Kenyan McDuffie is pivoting to a run for an at-large council seat after his attorney general bid didn't work out. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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The 2018 at-large race was probably the ugliest contest D.C. has endured in several years, to the point that it still inspires hurt feelings four years later. Loose Lips suspects that the impending election will make that look like child’s play.

Four years ago, At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman fought to keep her seat against not one, but two candidates backed by Mayor Muriel Bowser, but even that contest lacked the intrigue associated with Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie’s decision Friday to enter this year’s race as an independent. It’s not every day you see two sitting councilmembers gunning for the same seat, after all, particularly when one is only in the running after his attorney general bid was scuttled by a ballot eligibility challenge.

Technically, McDuffie is running against At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds too, but as the Democratic nominee, she is virtually assured of keeping her seat in November. The real contest in the general election has always been among those vying for the at-large seat set aside for non-Democrats, so it is difficult to read McDuffie’s run as anything other than a bid to unseat Silverman (though he tells LL that he has “never run a campaign against another candidate,” and he doesn’t intend to start now).

The battle lines are already being drawn. McDuffie has never been Bowser’s biggest backer on the Council, per se, but he stuck close to the mayor in the closing days of her own re-election bid last month, and her allies will almost certainly flock to his side if it means an opportunity to finally oust Silverman. Meanwhile, the progressive groups that helped her survive Dionne Bussey-Reeder’s challenge in 2018 will mobilize once again, energized by the prospect of re-electing one of the Council’s most vocally anti-establishment lawmakers (who figures to wield more influence than ever on a Council that keeps leaning left).

It probably isn’t wise to make predictions on the big questions looming in the race just yet, though there are many. Does Silverman have enough strength citywide to fend off a ward-based pol like McDuffie? What role will race play in the contest? Will voters ding McDuffie for giving up his Ward 5 seat and then flipping to this race, or will they sympathize with his anger at being kept off the AG ballot? A new poll by a pair of labor unions testing the waters showed Silverman with an eight-point lead over McDuffie, but it’s still so early in the race that it’s tough to say anything is settled.

But LL can make one statement with some authority: The race is going to get ugly, fast. McDuffie isn’t on the attack for now, but Silverman certainly is not wasting any time going on the offensive.

“I thought he didn’t want to be a councilmember,” Silverman tells LL. “I want to be a councilmember. It’s not my second choice because I couldn’t qualify for some other job. I want to be an independent. I’ve been independent for eight years, it’s a good fit for me. This isn’t my second option, this is my first option.”

Silverman says she sees McDuffie’s decision to switch to an at-large bid as an especially cynical political calculation after he lobbied so hard to stay on the AG ballot. She says he called her personally on two different occasions to gauge her support for legislation clarifying his eligibility for the attorney general post, and several of his supporters lobbied her on the matter as well. Those conversations often came with the hint that McDuffie just might consider a switch to the at-large race if he couldn’t stay in the hunt for AG, she says.

They also came from some notable pitch men: Tom Perez, former head of the Democratic National Committee and a leading contender for the Democratic nomination in the Maryland governor’s race, was among McDuffie’s supporters. Perez, whose campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment, was one of McDuffie’s mentors in law school and actually saw his own attorney general bid foiled under similar circumstances in Maryland.

McDuffie, for his part, declined to discuss Silverman’s critiques, saying he decided to run for Council again because he has “far too much unfinished business I’d like to attend to on behalf of D.C. residents.” He expects people will draw contrasts between the two as they evaluate the candidates, but he isn’t ready to draw them himself.

Silverman is. For one, she suspects that McDuffie will benefit from a ton of “special interest money” in the race, and is already denouncing attempts by “developers, people with city contracts, and people who want to maintain their power” who might try to manipulate voters.

“The mayor expressed regret about running a campaign against me four years ago,” Silverman says. “I guess the Green Team didn’t have too much regret about it.” (Technically Bowser said she regretted “that it got personal,” but perhaps LL is making a distinction without a difference.)

Still, her predictions probably aren’t too far off base. McDuffie already used public financing in his AG bid, and he says he’s barred from doing so a second time, so he’ll be forced to collect checks the old-fashioned way. That should open up the floodgates from D.C.’s deep-pocketed, Green Team-friendly interests, who have no love for Silverman. Plus, McDuffie won his fair share of friends from his time chairing the Council’s economic development committee—his AG bid attracted contributions from a number of big-name developers around town, and that should only continue now that they’re not limited by small-dollar donation caps.

“A lot of folks who felt like they were forced onto the sidelines [by Fair Elections] can now get engaged,” says Eric Jones, vice president of government affairs for the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington.

Jones, who ran against Silverman back in 2014, notes that one of the other independent candidates gunning for the seat already benefited from some serious anti-Silverman money. Graham McLaughlin is generally an unknown in D.C. politics, yet he scored donations from old establishment hands like councilmember-turned-lobbyist David Catania, top developer Jodie McLean, and charter school booster Katherine Bradley. Jones fully expects that money to flow to McDuffie now that he’s joined the field.

“He has the name recognition that he’s going to be able to raise a lot of money,” Jones says. “We haven’t really seen someone with this kind of brand running against Elissa…He has some citywide experience running for AG, but he also has name recognition in wards 5, 7 and 8 and even the northern part of Ward 4.”

McDuffie agrees, hoping that his D.C. roots mean he has strength all over the city (perhaps you’ve heard he used to be a mail carrier?). Silverman’s pitch is that she has her own brand as an “authentic and transparent” candidate that resonates all over the city. It has certainly worked for her in the past, but there is no denying that she has never faced an opponent that can match McDuffie’s decade-long term in office.

Another factor worth considering: Could the other candidates in the race draw votes from either sitting councilmember? There’s Karim Marshall, a D.C. government veteran, and Fred Hill, a big Bowser donor who last mounted a long-shot bid against Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White. McLaughlin has a decent amount of cash socked away, too, and has tried to appeal to moderates and progressives alike. Jones argues that this opens the door for people to use their two votes creatively: Could some voters tired of Bonds pick both Silverman and McDuffie? Or maybe one of the other candidates can cut into the slim margins those two need to win?

“Sometimes you need people with fresh perspectives and fresh ideas,” McLaughlin says. “I think people are looking for folks who are more of a blank slate to move things forward.”

Silverman could leave behind all this intrigue right away, though, if McDuffie suffers the ignominious fate of being knocked off the ballot twice in the same election cycle. Some progressives have already drawn attention to a section of D.C.’s Fair Elections law stipulating that participating candidates sign an affidavit pledging that they’ll “only run during that election cycle for the seat” they use public money to pursue. It explicitly includes “both the primary and general election” in that description.

McDuffie says he received assurances from both the Office of Campaign Finance and the D.C. Board of Elections that this provision would not affect his eligibility for the race (and spokespeople from both agencies tell LL the same). But Silverman says she’s studying the issue more closely, and would not rule out a challenge of some sort once she can get more opinions on the matter.

“I don’t enjoy hiring lawyers for my campaign,” Silverman says. “But I’ve had to do it before.”