Elissa Silverman Wilson Building
At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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All the pieces seemed like they were finally falling into place for At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman. Once a lonely voice in the wilderness of D.C.’s left wing, she looked poised to emerge from the general election as a leader of a newly empowered progressive bloc on the Council next year.

The only obstacle: She needed to win reelection first. And Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie delivered perhaps the biggest surprise of the entire year in D.C. politics by besting Silverman for the second at-large spot, proving to be a much stronger citywide candidate than many politicos predicted and leaving much of D.C.’s left a bit bereft.

D.C. progressives have plenty of reason to celebrate, with Initiative 82, an effort to eliminate the tipped minimum wage, winning in a romp and Matt Frumin and Zachary Parker officially joining the Council to represent wards 3 and 5, respectively. But losing Silverman, a vocal critic of the political establishment, will surely provoke some serious soul-searching, too, particularly because she won so handily the last time Mayor Muriel Bowser‘s Green Team sought to oust her four years ago. Though there are still a few votes left to count, Silverman conceded after the latest tally put her her down by roughly 8,400 votes to McDuffie—she bested Dionne Bussey-Reeder by more than 41,000 votes in 2018.

“To see I82 pass so strongly, but then also see a strong rebuke for a councilmember seen as a champion for policies like that is confusing,” Alex Dodds, chair of the prominent left-wing group DC for Democracy, tells Loose Lips. “But we take the will of the voters, especially voters east of the river, very seriously. We’re not just going to ignore it. There’s a lot to talk about here.”

A key question for the left to address as it has those conversations: How much of Silverman’s loss comes down to her own personal failings (and McDuffie’s unique strengths) and how much is attributable to structural problems facing progressives?

Despite her history of electoral success, it’s certainly clear that Silverman’s specific problems played some role here. She’s never been particularly strong running in wards 7 and 8, and that trouble seems to have continued this time around. Longtime Ward 8 activist Philip Pannell says she had “practically no presence” in his neck of the woods, while the ward was “saturated with McDuffie posters.” As of Wednesday night, Silverman had tallied just 3,107 votes east of the river, compared to McDuffie’s 10,594.

“Part of Elissa’s shortcomings was not to really work 7 and 8,” says Rev. Graylan Hagler, one of Silverman’s more prominent Black supporters. “To simply believe the predominantly White wards are all you need, that’s an incorrect assumption.”

Silverman’s backers have long argued that her attention to issues affecting the city’s working class, like paid family leave or affordable housing, are evidence that she takes the concerns of D.C.’s less affluent residents seriously. But it’s hard to deny that her interpersonal relationships with Black activists working in communities east of the river have not been the warmest. There are plainly still hurt feelings stemming from her spat with Black Lives Matter DC two years ago, where she appeared to offer only conditional support for the movement if it would “eventually stand with [her] against antisemitism too.”

Mysiki Valentine, a Ward 7 activist and former State Board of Education hopeful, saw echoes of that dispute in a June exchange with Silverman. When he publicly criticized her over some of her handling of the redistricting process in his ward, she was quick to see antisemitism as his motivating factor. “If it’s because I’m Jewish just say it,” Silverman wrote to Valentine, per messages he forwarded to LL. Valentine was taken aback, since the pair have supported each other in the past, but saw it as part of a broader pattern of behavior.

“There are some people who have said that she seems openly uncomfortable in large Black settings and has made comments about Black people in general that may not necessarily be as welcoming or open as they could be,” says Valentine, who ultimately backed Karim Marshall in the at-large race. “When I was knocking on doors in wards 7 and 8, what I was largely hearing was that people weren’t familiar with her work and haven’t seen her in their communities … There needs to be some level of responsiveness and appreciation to come in into Black and brown communities and really listen to the voices that are there, instead of kind of just assuming that her voice is the voice of reason.”

