Elissa Silverman’s strength in D.C. Council race shows new residents’ political muscle

Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly said that the incumbent, Anita Bonds, was a former chairwoman of the city’s Democratic Party. She still holds that position but did not preside at party meetings during the campaign leading up to the April 23 special election, in which she was the winner. This version has been corrected.

Robert McCartney
Columnist May 1, 2013

Old Guard, beware. The newly arrived 20- and 30-somethings who are transforming the District’s downtown neighborhoods are showing political muscle that could nudge the city toward campaign reform and increased government accountability in coming years.

Admittedly, they came up short in last week’s special election for an at-large D.C. Council seat. The young urbanists’ candidate, Elissa Silverman (D), placed second in a campaign marred by low turnout and the winner’s explicit playing of the race card.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

Still, Silverman’s strong showing in a divided field impressed veteran political observers and highlighted the emergence of a new force in D.C. politics.

“She really kind of caught the wind among young people,” said Ronald Lester, a District-based pollster. “When you consider she went from being virtually unknown to getting 27 percent, that’s very significant movement.”

Silverman, 40, who lives on Capitol Hill, works as an analyst at the liberal D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. She is a former reporter for The Washington Post and the Washington City Paper. (Full disclosure: I used to be her boss.)


Former at-Large D.C. Council candidate Elissa Silverman (Amanda Voisard /The Washington Post)

She did well by campaigning as a clean-government reformer who is also left of center on policy. That’s a combination with potent appeal for future elections, such as next year’s mayoral and council races.

The good-government pitch tapped into the widely felt disgust with the corruption uncovered in federal investigations of District politics in the past two years. Silverman was the only candidate among the top four vote-getters who had refused to accept corporate or union donations.

Silverman also scored with voters by saying she would use her experience as an urban policy wonk to reduce government waste in such areas as the city’s jobs and welfare programs. That appeals to new residents’ concern that they’re not receiving maximum value for their taxes, which often are higher than in their previous homes.

“There is a feeling that people are not getting the quality of services that they think they deserve,” Silverman said this week. “I was running on accountability, to look at the budget. A lot of voters told me that was a refreshing pitch.”

At the same time, Silverman emphasized her liberal positions on issues such as shifting the tax burden toward the well-to-do and supporting affordable housing. That was crucial because it undercut the Republican candidate, Patrick Mara, who represents Ward 1 on the Board of Education.

Mara had placed a strong second in a 2011 election for an at-large council seat, even though he was a Republican in the heavily Democratic District. He did so partly by campaigning as a reformer.

This year, Silverman positioned herself as a reformer more in tune with voters’ Democratic sympathies.

It wasn’t enough. On Election Day, Silverman came up 5 percentage points short of Anita Bonds, 68, the city Democratic Party chairwoman.

Considering Bonds’s advantages in the race, however, it would have been quite an upset had she lost. She was running as an incumbent, because the party appointed her to the council seat on an interim basis prior to the election. She enjoyed the endorsement of council members ranging from Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) to Marion Barry (D-Ward 8).

Moreover, the anti-establishment vote was deeply split among Silverman, Mara and Matthew Frumin, a Ward 3 Democrat who urged strengthening local schools. Silverman got some egg on her face just before Election Day when it emerged that she’d quietly urged Frumin to drop out to avoid dividing Democrats opposed to Bonds.

Finally, there was the racial appeal. Seeing that all of her principal opponents were white, Bonds publicly urged fellow African Americans to support her because “people want to have their leadership reflect who they are,” she said during the campaign. “The majority of the District of Columbia is African American. . . . There is a natural tendency to want your own.”

(Mara was accused of doing the same when he urged a white audience to vote as a bloc, but his campaign said he was referring to not splitting the reformist vote. As far as I know, Mara did not explicitly mention race — a significant difference.)

Silverman said she tried to focus on class, not race, but said it was hard to keep the issues separate in a city where most low-income people are African American.

Most of her support came from whites, and the campaign was disappointed it didn’t do better in some African American precincts. That could be a barrier for Silverman or similar candidates in future campaigns.

In a positive sign for her prospects, however, pollster Lester was surprised at Silverman’s success in appealing to young African Americans. He said that shows that purely racial appeals are likely to diminish in importance as the Obama generation gradually replaces one that came of age during the civil rights era.

“She seemed to do a good job of kind of transcending race,” Lester said. “In the future, we’ll probably see less race-based voting. You have more and more younger people for whom race is less important.”

McCartney will discuss local issues Friday at 8:50 a.m. on WAMU (88.5 FM). For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

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