Silverman out, Bennett-Fleming in for D.C. Council at-large race

November 7, 2013

Silverman, seen campaigning during last year’s special election, cited the early April primary as a key reason she is not challenging incumbent Anita Bonds. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

Updated 5:10 p.m. to correct details of Bonds’s votes on the Large Retailer Accountability Act

A potentially formidable challenger to incumbent D.C. Council member Anita D. Bonds announced Thursday she will not enter next year’s Democratic primary race, but the District’s “shadow representative” said he is ready to jump in to the at-large contest.

Elissa Silverman, a policy advocate and former journalist, finished a surprise second to Bonds in the special election held last April to fill the at-large seat held by now-Chairman Phil Mendelson. Silverman finished roughly 2,800 votes behind Bonds and has been considered well-positioned to attract support next year from progressive voters alienated by Bonds’s ties to the city Democratic Party establishment.

But in a message to supporters Thursday, Silverman said she would not be entering the primary race: “You have my continued commitment to push for integrity and accountability, and I will keep looking for opportunities to serve our city — whether in or out of public office,” she wrote.

In an interview, Silverman, 40, said the realities of the District’s new, earlier primary date played a significant role in her decision. “I would love to run, but this schedule makes it very challenging.” she said.

“I make the median income in D.C.,” said Silverman, who works at the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, a liberal policy shop. “I took a five-month leave of absence without pay to run in the special election. The April 1 primary would force me to quit my job and basically take up to another 14 months without income. … It makes it difficult both to get to Election Day, and then if I run a good campaign and win, to make ends meet until I get to the Wilson Building.”

Silverman was a leader of the aborted effort to ban corporate campaign contributions through a ballot initiative and has been active since then in pushing campaign finance reforms, as well as economic justice issues, such as the Large Retailer Accountability Act and, most recently, an increase in the city’s minimum wage. Those efforts, she said, will go on.

Bonds may not get a free pass to the Democratic nomination for a full four-year term, however. Nate Bennett-Fleming, a Ward 8 native who serves as the District’s elected shadow representative, said he plans to pick up ballot petitions Friday and seek Bonds’s at-large seat, citing “frustrations with the current leadership.”

“At the end of the day, I think the people need a choice, and I think I can offer a valuable alternative,” he said Thursday.

Bennett-Fleming, 29, said he is planning to push affordable housing and “economic opportunity” as his top issues, with an additional focus on “government reform.”

“I’m particularly frustrated because I think our leadership should be more thoughtful, more involved,” he said. “They’re not operating under the urgency that the problems demand.” He specifically cited the council’s decision to delay the first election of the city’s attorney general, and also the ultimate defeat of the Large Retailer Accountability Act, which would have forced Wal-Mart and other massive retailers to pay their employees a super-minimum wage.

“I thought it was really interesting Council member Bonds voted for it and against it,” he said, referring to her differing votes on the bill’s passage (for) and the subsequent override of a mayoral veto (against).

It’s little surprise that Bennett-Fleming, a graduate of Morehouse College and the University of California at Berkeley law school, would seek higher office after running a surprisingly energetic race in 2010 to secure the symbolic shadow representative post. But his decision to challenge Bonds, the longtime chairwoman of the District’s Democratic Party, just two years later is likely to raise some eyebrows given his efforts over the years to build ties with the city’s political establishment. He currently works as an adjunct professor at the University of the District of Columbia law school, and said he is also involved in a start-up firm that is working on “crowdfunding” projects by African-American entrepreneurs.

Bonds did not respond to messages seeking comment Thursday afternoon.

Bennett-Fleming said his council run retains a testing-the-waters aspect: “I don’t think any candidate should be 100 percent committed to anything,” he said. “I’m really running to offer people a choice. If people take to my ideas, take to my candidacy, then we’ll move forward.”

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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Mike DeBonis | November 7, 2013