“When I first ran for council, I thought a lot about why do we like where we live, and why are people moving back to the city,” says Wells, who has lived in D.C. since 1985. “I didn’t come into this job being very knowledgeable about it. But I certainly have gotten a whole lot more knowledgeable about it.”
For all his interest in creating a community around smart growth issues, Alpert can name no specific hobbies of his own. He doesn’t need them: GGW is both vocation and avocation, keeping him wired socially and politically. At this year’s Netroots Nation—Alpert was an early participant when they were originally organized as YearlyKos—he was invited to moderate a panel on transportation policy.
“It’s hard to get to know him because he’s so busy,” says Fearer, who now lives in Trinidad. “I don’t even know all the things he does. ‘Oh, he’s going to be on a panel with [Transportation Secretary] Ray LaHood, O.K.’ I get the impression that he’s too busy to stop and tell us until he’s on his way.”
Alpert stands apart from many of his contributors in that he isn’t just a programmer or a map maker or a policy analyst. Most essentially, he’s an operator, seeing political dimensions that some would prefer to ignore. In a city where local government is often an afterthought—and where technologically sophisticated local policy advocates are few and far between—Alpert’s willingness to work the levers of power explain why he’s managed to become such a force in such a short time.
One recent Wednesday evening, Alpert sat in WMATA’s downtown conference room at a meeting of the Riders Advisory Council. After the group finished discussing proposed changes to the Blue Line—with a GGW-logoed map projected from Alpert’s laptop—they turned to what Alpert saw as a looming threat: What environmental and smart-growth groups suspect is a plan by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and the Greater Washington Board of Trade to boot elected officials from the Metro board and replace them with appointees of area government executives. The Board of Trade says the status quo is not up to managing a complex transit system. Alpert, on the other hand, thinks Metro would benefit from more public input, not less; he’s suggested WMATA board members be elected by riders.
Alpert had drafted a letter to the two bodies asking for the same information they had been given so that the RAC might form its own recommendations. But a few members of the RAC didn’t get the point of trying to outmaneuver the business group’s task force.
“I dunno, it sounds to me like we’re saying, anything we come up with is going to be superior to what you’re doing,” one member objected.
“I’m opposed to sending the letter, because I think the tone is nasty,” said another.
“What do we care?” asked a third. “I understand that we’re not involved, but we’re involved in our own body.”
Alpert listened, growing more exasperated. Toning down the language, he said, would mean sending nothing but “the most inoffensive and innocuous letters.”
“That’s a recipe for being an ineffective public body,” he snapped. “And I’m not interested in being an ineffective public body.”
Ultimately, Alpert compromised, taking out some forceful paragraphs to gain the majority’s approval. Later, he described a conflict in the RAC over whether it should simply serve as a focus group for WMATA brass, or if it should be seen as a serious advocate for riders (of course, Alpert’s the only one with a megaphone).
That’s just one example of how Alpert negotiates between simply participating in the discussion and rocking the boat, simultaneously playing the insider and the outsider.
Richard Layman, an urban planner who has been blogging about D.C. urban policy issues since 2005, thinks Alpert pulls his punches to stay in the game. “David wants to be more of a player, so he won’t take harder core positions because that puts elected and appointed people off—they see critical analysis as personally-directed ‘criticism,’” Layman wrote in an e-mail. For example, he says, Alpert was too forgiving of Metro after the National Transportation Safety Board issued its scathing report on last summer’s deadly Red Line crash.
“He won’t take on whacked ideas from [D.C. Ward 1 Councilmember and Metro board member] Jim Graham (or I should say incomplete or incompletely developed ideas) because he wants to maintain access.” (Among the “whacked ideas” Layman criticizes are laws to require people to shovel their sidewalks and securing public money for a massive parking garage at Columbia Heights’ DCUSA shopping complex).
Alpert disputes that charge, citing the number of times he’s criticized Graham—over opposing rate hikes to prevent cuts in service, for example—as well as Gabe Klein, whom he castigated for narrowing bike lanes on Pennsylvania Avenue NW after they had been put in. But Graham also put him on the Riders Advisory Council, and Alpert will therefore probably not make an endorsement in the Ward 1 race. “Having a relationship with a politician is powerful,” Alpert says.