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On a hot August day in 1990, Marion Barry addressed his supporters outside the Reeves Center, a day after he’d beaten most of the federal government’s case against him on drug and perjury charges. Then the mayor, Barry began his speech by thanking God and acknowledging the presence of three women who were central to his life: his mother, his wife, and Anita Bonds.
“My good friend, political adviser, campaign manager, assistant defense attorney,” is how Barry described her.
Twenty-two years later, Barry was on hand to see one of his most loyal longtime aides—who first worked on Barry’s 1971 bid for the city’s school board—ascend from the background of city politics and take a seat on the D.C. Council. The D.C. Democratic State Committee elected Bonds, its chairwoman, as the city’s newest councilmember Monday night at a special meeting at Catholic University. Bonds will fill the vacant seat left after D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson replaced Kwame “Fully Loaded” Brown, who resigned and pleaded guilty to bank fraud this summer. A special election will be held in April, open to anyone, to determine who will serve out the remaining two years in the seat’s term. (Bonds plans to run.)
Bonds’ road to the Council after more than 40 years working behind the scenes on campaigns and in three mayoral administrations marks one of the longest, if not the longest, trips to elected office the District’s young government has seen.
“I’m elated, I’m ecstatic,” Barry told LL shortly after Bonds’ victory. “I’m glad the mentoring worked.”
Not everyone is equally happy. For the city’s progressive set, Bonds represents their worst nightmare: a Barry protégé who was elevated to office by the Democratic State Committee—an organization often seen as inept and unrepresentative of the city’s 350,000 registered Democrats—and who works for a well-connected city contractor, Fort Myer Construction, while the city grapples with what many see as a pay-to-play culture.
Just a few minutes after her victory Monday, Bonds pushed back hard against any suggestion by reporters that she’d vote in lockstep with Barry or that her employment with the city’s biggest road-paving company should be a concern. She said she didn’t support Barry’s current efforts to make ex-offenders a protected class against discrimination. And she said she found it “ironic” that she was being asked about her outside employment when the press hadn’t asked the same questions of male councilmembers with second jobs.
“You don’t ask those questions, you don’t say how much [male councilmembers] make in their law practice or how much they make as vice-presidents of their companies, but you’re very concerned about me, little ol’ me, ordinary me?” Bonds told reporters.
That’s not anywhere close to true—there’s a long, publicly available history of reporters hounding male councilmembers like David Catania or Jack Evans about their outside employment. And no other councilmember works for a company so heavily involved with District government as Fort Myer. The city pays the company about $80 million a year directly, and untold more indirectly through subcontracts on construction projects. Fort Myer’s owners are among the most reliable sources for campaign contributions to local politicians, having given more than $150,000 in the last decade. (That’s just what’s in campaign finance records. The company’s donations to various pols’ Thanksgiving turkey giveaways go unreported.)
But Bonds’ feisty response does underscore that the diminutive 67-year-old grandmother, despite one of the sunnier dispositions in D.C. politics, is no pushover. Of course, it’s not like four decades in local campaigns, often next to Barry, didn’t prepare Bonds for a little controversy.
Bonds grew up in Southeast D.C., went to college at Berkeley, and came back to the District, where she got married and started a family. She had already worked on a few campaigns when former Del. Walter Fauntroy asked her to help a relative unknown named Marion Barry’s bid for a school board seat.
Bonds became an indispensable campaign aide for Barry, who rose quickly through the ranks to get elected mayor in 1978. A Washington Post article from that year details how she worked long hours at Barry’s campaign headquarters organizing his field effort and taking care of an endless list of political chores. She had a similar role in Barry’s 1982 campaign and managed his 1986 campaign.
In between elections, Bonds managed Barry’s office on community relations, which several councilmembers groused was little more than a publicly funded extension of Barry’s mayoral campaign organization.
Bonds showed just how indispensable she was to Barry during his trial: She helped his legal team pick jurors, set up a trust to pay his legal bills, and organized rallies around the city to show support for the beleaguered mayor. After the trial, some of Barry’s supporters threw a party to honor Bonds.
But Bonds’ political career extends beyond Barry. She managed Harold Brazil’s ill-fated run for mayor in 1998 (Brazil fired her a month before the election). And she worked for mayors Sharon Pratt and Anthony Williams. When she was quickly dismissed as Williams’ community outreach boss, one rising star in District politics took offense.
“There was a good amount of fanfare when [Williams] hired Anita,” then At-Large Councilmember Kwame Brown told the Post. “What a great disappointment that they let her go.” Bonds briefly went to work as Brown’s Council chief of staff.
Those days of working for someone else are behind Bonds now; she was sworn in early Tuesday. The four months before the special election don’t give Bonds much time to make a splash, but that’s never been her style as a behind-the-scenes operator. Under her leadership, the Democratic State Committee has continued to have a barely noticeable role in city politics.
Bonds tells LL not to expect any dramatic moves on her part to win over critics who think her past associations will dictate her choices as a councilmember.
“I don’t know them, they don’t know me, and I’ll just leave it at that,” she says. “I’m a decent person, so ten to one, I’m going to do the right thing. So what is the real deal here?”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery