“People want to have their leadership reflect who they are,” said Bonds (At Large), adding that longtime residents “fear” being pushed out by the city’s changing demographics. “The majority of the District of Columbia is African American . . . There is a natural tendency to want your own.”
Bonds’s comments on race — during the Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU (88.5 FM) — underscores the continuing impact of the District’s changing demographics on local politics. Although race has been a part of city politics for decades, it’s rare for candidates to explicitly connect the topic to their campaigns.
Bonds was asked during the debate whether she agreed with a local union official who told The Washington Post that some black residents worry a white candidate could win the race. She said she was “happy to hear that comment” from George T. Johnson, head of Local 20 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, because she is concerned that blacks are losing influence on the council.
The D.C. Democratic State Committee in December appointed Bonds, the party’s chairwoman, to fill the the seat formerly held by Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) pending the special election. Bonds is competing against three Democrats, one Republican and a member of the Statehood Green Party.
Bonds appears to be trying to rally black voters by noting the council has never had eight white members. Last year, council member David Grosso (I-At Large) defeated then-council member Michael A. Brown, who is black, resulting in the council’s demographic split.
During the debate, Bonds also attempted to link race to issues when responding to questions about housing and poverty. “I am an African American, black candidate, and I am proud of having that as my issue,” she said.
Statehood Green Party candidate Perry Redd, the other African American in the race, also said it was important for a black candidate to win the seat. Redd said African American politicians better understand the challenges facing black families in the District.
“We have a legacy in our country of treating people of color less than respectable,” Redd said.
The white candidates in the race — Republican Patrick Mara and Democrats Matthew Frumin, Elissa Silverman and Paul Zukerberg — largely avoided the topic of race.
“Whether it’s majority African American or majority white, the key is we be ready to serve the city as a whole,” Frumin said.
Zukerberg, a lawyer, used the discussion to pivot to his central issue of decriminalizing marijuana. He said city police arrest nearly 6,000 people each year, many of whom are young African Americans, for nonviolent marijuana offenses.
“We’ve had a black majority council, we’ve had a black mayor, and they’ve done nothing to help these young people,” he said. “They’ve put them on the road, not to college, but to prison.”
The candidates also attempted to overcome challenges that have partially defined their campaigns.
Mara, who represents Ward 1 on the Board of Education, sought to counter critics who noted that he donated money to 2012 GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney and has other ties to national Republicans. Mara said that he’s been a longtime supporter of same-sex marriage and considers himself a “social progressive, fiscally responsible Republican.”
Zukerberg, meanwhile, hammered Silverman over a contribution from Sinclair Skinner, who was at the center of the controversy over contracts during Democratic Mayor Adrian M. Fenty’s administration. Zukerberg demanded to know why Silverman, a chief proponent of ethics and campaign finance reform, accepted the money.
Silverman, a former reporter who is on leave from the liberal Fiscal Policy Institute, said Skinner made the donation because he thinks she is “honest and fair and ethical.”
Frumin, a Ward 3 advisory neighborhood commissioner, was asked why he supported an exception to on-site parking rules for the new Babes Billiard development in Tenleytown. He said he backed the exception because other transportation incentives — such as Capital Bikeshare memberships and Metro subsidies — were provided to new residents.
Meanwhile, Bonds was forced to defend her relationship with super-lobbyist David Wilmot. Bonds said “lobbyists are individuals” who should be allowed to engage in the political process. But Bonds said she won’t be influenced by contributions.
Bonds said she would step down as a Fort Myer Construction executive if she won. Frumin, a partner at a prominent law firm, also made that pledge.
On the issue of affordable housing, Mara said he would push to lower real estate taxes. Silverman and Redd called for more investment in government programs that subsidize affordable housing.
With the city reporting a $440 million budget surplus last year, Bonds suggested tax cuts for seniors. Mara also said the city should consider tax cuts. Silverman said she’s hesitant to cut taxes until other needs are met.
“I believe in using tax policy to help people, and that is a key difference with the people sitting at this table,” Silverman said.