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Mail-in voting has started, and D.C.’s all-important Democratic primary is just weeks away on June 21. (Early voting begins June 10 at more than 30 locations across the District.) In a perfect world, you’d have read each and every one of City Paper’s riveting stories on the top races on the ballot throughout this election season, but in case you haven’t, we’ve tried to sum up everything you need to know about each one, as well as the wildest and weirdest tales from the campaign trail. Check out our past coverage of the races for mayor and attorney general and the Council contests in Ward 3 and Ward 5.
It would be a massive understatement to say that Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds, and Council Chairman Phil Mendelson are all very different lawmakers. Yet all three incumbents are facing primary challenges this year, and their levels of electoral precarity differ nearly as much as the councilmembers themselves.
Nadeau’s contest looks to be the hottest race of the final three City Paper will profile ahead of the June 21 primary. The two-term councilmember is grappling with a three-way fight that has gotten pretty messy of late, facing down Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner 1B12 Sabel Harris and former D.C. police officer Salah Czapary.
The latter has attracted particular attention on the strength of his improving fundraising numbers and an endorsement from the Washington Post. Like Harris, Czapary has made public safety the core of his case against Nadeau, walking a careful line between fully embracing Mayor Muriel Bowser’s pro-police platform and suggesting that the incumbent hasn’t effectively worked to bring down violent crime in the ward.
On the one hand, he’s told Loose Lips in the past that he thinks some functions could be shifted away from police, yet he also seizes on news of just about any violent incident in the ward to argue for the need for more partnership with law enforcement. He said in a recent statement to LL that, “we can’t afford four more years of a councilmember who wavers in their support for law enforcement during a surge in violent crime.” Harris has tried to strike a similar balance, arguing on the one hand that she’s the only candidate in the race calling for fewer police, but also saying that Nadeau “refuses to work with MPD.”
Nadeau has generally not backed down from her left-leaning positions in the face of those attacks, highlighting her efforts to bring violence interruption teams to the ward (though she did concede and vote for Bowser’s police hiring plan, even if she doesn’t necessarily agree with the mayor’s 4,000-cop target). The incumbent has also retained the broad support of the city’s progressive wing, particularly via her thorough work on housing and homelessness, earning her a sizable campaign war chest and plenty of allies ready to spend on her behalf.
Nevertheless, she’s given some hints that she sees Czapary, in particular, as a threat.
Many of her supporters have waged a loud online campaign to draw attention to his ties to Republicans, which are not insubstantial. Czapary’s first campaign chair, William Pack, had deep ties to the pro-Trump, insurrection-curious Claremont Institute, and the candidate ditched him soon after his role got public attention. His campaign treasurer, too, has a past as a registered Republican, and GOP operatives have a habit of saying nice things about his campaign. Nadeau and the groups backing her have not been shy about highlighting that past, setting up a website, sending out mailers, and posting signs to bring the issue to voters.
Will that negative tack work for Nadeau? Czapary argues that people will see through attempts to tar a gay, Arab-American as a Republican, but any association with Trump or the GOP is pretty toxic in a Democratic primary these days. Maybe his message on public safety will break through as concerns about violence rise (especially in busy sections of the ward) but Harris’ presence could dilute the anti-Nadeau vote.
Bonds is surely benefitting from that same vote-splitting dynamic in the at-large race. The complaints about Bonds are pretty much the same as they were four years ago: She’s been an ineffective legislator with confusing, conflicting views on major issues, often acting as a rubber stamp for the mayor (particularly on housing matters, considering she chairs the powerful committee overseeing these debates).
But, just as she has for the past decade, Bonds benefits from decades of experience in local politics and government, where she’s cultivated a good many friends and financial supporters. When your past includes helping Mayor-for-Life Marion Barry get his start in politics, it suddenly matters a little less if you, for instance, accidentally out a whistleblower during a Council hearing.
Plus, running for the at-large seat has often guaranteed Bonds crowded races with multiple opponents splitting the vote against her. Marcus Goodwin and Jeremiah Lowery did so back in 2018, and three candidates are struggling with the same issue now: Former Council staffers Nate Fleming and Dexter Williams and ANC 3/4G01 Lisa Gore. All three have decent policy chops and would generally be to Bonds’ left on most matters of consequence.
Fleming and Gore have raised the most money and gotten the biggest endorsements, and both of them are left squabbling over which one has the clearer path to victory. Fleming may well have the advantage in name recognition—he got his car stolen back in January, earning him a bit of attention on local TV stations eager for a good crime story. He also scored the Post’s endorsement and had enough cash to put up some of the biggest campaign signs in the city (the ones LL spotted in Capitol Hill and Benning Heights are comically large).
Yet Gore has managed to scoop up a good chunk of the urbanist and progressive left (leaning on her experience with federal housing agencies to sharply critique Bonds) and that could complicate any effort to unseat Bonds. Fleming has been busy boasting about a poll showing him several points ahead of the incumbent, but that comes with the mighty big qualifier that voters only consider him once offered a description of each candidate. Battling Bonds’ name ID in the voting booth is a much tougher task.
Mendelson has a similar advantage, albeit in a one-on-one race. Progressive favorite Ed Lazere couldn’t get over the hump four years ago, but maybe ANC 4B02 Erin Palmer has what it takes to boot “The Nitpicker” from office for the first time in 23 years.
