Meet the Many, Many D.C. Council At-Large Candidates
LL’s got a great idea: make a second D.C. Council. Sure, it would take an act of Congress, but it’s also the only way LL can think of to deal with the swaths of politically ambitious candidates who spring up, hydra-like, whenever a seat opens on the actual Council.
Voters will face an extreme version of that scenario this November, when they’ll have to choose between a whopping 15 candidates gunning for two seats. Thanks to At-Large Councilmember David Catania’s decision to give his seat up to run for mayor, a veritable horde of would-be replacements has bubbled up looking for a shot. That’s enough to stock an entire other Council on their own, including a chairman.
Only one of those two seats is really up for grabs. The other will almost certainly go to incumbent Democrat Anita Bonds, who handily clotheslined her opponents in April’s primary to hang on to the nomination. That leaves just one seat for the 14 candidates below, who will soon be appearing at your doors, your block parties, and in your Facebook ads.
The Councilmembers’ Favorite
Robert White realized before his rivals that Catania aspired to more than his Wilson Building corner office and jumped into the at-large race last September. Almost a year in the race have paid off for this former staffer for Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton.
In July, he shook up the sleepy contest with an endorsement from Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, who can loan White his own coalition of political vets, white newcomers, and assorted reform types. Last week, Ward 7’s Yvette Alexander endorsed White too.
At the same time, White has won over the status quo crowd, taking contributions from go-to Wilson Building lobbyist David Wilmot and major city contractor Fort Myer Construction.
And yet, White’s still got a shot at the frivolous millennial vote. Last month, he stunt-bartended at Thomas Foolery, the Dupont Circle bar where customers can play “Plinko” for a chance at discounted Smirnoff Ice.
Absent any actual polling in the race—the prospect of which threatens to finally winnow this field down to a size that won’t give voters migraines—White’s most formidable competitor looks to be Elissa Silverman, one of LL’s predecessors as this column’s author who’s now seeking the seat for a second time.
Silverman made her bones in a 2013 special election, when she surprised her rivals and received more than 25 percent of the vote citywide, putting her second—and not by that far—behind Bonds.
Silverman won good-government folks over by refusing to take corporate contributions and earned lefty cred from her work at the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute thinktank. Still, Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells went down in defeat in April’s primary when he ran on a similar platform. Can Silverman (who lives in the same ward) avoid that fate?
The Wine Bar Owner
At first, Khalid Pitts looks like he should be a leading candidate. He co-owns a Logan Circle wine bar, worked for the Service Employees International Union, and has gobs of cash in the bank—nearly $100,000, according to an August campaign report.
Unluckily for Pitts, though, it turns out that he’s never voted in a District election, despite living here for 19 years. Instead, he continued to cast ballots in his native Michigan, according to his campaign.
A member of the District’s labor establishment tut-tuts to LL that Pitts’ funds and background as a union staffer would be perfect, if only it weren’t for that pesky voting thing.
The District’s moribund Republican Party hasn’t been this active since it committed seppuku by booting longtime lone GOP Councilmember Carol Schwartz in 2008. You wouldn’t know it from looking at Marc Morgan’s website, though, which takes pains not to mention his affiliation with the party.
In a field that includes a lot of candidates taking unorthodox paths to office, Adams Morgan Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Brian Hart’s resume—neighborhood level work, and lots of it—comes off as almost square.
Also surprising: Hart’s attempts to make White’s endorsements from two councilmembers a campaign issue. After Alexander endorsed his opponent last week, Hart issued a press release complaining that he never had a fair shot at the endorsement. LL’s not sure how Hart plans to win votes with a sore loser campaign. Maybe he’s figured that the rest of the at-large field is so large, it’s worth going after their votes.
The Former Republican
The Home Rule charter provision that reserves two of the Council’s 13 seats for non-members of the city’s majority party (i.e., for non-Democrats) inspires many party loyalists to suddenly have changes of heart and become independents.
Kishan Putta has done a much rarer version of that maneuver, dropping his GOP registration in 2012 to become an independent. Expect that—and his position founding Indians for McCain in 2008—to haunt him. That’s only if he can manage to actually make it to November: In the only petition challenge filed last week, Hart aims to push Putta, a Dupont Circle ANC member, off the ballot.
Speaking of sleepy parties inexplicably active in this election, remember the Statehood Greens? Had a Council seat for a while until Catania poleaxed party warhorse Hilda Mason in 1998, been known for kooky candidates ever since?
Well, no more. Maybe. Statehood Green nominee Eugene Puryear is running the party’s most competent campaign in recent memory, mostly by actually campaigning. District voters have even seen his name on the ballot before: In 2008, Puryear ran as the Marxist-Leninist Party for Socialism and Liberation’s candidate for vice president. (He didn’t win.)
Even in a race that has LL asking Puryear precisely which far-left faction he identifies with, the Rev. Graylan Hagler may still be the flashiest candidate running.
The white-bearded pastor scored nearly 15 percent of the vote in a mayoral run in Boston in the 1990s. He earned a more dubious honor last year, when his fiery protests against Walmart’s arrival in the District made the Drudge Report for his denunciation of the big-boxers as a “little bitty cracker corporation from Arkansas.”
The LGBT Activist
With Catania and Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham leaving office in January, Courtney R. Snowden represents the best chance to retain an openly gay councilmember. Snowden, a Ward 7 resident, formerly ran D.C. Black Pride and has managed to amass a sizable campaign fund.
“In this great city, we can celebrate all the different parts of me,” Snowden said after winning an endorsement from the gay issues-focused Victory Fund.
Most of his opponents have done it too, but Eric Jones may be one of the most obvious Democrats-turned-independents in the crowd. The former D.C. Young Democrats official’s opportunistic party-hopping is so clear that he’s seen some of his signs defaced by Statehood Green stickers declaring him to be one of many “#fauxdems.”
Jones didn’t just leave behind his party to run for the seat. He also left a job lobbying for a construction trade group. Still, he took his contacts with him, raising big money over the summer from developers and construction interests.
The Long Longshot
Wendell Felder, an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner in Ward 7, has notched a $500 contribution from former schools chancellor Michelle Rhee and not much else. Felder is quick to tell LL, though, that he doesn’t necessarily share the brusque reformer’s views.
The Shadow Senator
Michael D. Brown’s political career is living proof that nice guys finish last. He’s toiled for years as the District’s shadow senator, essentially an unpaid, little-respected lobbyist for statehood. Now, for his reward, his name sounds like Michael A. Brown, the former councilmember currently serving time in federal prison.
Brown’s latest attempt to escape the Wilson Building’s basement doesn’t suggest that his luck has changed. He’s raised just a few thousand dollars, exclusively from himself and his relatives.
The Perennial Candidate
Calvin Gurley, the bow-tied gadfly who does his best to appear in every District election, landed nearly 30 percent of the vote in his 2012 run for Council chairman. Time hasn’t been kind to Gurley’s ambitions, though, and he’ll be lucky to receive a tenth of that haul this November.
Then again, defeat will just mean another opportunity to run for office again—and maybe, for Gurley and some of his rivals, that’s the real victory.
Correction: Due to a reporting error, this article initially misstated the number of at-large candidates and didn't include Libertarian candidate Frederick Steiner.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery