate. A week later, the voters have their chance. Here’s how we’d suggest steering our young democracy on Nov. 4.
No matter who wins the mayoral election, the losers are likely to find plenty to grumble about. (If only the voters had longer memories. If only Vince Gray had won the Democratic nomination. If only the polls had been more accurate.) Voters may find themselves a little dissatisfied, too: Sure, there’s something to like about all the leading candidates, but none of them are quite perfect, either.
Start with Carol Schwartz, one of two ex-Republican independents in the race. She’s hilarious, and driven, and no one could doubt that she loves the District and wants to make it a better place to live, work, and simply be. She’s been in and out of politics here for 40 years, and along the way she accomplished a lot—like paid sick leave for workers, relaunching the city’s recycling program, and creating the D.C. Department of the Environment. Her recent time out of office (which rival David Catania, who backed Republican Pat Mara in a 2008 primary against Schwartz, has some responsibility for), though, may not have left her the best-suited would-be mayor on the ballot. Schwartz can tell war stories from the 1980s and 1990s better than anyone, but at times nostalgia for her own career highlights and a clear disdain for the other choices on the ballot have seemed like the animating principles of her campaign. We’re glad she’s back in public life, but we’re not quite ready to make the fifth time running for mayor the charm.
The other top two candidates present more of a dilemma. Unlike 2010’s decisive Democratic primary—when Vince Gray essentially pledged to do the same things Adrian Fenty was doing, but without pissing so many people off in the process—there are pretty clear differences between Muriel Bowser and David Catania about what the city needs most and how the mayor can help make that happen. Bowser offers a mostly optimistic vision for how to make sure everyone benefits from a growing, thriving city; her critiques of the status quo tend to focus on the margins, and she seems confident that in the right hands—hers—the District will be just fine. Catania takes a more gimlet-eyed view of where we are and how we got here: The city’s recent political history, he argues sharply, has been marked by a lack of urgency about fixing problems, and now sweeping change is what’s called for.
Which, ultimately, sounds more accurate to us.
Right now, the city works very well for many residents, especially the 1,000-plus educated professionals moving here each month to make and spend money in fancy new buildings. (It works even better for the developers and city contractors who’ve benefited from the boom times.) It does not work particularly well for anyone who’s in danger of not being able to keep up with the expensive times, whether because they can’t afford the too-damn-high rent or because the school down the street isn’t teaching their kids anything. Maybe it’s time to try a break from the current system.
It’s a little ironic that Catania, who’s been on the Council a decade longer than Bowser, issues the louder jeremiads against the status quo, but he does. That may be partly because Bowser knows she’s the heavy favorite—why call for radical change when all you have to do is wait for the victory party? But it may also be because Bowser is closely tied to the permanent establishment in D.C. politics, the real estate firms and lobbyists who never really get the boot from the Wilson Building, who funded her campaign generously, and whose cozy pay-to-play culture wasn’t really threatened by the ethics law she wrote.
That’s not to say Catania’s perfect, either. Forget his temper, which no one who’s caught glimpses of it could easily do; we think his decision to keep working for city contractor M.C. Dean while on the Council (until a recent change in his outside job) was a mistake. His support for George W. Bush until he quit the GOP is hard to get past, too. And backing him enthusiastically would also be easier if, to be blunt, he wasn’t a white candidate in a plurality-black city where race is so closely tied to the meta-narratives of gentrification and change that loom behind virtually everything else. Catania talks about his race as a glass ceiling in D.C. politics, which seems tin-eared, at best, when you’re running for mayor of the capital of a country where white people are still wrapped in privilege.
We also don’t buy the argument from some Catania supporters that Bowser wouldn’t be up to the job: She’s well versed in how the city functions, and she’s clearly been spending the months since she won the primary planning for how to govern, on the reasonable assumption that she’d probably get the chance. We just find Catania’s fundamental critique of the District government today—that it settles for incrementalism, instead of aiming for excellence—to be persuasive. And we think his record on the Council shows his ability to keep doing that if he were mayor. Take D.C.’s marriage equality law, which Catania is justifiably proud of steering to passage. Or his eight years running the Council’s health committee, during which the city’s uninsured rate was halved and its HIV/AIDS record improved significantly. Or his current focus on education, where he got the Council to approve $80 million in new funds for schools serving at-risk students. Ask Catania about what art he likes, and you’ll get a discourse on how investing in the arts can lead to economic development; he’s so immersed in policy, and excited about the possibility of energizing the Wilson Building, that it’s easy to imagine he could sweep the rest of the city along with him.
