Democrats likely to elect party chair for vacant D.C. Council seat

Correction:

December 6, 2012

Anita D. Bonds had barely finished helping Marion Barry win his first mayoral race when he handed her a new job. Barry was about to relinquish his at-large D.C. Council seat, and he wanted it filled with his preferred candidate.

The Democratic committee members making the interim selection — many of whom had supported Barry’s primary opponents — were not enthralled by his choice, the ambitious young lawyer John L. Ray. But Bonds went to work counting and securing votes, and late on a Monday night in January 1979, after six ballots and much cajoling from Bonds and Barry, Ray won the committee vote.

“I had to hold the line, and I did,” recalled Bonds, who joined Barry’s administration as a political aide.

Now Bonds, 67, is seeking to fill a vacant at-large D.C. Council seat — just as Ray did on his way to serving 14 years on the council.

Observers do not expect the vote to last six ballots this time. Bonds is chairman of the D.C. Democratic State Committee, which will make the interim selection Monday night, and she enjoys solid support among the committee’s approximately 80 members.


Anita Bonds (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Bonds said she is confident of victory, and her opponents acknowledge that she will be difficult to beat. A majority vote could put her on the council dais in time for the final meeting of the current session, on Dec. 18.

It would be a novel turn in the spotlight for Bonds, who has worked behind the scenes for District candidates and elected officials for more than five decades. Although she served several terms on a Ward 5 Advisory Neighborhood Commission and held elected Democratic Party posts, this is her first stint as a candidate for a major office. She said she was inspired to step forward after working on this fall’s presidential campaign and after noticing a dearth of women in the District’s elected positions.

“This is unusual for me, because I am very much a background person,” she said. “But I’m in this now, and it feels right.”

As a council member, Bonds said, she would be most interested in improving neighborhoods and tending to quality-of-life issues, while also focusing on job creation, fiscal responsibility and education.

“I don’t have any particular pet peeve, except I will try to continue to see improvements in the city,” she said, adding, “The city council’s going to get everything I can give.”

First, she is facing a high-pitched fight for the interim appointment and a potentially uglier one should she proceed to the April 23 special election that will fill the seat through 2014. Her foes paint her as a consummate political insider who represents a bygone generation of city political leadership and who has provided questionable leadership to the Democrats during six years as chairman.

Among the issues noted by Bonds’s opponents are campaign finance penalties incurred by local party officials in the course of raising money for the trip to the 2008 Democratic National Convention. The committee was initially fined $18,000 and ordered to return $30,000 in contributions. It later settled the matter for $8,000 without admitting to any particular violations.

Opponents are also asking whether Bonds intends to sever ties with her employer, Fort Myer Construction, the District government’s primary road-paving contractor. Bonds said she expects to take a leave of absence from her corporate-relations post during the campaign and will “probably” resign if she wins the special election.

About the campaign finance sanctions, she said that the committee had followed the advice of regulators and its attorneys and that the problems did not result from a “willful effort” to evade the law.

John Capozzi, a former committee member who is seeking the interim council appointment, said Bonds’s stewardship of the Democratic committee has been sloppy and opaque. He also criticized her decision this year to forgo direct elections of committee members during the April primaries, a move that has resulted in dozens of members remaining on the committee for more than the expected four-year terms.

Bonds said the Democratic National Committee mandated the change after the city primary was shifted from September to April. But Capozzi said that the decision was made behind closed doors and that Bonds has not provided documentation to support her explanations.

“There’s a problem if you’re not communicating with people and you’re the Democratic Party,” said Capozzi, 56, a human resources consultant. “This is a party for insiders, and I have higher ideals for the Democratic Party than that.”

A soft-spoken woman with a maternal mien — she has three grown children and six grandchildren — Bonds has gained a reputation as a savvy operator through her work running political campaigns and constituent services for Barry. She also was a field organizer in Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s 1980 presidential campaign and a deputy campaign manager in the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s 1988 run for president.

Bonds stuck with Barry through his darkest days — sitting with him at the defense table during his 1990 drug trial — and then went on to advise mayors Sharon Pratt and Anthony A. Williams and then-council member Kwame R. Brown before taking the helm of the D.C. Democrats in 2006.

Douglass Sloan, a public affairs consultant who is seeking the appointment, suggested that Bonds’s past will make it difficult for her to win the special election in the “current political climate.”

“Obviously, she comes with baggage,” said Sloan, 41, who ran an energetic but ill-fated primary challenge to Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) in 2010. “I don’t come with any type of baggage.”

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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