Here Comes Your Graham
The way some people in Adams Morgan talk about Councilmember Jim Graham, he sounds more like the neighborhood heavy than Ward 1’s elected representative. He gets things done, one man says, but no one ever promised Graham a lifetime appointment.
Another man who says he’s thinking about voting against Graham concedes that he owes a lot of loyalty to him, then changes his mind. What he feels for Graham is more like a debt for how much Graham has helped him, he tells Ward 1 candidate Brianne Nadeau, who’s canvassing the neighborhood.
It’s encouraging news for Nadeau, but it would be even better if she was actually running against Graham. Graham tells LL he hasn’t decided if he’ll seek a fifth term, so her only declared opponent in the race is Bryan Weaver, a nonprofit director and former ANC commissioner who ran unsuccessfully against Graham in 2010.
Nadeau and Weaver share more than a similar first name. They also share roughly the same politics and the same “progressive” constituency (read: mostly educated and mostly white). After a series of split citywide elections and the 2010 Ward 1 race—in which Graham faced Weaver and another challenger—Weaver and Nadeau both know what another crowded field could mean for them: yet another split vote. Nadeau and Weaver are locked in a game of chicken. Unless one of them drops out, Graham is likely to win again if he runs.
Nadeau bounces off another Adams Morgan stoop, pleased that she’s beat Weaver to a likely voter. “She probably doesn’t know who Bryan is,” says Nadeau, a former U Street NW ANC commissioner. “And I’m the first one to the door.”
Like Nadeau, Weaver says he feels a groundswell in the ward against Graham that he didn’t when he failed to unseat him in 2010. Before, Weaver thinks, Ward 1 treated Graham with the same benevolent neglect with which he says Ward 8 treats Councilmember Marion Barry—he’s been around a while, so why worry about the details of the latest scandal? That mood is different this cycle, according to Weaver.
“People are upset with Jim,” he says. “It’s more palpable.”
Graham’s reputation has taken a beating over the past few years. Graham allegedly used his position on Metro’s board to pressure a businessman to leave a Metro development deal. In exchange, Graham allegedly promised to back him for the city’s lottery contract. A Metro report on Graham earned him a chewing out from the District’s Board of Ethics and Government Accountability and a rare reprimand from his Council colleagues, just the second public disciplining of a councilmember by the District’s post–Home Rule Act government.
The reprimand cost Graham more than face—he also lost his tightly held control of liquor-license oversight. Meanwhile, he’s facing a lawsuit from a disgruntled developer over the alleged swap. Metro’s board voted against paying his legal bills.
Graham tells LL that, Council reprimand aside, he thinks he’ll win if he runs. He insists that no law was broken in the Metro or lottery negotiations, and indeed, he hasn’t been criminally charged.
The Metro story isn’t the first time Graham’s name has come up in the context of the seamier side of D.C. politics, though. In 2009, Graham aide Ted Loza was arrested for accepting bribes. Graham himself didn’t report being offered and rejecting a $2,600 bribe from an undercover FBI agent via Loza. Graham insists he didn’t consider the money a bribe so much as he considered it, somehow, a nice gesture that didn’t require reciprocation. He wasn’t charged in that case, either.
LL’s not sure how much voters care about which would-be lottery operator Graham allegedly screwed. Slamming Graham over Loza certainly didn’t help Weaver in 2010, when he split the anti-Graham vote 21 percent to 21 percent with education activist Jeff Smith, letting Graham win re-election with more than 56 percent. But it’s apparently enough to attract challengers for Graham—and enough to generate concerns among the people who’d like to see him leave office that the same thing might happen again.
“The best way for Jim to run again is if he has three opponents,” says Terry Lynch, the executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations. Lynch, who’s mentioned as a potential third challenger, says he hasn’t decided yet whether he’ll enter the race himself.
Would-be councilmembers worry about split votes because it keeps happening. In a 2011 special election to replace Kwame Brown in an at-large Council seat, self-styled reform candidates Pat Mara, Sekou Biddle, and Weaver split the returns, receiving 25 percent, 20 percent, and 13 percent of the vote, respectively. With the electorate so divided, Vincent Orange was able to win with only 29 percent.
In the 2012 Democratic primary, Orange successfully defended his seat against similarly positioned candidates Biddle and Peter Shapiro, who had a combined 48 percent compared to Orange’s 40. This year, Councilmember Anita Bonds was able to defeat Elissa Silverman, Mara, and Matthew Frumin with only 31.5 percent of the vote.
All of those dashed elections have created a meta-narrative for District office-seekers. For anyone but incumbents, it’s not enough to beat your opponents—you have to muscle out the third- and fourth-place candidates before the Democratic primary to have any chance of winning. That’s given rise to the sit-down with ideologically simpatico rivals, which has become as much a part of running in the District as candidate debates and signature challenges. In exchange for throwing away months of late nights, a candidate who drops out will get a chance to see the incumbent lose to someone else.
It hasn’t proved to be an attractive offer. In 2012’s Democratic primary, even the intervention of progressive godfather Tommy Wells couldn’t convince Shapiro to drop out in hopes Biddle would win. In April’s at-large special election, Silverman failed to persuade Frumin to drop out. (Their combined votes would have surpassed Bonds’ winning total, even with the Republican Mara in the race.)
Weaver has been through this routine several times already. He tried to convince Smith to drop out in 2010, without success. In 2012, Biddle convinced Weaver to stay out of the race, although that didn’t do much for his own prospects.
Nadeau and Weaver had their own sit-down, with similarly hopeless results. The results of that meeting can be seen in the fact that they’re still running. Still, Nadeau remains convinced that she could push Weaver out of the race. “Neither one of us wants to be the reason Jim gets re-elected,” she says.
Similarities aside, Weaver and Nadeau say they wouldn’t have the same approach on the Council. Nadeau focuses on increasing community engagement with schools and trying to improve Graham’s vaunted constituent services responses. Weaver, who was one of the lead supporters of the failed attempt to put an initiative banning corporate contributions on April’s special election ballot, sees himself fitting into an ethics reform bloc with Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie and At-Large Councilmember David Grosso.
Before any of that can happen, one of them has to win. Right now, Weaver and Nadeau are stuck signaling to each other that they won’t drop out by raising more money. In the latest campaign finance disclosures, turned in July 31, Nadeau has $46,163.86 cash on hand, compared to Weaver’s $22,980.73. Nadeau, who has been raising money for four months more than Weaver, says she’ll need the cash. She’s eyeing what she calls the “Cadillac” package, a $100,000 set of 10 mailings. (Graham spent $325,723.39 on his 2010 re-election bid.)
Graham, by the way, spent much of the summer in Uruguay, where he keeps an apartment. Oh, for the life of a D.C. Council incumbent.
The councilmember did return to D.C. in time for last Sunday’s Adams Morgan Day, where he shared 18th Street NW with the two people running for his job. It was an opportunity to preach the virtues of safe sex and safe politics for Weaver, who wandered around the fair handing out condoms.
“When our elected officials get in bed with D.C.’s pay-to-play politics everyone is affected by the diseases it spreads,” an awkwardly worded flyer declared, with a Weaver 2014 condom taped below. It’s more about publicity than sexiness, since—no offense to Weaver intended—LL can’t imagine pulling that one off the nightstand.
Graham, hugging passersby in his own tent further down 18th Street, isn’t fazed by the intimation that he’s become the Wilson Building’s equivalent of gonorrhea. “I think he’s trying to get some name recognition,” Graham says.
When LL tells Nadeau about the condoms, she isn’t dismissive—she’s impressed. “Wow,” she says. “Those are probably not cheap.”
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Photo by Darrow Montgomery