City Desk

Who to Vote for (and Who Not to Vote for) in D.C.’s 2014 Democratic Primary

Another election, another set of would-be leaders who mostly seem determined to test just how willing District voters are to keep showing up and voting no matter how lousy their choices are.

What better explanation is there for the field that confronts D.C. Democrats? Four of 13 members of the D.C. Council are seeking the nomination for mayor, which means the Council could have conducted business at candidate forums if another two colleagues had been in the audience. Outsider types presented themselves in two forms: a restaurateur who laments the gentrification that helped make his business successful, and an ex-State Department aide who sometimes seems to be writing a D.C. government edition of Mad Libs. Then there’s the incumbent, who’s presided over a city that’s doing pretty well (except if you live in the poorer parts of town that make up his political base), but who’s seen two former close advisors and the primary financier of his 2010 campaign plead guilty to federal charges in connection with a sweeping investigation into how he got the job in the first place.

No wonder independent Councilmember David Catania (hey, one closer to a quorum!) has already declared he’ll run for mayor in the general election.

Ordinarily, the Democratic primary is the only election that matters in D.C.: With 75 percent of the city’s registered voters, the party basically picks the winners. This year, that may not be the case. Catania, an ex-Republican, is in. Libertarian gadfly Bruce Majors is running, too. (The Statehood Greens appear set to nominate perennial horn-playing candidate Faith Crannitch.) If someone wins next week’s primary with a third or less of Democratic votes, who knows who else might be tempted to jump in before November?

It’s too early to say whether Catania or one of the mystery candidates whose names keep popping up in hypothetical scenarios would be better than whoever the Democrats put up. (Catania’s temper may not bode well for his campaign or his potential administration.) But for the first time in recent memory, the prospect of a real general election is out there. Combine that with the fact that every Democrat running has plenty of drawbacks to go with their more appealing characteristics, and that’s enough for us to punt to the fall: We’re not ready to give a full-throated endorsement to any of these people yet. (What should console all the would-be mayors, though, is that our endorsement doesn’t usually result in a win.)

That’s not to say, though, that there’s no reason for Democrats to vote; if nothing else, pick the one you dislike the least. And every time District residents cast ballots in local elections, it’s an explicit rebuke of the Congress that won’t let us send anyone with a vote to Capitol Hill. So here are our reasons you could back any of the various men and women who would be mayor, and our endorsements in the other races on the ballot.

Mayor

If only Vince Gray and everyone who supported him really believed he could win four years ago! The city was so disillusioned with then-Mayor Adrian Fenty that Gray probably didn’t need the $668,800 that Jeff Thompson spent illegally on his behalf; had Gray won a clean election, the choice this year might be easier. If you ignore anything that happened before Jan. 2, 2011, Gray doesn’t look so bad: He’s putting money into affordable housing, sustainable transportation, and school modernization. He bucked citywide NIMBYs and the D.C. Council alike and pushed for changes to the city’s height limits, and he stared down Congress during the federal government shutdown—and won. Yes, unemployment is still way too high in parts of a city that’s gotten so flush, and obviously, the District should be doing more to help poorer residents stay here and thrive. (Though we suspect we’d be saying the same thing about any mayor’s tenure.) Still, we can’t get past Gray’s refusal, whether on advice of counsel or not, to say anything other than “lies!” about the specific allegations prosecutors are making about his involvement in the 2010 shadow campaign. At some point, the notion that everyone else is out to get him just doesn’t seem that believable. Was Thompson’s illegal money business as usual in D.C. politics? Maybe. But does that excuse it?

Vote for Vince Gray if: You don’t believe the U.S. Attorney’s Office; you think the city’s running pretty well and you care more about what your elected officials do in office than what they did to get there; you think campaign finance laws are silly; you have a beloved Uncle Earl yourself.

