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Local politics in 2020 started out with its typical brand of shenanigans. Disgraced former Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. dipped a toe back into public life and hinted at a possible future run for his old Ward 5 seat. Former Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans resigned amid scandal to avoid expulsion and then turned around and announced a campaign for his Ward 2 seat (and someone purchased the domain for evans2020.com, which took you to an article about the feds raiding his home). And Mayor Muriel Bowser endorsed New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg for president despite his legacy of violating the rights of New Yorkers, most of whom are Black or Hispanic, through his expansion of the unconstitutional stop-and-frisk policing tactic.
And then a global pandemic hit. D.C. Council and ANC meetings moved to Zoom. So did campaigns. The feds stiffed D.C. on coronavirus relief funds; the budget debate was a “shit show;” former Councilmember Vincent Orange attempted a comeback, and announced his campaign in an email to the media listing all of his ethics bug-a-boos; the D.C. government released official guidance on rim jobs; speculation over Phil Mendelson’s ascension to the mayor’s office kept LL up at night, and Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh’s car was stolen (subsequently recovered). What a year.
Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray said it best: “Goddamn shit’s confusing as a motherfucker, man.”
Here are more of the hits from 2020 in local politics:
The Future (of the Council) Is Female
For the first time in more than 20 years, the D.C. Council will feature more women than men. Three incoming members—Christina Henderson, Janeese Lewis George, and Brooke Pinto—all under 35, replace three men who range in from age from 37 to 67.
Henderson replaces her former boss, At-Large Councilmember David Grosso, who opted not to run for a third term and will become a lobbyist for Arent Fox in 2021. George defeated Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd, who is Mayor Muriel Bowser’s most reliable ally on the Council, in the June primary election and faced little opposition in the general election. And Ward 2 Councilmember Brooke Pinto’s victory in the primary election officially ended Jack Evans’ nearly 30-year reign.
Henderson billed herself as a “pragmatic progressive,” and LL predicts she’ll bring a more measured approach than her former boss. George, a Democratic Socialist, is much further left than Todd, a moderate, who is also taking a job as a lobbyist in post-Council life. And Pinto has pledged to give Ward 2 residents more ethical representation than her predecessor. But it’s a low bar.
As the body looks to 2021, councilmembers will tackle a smaller budget than years past with an increasing demand for services and reforms to policing, rent control, and elections.
The End of Evans
After nearly 30 years of exercising his special parking privileges, acquiring free Nats tickets, and breaking ethics rules, Jack Evans’ tenure on the D.C. Council is over. But he didn’t go down without a fight. About a week after he resigned from the Council to avoid expulsion in January, Evans announced a campaign for his old seat. In the end, Evans didn’t even crack 400 votes in the June primary. Evans held onto his position as a national committeeman in the local Democratic party, and he still owes the District’s tens of thousands of dollars in fines for his misdeeds.
Taxpayers Fund Campaigns
In the public campaign financing program’s first year, D.C. taxpayers spent $3.4 million to fund local campaigns for 36 candidates, seven of whom won their races. George’s victory over Todd, and Henderson’s victory over 23 other candidates are the most notable victories for publicly funded campaigns. Todd raised a total of $495,645, all of it coming in private contributions, to George’s $360,000, most of which came from public financing. Henderson outlasted progressive budget geek Ed Lazere’s $481,385 war chest, more than $320,000 of which came from public financing, as well as developer Marcus Goodwin’s $411,482 in private contributions.
While Lazere, Goodwin, and Orange traded blows, Henderson rose above the fray with a boost from an expansive mail campaign and an endorsement from the Washington Post editorial board. She’ll take office after having won less than 15 percent of the vote and pledged to champion a ranked choice voting system as one of her first priorities next year.
Police and sentencing reform
After civil unrest broke out this summer after a White Minneapolis police officer killed a Black man, George Floyd, by kneeling on his neck, the D.C. Council passed a sweeping police reform bill. Some highlights include quicker access to body camera footage in cases where officers use deadly force and identification of the officers involved, a provision that takes discipline off the table in union contract negotiations, and a ban on the use of rubber bullets and tear gas on peaceful protesters.
For years, the Metropolitan Police Department has refused to either identify officers who killed citizens or and release body camera footage of the fatal encounters. The new law forced MPD to publicize the footage in the deaths of Marqueese Alston, D’Quan Young, and Jeffrey Price. MPD also released footage and identified officers involved in the deaths of two young men this year, Deon Kay and Karon Hylton.
The bill passed on a temporary basis, and the Council is expected to consider a permanent version in 2021.
The Council also passed a groundbreaking sentencing reform bill that allows people who committed crimes before age 25, and who served at least 15 years in prison, a shot at release. Curiously, Cheh pushed for amendments that would have tipped the scales against offenders seeking new sentences. When the amendments failed during the bill’s first reading, Cheh introduced the same two amendments during second reading. The lawyer and constitutional law professor lost both times.
The most notable departure from Mayor Bowser’s administration came with a tinge of scandal. Rashad Young, who served as Bowser’s city administrator since she took office in 2015, left for a job at Howard University. But he was slapped with a $2,500 fine on his way out the door for an accidental violation of ethics rules. Young played a role in negotiating a tax break for construction of Howard’s new hospital while he was in talks with the university about his new job.
Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Kevin Donahue is taking over for Young on an interim basis, and Dr. Robert Mitchell, D.C.’s chief medical examiner, is taking Donahue’s spot as deputy mayor.
Bower’s chief of staff John Falcicchio is officially pulling double duty now that he’s confirmed as the deputy mayor for planning and economic development, replacing Brian Kenner.
And in late November, Prince William County scooped Bowser’s office in announcing that MPD Chief Peter Newsham will be their new top cop. Bowser named long time MPD official Robert Contee III as D.C.’s next chief, ignoring calls for community engagement and a national search.
The coronavirus touches every aspect of life as we know it. Here are some highlights of how its impacted local politics:
• In July, APM Reports published an account of the ways that the District was slow to help Black residents, who are infected and die from COVID-19 at disproportionately higher rates than other racial and ethnic groups, in the early days of the pandemic.
• Local officials are still fighting for federal relief funds. The CARES Act funds for D.C. came up $755 million short because it counted D.C. as a territory rather than a state. As recently as Dec. 5, Bowser asked President-Elect Joe Biden to grant the extra funding.
• Emails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request revealed how the Bowser administration manipulated the publication of data to allow Phase Two of reopening to begin. Emails show a communications staffer in the mayor’s office directing the health department to delay publication of data showing an increase in community spread, a key metric in determining whether the District could move to Phase Two.
• D.C. Chief Financial Officer Jeff DeWitt’s projections in September show the hit to D.C.’s revenue wasn’t quite as bad for 2020, but local elected officials are looking at a $782 million budget gap over the next four fiscal years. The Council rejected a proposal to raise income taxes on residents earning $250,000 or more, but the proposal could resurface as the Council looks to revise the budget next year.