But Silverman faced other problems east of the river, too. Pannell says Democratic activists embraced McDuffie even though he was nominally running as an independent and tied support for him closely to the rest of the ticket: Specifically, Mayor Muriel Bowser and At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds, who are both more popular in these areas. Pannell remembers Ward 8 Democrats President Troy Donté Prestwood sending out texts and emails with a picture of his ideal ballot, which featured votes for Bonds and McDuffie.

“He basically brought along the Democratic constituency with him,” Hagler says. “It’s part of a flawed process where somebody can game the system.”

For all the focus east of the river, McDuffie’s win was notable because he did so well even in Silverman’s traditional strongholds of wards 3 and 6. In 2018, she won Ward 3 outright (even besting Bonds) and cleared Bussey-Reeder by 10,903 votes; four years later, she’s only up 340. She bested Bussey-Reeder by a 12,000-vote margin in Ward 6 in 2018, but is only leading there by 1,944 this time. As Bowser herself told reporters Wednesday, “when you’re able to cut into an opponent’s base as extensively as he did, you’re going to win.”

So why did Silverman falter? The Washington Post’s endorsement might’ve helped McDuffie in those areas (it plainly boosted Graham McLaughlin, too, as those proved to be his two strongest wards). But Silverman has never been one to get the paper’s favor. Perhaps the torrent of negative headlines about the Office of Campaign Finance ruling that she improperly spent money on a poll of Ward 3 played a role here for historically scandal-averse wealthy, White voters.

“If a better issue for her had been in the news in the final weeks, like paid family leave, maybe she could’ve won,” says Zach Teutsch, a left-wing activist (and, full disclosure, a City Paper contributor) who helped manage Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George’s 2020 bid. “If the D.C. Housing Authority news had come two weeks later, or OCF had cleared her, it could be a different story.”

Teutsch is among those Silverman supporters who believe OCF improperly interfered with the election by dropping its ruling so late in the cycle and delivering an “October surprise.” He similarly notes that the agency did nothing about McDuffie signing an affidavit when he ran for attorney general pledging to participate in only one race this year as a condition of accepting public funds (as did Eric Goulet, who looks to have won his State Board of Education race after losing in the Ward 3 Council primary). Teutsch sees these as “interventions that were systemically benefiting one pole on the spectrum and hurting the other.”

But even lefties bitter about those decisions can acknowledge that McDuffie might’ve pulled away progressive support with his strong positions on racial justice. Dodds and her DC for Democracy colleagues preferred Silverman’s more left-leaning tendencies on economic issues, but she says she had plenty of friends who felt differently.

“The final few weeks of the campaign were so tumultuous that it feels hard to know if people really were thinking he was a better leader with better principles and values,” Dodds says.

Beyond the individual personalities, Dodds sees structural forces at play in Silverman’s loss as well. Left-wing candidates like Parker or Lewis George have scored big wins in ward races, but have otherwise struggled citywide. Silverman is pretty much the lone exception to that dynamic (unless you count At-Large Councilmember Robert White’s 2016 win, and LL would note that there were a whole lot of other things going on in that race besides White’s specific policy agenda). With D.C.’s business class ready to spend big against any progressive candidate, as they did for McDuffie this time around, what will it take for progressives to see more frequent citywide wins?

“Candidates without big business behind them have had a hard time building movements across the city,” Dodds says. “Fair Elections has been a game changer for that, and Robert White and Erin Palmer gaining as large of a share of the vote as they did shows the progress for people-funded campaigns. But McDuffie had an enormous amount of corporate funding and that really does make a difference.”

But that is a problem for the long term (though talk of 2024 will probably start soon enough). In the nearer future, Silverman’s ouster leaves the left without its most vocal Bowser critic and one of its most enthusiastic government watchdogs. Who can play that role going forward? Newly reelected Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau has filled those shoes on some issues, while At-Large Councilmember Christina Henderson has shown an attention to detail in oversight in her brief tenure that could position her for this spot. But neither has Silverman’s taste for confrontation.

“There’s a big space to be filled there,” Teutsch says.