The only challenger whom polls put in a position to beat the mayor—though nearly three-quarters of D.C. Democrats don’t want to nominate him again—is Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser. Bowser’s cautious strategy looks very similar to what Gray’s was in 2010: Give voters who don’t like the mayor a plausible alternative, don’t say anything too controversial that might turn off potential supporters, and wait for people to decide to give you a chance instead. Her proposals are sound—who doesn’t want an Alice Deal–quality middle school or good jobs for all residents?—but her record on the Council is less inspiring. Her ethics law did little to address problems like pay-to-play contracting, outside jobs for elected officials, or constituent service slush funds. She’s been wary about needed changes to zoning and height laws, and no one who’s ridden Metro recently can be thrilled about the oversight anyone on its board, as Bowser is, provides. As the recipient of plenty of campaign money from the usual players in D.C. politics (including Jeff Thompson, albeit not in shadow form), Bowser may not be the ideal person to change the way the game is played, either. Would she be a capable manager of the city’s budget and bureaucracy? Sure. Is that, plus the fact that she’s not Gray, enough to elect her?

Vote for Muriel Bowser if: Your main criteria for the next mayor is that she is not Vince Gray; you don’t mind if your candidates are supported by big developers, so long as the contributions are legal and disclosed; you figure an ethics bill the D.C. Council passed by a 12-1 vote is a step toward reform; you’re generally optimistic about the city’s future, you don’t want to disagree with anyone if you can avoid it, and you prefer your policy ideas to be broadly popular and not too heavily detailed.

The rationale for Jack Evans’ campaign seemed to vanish when Gray declared for re-election: The Ward 2 councilmember has mostly refrained from criticizing the mayor, partly because he’s a nice guy, partly because he doesn’t really disagree with him on much besides shadow campaigns. This is Evans’ second mayoral run, and he’s the longest-serving member of the Council. He takes credit for everything from the Verizon Center to 14th Street NW’s boom—and if you like the idea of the city spending lavishly to help private businesses grow, he may be your man. With his outside job at a lobbying firm and his flush constituent service fund, Evans won’t quell any ethics worries. He’s also rarely met a tax on the wealthy he didn’t oppose. That’s good constituent politicking, but is Evans the right pick for the whole city?

Vote for Jack Evans if: You would be voting for Gray if not for the whole shadow campaign thing; you, too, are a little nostalgic for the days when 14th Street was teeming with hookers and drug dealers; you have a tough time seeing how development could come with a down side; you value experience more than you wonder whether 22 years on the D.C. Council might hurt someone’s ability to shake up the Wilson Building.

Getting corporate cash out of D.C. politics looks like a chicken/egg problem: It’s hard to win office and do anything about it if you don’t have enough money to get your message out. That’s one of the dilemmas facing Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells this year; another is that it’s not clear how much of the city is that into his livable/walkable agenda. Still another is that he sometimes gets in his own way: Claiming he was “duped” into voting for a $7.5 million settlement for Jeff Thompson’s firm doesn’t speak well for him, and his proposal for an office to deal with issues like free parking for churchgoers seems to run against his broader vision on transportation (even if he’s right that it’s a flash point of gentrification). Exactly how he’d get anything through a D.C. Council that’s mostly composed of people who dislike him isn’t clear, either. But his prescription for fixing what ails the city is close to what ours would be: More, and better, affordable housing; improved transit; more equitable education; government with less influence by powerful rich people. Can he win? Or is a vote for a Wells who finishes in the middle of the field essentially a vote for Gray?

Vote for Tommy Wells if: You judge politicians by who their enemies are; you value an agenda that promotes walkability, multimodal transportation, urban density, and mixed-use development—and you’re not that worried about whether the mayor has enough allies to implement it; you want to reward the guy who got D.C. to decriminalize marijuana, even though the legislation got diluted on the way; you prefer to back the candidate whose policy ideas best reflect yours, and you want to pretend D.C. has instant-runoff voting.

A lot of what Andy Shallal says makes sense—inequality in D.C. is getting worse, the city isn’t doing enough to help. His messaging may be more useful as a nudge to the more experienced candidates in the race, though, and it’s hard not to wonder whether Wells—who comes from a similar place politically—would have a better chance if Shallal weren’t drawing similar voters. Also, would his warnings about gentrification be more persuasive if he hadn’t profited from it?

Vote for Andy Shallal if: You’re into poetry slams, Zora Neale Hurston imagery, and a side of radical politics with your entrees; you don’t like the speed of development on 14th Street, but you also opened a business that caters to yuppies there nine years ago; you thought Bill DeBlasio had a pretty catchy campaign message; you’re into rousing broadsides against greedy developers or heartless education choices, and you’re not too worried about the specifics of what to do instead.

Vincent Orange thinks big: His plan for building a PGA-tour-caliber golf course and a domed stadium capable of hosting the Super Bowl, along with a massive tourist district and TV/film production facilities, is definitely ambitious. It’s also definitely a waste of money. Orange is good at speaking up for wage increases, but even better at self-promotion and doing favors for campaign contributors. The main question this campaign poses: Would it really be an election for mayor if VO weren’t on the ballot?

Vote for Vincent Orange if: Your Uncle Earl likes you, too, but no one really notices; you have a keen appreciation for 100,000-person stadiums and world-class golf courses (with wine bars attached); you are the best.

Former Clinton administration hand Reta Jo Lewis has an impressive resume and a set of vague talking points that aren’t always connected to actual D.C. issues. How “outside” do you want your outsider candidate?

Vote for Reta Jo Lewis if: You are a relative or friend of hers.

If running for mayor doesn’t work out, Carlos Allen has a rap career to fall back on. Can any of his rivals say the same?

Vote for Carlos Allen if: You like tour buses, the flashier the better.

At-Large D.C. Councilmember

Nate Bennett-Fleming

Incumbent Anita Bonds won her seat with 31.5 percent of the vote in a special election last year, thanks to another fractured field. On the Council, she’s supported higher minimum wages for big-box workers, then opposed overriding a veto of the legislation she voted for twice. She’s sponsored a bill to give property tax relief to seniors that even supporters called flawed, and this week she proposed banning new bike lanes on “narrow streets” until there’s a citywide plan for them. Polls show she’ll probably win another term, which is a shame. Either John Settles or Nate Bennett-Fleming would be dramatic improvements: Both seem more creative about what government could do to improve life for all citizens of a changing city. (Pedro Rubio might be an improvement, too, but Settles and Bennett-Fleming seem more on top of government operations.) Settles helped found one of D.C.’s most in-demand charter schools, and his work as a mortgage broker puts him in the middle of the affordable housing debate every day. Bennett-Fleming might be more effective if he won simply because he appears to have the energy of at least four normal human beings. His campaign has put out a solution a day on problems facing the District, and he’s done his best to make his position as one of the city’s unpaid lobbyists for statehood seem like a real office.

Vote for Nate Bennett-Fleming if: You want a D.C. councilmember who goes to 11.

Council Chairman

For a guy who didn’t appear to want the job, Phil Mendelson has managed to wrangle his unruly colleagues pretty well since taking over after Kwame Brown resigned as part of a plea bargain. He couldn’t persuade them not to overrule voters on electing an attorney general, and he—like most of the Council—has pandered to NIMBYs on height limits and zoning rules. But his persnickety approach to lawmaking serves him, and the District, well, which is probably why he has only perennial candidate Calvin Gurley opposing him.

Vote for Phil Mendelson if: You like knowing someone’s following the rules, even if you’re not watching closely on Channel 13.

Ward 1

Four years ago, incumbent Jim Graham won easily despite revelations that his former chief of staff had tried, and failed, to pass along a bribe to him. Since then, even the D.C. Council—not the world’s most discriminating body when it comes to ethics—has rebuked Graham for allegedly using his post on the Metro board to pressure a contractor into dropping out of a development bid in exchange for Graham’s support of the same contractor’s bid for a lottery deal. Graham, who always takes pains to point out that he’s never been charged with any crimes, much less convicted of them, nonetheless admits that he wishes “I hadn’t said what I said, if I said it.” With strong stands on ethics like that, no wonder challenger Brianne Nadeau is attracting serious attention. True, Nadeau lacks Graham’s long years of experience, but at this rate, that might be a plus. She’s been involved in Ward 1 issues as an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner and in citywide issues as a leader in Jews United for Justice. The candidates largely agree on most issues, but so far, only one of them has been formally chastised by the Council.

Vote for Brianne Nadeau if: You think it’s time for a change.

Ward 3

Incumbent Councilmember Mary Cheh is likely heading to the Democratic nomination with levels of support that would make Vladimir Putin blush: She’s unopposed. Her brand of old-school liberalism fits upper Northwest Democrats well. Whether she’s improving nutrition in D.C. Public School lunches, trying to put teeth in District laws about shoveling your sidewalks, or forcing cabs to modernize, Cheh usually stands for ideas that would improve life here. Her over-the-top reversal on Vince Gray, whom she backed enthusiastically in 2010 (maybe mostly because she and Adrian Fenty didn’t get along), was a little dramatic, and we wish she’d quit her job teaching law—no, it probably doesn’t pose conflicts of interest, but the District could use its lawmakers’ full-time attention. All in all, though, we’re glad she’s in the Wilson Building.

Vote for Mary Cheh if: You don’t want to write someone else in.

Ward 5

Kenyan McDuffie

Representing a diverse ward where the demographics are changing rapidly in parts and not changing at all in others, Kenyan McDuffie has one of D.C. government’s most challenging assignments. So far, he’s been up for it. Improving on his predecessor’s work was a low bar—all he had to do was avoid federal prison—but McDuffie’s set about representing all of his constituents and also nudging the District’s political world toward the future. He’s sometimes sided with neighbors against things there’s not much reason to oppose (like tiny houses on land that had been used for parking), but no one’s perfect in city government.

Vote for Kenyan McDuffie if: You want to reward good behavior among your elected leaders for a change.

Ward 6

For once, a race that offers voters a choice between two reasonably compelling candidates! Former Senate staffer Darrel Thompson brings impressive credentials from national politics back to his home town; former Tommy Wells staffer Charles Allen brings impressive credentials helping to run the office he now wants to lead. There’s not much to differentiate them on issues: Both want affordable housing, good schools, responsive government. But Allen’s previous experience as Wells’ chief of staff would serve him well—as long as he can find a new Charles Allen to be his top aide.

Vote for Charles Allen if: You wish Tommy Wells was running for another term.

Delegate to the House of Representatives

It’s been 23 years since anyone other than Eleanor Holmes Norton occupied D.C.’s nonvoting seat in the House. No, D.C. still doesn’t have a vote, and yes, Norton sometimes seems to have a bit of Stockholm Syndrome about Congress—like when she publicly warned of “legal and institutional risks” from passing a local budget autonomy resolution, none of which have really come to pass. But ultimately, the inside game turned out to be what got D.C.’s budget exempted from any more federal shutdowns this fiscal year as part of the deal that ended October’s closure. Besides, she’s unopposed for the nomination.

Vote for Eleanor Holmes Norton if: It feels like a tradition by now.

U.S. Representative and U.S. Senator

These jobs are imaginary. Sure, they’re on the ballot, and they come with an office at the Wilson Building (no budget, though) and a few perks on Capitol Hill, but don’t be fooled–you’re not voting for the positions the ballot makes it look like you are. You’re voting for unpaid statehood lobbyists. As you can tell from the fact that D.C. is not a state, it hasn’t worked that well. Franklin Garcia, the president of the D.C. Latino Caucus, is unopposed for shadow representative. For shadow senator, the choice is between Paul Strauss, who’s had the job for 17 years and been arrested twice, or Pete Ross, who’s spent hundreds of thousands of dollars campaigning for the post and once served three months in a halfway house for tax evasion.

Vote for Franklin Garcia if: You want to send Congress a message.

Vote for Paul Strauss or Pete Ross if: You flip a coin and their side comes up.

Photos by Darrow Montgomery

 

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