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One by one they came to celebrate at the Channel Inn, the Southwest waterfront hotel, restaurant, and bar whose glory days are long gone. Once a favorite hangout of Marion Barry, his mayoral administration’s insiders, and various hangers-on during the ’80s, the quirky joint will soon be torn down to make way for what seems like an endless tide of new condos and mixed-use developments in boomtown D.C.
But for Tuesday night, thoughts of bulldozers and cranes were far from anyone’s mind as the Inn was once again the place to be. Much of the District’s political establishment streamed to the hotel to revel in Councilmember Anita Bonds’ victory in this week’s special election. Bonds, a longtime background player in city politics who had helped keep the District government together while Barry was on trial for using drugs as mayor, won the election with 32 percent of the vote by following a tried and true formula in recent elections: Win the vast majority of votes in African-American neighborhoods in the eastern half of the city and watch the white vote elsewhere splinter among multiple candidates.
A 68-year-old grandmother, Bonds was appointed to the Council seat temporarily in December by the D.C. Democratic State Committee, an organization she heads. Bonds was not a particularly effective campaigner, and her victory was far from assured. She was unsteady at candidate forums (she started skipping them with regularity near the end of the contest) and made an awkward appeal to black voters on the Kojo Nnamdi Show based on race. “There’s a natural tendency to want to vote for your own,” she said.
But Bonds had the goods where it counted: luck and institutional support. Former Councilmember Michael Brown’s abrupt withdrawal from the race three weeks ago allowed Bonds to monopolize precincts east of the Anacostia River while her challengers, chiefly former Washington City Paper and Washington Post reporter-turned-liberal budget activist Elissa Silverman and Republican school board member Patrick Mara, scrapped for votes. Bonds also had the support of Barry, labor groups, longtime Democratic activists, and would-be mayors Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans and Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser to help pull her across the finish line.
During her acceptance speech Tuesday, Bonds chose to focus on the institutional support.
“Marion Barry’s robocalls, I think, hit the spot,” Bonds said.
Before her speech, Bonds walked into the ballroom followed by Barry, who has trouble walking on his own and placed both hands on Bonds’ shoulders for support. Evans, who wore a smile as wide as a new bride at her wedding reception the entire evening, followed suit and put his hands on Barry. The makeshift conga line made its way through the crowd as McFadden & Whitehead’s disco hit from 1979, “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now,” blared.
Right behind them was Mayor Vince Gray, whose path to re-election should he decide to run again would likely mirror Bonds’. Though Gray didn’t endorse Bonds, it was clear he was clear he was happy with her victory. He hand-danced with a few women and led the crowd in a chant of “Anita! Anita!”
When he introduce Bonds to a cheering crowd of about 100 or so, the usually monotone Gray dropped his voice an octave and gave a guttural yell.
“If there ever was a candidate that deserved to win, it’s Anita Bonds!”
Ward 6 Councilmartyr Saint Tommy Wells, a likely mayoral candidate who stakes a claim to being the Council’s leading voice on good-government issues, chose his words carefully Tuesday as he was leaving Anita’s party after briefly stopping by to congratulate her.
“All the old guard did come together around Anita and I’m sure they should feel very good they were able to win,” he says.
Bonds’ victory will likely lead to plenty of hand-wringing among self-style progressive and/or reform voters, who often tend to be white and relatively new to the city and have seen their votes split among several of their chosen candidates in the last three at-large elections. Bonds’ victory follow similarly patterned wins by Councilmember Vincent Orange in 2011 and 2012. Orange eked into office with 29 percent of the vote in the 2011 special election and won 40 percent of the vote in last year’s Democratic primary, beating Sekou Biddle by only 1,746 votes.
There’s a clear appetite among the majority of the city’s voters for fresh blood on the Council. (Orange had previously been a Ward 5 councilmember and, like Bonds, has been a fixture of the local Democratic Party.) Yet no candidate has been able to bring together the disparate groups of voters looking for change in a strong majority or even a simple plurality. That might be because the reform-oriented candidates just haven’t been that impressive, but it’s more likely because “reform” means different things to different people; there’s no organized effort or group powerful enough to make or break any candidate who wants to claim the reform mantle. It’s an open casting call, and the people who answer it are often convinced of the rightness of their crusade.
In this last contest, Silverman foresaw that Ward 3 school activist Matthew Frumin could likely play the spoiler to her victory. A little more than a week before the election, Silverman awkwardly tried to get Frumin to drop out, stressing in an email that his endorsement would mean that “we can see a progressive win this seat and swing momentum toward an agenda we both want.”
Frumin, who had raised the most money in the race, said no—and went on to win just 11 percent of the vote. If even half of his voters had gone for Silverman, a reasonable possibility since they agreed on many issues, she would have won. But Frumin says he doesn’t think he played the spoiler and he “felt an obligation to go forward” with the campaign and advocate for his version of school reform, which he says was unique.
“It wasn’t up to me to pick who should win or who should lose,” says Frumin.
Might Silverman stick around? She came in a surprising second with 28 percent of the vote—an impressive feat considering she handicapped her fundraising ability by refusing any corporate donations, which made up more than half of Bonds’ $127,000 in contributions, according to an analysis by the Sunlight Foundation.
“The results tonight, in my opinion, are phenomenal,” Silverman told her supporters, who were predominantly young and white, at her election night party at Union Kitchen. “We exceeded everyone’s expectations.”
Tuesday’s contest also marked the likely end of Mara’s ambitions to join the D.C. Council. Mara beat incumbent GOP Councilmember Carol Schwartz in a primary in 2008 (before losing to Michael Brown), came in second to Orange in 2011, and was widely considered a frontrunner in this contest. But despite strong support from the business community and the Post, which penned four endorsements for Mara in a month, he finished third with 23 percent.
At the Mara party in Columbia Heights, the election watch was over before it began. Young staffers were still trying to get election results on a TV when the dismal early returns online showed that there wouldn’t be much worth watching. Around 11, Mara thanked volunteers and announced he would soon fly to a vacation in Costa Rica.
But the next election is never far off in D.C. politics lately, so the District’s wags won’t have to wait long to see whether Tuesday night’s trends hold up. In less than a year—on April Fool’s Day, aptly enough—voters will be summoned for primaries to decide nominees for mayor, D.C. Council chairman, attorney general, two at-large Council seats (including Bonds’), and councilmembers in wards 1, 3, 5, and 6.
This LL won’t be around, though; this is his last column before moving on to ferret out the misdeeds of other politicians in other places at the Center for Public Integrity. Don’t breathe too easy at the Wilson Building, though—City Paper plans to have someone else filling this spot and taking the LL name soon enough. Thanks to all of the sources, readers, coworkers, politicians (straight and crooked) and others who helped this LL along the way.
Aaron Wiener and Will Sommer contributed to this report.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery