Graham McLaughlin Karim Marshall
Graham McLaughlin, left, and Karim Marshall are vying to overcome three incumbents in the at-large race. Credit: Michael Waidman/Karim D. Marshall for D.C.

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“I think I’m more qualified than any of the three incumbents,” declares Karim Marshall, a D.C. government veteran running in the at-large Council race. Fellow hopeful Graham McLaughlin, a health-care executive and community activist, is a bit less direct, but the sentiment is the same: “Sometimes you need fresh perspectives, fresh ideas, folks who are a little bit more of a blank slate to be able to move things forward,” he argues.

So it goes in any race with an incumbent on the ballot, let alone three: At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds, At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman, and Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, who have a combined 28 years in elected office. Marshall and McLaughlin are probably best positioned to make such arguments among the five challengers on the at-large ballot, with more money and endorsements than lesser candidates, but both are considered long shots. Still, Loose Lips thought it was worth asking why they deserve one of the two seats up for grabs, should voters indeed be looking for something different.

Neither one fits neatly into the progressive vs. moderate framing that tends to define most Council races (and neither is squarely for or against Mayor Muriel Bowser, either). McLaughlin is perhaps the more moderate of the two—note his recent endorsement from the Washington Post’s conservative editorial board—but both have solid credentials among progressive urbanists, as well. And both have accepted checks from traditional Green Team donors, in addition to money from left-leaning standbys.

Marshall may be a hair more popular in lefty circles by dint of his endorsements from the Washington Teachers’ Union (which also backed Silverman), as well as Bruce Spiva, who emerged as the progressive favorite in the attorney general’s race. But even that picture is complicated by Marshall’s decision to request a campaign finance investigation into Silverman’s controversial move to poll the Ward 3 Council primary. He argues it merely amounts to “asking for clarity” about how much separate campaigns can coordinate their efforts, but it’s hard to imagine that Silverman voters looking for a second choice will view his question quite so favorably.

McLaughlin looks a bit likelier to grab a larger percentage of the vote than Marshall by virtue of the extra name recognition that comes from the Post endorsement, not to mention his superior fundraising. Both are using public financing, but McLaughlin has taken in more than $220,000 as of Oct. 11; Marshall has yet to file his most recent finance reports, but he’d raised just over $25,800 as of Aug. 10. Even with matching funds coming through, he’s likely to be well behind.

LL finds it highly unlikely that anyone other than Silverman, Bonds, or McDuffie will actually finish in the top two, but McLaughlin and Marshall have interesting enough ideas that are worth a look from voters. It hasn’t gone unnoticed by D.C.’s chattering political class, either, that both live in Ward 7, where many are already speculating about Councilmember Vince Gray’s plans for 2024.

So what truly distinguishes these two from each other? McLaughlin is more skilled at tugging the heart strings as a sunny optimist, leaning heavily on his do-gooder past of opening his Hill East home to returning citizens in his pitch to voters. He tends more toward broad platitudes about ways to make the government more efficient while Marshall is much more comfortable with policy minutiae after his nine years in government. Ironically, Marshall is also much more critical of the status quo than McLaughlin, arguing that the D.C. government has consistently failed low-income residents east of the river with a lack of creative policy solutions.

For instance, Marshall believes the Council (and the government broadly) has a responsibility to do much more to improve conditions at D.C. Housing Authority properties beyond sending funding for repairs each year. Marshall spent a few months working for the troubled agency just before he left government earlier this year, and he felt that DCHA could use serious staff support to manage even basic tasks like overhauling its antiquated records system. The housing authority is nominally independent from D.C. government, but Marshall supports detailing over some experienced employees on a temporary basis to help right the ship (a proposal that has only grown more salient in light of the explosive HUD report critiquing agency leadership).

“I don’t think our Council really understands the tools that are available to our executive team, I just don’t think they get it,” Marshall says. “And it’s because none of them have really worked in the executive for any substantial amount of time.”

Bonds, of course, spent years in and out of government throughout her long career, but it’s hard to argue that she has used that experience to meaningfully tackle these issues during her time chairing the Council’s housing committee (and Marshall has publicly called for her to lose her committee assignment). He argues that a councilmember in her position could push for solutions that help the neediest renters in the market, such as pushing the mayor to spend money that’s traditionally been used as loan funding “filling the gap for developments that were going to happen anyway” on public housing repairs. The HUD report found that roughly a quarter of DCHA’s units are vacant, often because they’re in deplorable conditions and badly need rehabilitation, so it’s an idea with some relevance.

McLaughlin has interesting ideas on housing, too, such as his proposal for a “community opportunity to purchase act,” building off the basic idea behind the law allowing tenants to band together and buy their own buildings. McLaughlin’s proposal would allow community groups to do the same. The pair is broadly aligned on these policy matters, and Greater Greater Washington gave them both high praise (even though the group ultimately opted to endorse McDuffie and Silverman instead).

As someone who says he has “biked everywhere” in his two decades in D.C., McLaughlin is also especially vocal about transportation issues important to the smart growth set. He is particularly fixated on winning congestion pricing for the city and funneling the revenue into shoring up Metro’s finances—there have long been concerns that the District can’t impose such a tax on commuters until it becomes a state, but he told the Committee of 100 in a recent questionnaire that he still hopes to “push the envelope and force a decision and a discussion” on the issue. (Marshall, for his part, supports congestion pricing but believes the city will likely need to find other avenues to fund Metro in the short term).

McLaughlin says health policy is where he generally feels most fluent (and he’d be happy to score a spot on Gray’s Committee on Health, given his time managing social responsibility programs for the health-care company Optum), but plainly he has a lot to offer on how to help formerly incarcerated people as well, based on his experience renting out rooms in his house to returning citizens. He is particularly interested in reforming education programs offered at the D.C. Jail, as he’s heard from many formerly incarcerated people that they can’t earn certifications or degrees relevant to “the next generation economy” while they’re locked up.

Bowser’s commitment to construct a new jail is an opportunity to rethink all manner of programming there, he says, perhaps by adding something like “a manufacturing plant in the jail” to provide on-site training opportunities.

“Now, I’m not saying that you are using the labor of incarcerated individuals in an exploitative manner,” McLaughlin says. “But I am saying, ‘How do you teach things that are going to, you know, really set you up well for society?’”

Marshall is similarly interested in seeing some of the city’s programs for incarcerated people reformed. But the pair differs a bit when it comes to the related issue of the role of police in the District.

McLaughlin has generally sounded a more positive note about the Metropolitan Police Department’s performance, saying during the Sept. 21 debate hosted by the Office of Campaign Finance that “we need to adequately fund the police” (though he also supported the creation of more “behavioral health teams” and “substance use specialists” to respond to some calls instead of officers). Marshall was much more critical in that same forum, arguing that “20 years of deliberate disinvestment from particular parts of the city” should be viewed as the true root cause of crime and that the city should “reevaluate what police are doing.”

At bottom, however, both men are making pitches based on disrupting the city’s status quo, as you’d expect from just about any challenger to an entrenched incumbent. McLaughlin, for instance, is pledging that he would serve no more than two terms if he’s elected, and that he’d break through the Council’s ideological divide by pledging “to work with folks from the far left to the moderates.” Marshall argues that he could help change the Council’s culture of ineffective oversight by encouraging more collaboration among lawmakers and approaching the job from the “perspective of, how do I make sure the people are winning?” instead of “how do I create enough conflict where it looks like I’m doing oversight when I’m really just screaming at somebody?”

A cynic like LL is skeptical that either one could pull off such changes on their own. Things change slowly at the Wilson Building, if they change at all. But it is, at least, interesting to watch them try.