Headshot of Sabel Harris in front of a D.C. street
Credit: Paul Gleger

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Sabel Harris is still a relative newcomer to D.C. politics, with just over a year of experience as an advisory neighborhood commissioner under her belt before launching a bid for the Ward 1 Council seat. Yet she’s already earned the attention of some very familiar faces in the District.

Though Harris looks like a bit of a long shot to unseat two-term incumbent Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, Loose Lips couldn’t help but notice some big names on her campaign finance reports since she launched her bid in early December. There’s Phil and Jeanette Fenty, parents of former mayor Adrian; former At-Large Councilmember Bill Lightfoot and his wife, Cynthiana; and prominent developer and lawyer Ben Soto, for starters. There are also executives from Donatelli Development and CSG Urban Partners, a pair of developers that have become quite adept at winning major deals for projects on city-owned properties over the years.

It’s still early in the race and the donations are still pretty modest. These notable names have only combined to give Harris $290 in total, but considering that she’s using D.C.’s public financing program, contributions are limited to $50. Under the program, qualifying donations are matched 5-to-1. But it sure feels as if a pattern is starting to emerge—the Green Team might be warming up to Nadeau’s main challenger. Salah Czapary, a Metropolitan Police Department employee, has also filed to run, but it’s not clear yet if he will be a serious contender.

Mayor Muriel Bowser hasn’t endorsed in the race, nor is she likely to anytime soon, but the ties to the mayor are hard to miss. Adrian Fenty was her political mentor in Ward 4, while Soto was her first campaign treasurer (and landed in hot water for his management of Bowser’s ill-fated FreshPAC). Lightfoot, meanwhile, has chaired all three of her campaigns for mayor (including this year’s bid). And top it all off, Terry Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations and a supporter of both Bowser and Fenty, is chairing Harris’ campaign.

In all, 19 of Harris’ donors have also given to Bowser’s re-election bid, per D.C. Geekery, good for about 8 percent of her total fundraising haul. Another 14 of Harris’ donors have also donated to At-Large Councilmember Robert White’s primary challenge to Bowser, about 5.9 percent of the total.

“She seemed to have an interest in constituent services, just like the mayor, and she certainly would be a fresh start there, just like the mayor was,” Lightfoot says of Harris. “I’m just kind of watching what she does on the campaign trail, so we’ll see how she grows and see if she shares the mayor’s vision for the future.”

The new public financing rules mean that Bowser can’t use her influence to steer gobs of campaign cash to a candidate she supports as she has done in the past (Dionne Bussey-Reeder’s failed bid against At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman being the most recent example). And Bowser’s animosity toward Nadeau may not quite match her ill feelings toward Silverman.

But there is not a terrible amount of love lost between the two given Nadeau’s progressive tendencies. The recent fight over the future of the Park Morton public housing community demonstrated that quite clearly—Bowser’s top deputies tried to push for the rehab of existing buildings there instead of a long-discussed redevelopment, a strategy Nadeau quickly pressured them to abandon.

Nadeau, who first won election in 2014, declined to discuss Bowser’s role in the race and said she would be staying out of the mayoral campaign. For her part, Harris says she hasn’t decided whether to back Bowser for re-election. But she does believe the mayor has at least expressed some interest in her race, via Lynch. 

“She does know who I am, or has heard my name, and she has asked my chairperson about me,” says Harris, who would become the first Asian American elected to the Council if she wins. “He has been able to introduce me to some of that old guard, or the people who have been in D.C. politics for quite some time. And I’m very thankful for that.”

But if Bowser and people in her orbit are indeed supporting Harris, it’s not clear they’d be getting a new councilmember who would vote much differently from Nadeau. Read through the candidates’ policy positions and ask them questions on the issues, and you get a lot of overlap.

Both argue for more robust (and imaginative) strategies on affordable housing and public housing. Both are pushing aggressively for better pedestrian safety measures in the ward. Both support some form of guaranteed minimum income, lowering the voting age to 16, subsidizing Metro trips for city residents, and ranked choice voting.

They even agree, broadly, on the best strategies for addressing violence in the ward, which is sure to be a prime focus in the race given persistent concerns in areas like Columbia Heights and Park View.

Harris and Nadeau are both hoping to see more violence interrupters working in the ward, and see those efforts better funded and supported. However, Harris charges that she would be better positioned to partner with the Metropolitan Police Department on the issue, arguing that Nadeau, “based on her politics, refuses to work with MPD” and that “we need a councilmember that understands that we can’t just get rid of MPD.” The incumbent disputes this, noting that the department “still has half a billion dollars in their budget,” lest she be accused of defunding the police.

“Police being present when a shooting happens, that doesn’t deter it from happening, because these are often crimes of passion,” Nadeau says. “But them being in the area means they can catch the shooter and get that gun off the street. So all these approaches go together.”

Harris’ other main line of attack is a classic staple of local politics: constituent services. She argues Nadeau hasn’t been especially present in the community recently, noting her absence at events like a recent visit from D.C. Housing Authority officials at a public housing complex.

Nadeau brushes that aside, however, as a charge that was leveled against her in prior campaigns and “didn’t seem to resonate with constituents.” She says her office closed more than 2,000 constituent cases last year and held 21 pop-up vaccine clinics. Plus, she can recall attending many events while out in the community with her family (including some with Harris herself).

And perhaps she has good reason not to worry too much, regardless of Bowser’s involvement in the race. Nadeau reported more than $99,000 in her campaign account as of Jan. 31, to Harris’ $5,400. After this story was published, Harris noted that she’s received nearly $52,000 in matching funds, but that amount was not reflected in her cash-on-hand total.

“I really feel like we’re in a groove, but there’s so much more work to do,” Nadeau says.

This story has been updated with details on Harris’ fundraising.