Vote for David Catania if: You want to change how D.C. government works, and not just a little bit.
D.C. Council At-Large
The sheer number of candidates whose names will confront voters in this race alone is one of the most powerful arguments for election reform in D.C. No, you’re not imagining things: There are 15 people hoping for your two votes! That’s enough to fill an entire Council, including the chairman, and have two alternate councilmembers in case something should happen to one of them, like, oh, an indictment by federal prosecutors (not an entirely unknown event for D.C. lawmakers lately).
Most of them were Democrats until they jumped into this race, lured by the prospect of a vacancy in one of the two at-large seats reserved by the Home Rule Charter for non-members of the majority party. (One, shadow Sen. Michael D. Brown, was actually a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 2012.) Some will probably wind up with fewer votes than signatures they collected to get on the ballot. A few more 15-way citywide elections, and maybe District voters will want to amend the charter to dump the reserved minority party seat. Or establish instant runoff voting, so people who really are die-hard supporters of whoever comes in 14th in this election can vote their conscience but then still weigh in on which candidate with broader support ought to win. Or hold open primaries, so the field could have been winnowed down to, say, four or five candidates for two seats, and so people who are elected officeholders in one party don’t have an incentive to switch their registration for an easier shot at a promotion.
But to paraphrase one of the few people who isn’t running for the seat, you go to the ballot box with the election rules—and thus, the candidates—you have, not the election rules you might want or wish to have. Fortunately, this time, it’s not hard to pick a couple of names out from the crowd.
We endorsed Elissa Silverman last year, when she narrowly lost a special election to incumbent Democrat Anita Bonds (who’s on the ballot this time, too, and is an overwhelming favorite to win one of the two seats by dint of her party registration). We were, and remain, uncomfortable with the fact that someone who used to work at City Paper is running for Council; most of us are barely qualified for any employment after this, much less for public office. But no current writers or editors worked with her here, a job she left a decade ago, and even Marion Barry, a frequent target of her reporting, now says not to hold her past as a journalist against her. We agree. Silverman has demonstrated an insider’s knowledge of how the city’s budget works, or doesn’t work, especially when it comes to issues of poverty and affordable housing. But in the year since she first ran, she’s also shown she can get things done: The D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, where she worked after leaving the Washington Post, helped build the coalition that got the city’s minimum wage raised and expanded paid sick leave for all workers. Silverman also helped organize last year’s ultimately failed effort to ban corporate contributions from D.C. politics, and she’s run her own campaign as if it had passed. She’d bring a skeptical, aggressive voice for interests that aren’t always well-represented in government to the Wilson Building.
So would Graylan Hagler, our other pick for Council. He led the push for a higher minimum wage and for an earlier bill, eventually vetoed by Mayor Vince Gray, that would have mandated a living wage at Walmart and other big-box retail stores. (And now, like Silverman, Hagler says he’d rather have a slightly lower wage increase for all than no wage increase for anyone.) He’s worked for years for affordable housing, against the death penalty (which D.C. voters overwhelmingly reject, much to the chagrin of Congress), and for environmental justice. Hagler would be blunt about the government’s need to do more for the poor, and he’s eloquent enough that few could ignore him.
Silverman and Hagler’s track record of accomplishments gave them the edge over the Statehood Green Party’s Eugene Puryear, who also impressed us during this campaign, and over independents Khalid Pitts and Courtney Snowden, who we’d like to see stay involved in local government in the future. Remember to use both of your votes for this office—you don’t get many chances to cast meaningful ones in D.C.
Vote for Elissa Silverman and Graylan Hagler if: You worry about the city’s future, and you think the rest of us ought to, too.
