Voters head to polls to elect D.C. Council member, weigh in on budget

District voters cast ballots Tuesday in a special election for a D.C. Council seat as well as a referendum on granting city leaders more control over the District budget.

The winner of the citywide council race will fill out the term of Phil Mendelson (D), who held the at-large seat before becoming chairman last year. In December, the D.C. Democratic State Committee selected party chairwoman Anita Bonds (D) as an interim council member pending Tuesday’s outcome. Bonds, 68, is being challenged by Republican Patrick Mara, 38, Statehood Green Party candidate Perry Redd, 48, and Democrats Matthew Frumin, 53, Elissa Silverman, 40, and Paul Zukerberg, 55.

The winner will sit on the 13-member council for about 18 months and will be up for reelection next year when the term for Mendelson’s old seat expires.

Voters also are being asked to consider Referendum 8, which would give the city government authority to spend locally raised funds without congressional action. But it remains unclear whether the referendum, backed by several advocacy groups and numerous city leaders, would survive congressional review and possible legal challenges.

All 143 polling locations are open until 8 p.m. Voters are asked to cast ballots at their designated precinct.

Coverage of the D.C. Council special election.

Mara cast his ballot Tuesday morning at Parkview Recreation Center in Ward 1.

Mara, the only Republican in race, typically votes at Cesar Chavez Public Charter School in Columbia Heights, but the Board of Elections announced several weeks ago that polling location could not be used in this election. Mara was joined by his wife.

If elected, Mara would be the fourth Republican seated on the 13-member council since Home Rule.

“I feel great, a positive campaign continues,” Mara said after he voted. “We’ve brought a lot of people into the process and we are positive now, as we have been throughout the campaign.”

But Bonds, the Democratic incumbent, also was confident of her chances.

On Monday night, Bonds rallied with nearly 50 supporters who made calls on her behalf out of a first-floor conference room at Democratic National Committee Headquarters.

“There are many people across the city, from all walks of life who know me, who know of me, and think I’m a good person,” Bonds said. “Even my opponents have said I’m a good person, and good people usually do good things, for good communities, and therefore we are looking for a good outcome.”

Turnout ‘light’

To Gerald Elliott, 81 and a Democrat, political parties “are still important” and based on that any challenger to Bonds would have had a hurdle to overcome to grab his vote. No one did.

Elliott voted for Bonds at Precinct 52 in Ward 4 on the campus of St. John’s College High School on Military Road in Upper Northwest. By late morning turnout was described as “light” by an official at the precinct, where a total of 143 votes.

“I could also see the argument on Mr. Mara that having a Republican contender is valuable for the process but that wasn’t enough to sway me,” said Elliott of Mara.

In Ward 1, Chad Williams cast his ballot for Silverman after he remembered she used to write the Loose Lips column for the Washington City Paper.

“I think she is a great progressive candidate,” said Williams, recalling Silverman’s columns about the University of the District of Columbia, where he served as a student representative on the Board of Trustees in the late 1990s. “You never forget people who fought for you.”

At the Latin American Youth Center in Columbia Heights, election officials described turnout as “moderate” by 9 a.m. Tuesday, when more than 75 people had voted.

“They are coming in pretty regularly but no line, which is great,” said William Willoughby, the precinct chief.

But by midday only a trickle of voters had arrived at polling places in Ward 8, in the city’s southern tip.

Leaving Precinct 126, at Patterson Elementary School on South Capitol Street, Bellevue voter S.P. Brown said she opted for Bonds because “that’s the only person I’ve seen.”

It also helped, the 81-year-old St. Elizabeths Hospital retiree said, that Bonds is a woman. “You men can sit down and let the women do something,” she said.

At Precinct 123, at Martin Luther King Elementary School on Alabama Avenue SE, Margaret Winston also cited Bonds’ gender — as well as her Democratic affiliation — for being persuasive in a low-profile race.

“I didn’t know any of them,” said the 77-year-old retired federal employee. “But I’m a Democrat. So I voted for — who was it? — Anita.”

Winston said she was more enthused about supporting the charter amendment.

“That was exciting,” she said. “I think we can handle the responsibility.”

Outside, fellow Congress Heights resident Gwen Jones manned the polling place in support of Bonds. She was persuaded, she said, by Council member Marion Barry’s endorsement.

“I have great faith in my council person’s recommendation,” said Jones, a 64-year-old retired D.C. employee.

Education focused

In Ward 1, Chris Melody, 32, voted for Frumin, an attorney, because she liked his focus on education.

“He hasn’t been embedded on the council and he’s running on schools,” she said. “I think we need to invest in our schools. We’ve made a lot of progress but still haven’t gotten our schools up to the caliber they should be.”

Nora Toiv, 27, also voted for Frumin. She noted she also got to vote for Referendum 8 that would grant the District budget autonomy.

“My friend’s mom is managing [Frumin’s] campaign,” Toiv said, explaining her vote in the council race. “It’s my first D.C. vote. I feel my rights being taken away every time I had thought about voting here, but at least this time I got to vote for Home Rule.”

About 75 people had voted at the former Bertie Backus Middle School, near the Fort Totten Metro station in Northeast, by Tuesday morning. It was a light turnout for one of the city’s largest precincts.

Pertina Scott, a Riggs Park retiree, said she voted for Bonds based on her “knowledge and experience.”

Scott also alluded to concerns that the council is no longer racially and geographically balanced. “We have to be careful we include all people in our decision making, and not just look at one area of people,” she said. “The people who don’t have power are being left behind.”

Bonds’s long history of community activism made an impression, Scott said: “She’s put in a lot of time.”

Anne Geggie, 41, said she is a “lifelong Democrat” who voted for Mara.

The Riggs Park resident said she considered several candidates, but was swayed by his support for charter schools and by the fact he had a good chance to win.

Zukerberg, she said, “is interesting, but he is not going to win,” adding that she is “trying to cast my vote In a way that will matter.”

Fifty-one voters had cast ballots by 10 a.m. at Precinct 113 at Pennsylvania Avenue Baptist Church in Southeast. That was somewhat less than turnout for the last citywide special election, in 2011, poll workers estimated.

Outside, Dupont Park neighborhood activist Barbara Morgan greeted voters and urged them to vote for Bonds. She said that Bonds’s positions favoring seniors and affordable housing made her the best candidate — particularly her proposed measure that would exempt elderly, longtime homeowners from property taxes.

“If they have been in their homes for 20 years, they have paid their dues,” Morgan said.

‘Infighting’ prompts vote

At the Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church in Ward 3, management consultant Michael Lent said he voted for Mara because the council “needs new blood and a shock to its system.”

“I voted for a party I never vote for,” Lent said of deciding on a Republican. “Anything different would be additive.”

The council disagrees too easily, Lent said, adding that “infighting leads to misrepresentation of us all.”

The 67-year-old Lent said he voted in favor of the D.C. budget referendum.

“I don’t mind Congress looking over our shoulder, but using D.C. as a test kitchen, a pilot and a punching bag” is unacceptable, Lent said.

“When it comes to budget autonomy, we have to push all the buttons,” Lent said. “Congress has a deaf ear to our needs.”

Rachel S. Karas and Mary Pat Flaherty contributed to this report.

Tim Craig is The Post’s bureau chief in Pakistan. He has also covered conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and within the District of Columbia government.
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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