Kenyan McDuffie election night
Kenyan McDuffie greets supporters at his election night party en route to a seeming victory in the at-large race. Credit: Alex Koma

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Mayor Muriel Bowser and her allies might never have expected it, but they probably owe Bruce Spiva a cold beverage or two. Were it not for his ballot challenge, Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie is probably attorney general-elect right now instead of celebrating an apparent win over At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman.

Bowser certainly might have preferred a more friendly AG after her acrimonious eight years with Karl Racine, but McDuffie knocking off perhaps her least favorite lawmaker has to be considered a bigger treat. Add in her ascension to a mayor-for-life-rivaling third term and there’s every reason for Bowser’s ebullient mood on Tuesday night.

“Some people call us the Green Team,” Bowser said, repeating a favorite line of hers while rallying supporters at Hook Hall. “Over the years, that team just gets bigger and bigger.”

The gloating will surely be epic from the mayor’s allies in the days to come if McDuffie’s lead holds. As of early Wednesday morning, he was up by roughly 9,000 votes with 265,500 ballots counted, which looks like an insurmountable lead. At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds should hold onto the other seat up for grabs, which elicited some glee from Bowser too: “If somebody comes for Anita, we’re going to vote for her even harder.” Loose Lips might note, however, that Bonds’ current 32 percent of the vote would be a roughly 12-point drop from her last general election performance.

Mayor Muriel Bowser at her reelection victory party, Nov. 8, 2022. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

But before all the chest-thumping really gets going, some perspective: McDuffie’s win is probably more symbolic than anything else. 

Unlike Silverman’s last reelection bid, which pitted the Green Team against the rising progressive left with a closely divided Council in the balance, the stakes weren’t as high this time around. Most of Bowser’s allies have either resigned or been beaten at the polls these past few years, and June’s primary results only further cemented that trend. Another Silverman victory might’ve been a feel-good story for the left, considering her role as the Council’s most pugilistic lawmaker challenging the political establishment, but Matt Frumin making things official in Ward 3 and Zachary Parker doing the same in Ward 5 still ensured there will be a left-leaning majority on the Council.

But Silverman’s absence will still make things a bit more complicated for the Council’s progressive bloc as it tries to flex its muscles. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, who endorsed McDuffie, is probably breathing a sigh of relief. 

As it stands now, there will be seven members of the Council broadly defined as being “on the left,” particularly on economic issues: newly reelected Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, Frumin, Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George, Parker, Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White, and At-Large Councilmembers Christina Henderson and Robert White

That’s still enough for a majority on most votes, but it doesn’t allow for any wiggle room if one lawmaker peels off on certain pet issues. Silverman’s reelection could’ve guarded against, say, losing Trayon White on a bike lane vote or a budget move to keep cops out of schools, considering his departure from the progressive consensus on those debates. Frumin, too, is a bit more moderate than his old primary opponent Eric Goulet and company argued, while Henderson also has an independent streak

It will also complicate any effort by lefties to force a fight with Mendelson over the composition and leadership of Council committees, a bit of inside baseball that can determine which legislation actually sees the light of day. Silverman had promised such a battle after surveying June’s primary results, probably figuring she wouldn’t lose her seat. Will anyone jump into the void to lead that fight in her absence, especially with one less vote to wield against Mendelson? He may be more generous with his committee assignments than he was the last time around, but that’s no guarantee.

McDuffie is, to be fair, not just a down-the-line ally of the mayor in the way Dionne Bussey-Reeder was four years ago. He’s been willing to vote with progressives on occasion, and could well do so again (particularly on some issues important to him, like police reform). But with the way Bowser and the business community broadly went all in for McDuffie in the race’s closing weeks, with many top business execs powering a massive outside spending operation on his behalf, it will be interesting to see how he votes moving forward. Bowser only delivered tacit support for him this time around, but the speed with which she arrived at his downtown victory party helps show who she was rooting for. 

“At-large councilmember: I like the sound of that,” McDuffie said before a packed crowd of supporters at the Park at 14th. 

Perhaps most of all, Silverman’s stumble will have those on the left scratching their heads about what went wrong. Maybe the last-minute controversy over her Ward 3 polling was enough to keep her voters home, blunting any momentum she had with a torrent of bad headlines. Maybe the problems are more structural for progressives running citywide, with McDuffie proving to be a recognizable enough name (with enough money) to block the left’s momentum. Silverman has generally been an outlier on that front, but LL is old enough to remember two failed citywide campaigns from her former colleague Ed Lazere that ended similarly. 

The silver lining for progressives is that the tipped minimum wage ballot measure, Initiative 82, looks set to win handily. Its 74-25 margin dwarfs the 55-44 split from the last incarnation as Initiative 77 in 2018.

“We were expecting to win, but the only reason we won by this margin is the Metro D.C. chapter of the [Democratic Socialists of America],” Ryan O’Leary, the proposer of the initiative to phase out the tipped credit system, tells LL. “It shows that organized people are greater than organized money. That’s how it will go in D.C. from now on.”

O’Leary says he suspects the Council’s controversial decision to overturn I77 (which most lawmakers have pledged not to repeat) probably played a role, as did COVID-19 and even the George Floyd protests of 2020. But he sees DSA’s considerable organizing muscle, which it did not lend to Silverman as it did Parker, as the main factor in growing the margin. 

“I can’t speak to how she ran her campaign, but I know we focused on areas that mattered most,” O’Leary says. “And that was Northeast and east of the river, where we had to make sure working class people knew what a ‘yes’ vote meant for raising wages.”

By all accounts, that work paid off: I82 passed handily in wards 5, 7, and 8. Silverman, however, faltered in running up big margins in her areas of strength, managing just narrow wins in wards 3 and 6, as of late Tuesday. That will likely prove to be the decisive factor in both races.