In at-large council race, Anita Bonds tries to fend off challengers who critique her record


Anita Bonds is seen April 23, 2013, in Washington while speaking to supporter Warner H. Sessions. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

On a D.C. Council dais full of ambitious and attention-hungry politicians, at-large Democrat Anita Bonds says she’s proudly different.

“I am not like Superman,” she said. “I am not wearing my cape and flying around. I’m not dancing on the bar, okay? . . . I am one of the people of the District of Columbia, and I am trying to do the work of the people rather than being grandiose. I’m not trying to be flamboyant.”

But after 15 months as a lawmaker, her low-key philosophy has created critics, including three people seeking to unseat her in Tuesday’s Democratic primary. Nate Bennett-Fleming, John F. Settles II and Pedro Rubio each say they’d be more energetic and effective at the John A. Wilson Building than is Bonds, a veteran of city politics but a newcomer to elected office.

A Washington Post poll, however, finds that her critics have had difficulty connecting with voters while the hotly contested mayoral race sucks up much of the public’s attention. That leaves Bonds well positioned to win another four years in office.

While Bonds has the support of only one-third of likely voters, Bennett-Fleming also has double-digit support, with 16 percent. Another third of the likely electorate says it’s undecided or plans not to vote for any candidate, leaving Settles with 9 percent and Rubio 7 percent.

Bonds, 68, is hanging her reelection bid on a signature achievement: the Senior Citizen Real Property Tax Relief Act of 2014, a bill she sponsored and which Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) signed into law Tuesday. It exempts from property taxes residents 70 and over who have owned a home in the city for at least 20 years and have less than $60,000 in yearly income.

That bill, Bonds said, demonstrates her commitment to listening to the needs and anxieties of longtime residents. “Seniors talk an awful lot about how to make ends meet. They talk about how the only thing of value they had was their home, and that they were going to lose that,” said Bonds, a Bloomingdale resident. “So what can we do?”

Her challengers say that she could have done a lot more since taking the seat vacated by Phil Mendelson, now the council chairman, in December 2012.

Bennett-Fleming, a 29-year-old Anacostia native who is the District’s elected “shadow” representative to Congress, said he would “deliver more for the voters” than Bonds can.

“I think her heart’s in the right place. I respect her,” said Bennett-Fleming, who has gained the endorsements of several newspapers and liberal activist groups. “But on a council of 13 people, you need to be able to deliver. You need to get things done, and you need to add value.”

Settles, a 42-year-old Logan Circle mortgage banker who is making his second council run, said his experience as a businessman, volunteer and father of three puts him in a better position to connect with voters across the city’s geographic and demographic divides.

“An at-large member should be held to a higher standard,” he said. “She should have been able to hit the ground rolling. . . . If we’re really serious about helping seniors, we should pass comprehensive legislation, not just fringe pieces.”

And Rubio, a 27-year-old federal procurement specialist living in Brightwood, said he’s running on an education- and public-safety-focused platform because he is “tired of some of our bad politicians making poor decisions.”

An American University graduate and a native Washingtonian who is the son of Salvadoran immigrants, he would be the first Latino elected to the D.C. Council.

The new polling shows Bonds with strong support among African Americans, older residents and voters without college degrees, with no competitor garnering enough support to beat her in virtually any demographic group.

Bonds performs best among likely voters supporting Gray, winning 49 percent against Bennett-Fleming’s 18 percent. She has a smaller edge — 31 percent to 20 percent — among those voting for Muriel Bowser, the Ward 4 council member who is Gray’s leading challenger in the mayoral primary.

The Post survey reached 1,402 D.C. adults between March 20 and 23 on land-line and cellphones. Of those, 863 were registered Democratic voters and 391 are likely voters in the April 1 primary. The margin of error among likely voters is 6.5 percentage points.

Bonds grew exasperated when presented with her opponents’ criticism — particularly from Bennett-Fleming, a graduate of Morehouse College and the University of California law school who has shown little patience for the old ways of city politics.

“He’s in a very big hurry, and he sees this community as not recognizing how fast he wants to travel,” she said, adding that she is delivering on pledges to be more inclusive, hosting “community action summits” across the city to hear opinions on various issues.

Her opponents, meanwhile, have created more thoroughgoing platforms. Bennett-Fleming has sought to lay out “100 solutions in 100 days” on his campaign Web site — ranging from tuition-free access to community college to better enforcement of laws and regulations on affordable housing. Settles has a five-point plan that weaves together proposals in areas including housing costs, education and public safety.

Bonds said that should she be reelected, she will continue to focus on affordability and quality-of-life issues — including legislation that would offer subsidies for apartment buildings to install “green roofs” in return for agreeing to temporarily freeze rents.

“I’m trying to have a conversation with people: What is the city doing well? What can the city be doing better?” she said. “I’m quiet, but I’m also effective.”

Scott Clement contributed to this report.

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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