The John A. Wilson Building in Washington, D.C.
The John A. Wilson Building. Credit: Darrow Montgomery/FILE

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Every two years, a formal swearing-in is held for newly elected or re-elected D.C. Councilmembers. It is usually a big deal. And by law, it has to take place on Jan. 2.

Normally it’s held at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, where an oversized hall overflows with officials, family, friends, campaign workers, big wig contributors, and irritating wannabes desperately hanging around power. It’s a chance for newly electeds to give aspirational speeches (or jokingly acknowledge that some people think you’re irritating, as At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman did two years ago). Parties are held in the new councilmembers’ offices.

But not this year. On Saturday, the 2021 swearing-in ceremony is going to be a COVID-condensed fraction of its normal self because of public safety restrictions.

“This year’s ceremony will be drastically different and I am counting on your understanding and cooperation,” cautioned Council Secretary Nyasha Smith in one of two stern memos to councilmembers shared with City Paper. Smith knows the councilmembers can show up late or be long-winded. One memo even strongly suggests that incumbent councilmembers not taking oaths are “encouraged to watch the event from the comfort of your home” on TV or online. In short, stay home.

Plans for Saturday still are being tweaked, but the spartan ceremony will begin at 10 a.m. on the broad, exterior steps of the John A. Wilson Building, in good weather or bad, with no seating for councilmembers or guests. Under Mayor Muriel Bowser’s public health emergency orders, outdoor events are limited to 25 persons, so each councilmember is limited to seven guests and must stand apart from the ceremony until called. The memos urge the councilmembers to stay out of the John A. Wilson Building entirely and note officers from the city’s protective service “will be assisting with crowd control and enforcement.” It could get complicated with so many egos involved. 

There will be no stage on the steps. One of Smith’s memo says, “at no time will all members of the Council be present.” Each elected or re-elected member will get just a total of 10 minutes (10 minutes is underlined) to have a judge administer their oath of office, deliver any remarks “if so desired” and depart the steps. That “if so desired” also is in boldface type, a clear suggestion to skip the speeches and leave. The secretary also says regardless of the weather, “we will strictly adhere to the requirements outlined herein.” 

The truncated ceremony is being held for re-elected At-Large Councilmember Robert White and newly elected at-large member Christina Henderson. They’ll be followed by new and re-elected member Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2), new member Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4), and re-elected members Vince Gray (D-Ward 7) and Trayon White (D-Ward 8). 

In another break from normal programming, members of the state board of education, advisory neighborhood commissioners, and statehood officers, who also would gather at the convention center, instead will be sworn in using Zoom. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson will officiate those virtual ceremonies at 1:30 and 3:30 p.m.

The last full-scale ceremony was two years ago, when Mayor Bowser took the oath for her second term. Like Silverman’s self-deprecation, these bi-annual ceremonies have had their moments. 

In 1979, newly elected Mayor Marion Barry was sworn in by Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall

And in 2007, Ward 3 Councilmember Mary asked then-Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg to administer the oath for her. Cheh, a law professor at George Washington University, had sat through all of the 1993 congressional testimony prior to Ginsburg’s confirmation. Cheh was stunned that Ginsberg not only said yes, but also asked to be allowed to say a few words. “Say anything you want,” Cheh recalls responding.

And just two years ago, in January 2019, Cheh was being sworn-in for her fourth term on the council. She began her speech by acknowledging that everyone was engaging in the long-respected, peaceful transfer of power that marks our local, state and national governments. “Sometimes we take it for granted,” Cheh observed then. 

Of course, Cheh said all that before this year’s ongoing presidential soap opera with which President Trump is not playing along. He has encouraged his supporters to show up next week and protest the Jan. 6 official tabulating of electoral votes. Trump also has left open whether he will violate tradition and refuse to participate in President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20. 

Maybe Council Secretary Smith should send Trump a stern memo.