If it’s Tuesday, it must be Election Day.
D.C. voters have been trudging to the polls with increasing frequency in recent years. There was the 2011 special election to replace Kwame Brown as an at-large member of the D.C. Council. Then, in April 2012, there was a Democratic primary for the at-large seat Vincent Orange won in the 2011 special election. A month later, there was the Ward 5 vote to replace Harry Thomas Jr. after he resigned for stealing $300,000 from city coffers. In November, a special election made Phil Mendelson the D.C. Council chairman, after Brown resigned for bank fraud and campaign finance violations. And now, on Tuesday, April 23, we’re voting again, this time to fill the at-large seat Mendelson vacated when he won in November.
At least for now, there aren’t any more special elections scheduled. All those campaigns, however, can’t help but leave the city a little tired of both the frequency of our elections and the scandals that make them necessary.
So it won’t be a surprise to see low turnout for the District’s fourth special election in the past two years, in which 15,000 votes could be enough to win a seat on the Council. (Only about 10 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in 2011.) Seven would-be lawmakers figured scrounging up that much support in a city with 505,403 registered voters was within their reach this spring. But former Councilmember Michael Brown quit the race earlier this month, citing unspecified “important personal and family matters,” leaving us with six candidates to choose from next week. (Brown will appear on the ballot anyway; it would be embarrassing, but not shocking, if he got more votes than at least one of the people who are actually still running.)
With only a few days left, a crowded circuit of candidate forums and TV appearances still hasn’t produced a standout. Voters face a tough choice, or at least not an obvious one, which is why we ended up reaching our endorsement by process of elimination.
First, the incumbent, Councilmember Anita Bonds. A longtime Democratic Party operative, Bonds was chosen—completely coincidentally, we’re sure—by party insiders to serve as an interim councilmember after Mendelson’s promotion to chairman. At this point, incumbency alone is almost enough to make voters suspicious of anyone in D.C. politics. But Bonds offers a few other dubious credentials, as well. Like her day job, from which she’s on leave while she’s on the Council, with Fort Myer Construction, which holds tens of millions of dollars in city road-building contracts. (We’d like to see Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, and at-large Councilmember David Catania quit their outside jobs, too.) Her endorsement by more than half of her Council colleagues. Or her implication on the Kojo Nnamdi Show that black voters ought to support her—the only African-American Democrat in the race—because of the “natural tendency to want your own.” Or, for that matter, the fact that she’s missed several forums and debates (including Washington City Paper’s this week, with which her staff says she had a previously scheduled conflict) after the Washington Post, NBC4’s Jim Vance, and others criticized her for that remark. Let’s all thank Councilmember Bonds for her service since December, relatively uninspiring though it was, and allow her to return to doing corporate relations for Fort Myer full-time.
The other candidates—Democrats Matthew Frumin, Paul Zukerberg, and Elissa Silverman, Statehood Green Perry Redd, and Republican Patrick Mara—each represent a change from the Council’s status quo. Which might make any of them an improvement. But while each has virtues, they all come with their own negatives.
Zukerberg is right on his signature issue: The U.S. locks up too many people for marijuana-related crimes—and in the District, that means people who are mostly young and mostly black. Decriminalizing pot would bring an end to policies that can ruin lives—try getting a job with a drug conviction on your record, no matter how ancient—and that are mostly enforced against the city’s least powerful citizens. Zukerberg has brought some needed levity to the race, too. But he’s essentially a one-issue candidate, and if by some miracle he did convince his 12 colleagues to let Washington light up freely—or at least less illegally—we’re not sure what he’d do for the rest of his term.
Likewise, we’re glad that Redd has passionately admonished the specter of a Richard Florida–like future that only has room for “creatives”—i.e., well-educated, well-off, mostly white professionals. Redd also has promised more transparency than his rivals, pledging to post a database of all his Council phone calls. But some of his calls for compassion and conscience among the city’s yuppie class drift toward blaming them for every change in the District over the last decade—the downsides of which developers, banks, real estate agents, and national trends out of the control of anyone in D.C. politics have at least as much to do with. And his critique can make it sound as though there’ve been no benefits from the city’s recent growth. Would that approach really help fix the fissures of gentrification?
