Christina Henderson is walking through the quiet streets of Brookland, where she knows some people and where she’s hoping to get to know more. She passes houses displaying campaign signs for Ed Lazere and At-Large Councilmember Robert White—two of her challengers for the two at-large seats on the D.C. Council up for grabs this November—as she continues the monthslong slog of contactless canvassing, a more boring version of door knocking.
Henderson, a former Council and current Capitol Hill staffer, is running as an independent against 22 other candidates in the general election. (Little-known candidate Rick Murphree dropped out last weekend and endorsed Henderson. His name will still appear on the ballot.)
Some lawns are decked with the first-time candidate’s own purple signs. Others have signs for Joe Biden. And as she turns the corner onto 18th Street NE, she happens upon a lawn with three plain white signs indicating support for Marya Pickering, the only Republican running in the crowded race.
As the signs come into focus, so too does their owner, Peter Semler, who just so happens to be returning home with an acquaintance, Nestride Yumga, and a box of doughnuts from Dunkin’. His shirt is tucked into his underpants.
Yumga recently drew public attention when she, along with Semler and a representative for Breitbart News, delivered lunch to the Metropolitan Police Department’s Second District Station. During the visit, Yumga falsely claimed that Black people are “the most violent race in America.”
Henderson knows it’s useless to drop her literature on these folks, but she gives them a chipper “Hi, how are you?”
“Good. Why don’t you support Marya Pickering?” asks Semler. “She’s the only one who’s gonna provide jobs and won’t sell us down the road to all the Northern Virginia White developers.”
“Oh, OK, well, I’m Christina Henderson. I’m also running for the Council,” she responds.
Semler again encourages her to drop out and support her Republican opponent, who he calls the “new Carol Schwartz.” He tells Henderson that Vincent Orange, another of her opponents, has her beat in campaign contributions (not true) and name recognition (likely true). He calls At-Large Councilmember David Grosso, Henderson’s former boss, the “most corrupt, dirty, unethical person we have.” He claims that Pickering is “more Democrat than any of the guys running,” and he says the city’s leaders think of residents in Northeast D.C. as “jungle bunnies.”
(Pickering was one of a handful of people who attended the puny rally to push for reopening the local economy in May.)
At one point, Semler briefly turns his back to Henderson and LL, and when he turns back around he’s wearing glasses with a camera attached. He yammers on about Yumga’s run for Advisory Neighborhood Commission in Ward 5, talks about “access to capital,” and name-drops City Paper owner Mark Ein before Henderson bids them adieu.
“This is all your fault,” she tells LL jokingly. “You wanted to talk to the people with the Marya Pickering signs in the yard.” Henderson recognizes Yumga from the mini scandal with MPD earlier this year, but has never met Semler.
“You have Marya signs? Three of them jokers? You have a Trump sign in your yard?” Henderson says. “I don’t need to talk to you.”
And so the walk continues.
Read our 2020 elections coverage:
Henderson hangs campaign literature on front doors where her internal campaign data says likely voters live. She resists the urge to knock or ring doorbells, but she chats with the people she bumps into outside their homes. She’s running for a “more equitable D.C.,” she tells them. Most people smile and nod and go about their day.
Henderson, 33, was born in Brooklyn, New York, and moved to D.C. after earning an undergraduate degree from Furman University in South Carolina. She worked as a legislative staffer for Sen. Kay Hagan, earned a master’s degree in public affairs from Princeton University, and began working for Grosso in 2013. She served as his deputy chief of staff and later as committee director when he became chair of the education committee in 2015.
Henderson left the Council in 2017 for her current job as a legislative assistant for Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. She’ll take a leave of absence to focus on her Council campaign in the coming weeks.
On this bright and sunny Saturday in Ward 5, Henderson is targeting older residents, who she believes will play a crucial role in the at-large race.
“They’re like, ‘I want my same services that I already have. I don’t want my property taxes to go up. I like change, but not too much change,’” she says, in what sounds to LL like a reference to Lazere, a budget wonk who has locked up much of the support of the local progressive community, including that of his former employee, At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman. In March, Lazere stepped down from his post as executive director of the left-leaning think tank DC Fiscal Policy Institute to run for the at-large seat. Silverman worked for Lazere as a staffer before she was elected. Lazere challenged Council Chairman Phil Mendelson in 2018 and lost by nearly 27 points.
Henderson has support from Grosso, who opted not to run for a third term, but she’s failed to get the stamp of approval from any other groups. A Washington Post article about the top at-large candidates quoted Grosso expressing his disappointment that liberal groups too quickly dismissed Henderson in favor of Lazere.
Grosso, who is also canvassing for Henderson on this Saturday morning, adds that Lazere’s decadeslong history of testifying before the Council put him into a box.
“We know where he stands, and you’re either gonna vote with him or not, but the fact of the matter is, he’s not going to easily change his mind,” Grosso says. “And I think with a politician, you want them to be able to look at both sides and say, ‘I was wrong in the beginning, and now I’ll do this.’ I think that’s what you get with Christina, and I don’t think you’ll get that with Ed at all.”
“I just gotta get Christina up there so she can hold them all in line,” Grosso quips. “Especially that Mendelson dude.”
Henderson overhears Grosso’s jab at the Council chairman, as he’s wont to do. “David,” she admonishes. Henderson says she’s up for the task, though her approach is less combative.
“Mendelson can be outmaneuvered, but nobody ever does the work to actually beat him on stuff,” she says. “Because he is certainly doing the work on his side.”
As an example, she points to Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen’s failed budget amendment to raise income taxes on residents making more than $250,000, which she says she supports. Mendelson opposed the measure, and it lost on a 5-8 vote. “That should have been a winnable amendment,” she says.
Henderson thinks of herself as a “pragmatic progressive,” which are the same terms Mendelson has used to describe himself, though she says her approach on the Council would more closely align with Allen.
“We can make progress, and we can do things, but, like, we’re also not gonna bankrupt the city at the same time,” she says. “Actually, that’s an unfair characterization. I don’t feel like all progressives will bankrupt the city. I shouldn’t have said that. But I do think that Charles can appreciate balancing situations.”
On her comparison to Lazere, Henderson says there are some areas where they align and others where they don’t. The differences, she says, stem from her experience working inside the government as opposed to Lazere’s perspective as an outsider.
“I’m not of the belief that spending more money is always the answer to everything,” she says. “And I do feel like we have limits in terms of what we can do to raise revenue.”
While Lazere is generally in favor of raising property taxes on high-value homes, Henderson resists that notion, but says she “would be interested to see an analysis from the [Chief Financial Officer] and [the Office of Tax and Revenue].”
Lazere says he doesn’t want to throw money at problems to the exclusion of agency oversight, but he does believe the District government needs to spend more money to address systemic issues in housing and education, for example. He clarifies that he supports raising taxes on high-value homes only for those whose income could support it. “I don’t want to raise property taxes on somebody who lives in a home who happened to get swept up by gentrification,” he says.
And what of two of her other opponents, Orange and Marcus Goodwin, who each have some degree of name recognition?
“Marcus and I have lots of similarities, but our understanding of policy is different,” she says. “Vote for Marcus if you want a slogan. Vote for me if you’re looking for nuance in policy.”
Henderson acknowledges that Orange’s previous terms on the Council weigh in his favor on a 24-person ballot. “But I also feel like there are a lot of people who remember what it was like when VO was serving,” she says.
Orange was the first elected official sanctioned by the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability, his campaign was at one time the target of an FBI investigation, and he ultimately lost his seat to White in 2016. Orange resigned under pressure from his colleagues before his lame-duck term was up because he took a job as the D.C. Chamber of Commerce’s president and CEO, a glaring conflict of interest.
“The voters said, ‘Nah, we want to do something different,’” she says of Orange.
As Grosso’s legislative staffer and committee director, Henderson has written dozens of pieces of legislation, one of which is illustrative of her approach to governing.
In 2015, Henderson began laying the groundwork for what would become D.C.’s school modernization system. Under the old system, Henderson says, modernizations were driven by politics, not data. Schools located west of Rock Creek Park were generally prioritized over those east of the Anacostia River, she says.
“It required getting 13 councilmembers to give up power. It required the mayor’s office giving up power,” she says. “They had always been able to use modernizations to handle community issues.”
The bill, which she wrote, passed unanimously. It also required Henderson to get buy-in from the Department of General Services, the agency that manages D.C. government buildings, and DC Public Schools.
Kaya Henderson, the DCPS chancellor at the time the bill passed, remembers Henderson for her neutralizing impact on oversight hearings. The former chancellor first met Henderson (no relation) in 2012 when she worked in DCPS’ Office of Human Capital before she took a job in Grosso’s office.
“It was like a gladiator ring,” Kaya Henderson says of DCPS oversight hearings. “And what changed tremendously, in part because of Grosso’s leadership, but also because of Christina’s facilitation, was that we actually worked together to show the community what was going on in D.C. public schools.”
Henderson says the school modernization bill is one she’s most proud of during her time in D.C. government “because people thought we were crazy to do it. There was no way to please everybody.”
LL could say the same of her campaign. Although she entered the race early, a 24-person ballot that also features an entrant named Kathy Henderson could confuse voters. She’s facing some well known opponents with more money and more support. The question, then, is whether she can excite voters with her preference for pragmatism and consensus over strict ideology.