Much like Lazere, Palmer has the unanimous support of D.C.’s left flank, which remains tired of Mendelson’s business-friendly inclinations and outright disdain for many activist groups. She’s a favorite, particularly among the online set, for her strong stances on matters such as housing, transportation, and education funding and her Elizabeth Warren-esque plans for conducting Council business in a less haphazard way.
But why should that be any different than Lazere, who could only manage a third of the vote despite his sterling credentials as a left-leaning budget whiz? Palmer has public financing on her side, while Lazere never did (she’d raised more than $303,000 in total as of May 10, while Lazere reported pulling in about $218,000 for the whole primary). It can’t hurt that she’s a woman and a mom, too.
Still, there is no doubt that Mendo remains a strong favorite. The chairman has had decades in office to build his brand across all eight wards of the city in a way that will be difficult for the Takoma-based Palmer to match. She was quick to note that a recent Post poll showed that 56 percent of the city said they don’t know enough about Mendelson to form an opinion; but if the chairman is still so unknown after so many years in office, what hope does she have to break through in a few months of campaigning? He’ll likely outraise Palmer by a substantial margin, too, given that he was one of the few candidates to stick with traditional fundraising (he has yet to report his most recent totals).
Mendelson certainly has his more conservative tendencies (generally viewing himself as a moderating influence on the Council) but any case against him is complicated by his support for just enough progressive policies that he can blunt some of that criticism. It’s one thing to note some of his resistance to the push for paid family leave, for instance, but there is no denying that he still got the policy over the finish line when he could’ve worked to block it entirely.
All of this is to say that it would be a surprise to see any of these three incumbents lose. But surprises happen all the time in these low-turnout elections, so LL would never say never.
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Candidate fast facts
Ward 1 councilmember
Title: Former MPD officer, special assistant to Chief Robert Contee
Neighborhood: Adams Morgan
Key endorsements: Washington Post editorial board, LGBTQ Victory Fund
Most interesting questionnaire answer: Czapary told the Washington Area Bicyclist Association that he wants to require every Council meeting to start with “an announcement of the number of collisions and fatalities so we elevate the importance of Vision Zero.”
Title: ANC 1B12
Neighborhood: U Street corridor
Key endorsements: N/A
Most interesting questionnaire answer: Harris didn’t directly answer a question from GLAA about whether she’d support eliminating the tipped minimum wage. But said she wants to see the city “move towards a livable wage,” perhaps via direct subsidies to restaurants so D.C. can be “helping these local businesses that want to pay their employees and not struggle with their own business operation at the same time.”
Title: Ward 1 councilmember
Neighborhood: Park View
Key endorsements: Attorney General Karl Racine, At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman, At-Large Councilmember Robert White, Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George, Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, D.C. for Democracy, Washington Teachers Union, Greater Greater Washington
Most interesting questionnaire answer: Nadeau told GGWash she’d support tying funding for housing vouchers directly to funding for new affordable housing development so the two increase together; this could address persistent complaints that the fund doesn’t create enough housing for people at the lowest income levels in the city, but getting it passed is another matter.
Title: At-large councilmember
Neighborhood: Truxton Circle
Key endorsements: Laborers International Union of North America, D.C. Women in Politics, UNITE HERE Local 25, D.C. Association of Realtors
Most interesting questionnaire answer: Bonds told GLAA that she supports repealing the tipped minimum wage, arguing that “the pandemic has shown us that everyone deserves a living wage.” That seems to be a shift from 2018, when she joined a majority of her colleagues in voting to repeal Initiative 77, which would have eliminated that wage.
Title: Former Council staffer, shadow representative
Key endorsements: Washington Post editorial board, Jews United for Justice Campaign Fund
Most interesting questionnaire answer: Fleming told the Post that he doesn’t support congestion pricing in D.C.’s downtown areas. He was the only at-large candidate to say so and one of just six to give that answer across the city.
Title: ANC 3/4G01
Key endorsements: Greater Greater Washington, National Organization for Women D.C. chapter
Most interesting questionnaire answer: Gore told GLAA that MPD “should be treated like any other agency when it comes to re-budgeting,” arguing for no new increase in police officers and an allocation of money to “programs for community investment beyond MPD.”
Title: Former Council staffer
Key endorsements: Washington Teachers Union, D.C. Latino Caucus
Most interesting questionnaire answer: Williams told GGWash that he’d look to use local funds to help Metro close its looming budget deficit, estimated at close to $375 million by fiscal year 2024.
Title: Council chairman
Neighborhood: Eastern Market
Key endorsements: Washington Post editorial board, Sierra Club D.C. chapter, DC Firefighters Association Local 36, Metropolitan Washington Labor Council, AFL-CIO, UNITE HERE Local 25, D.C. Association of Realtors
Most interesting questionnaire answer: Mendelson told GLAA that he not only supports the decriminalization of marijuana, but he broadly doesn’t believe that “individuals possessing drugs or other substances meant for personal use should be criminalized.” However, he also said that further decriminalization of drugs “may not be politically achievable at this time.”
Key endorsements: Washington Teachers Union, D.C. for Democracy, Greater Greater Washington, Jews United for Justice Campaign Fund, Capital Stonewall Democrats, Ward 8 State Board of Education Rep. Carlene Reid
Most interesting questionnaire answer: Palmer told the Washington Area Bicyclist Association that she’d support a traffic camera enforcement system focused on “safety, not revenue,” using smaller fines for first-time violators and escalating those for the “small percentage of chronic offenders.”