D.C.’s young newcomers could swing the mayoral election, but only if they tune in

Correction: A previous version of this article did not properly represent a statement given by Dionna Lewis at an event featuring mayoral candidate Muriel Bowser. Lewis did not tell Bowser that the meeting should be short because no one wanted to miss the television show “Scandal”; in fact, Lewis thanked everyone for coming out in the cold, jokingly mentioning that “Scandal” was on that night. This version has been updated.


The Coupe is a restaurant and bar that attracts younger, more transient new citizens seen on Feb. 27 in Washington along 11th street. (Bill O'Leary/Washington Post)

Serving patrons along the U-shaped dining counter, waitress Reb Abell swirls amidst the afternoon sounds of a new Washington. To her left, the clacking keyboard of a telecommuter racing to meet his deadline. To her right, the chatter of a man in a red track suit raving about the emerging drum and bass scene.

All around, every day, Abell, 24, overhears tales of astonishment about how the city has changed. Butshe practically never hears discussion of an upcoming event that is consuming millions of dollars, is advertised on lawns and lampposts and is affecting all corners of her adopted city.

“I don’t know anything about these elections,’’ she said, shrugging. Neither do many of her customers, who are largely a mix of graduate students, former Peace Corps volunteers and other young idealists who have settled in Columbia Heights, Petworth and Mount Pleasant.

The Coupe, an 18-hour-a-day restaurant, coffee lounge and bar near 11th and Monroe streets NW, is a beehive of these educated, worldly Washingtonians. But ask about the mayoral election and the responses are worthy of a late-night TV skit: Who’s running? When’s the election? Does the mayor have any power?

Democrats dominate Washington politics, and one in three people registered with the party in the District is between 18 and 34. About 51,000 of them, largely newcomers, registered in the past four years. Their massive numbers could swing the mayoral election — if someone could just figure out how to get them to vote.


D.C. Democrats eligible to vote by age group (The Washington Post/Source: D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics data)

Strategists used data mining to motivate young voters to help reelect President Obama, but it’s unclear whether similar efforts in the District could help elect a mayor. The very group whose large economic footprint has jolted the city to life is barely felt in city politics.

Even as campaign staffers debate how much time and money to invest in reaching this largely untapped group of voters, they say the group’s ties to the city are too tenuous to make much of a difference. Historically, young voters are the least likely to turn out for mayoral elections.

Some strategists worry that too much focus on affluent newcomers might offend low-income, historically vote-rich neighborhoods that already feel left out of the city’s prosperity. The incumbent, Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), and his leading challenger, council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), have tailored messages about inclusion to woo voters in those reliable pockets.

Meanwhile, restaurateur Andy Shallal and council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), have actively sought newcomers for their coalitions.

Fifteen percent of those new voters reside in Ward 1, an area that includes the Coupe.

Early in the morning, the Coupe is filled with young parents holding toddlers and sipping coffee while sharing animal crackers. By sunset, the couches in the lounge are filled with the young and ambitious, curled around laptops. A banker works on an application for a Fulbright grant. A woman fills out paperwork for her first mortgage.

In January, Obama stopped here, pushed some tables together and chatted with young adults about getting their peers to sign up for health care. But no mayoral candidate has campaigned here. Some asked to visit, but general manager Maxwell Hessman said he turned them away, “partially out of a desire to be nonpartisan.”

Instead, local politics have taken a back seat to the existential angst of being a 20- or 30-something in this city.

Tia Maitra, 28, sat at a booth with her book club one day this month. The four women admitted that they hadn’t given the primarymuch thought.

Maitra asked: “How am I supposed to know who to vote for when I’m not even sure I belong here?”

Not truly a home town

Among the diners at the Coupe, there are unresolved feelings about their role in the city’s gentrification as well as a wanderlust that dissuades them from putting down roots. The city still doesn’t feel like home.

“A lot of my friends don’t even have driver’s licenses here yet,’’ said Jason Lopez, 30, a graduate student in global health who set his laptop on the dining counter as dusk descended. “A lot of them came for jobs, so they don’t feel a connection to the city. And they don’t want to change their vote to a place where, nationally, you have no voice.”