To be an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner in Tenleytown, Frumin hasn’t necessarily needed to immerse himself in questions of equality and fairness. But on the campaign trail this spring, he’s shown he’s done so, anyway. He wants the District to spend more money on affordable housing, which might help people deal with rents that are approaching New York prices, and he’s made a more concerted effort east of the Anacostia River than many white candidates in recent elections. On his main issue, education, however, he provides more aspiration than strategy: He says he wants every student in D.C. to be able to attend an excellent neighborhood school, which no one would really argue with, but he hasn’t entirely made clear how. And his criticism of charter schools rings a little unrealistic in places east of Rock Creek Park where—like it or not—charters are often much more attractive than what DCPS has nearby.
The entire theme of Mara’s campaign has been ethics and reform. Elect him, the theory goes, and simply by dint of being a Republican, he’ll stand apart from the corrupt insiders running things at the Wilson Building. In his own life in politics, however, Mara’s been more opaque: He won’t say who he’s worked for as a consultant since he stopped lobbying in 2008, only that it was “no one bad.” We doubt he’d be satisfied if the Democrats on the Council gave that answer to questions about their own employment. A Ward 1 school-board member who’s run for Council twice before, Mara rightly takes credit for helping push the local GOP away from the national party’s opposition to marriage equality, abortion rights, and D.C. budget autonomy. But we don’t think it’s out of bounds for residents of a city that cast 90 percent of its votes for President Barack Obama five months ago to raise an eyebrow at Mara’s support for Mitt Romney. The Council does need new voices, but simply being a Republican might not automatically make Mara the right one.
Which leaves us with Silverman. As editors, we worry the skills that made her a dogged Loose Lips columnist for City Paper and a Post reporter would not make her an effective councilmember; aggressive skepticism isn’t a typical tool of consensus-building. No current City Paper editors worked with her, but we’re still wary of endorsing any former journalist, both for appearance’s sake and because we’d hate to set the precedent of letting our ilk write laws. We’d prefer if Silverman’s supporters hadn’t been so tenacious in pursuing challenges against other candidate’s ballot access, too.
But there’s no question Silverman knows the budget inside and out, after years watchdogging D.C. government for the press and advocating for progressive priorities with the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. Her answers to questions in public forums are wonky but thoughtful, calling for high-quality pre-K in every school, affordable housing citywide, and sensible transportation policies. She understands the corrupting power money has in our city, which is why she fought last fall to ban corporate campaign contributions and isn’t taking any this spring. She gets transparency, too; when our current LL at a City Paper-sponsored debate this week at the Black Cat asked Silverman and her rivals if they’d release their 2012 tax returns, they all (except Mara) said they would. But Silverman did so the next day without being asked again. (Frumin followed suit Wednesday.) Vote for Elissa Silverman for the at-large D.C. Council seat.
Also on the ballot is a proposed amendment to the District’s Home Rule Charter that would allow the D.C. government to spend locally raised revenue without waiting for Congress to approve—or meddle with—the city’s budget. There’s some debate within city government as to whether the District actually has the authority to take budget autonomy for itself—D.C.’s own attorney general argued that it doesn’t—but if this measure passes and isn’t overturned either in the Capitol or in court, it would mean that the next time there’s the threat of a federal government shutdown, we wouldn’t have to worry about whether our trash would get picked up, as we did briefly in 2011. Waiting for Congress to give D.C. more independence hasn’t worked for the past 40 years. Let’s not keep waiting for Congress to give us our own money back, either. Vote “yes” on amendment 8, with a 632,323-person-sized chip on your shoulder.
But even more important than following our advice on who to vote for is simply showing up. There’s been plenty to gripe about in D.C. government lately—corruption, outright theft, endless federal investigations, and the usual low-grade bumbling that gives you a reason to read Loose Lips every week. Which is why no matter how sick you are of elections, there’s no excuse for skipping this one. Make whoever wins this special election earn the seat by getting more than the bare minimum of votes. Show up on Tuesday, April 23, and remind the political class that its constituents are out there.
The cliche notwithstanding, you are, of course, always entitled to complain about your elected leaders, even if you don’t vote. But if you do vote this time, maybe, someday, you won’t have to.
Find your polling place dcboee.org