Robert Brannum protest
Robert Brannum, right, stands with Ron Moten, left with megaphone, during a recent protest involving Elissa Silverman. Credit: Alex Koma

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Robert Vinson Brannum is perhaps one of the only people in D.C. politics who can give Bill Rice a run for his money when it comes to the sheer number of events he attends. Whether it’s a rally, a community forum, even a protest outside the Washington Post’s headquarters, the man has made a hobby out of just showing up.

The latest place he’s turned up, however, might be the strangest spot yet. Brannum is making a run to chair D.C. for Democracy, one of the city’s leading progressive volunteer organizations. He’s currently collecting nominating petitions to challenge current chair Alex Dodds, who has led the group for about a year (and was involved in Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George’s successful campaign in 2020).

Brannum, the former chair of the Ward 5 Democrats, would be an awkward fit for the decidedly left-wing group. For one thing, he’s a bit of a mismatch ideologically for DC4D—Brannum has historically favored more moderate pols such as Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray and former Chairman Kwame “Fully Loaded” Brown, and he sided decisively with At-Large Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie in his bruising battle against Elissa Silverman last year. For another, Brannum has been only sporadically active with the group, Dodds says, attending just four virtual meetings and missing out on the canvasing and door-knocking events that define the organization.

“It’s a huge commitment of time to take over the chair role, all for an organization that he seems to really dislike,” Dodds tells Loose Lips. “I don’t know why he would want to do that.”

LL must admit that he’s a bit puzzled himself, and Brannum has not responded to repeated requests for comment. It may well be just a stunt rather than a good-faith effort, considering Brannum has also mounted quixotic campaigns for offices ranging from shadow senator to chair of the Democratic National Committee. He has to convince 10 other members of the group to back his candidacy by Friday before he can formally challenge Dodds, so this run may not even materialize.

But the discrepancy between Brannum’s views and those of the rest of DC4D’s members makes it all interesting enough to follow. Especially because the group, like much of the rest of D.C.’s left flank, is still doing a bit of soul searching in the wake of Silverman’s loss.

Dodds, who is White, is sensitive to that dynamic. To the extent that Brannum, who is Black, has participated in DC4D’s discussions, he’s generally complained that the group “is not doing enough to organize with and for east of the river communities,” she says. Brannum doesn’t live east of the Anacostia, so it’s not as if his leadership would automatically help address the issue. But Dodds is realistic that some of her members may be sympathetic to Brannum’s criticisms.

“I think all of the criticisms that he raises are things that we agree with, and we are thinking very thoughtfully about building towards that in a member-based, grassroots way,” Dodds says. “But the process of transforming our membership takes time. And it would be nice if he helped with that before attempting sort of a hostile takeover of an organization that he seems to really dislike.”

Making a case for her own candidacy, Dodds says she’s committed to helping the organization establish a better presence in wards 7 and 8 moving forward. She says the group has been debating strategies for more outreach since the late summer and early fall, trying to find better ways to reach working class voters east of the river. Dodds admits that it’s a “thorny, very complex” challenge when most of the people who are “able to be involved in an all-volunteer organization” tend to be wealthier (and from wealthier areas of the city as a result). She hopes to reach people who traditionally haven’t felt they’ve had time to get engaged in local politics, but that’s no easy task.

And then there’s the question of what type of group DC4D really wants to be. As Dodds puts it, “we see our role as an organization as much more active and taking sides within the Democratic primaries,” which is something that the ward-level Democratic organizations don’t do (explicitly, at least). While she does want to welcome in voices from around the city, she also isn’t aiming to make the organization “representative of all D.C. voters” when she is specifically “trying to represent and build power with progressive voters in D.C.”

The group won’t have long to sort out these thorny questions about its identity before election season spins up again. Things are relatively quiet this year, but there will be maneuvering ahead of the 2024 Council races soon enough. Both Gray and Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White are up for reelection in 2024, and DC4D will have to decide how it chooses to engage in those races.

The leadership tussle, such as it is, should be over soon enough. Even if Brannum scores the petition signatures he needs, he’ll need to best Dodds in the group’s leadership election, set to be determined by DC4D members in balloting held from Feb. 11-13.

“I hope that the inner drama of a progressive, scrappy volunteer organization can provide some levity and distraction in an otherwise extremely heavy news moment,” Dodds says, citing the recent shootings of Karon Blake and other children around the city. If nothing else, spending time remembering some of Brannum’s greatest hits (like the column he wrote accusing the Post’s editorial board of “political orgasms” in its rabid editorializing against Gray) certainly fits that bill.