Lopez was a community organizer for immigration rights in Arizona, helped build toilets in Peru and worked as an engineer in Dallas. He moved to the District to start a career in international development.

Everything he has learned about local politics comes from Kojo Nnamdi’s radio show on NPR, which he discovered because it follows the Diane Rehm Show. He loves national politics, as do most of his friends. But local politics, he says, seems so distant.

“Even when we start talking about [D.C.] politics, no one really knows what they are talking about, so the conversations end quickly,’’ said Lopez, who has lived in the city for about a year.

Minutes later, Ely McElwee, 28, joined him at the counter. She ordered a chai milkshake and began editing a newsletter for residents of the low-income housing complex where she works.

She said she is concerned that she might be contributing to the displacement of the District’s poor.

“Sometimes, I feel bad about even voting,’’ said McElwee, who lives in Petworth. Should she help decide who the next mayor will be if she’s not even sure she’ll be here next year? Hasn’t her age group already taken enough of the city’s attention?

She considered countering her guilt by joining her neighborhood association, but decided against it after learning she had to pay a fee. “I need the money for graduate school,” she said.

McElwee and many of her friends find themselves in an in-between moment, their lives revolving around social and sports schedules and festivals rather than issues of school choice or homelessness. To them, the city is so much more than politics.

“A transient place,’’ said diner Nikki Smith, a marketer. “I moved here six years ago and have gone through two or three rounds of friends. When they left, I decided I needed to start paying attention.”

Smith, 29, said she hoped she would learn more about the mayoral candidates as the election draws nearer. If that doesn’t happen,she said, she won’t vote.

Nationally, researchers are studying how to increase turnout among young voters. Shawn Healy, who studies youth civic engagement at the McCormick Foundation, said candidates who are able to frame their candidacy in historic terms — Obama’s election as the first black president, for example — engender a heightened sense of civic obligation.

Peter Levine, a professor at Tufts University's Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service, said his research on voter turnout boils down to this: “If people ask for young people to vote, they will vote.”’

Shallal’s campaign operates phone banks at his restaurants, hoping his name recognition as the owner of Busboys and Poets and his progressive agenda will attract young residents. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), whose spokesman bragged about his youthful campaign staff, hopes to find supporters to serve as ambassadors at their high-rises.

Chuck Thies, Gray’s campaign manager, said the campaign is mining data that will let them target city blocks where young voters likely to cast ballots live. It is also monitoring Facebook “likes” and retweeting favorable comments to encourage supporters to share more content featuring the mayor.

But, Thies said, there might be a danger in doing too much.

“You don’t want to activate voters who don’t support your candidate,” Thies said.

Wells said he is most focused on newcomers who might have bought their first house or who have children starting school. He opted to invest less in street signs, campaign buttons and clothing bearing his logo and more in Facebook advertisements targeted at high-density buildings.

On a recent night, Wells and Bowser pursued two different strategies to win the support of younger voters. Wells held his 57th birthday party at a hipster hangout in Bloomingdale, surrounded by a young, mostly white crowd of campaign staff members and supporters who had read on blogs that he’d be at Boundary Stone.

“I’m not trying to do things the old way,” Wells said. “Will this way work? That’s what I’m going to find out.”

Meanwhile, Bowser, whose campaign strategy focuses more on traditional door-knocking, was answering questions in the home of a 28-year-old communications specialist in Anacostia. Sydney Glass grew up in Bowser’s Ward 4 and wanted to show her support.

Surrounding Bowser was a mostly black crowd of a dozen young professionals. They were rare native Washingtonians who never had a desire to move away from the city.

“This is how elections are won, at the grass-roots level,’’ Bowser told the group. She later added: “Remember, every race comes down to two things. There’s the status quo, and there’s the future. And we’re the future.”

Glass’s friend Dionna Lewis thanked Bowser. But even in a group of native Washingtonians, discussions about mayoral elections can be quickly eclipsed.  After the event was over, Lewis and others were eager to get home and watch “Scandal.”

Robert Samuels writes for the Post’s social issues team. In Maryland, he focuses on issues affecting low-income children and families. He also covers life in the District.
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