This election wouldn’t be happening this fall if not for the sometimes lonely battle Paul Zukerberg waged to keep it there. Voters approved making the attorney general an elected office, rather than a mayoral appointment, in a 2010 referendum. Then the D.C. Council decided they didn’t really mean to let that happen. Some lawmakers even suggested delaying the vote because they weren’t satisfied with who might seek the office—which, considering the esteem in which most voters hold most of the Council, was pretty rich.
Zukerberg battled through initial litigation and a later series of appeals. He also deserves credit for getting the city’s political class to think differently about marijuana: When he ran for an at-large Council seat last year, decriminalization was essentially his only issue, which people mostly scoffed at—only to see the Council later pass a bill that Zukerberg may as well have written, reducing the penalty for possessing small amounts of pot to a $25 fine.
All the candidates for AG more or less agree on most issues: They’d push to reform juvenile justice in D.C. to try to keep teenagers from getting locked up; they’d protect D.C. consumers from predatory corporations; they’d push for statehood. And all of them acknowledge a bit of concern over how, exactly, the office they’re seeking will work now that the Council has set up a parallel staff of agency lawyers who report to the mayor, not to the attorney general. Most of them would be progressive, vocal attorneys general—Lorie Masters, in particular, has impressive experience working with the D.C. Appleseed Center and D.C. Vote, and Edward “Smitty” Smith looks like a future star in local politics if he stays active. (Karl Racine, the establishment’s choice, isn’t our favorite, mostly because he’s the establishment’s choice.) But we’d like to give Zukerberg a chance to serve in the job he helped put on the ballot.
Vote for Paul Zukerberg if: You’re glad there’s an election for AG this year.
D.C. Council Chair
The man whose nickname and legislative mien inspired what must be the world’s dullest variation on bingo (“Mendo,” played by bored Wilson Building wags during Council sessions) will probably have a dull election on his hands, too, as the presence of four rivals on the ballot will make it hard for any to emerge as the sole anti-Mendo vote. And with pretty good reason: Phil Mendelson has steered a higher minimum wage and expanded paid sick leave through the Council, as well as the decriminalization of marijuana, and he helped push for the budget autonomy referendum voters approved last year. We don’t agree with him on everything—he’s as much to blame as anyone else for the Council’s cowardly plea for Congress not to give the District control over the height of its buildings—but he’s worth keeping around.
Vote for Phil Mendelson if: You think the D.C. Council needs a grownup in charge.
D.C. Council, Ward 1
The general election and the Democratic primary for Ward 1 both used to be mostly symbolic affairs; a handful of people would line up to lose to Jim Graham, and then he’d go back to driving his VW bug around town. Upstart Brianne Nadeau messed that whole routine up in April, when she actually defeated Graham. After outworking the incumbent in the primary, running on a platform animated by ethics and transparency, Nadeau should get a chance to actually serve on the Council, where she should line up with a growing bloc of lawmakers who look for opportunities to change the way the city does business. Still, if she gets her own cream-colored German convertible, watch out.
Vote for Brianne Nadeau if: You’re a young whippersnapper, too.
D.C. Council, Ward 3
Mary Cheh’s likely to win no matter what: Her Libertarian opponent, Ryan Sabot, won the party’s nomination by two votes in April—with a tally of 2 to 0. But with the Council set to include some fresh voices in the fall (see Ward 1), Cheh could help give would-be reformers some critical mass. She’s done a good job refereeing the endless Uber battles, too. We’re against councilmembers holding down outside jobs, as Cheh does, but at least she’s employed as a law professor, not a lobbyist like her colleague from Ward 2.
Vote for Mary Cheh if: You like your liberals old school.
D.C. Council, Ward 5
Running the government operations committee on the D.C. Council isn’t the most glamorous of jobs: There’s no fundraising advantage that comes with it, after all, and every now and then you may have to punish a wayward colleague for breaking ethics rules. (It is the D.C. Council.) But Kenyan McDuffie has jumped into the task, firing a staffer who used government money on a bar tab, pushing to allow the District to conduct a nationwide search for a new inspector general, and generally making everyone forget all about his predecessor, who went to federal prison for stealing city money earmarked for poor kids. He’s built a broad coalition of support in one of the city’s fastest-changing wards, which isn’t easy to do unless you’re doing something right. McDuffie could take a few firmer ethical stands—why continue to accept corporate contributions for your all-but-unopposed reelection campaign?—but we’re glad he’ll be back in 2015.
