The two couldn’t have looked more different sitting on the stage at Sixth and I Historic Synagogue Wednesday night. On the left was Councilmember Jim Graham, D-Ward 1, the bowtie enthusiast who’s been presiding over his jurisdiction for 15 years. He’d taken the stage just seconds before, strolling into view immediately after the moderator pointed out his absence. On the right was Brianne Nadeau, his challenger, waiting patiently after arriving early.
Over the next twenty minutes, the two answered questions about the future of city. Their thoughts and body language revealed a pair of candidates who are the polar opposites in every way.
Graham appeared to treat the proceedings in both a bombastic yet condescending way, as he is sometimes wont to do. After he quipped at a few of the questions and directed a seemingly disdainful remark toward Nadeau, it was clear there was no love lost between the two. In full politician mode, Graham was being the man that we’ve all come to know. Cordial, even if cool and confident in a way that can come off as cocky.
Nadeau on the other hand appears to be a modest person. When speaking about the issues, her volume of her voice is more that of someone you’d talk to in a bookstore, not on a campaign stop. No elevated, over-orated tone, just plain-english talk that even if you don’t agree with is easy to understand. As a Ward 1 resident myself, it was a relief. “A few years ago my uncle went to prison and served his time. And starting your life over again after leaving society like that is very difficult. Forgiveness is a very tricky thing,” she said about banning the box regulations, designed to expand employment opportunities for ex-offenders.
Brianne Nadeau might not be a big name, but she’s got a reasonable chance to unseat one of the city’s most colorful political characters on April 1. Graham’s reputation has taken a hit in the last 4 years, to the point that as recently as October, even he wasn’t sure he’d be in this race at all. Back on Dec. 13, appearing on WAMU-FM’s “Kojo Nnamdi Show: The Politics Hour,” Graham categorized his circumstance, which resulted in a reprimand from the council, as merely a speck on a long clean record.
“They called it an ethical lapse. I think that’s a good way of putting it,” he said, referring to a Washington Post editorial about his involvement with a city lottery deal. ”So I’m saying to the voters of Ward 1, take that situation, that incident, that lapse, if you will, and compare it to 15 years of service.”
As for the situation in which he failed to turn in his aide Ted Loza, who eventually pleaded guilty to taking a bribe, he lamented. “I regret that moment in time. I should have picked up the phone and called Chief Lanier,” Graham said.
Nadeau on the other hand, brings a Girl Scout’s mindset to the race. Literally. A scout of 13 years, she still tries to live by certain mantras she learned from the organization from a personally and professionally. “The two things that I really took away from that were to look for work around you and to leave things better than I found them,” she said Thursday from the offices of her PR day job in Woodley Park. Might sound hokey, but so far, she’s had some success.
The Grosse Pointe, MI native who arrived in D.C. in 2002, helped create the U Street Movie Series, in addition to founding Sustainable U [Street], a project designed to help residents and businesses of the historic corridor collaborate to bring down costs of living. She was also an ANC Commissioner for the area, helping to extend bike lanes along 15th Street.
But does she have any real path to victory? Unseating a long-time incumbent is no small task in D.C.’s entrenched political community. Nadeau got a boost when Council member David Grosso, I-At-Large, endorsed her, bucking the polite trend of not speaking against current colleagues in the Wilson Building. As The Post’s Mike DeBonis reported, “I think it’s probably fairly unusual,” Grosso said. “But if my colleagues don’t know by now, I don’t often dance to the same drumbeat.”
Recent election results illustrate that the ward is open to supporting a relative newcomer. For instance, April 2013 special election for an At-Large spot on the Council, Elissa Silverman, a 30-something first time candidate won Ward 1 with nearly 44 percent of the vote. But if you consider that in the last Ward 1 race, Graham did win with a majority, as Bryan Weaver and Jeff Smith split 42 percent of the vote.
Yet, with the moved up election cycle, it’s possible this time around will be more akin to a special election in terms of turnout. During the 2010 election, only 37 percent of Ward 1 democrats showed up to the polls. If Nadeau can accomplish her goal of mobilizing a younger, and frankly, whiter base of Democrats, she’s got a chance.
“The democratic party is not engaging new residents. And we have this entire group of people that moves here for some other reason, not to get involved locally, which is fine, but they’re not given a reason to do so,” Nadeau, 33, said. “We hope my candidacy will be that catalyst in a lot of ways. That we’re building this movement. That this should bring along young people and I want to do that, and I want to do that in a way that respects where we’ve been.”
But winning over the eastern part of the Ward in LeDroit Park, Shaw and Park View is a different story. Dyana Forester, ANC 1B06 Commissioner, isn’t sure that’s happened yet. “I don’t think that Brianne has the name recognition East of Georgia [Avenue.] Like, I’ve been to community meetings,” Forester said. “People don’t know who she is. She’s incredibly smart, but she’s not as personable.”
More broadly, Nadeau represents an interesting demographic of people in the city. Those that arrived here relatively recently and want to stay but don’t feel comfortable with the current status quo. As opposed to natives being pushed out against their will.
“I’m watching my friends make tough decisions everyday about how can they actually build a life in the District. And these are people who love it as much as I do,” Nadeau said, whose campaign office is currently the cubicle next to her own at work. “I’m watching them move. Because they can’t afford the house or they don’t get the value. If they can get the house and the value, they don’t feel comfortable putting their kids in the neighborhood schools.”
Which is why she’s running at all. Not just for her friends, or her interests, which don’t include being a career politician. But the interests of everyone, as she sees it. “We can’t be a community of only childless people. We can’t be only 20-somethings and retirees. And we want that dynamic. We want kids walking down the street, we want people pushing baby carriages,” Nadeau said.
“This campaign isn’t about me. It’s just not.”