Election Day is around the corner and, locally as well as nationally, it's a big one. With two at-large seats up for grabs in the D.C. Council, District voters have a chance to reshape the way things go on the dais for the near future. Voters can pick two candidates from the ballot, but one of the winners must be a non-Democrat.
It's been a gloomy few months at the District Building. Residents have been forced to endure the shame of watching one elected official get hauled off to jail, and are waiting for the sentencing of another for bank fraud. The campaign finances and post-election hiring practices of Mayor Vincent C. Gray are the topic of several federal and local investigations. In short, the city's governance is once again the butt of political jokes.
If there is to be a renewed period of leadership in the District, Tuesday's at-large council elections offer a critical crossroads. Like it or not, the days of Chocolate City are over. The gentrification era is already more than a generation deep, and we need public officials who can take a realistic look at that city’s economic, social, educational and neighborhood woes, and find solutions for everyone involved.
In the at-large race, there are two people best suited for the job of taking the city down an acceptable path.
A.J. Cooper, 32, is a native Washingtonian, running as an independent. He is focused on ethics reform but also has an admirable vision for the future of this city. For one, his outlook on the race relations that seem to dominate every discussion is one I can agree with. His generation of D.C. natives — a generation of which I am a part — grew up in a city that was more culturally integrated than many will have you believe. On WAMU's Kojo Nnamdi show last Friday, Cooper explained why the coded politics of gentrification might be better navigated by someone with a more open outlook.
"Folks from my generation: we grew up with white folks. We grew up with Latinos. We grew up with the immigrant population. We grew up with gay folks. We don't have those same kind of walls and barriers that the older generations have," Cooper said. "We party at the same places. We listen to the same music. We date each others' sisters. Bringing a young mind to the city council will alleviate a lot of these [racial] issues."
Copper also has a sensible plan for refocusing attention on the future of this city: the youth. Currently, he works as policy director at the DC Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. Their mission is to cut the city's teen pregnancy rate by 50 percent by 2015. The trickle-down effects of such a goal are obvious. Giving kids a chance for success is something Cooper has been preaching since I used to watch him as host of BET's Teen Summit back in the 1990s.
My other choice from the at-large ballot is incumbent Michael A. Brown. I've said before that Brown’s attitude, never mind his personal foibles, must change if he ever wants to vault from the at-large seat to the mayor’s office. That hasn't changed. But I also think Brown has a reputation to save, and the only way to save it is by improving as a lawmaker.
I believe in second chances. And despite a long list of misdeeds, from campaign finance irregularities to having his driver’s license suspended, Brown is smart, well-liked and experienced enough to really make a turnaround if re-elected. His political ceiling is high if he wants to go about it the right way. Think of it like this: If he screws this term up, he'll probably never get elected to public office in his hometown ever again. The stakes are high for him in terms of improvement. And with Brown's goals of making life east of the Anacostia River more liveable, I think he deserves that opportunity.
With Brown and Cooper together, maybe the city can regain some pride in its brass. And considering how the two have gone at each other, forcing them to co-exist on the same dais might be the best way to motivate both.
What about the rest of the field?
David Grosso is another D.C. native running as an independent. Brown's attack on him during a NewsChannel 8 debate about his arrest for smoking marijuana at age 22, two decades ago, was slightly unfair given the context of that discussion. But the fact that Grosso seemed so ill-prepared for such a barrage was striking. After all, it is politics.
Grosso's platform seems to be nothing other than: he's qualified. He worked for former Ward 6 representative Sharon Ambrose on the council and for D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton on Capitol Hill. He left his private sector gig to run for the council, and I find that admirable. He's definitely qualified to be a D.C. Council member. I'm just not sure that he best represents what an at-large candidate needs to do for this city.
Leon J. Swain, Jr., another independent D.C. native, should frankly be doing way better in the race. He's a former police officer and former chairman of the D.C. Taxi Commission. I'm dismayed by his lack of fundraising ability to this point. I honestly think he might have been better suited to run in Ward 8, his native ward, against Marion Barry.
Swain’s inability to raise his own profile strikes me as problematic. If a man with his bona fides can't better market himself to the city, I'm not sure that I think he'd have much pull on a council full of egos.
Ann C. Wilcox is a Statehood Green candidate, determined to end poverty in the District. She's a former school board member and a lawyer. She did marginally well against Kwame Brown running for council chair, but her platform seems more party-generated than personally motivated, which I don't think is what the city needs at this point.
Mary Brooks Beatty is a Republican from Texas who has lived on Capitol Hill since 1994. She seems like a nice person, and most of her platform seems focused on ethics reform. I obviously have no issue with that, but, to me, it's not a campaign strategy on its own.
The other incumbent is the well-known Vincent Orange. He's served the council in various capacities over the years, but his antics at Sneaker Ball IX were odd, to say the least. When pictures surfaced of him posing somewhat provocatively with one of his female staffers in a photo booth, he told Washington City Paper, "It's all fun and transparent." Also, embarrassing.
I'm not here to judge a person's ability to legislate based on public appearances alone, but that's not his only flap. The money order controversy is still fresh enough in my mind to give a reason for pause about his leadership qualities.
As Mike DeBonis reported, "In his 2011 campaign for the council, about half of Orange’s money came from people or companies with ties to [city contractor Jeffrey E.] Thompson, according to a Washington Post review."
In question were 26 money orders donations to Orange, each for $1,000. In March, the FBI and IRS raided Thompson’s home and office as part of a “federal investigation into campaign finance,” his firm said.
Two at-large council members are not going to reverse the wrongs of decades of corruption, even if they try. But scrubbing the past is not the only way to a cleaner tomorrow. I was born and raised in this city, and not once have I felt like the city's political future was steady. However, if Brown could finally get his proverbial act together, and work with a man like Cooper who is representing the next generation's interests, we'd be moving in a direction I can get down with.
Yates is a columnist for TheRootDC.
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