Voters will elect two at-large D.C. Council members Nov. 4, and 15 candidates are vying for the two spots. These are their stories, edited for length and clarity.
Name: Eugene Puryear
Party: Statehood Green
Neighborhood: Congress Heights
Education: B.A., Howard University
Occupation: radio producer, Liberation Media
Notable endorsements: TENAC, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 2401 (representing workers in the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency and the Department of Human Services)
Total funds raised: $17,977
So who are you? I’m someone who has been here for 10 years, someone who came here to be involved in the political scene. I grew up in Charlottesville, Va. My father was director of African American affairs for the University of Virginia, and my mom was also an educator. It played a huge role. My father was huge in the Civil Rights Movement. He was involved in the Non-Partisan Voters’ League in Alabama. I was growing up with a lot of stories from the Civil Rights era. Oftentimes, politics was an all-day, every-day thing, with a heavy social justice influence.
What’s the one personal or professional experience that has best prepared you to be a D.C. Council member? I think the one thing that really prepared me was being co-founder of the Jobs Not Jails Coalition. It gave me an entree into not only the returning citizen population, but also just more broadly, people in impoverished circumstances. Seeing the processes and procedures that people had to go through with District government, it gave me an idea of how inadequate it often is, how Byzantine it can be. And passing “ban the box,” that was just a really interesting process. Seeing how the process played out gave me a sense of what was really wrong at the council.
What’s the one thing the council should be doing on affordable housing? I think the one thing that doesn’t get a lot of play is expanding rent control. The rent control law we have now will triple rents over 20 years, so it’s really the opposite of a rent control law. And when we’re talking about maintaining affordability, it’s one of the key tools we have to use, but it’s far too limited. It needs to be expanded to every unit, not just buildings built prior to 1975. And the allowed increases — which are the cost of living plus 2 percent — is just doesn’t make sense.
And on education? That’s the tricky thing, we lack so much power. I was never really enamored with the chancellor system. I think it’s very important to have people directly accountable to voters. I know people say the chancellor is more accountable because it’s one person, but I actually view it as less accountable. What I really want to work on is to return power back to an elected Board of Education that can do budgets and change policy.
Where’s a third area you want to be impactful? It’s on the revenue side of things: Create a D.C. public bank. All the District funds that are deposited right now — reserve funds, tax deposits, any money that comes to the District — is deposited in Wall Street banking institutions. The D.C. Public Bank takes all that and puts it into a public, professionally managed institution. That bank doesn’t lend out money itself, it partners with small local banks and credit unions and helps them leverage their capital. The Bank of North Dakota exists, and it has been extremely beneficial in a lot of areas. Over the past 15 years, the state bank has contributed more to the state coffers than the oil business. It has made North Dakota’s small-banking sector one of the most robust in the country.
What is the first bill you plan to introduce? The first bill I would write would be to raise the minimum wage to $15 a hour. It’s unacceptable that in one of the richest cities in the country and the world that roughly 40,000 people make poverty wages. And what we saw in the Urban Institute report is that it would not have a negative impact economically. It’s not only the morally right thing to do, it also makes economic sense.
The past 15 years have seen remarkable amount of investment in the city, and while that has created new problems like affordable housing, very few people feel the city is worse off that it was before that investment. Much of what you espouse talks about putting curbs on the market-driven capitalism that has transformed the city. What do you say to people who fear that your policies would curb more of that positive investment? What I would say is, that’s why I’m interested in new and different ways of doing things. Like the public bank, for instance, which allows us to continue to do positive things like development, small-business development and housing, but more inclusively. We can also pump up the cooperative sector, which is an alternative economic model. And I think as a socialist, it’s one of the unique things I bring, and why prior to McCarthyism, socialists played such a big role in positive social movements. We don’t bow down to quote-unquote “market realities” which oftentimes are the realities of those making the money. We recognize it’s not a negative but a positive for workers to have rights and to explore ideas that are outside of the capitalist paradigm. It’s less of not doing something, and more of finding new and creative ways to build up our communities.