Vote for Kenyan McDuffie if: You think lawmakers should follow the laws.
D.C. Council, Ward 6
Replacing Tommy Wells in Ward 6 would be a difficult job for a lot of politicians. His fans in the “livable, walkable” parts of the ward are legion, and devoted. For Charles Allen, though, it should be a snap, as he served as chief of staff to Wells until he stepped down so he could run for his former boss’ seat. Sure, past performance is no guarantee of future results, but with Allen in office, don’t try telling that to Ward 6.
Vote for Charles Allen if: You still like walkability.
Delegate to U.S. House of Representatives
There are two ways to look at the unfortunate news that next year, the District still won’t be a state, will still have to worry that some freshman Tea Partier from the middle of nowhere has decided to run a social policy experiment on us, and may have a Republican Senate to contend with as well as a GOP House. On the one hand, Eleanor Holmes Norton has been in office since 1991 and hasn’t done much to change D.C.’s fundamentally unjust status. On the other, we’re not sure any of the people who want to replace her would be more effective. Norton hasn’t delivered any big wins—though the District did manage to emerge from last fall’s federal government shutdown with a legislative guarantee that we wouldn’t get caught in another one this year. But with D.C. likelier to need to play defense next year on the Hill, the fact that she’s been around long enough to make some voters wonder whether it’s been too long could actually be a plus. It might not be so bad, though, if challenger Tim Krepp—a very occasional City Paper contributor and an all-around municipal mensch, albeit one whose now-serious campaign started out a little tongue-in-cheek—picked up enough votes to remind Norton not to take her job for granted.
Vote for Eleanor Holmes Norton if: You can’t imagine doing anything else.
In our endorsements before April’s Democratic primary, we said this office was imaginary, and that it didn’t matter who you voted for. Not long after that, though, something amazing happened: D.C.’s shadow senator got something done! OK, no, it wasn’t statehood. Still, incumbent Paul Strauss managed to broker talks between the National Park Service and organizers of the Fort Reno summer concert series that kept the shows running this year despite a dispute over who would pay for police. That’s reason enough to elect Strauss again. Even if you don’t care about an indie-rock concert series, remember: You’re only rewarding him with an unpaid gig that comes with no budget.
Vote for Paul Strauss if: You’re an aging D.C. punk at heart.
This office is still imaginary.
The District decriminalized marijuana earlier this year and immediately set about enforcing the new laws, with $25 fines in place of prison time, in the same fundamentally unjust ways it had been enforcing the old ones. Most of the new citations came in mostly poor, mostly black neighborhoods, just like the arrests before them had. At least no one’s future job prospects are going to be doomed by a $25 ticket, but why keep up prohibition at all at this point? D.C. can become a leader in the wave of marijuana legalization that’s clearly on the way by voting yes.
Sure, any legal drug—alcohol, tobacco, or marijuana—comes with some increased risk that people will harm themselves using it. And no doubt, there’s big money to be made selling legal pot in D.C., though the current initiative doesn’t provide for that. Of course, it’s not like it’s hard today for someone to get their hands on more weed than is good for them, and if you don’t think people are getting rich off pot’s underground economy today, we want some of what you’re smoking. We just can’t in good conscience argue that something about half the country—and we’d bet more than half the city—has used ought to stay illegal. Besides, this way Maureen Dowd won’t have to jet off to Colorado when she wants a pot candy bar.
Vote for Initiative 71 if: You want to legalize it.
Advisory Neighborhood Commission and State Board of Education
You may also find, toward the end of the ballot, a candidate or two for your Advisory Neighborhood Commission, D.C.’s unit of microgovernment, whose opinions on public matters are supposed to be given great weight by other agencies. Many of them are running unopposed. If you live in wards 1, 3, 5, or 6, there’s an election for State Board of Education—which, now that the mayor controls D.C. Public Schools, has a little less urgency than it used to. We aren’t making endorsements in these races, but if you want to know a bit more about whose names you’ll see, check out the League of Women Voters’ guide at Vote411.org—or the official Board of Elections guide, if you can ignore the upside-down flag on the cover.
Photos by Darrow Montgomery