White (D) said in an interview Tuesday that he thinks he can tackle systemic issues such as gun violence and affordable housing, as well as poor bureaucratic management of programs such as D.C.’s unemployment insurance.
“Our population is dwindling. Black and Brown kids are struggling in our schools. Parents of young kids are leaving this city in droves,” White said. “Being on the council made me realize that making transformative shifts in this city requires a transformative mayor.”
In his five years on the council, White, 39, has become a popular lawmaker among D.C. residents and a stalwart of the legislature’s growing left-leaning wing, which has often clashed with Bowser, a more moderate Democrat. An occasional critic of the mayor, White has helped pass laws over Bowser’s objection, including imposing higher taxes on the wealthy and establishing paid parental leave, and has advocated for shrinking the city’s spending on police, while Bowser says more officers are needed to confront a worrisome wave of violence this year.
In 2018, when Bowser ran for reelection without serious opposition, White said to The Washington Post: “A smart politician would not conflate the lack of an opponent with widespread satisfaction. I can say definitively that a number of people are not happy with government services.”
Bowser has not yet announced her plans, but this time around, White decided to step up himself to try to ensure that she doesn’t sail to a third term without a fight in the Democratic primary, which effectively decides the general election in this overwhelmingly blue city.
The mayor declined to comment on White’s candidacy on Wednesday.
Also on Wednesday, D.C. Council member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) said he planned to run for mayor, floating his plans in Instagram comments first reported by Washington City Paper. He has not yet filed official paperwork for the office.
D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D), who was widely considered to be among the most competitive potential candidates for mayor, told The Post this week that he would not seek elected office in 2022. When asked about potential mayoral candidates, Racine said he would probably support Robert C. White Jr. in a bid. “I have high regard for Council member White’s talent, capacity, integrity and commitment to public service, in particular in focusing on our most vulnerable residents,” Racine said.
A parent of two young children who sometimes speaks at council meetings with a toddler on his lap, White has been particularly critical of Bowser on the subject of education. This year, he introduced a resolution that would have created a commission studying the city’s education governance structure — taking aim at the District’s system of strong mayoral control of the public school system. Pointing to the wide achievement gap between White students and students of color, White argued that Bowser’s reign over the school system isn’t working.
In the interview Tuesday, White said that although he has his own strong views about how to improve the city’s schools, he would consult with others and consider various options for reworking the system’s structure. “People are so dug into the trenches on education,” he said. “What we have to do is examine what is not working and fix it by whatever means necessary. … I’m not just going to take my crew and say, ‘Look, we’re going to do it this way.’”
White has proved popular citywide. When the Democrat ran for reelection in 2020 in a field packed with 23 independents and candidates from other parties seeking two at-large seats, White won overwhelmingly. His 139,208 votes put him more than 60,000 votes ahead of the second winner, independent Christina Henderson (I-At Large).
Perhaps an even stronger sign of his viability as a mayoral candidate was his showing across the District. In a city that often cleaves between Black and White, rich and poor, east and west, White was the top vote-getter in that election in all eight wards. He had his strongest showing in Wards 7 and 8, the lower-income, majority-Black wards mostly east of the Anacostia, but performed nearly as well in Whiter, affluent Wards 2 and 3.
Henderson, by comparison, was in the top two finishers in just three wards.
Five other candidates have already filed paperwork to run for D.C. mayor. Comedian Rodney “Red” Grant and Barbara Summers declared their candidacies as independents. James Butler — who ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2018 — as well as Michael Campbell, a clergyman, filed to run in the Democratic primary. Corren Brown filed paperwork as a Green Party mayoral candidate.
White grew up in Washington, attending Archbishop Carroll High School, then left for St. Mary’s College of Maryland and returned for law school at American University. He worked as a staffer for two of the District’s most recognizable elected officials — Racine and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) — before winning office himself.
He ousted incumbent at-large council member Vincent B. Orange in the 2016 Democratic primary and stepped into the job early to complete Orange’s term when Orange resigned to take a job leading the local Chamber of Commerce.
Among White’s most significant legislative achievements has been an effort he helmed to grant D.C. jail inmates and city residents serving time in out-of-state prisons the right to vote while incarcerated.
He has proposed legislation to purchase privately owned housing units to convert them into subsidized apartments for low-income residents, and to turn vacant downtown office space into housing.
While Bowser has been lobbying businesses to bring their workers back to downtown buildings and predicting that the city’s core will eventually return to its pre-pandemic 9-to-5 vibrancy, White argues that the old days are never coming back.
“It pains many of us to say or believe, but I don’t think businesses are going to return to the way they operated prior to the pandemic — so trying to force ourselves to go down an outdated path is going to hurt us in the long run,” he said. “The downtown of tomorrow doesn’t look like the downtown of yesterday.”
Asked about White’s characterization of businesses and residents moving out of the city, Bowser described a more optimistic view on Wednesday. “We have a lot of people grateful we’ve been aggressive about reopening our city,” she said. Minutes later, two women interrupted the interview in a hotel lobby; one showed Bowser a photograph of a building under renovation downtown and said she hoped the mayor would attend the ribbon cutting. “Somebody said that the downtown was dying?” Bowser said.
White laid out a technocratic vision for his mayoral hopes, saying he would hire highly qualified new agency leaders who would “redo the structure of government so it is more modern, more responsive to people’s needs and daily lives.” He named two top targets for overhauls: the Department of Employment Services, which has struggled during the coronavirus pandemic to send unemployment checks on time, and the long-criticized Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, which the council has tried to break into separate departments against Bowser’s wishes.
On rising levels of gun violence, White said the city must cease “chasing shortcuts” and instead address the roots of the problem: stark divides in income, education and housing. The District has begun “scratching the surface” of new approaches to addressing violence, he said, but needs to go much further.
“So many of us know the promise that D.C. has had for a long time. It is one of the wealthiest jurisdictions in the country, one of the most diverse jurisdictions in the country. But our potential is still just our potential. At some point, we have to make it real,” he said.
White chairs the council’s government operations committee, putting him in charge of oversight of government procurement, and some of his most contentious positions have related to contracts.
He was a deciding vote in favor of a huge no-bid contract in 2019 for the gaming company Intralot to bring sports betting to the District. He switched from opposing the contract the day before the vote to supporting it, because, he said, he wanted local minority-owned businesses that would become subcontractors for Intralot to benefit. Critics charged that he changed his vote because Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) gave him a committee assignment in exchange. (White responded that overseeing Metro was no prize.)
Since then, revenue from the sports betting program has fallen vastly below the city’s projections, and the local business contracts that White counted on have fallen short, too, becoming the subject of a scathing recent audit into whether Intralot is living up to that part of its deal.
“I’ve been on the council five years. The fact that there are not a lot of votes that haunt me, I think, is a good thing. The sports betting one is one that does haunt me,” he said.
More recently, White was among a small group of council members who went toe-to-toe with Bowser for months in a fight over some of the city’s largest contracts: the payments to insurers who manage care for the more than one-third of D.C. residents who are on Medicaid. Bowser wanted to skirt a judge’s order that would have led to MedStar losing its contract. White said the mayor was flouting procurement rules.
On the campaign trail for his council seat last year, White said about Bowser, “There’s an overreliance on slogans as opposed to real results.”
Now, he’s testing out campaign language of his own. A man who cites former president Barack Obama and Robert F. Kennedy as his political role models, White returned to the same word over and over: “Hope.”