The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Anita Bonds, enigma of the D.C. Council, wants to keep experimenting

D.C. Council member Anita Bonds (D-At Large). Bonds is seeking reelection this year. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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Anita Bonds started in D.C. politics a half-century ago as a behind-the-scenes player. She helped Marion Barry run for school board in 1971 and then mayor, and joined his administration and the two that followed. Then on a fateful day a decade ago, she led a workshop for women about running for office.

She pulled no punches, recalls Janice Davis, who had asked her to hold the session. If they chose to run, Bonds told the women, they would face scrutiny men never would, about everything from their wardrobe to their weight.

In the car ride afterward, Bonds — a political old hand, a widowed mother of three and grandmother of six — contemplated trying it out herself.

“We talked about how women always played support roles to all these other wonderful candidates,” Davis said. “She literally talked herself into running — that’s when she said, ‘I’m going to run, and you’re going to be my chair.’ ”

Davis was, and Bonds won.

Many observers of the D.C. Council, where Bonds (D) is now seeking reelection for the at-large seat she has held since that 2012 campaign, view her as unpredictable or contradictory as she comes up with consequential opinions on the spot — such as her decision to run for office, as well as many of the positions she has taken in her decade on the dais since.

She is a left-leaning free-market skeptic whose political fervor was born at Berkeley in the late 1960s — yet D.C.’s affordable-housing activists tend to see her as too friendly to big-budget commercial landlords. Advocates on all sides of an issue often struggle to figure out where she stands and say she is sometimes swayed by the last conversation she had — but also praise her for making them feel as though she’s listening carefully to their concerns.

But when Bonds talks about her own approach, she points to her undergraduate chemistry studies at the University of California at Berkeley: staying open to the facts, coming up with new hypotheses and testing them out. In 1979, just days into her first government job, she told The Washington Post that she would “know how to dilute the problems and add the right catalyst to get some action.” All these years later, she said in a recent interview that she uses her chemistry training “all the time.”

At 76, Bonds faces three opponents in the Democratic primary this June. (Two others were disqualified from the ballot after failing to get enough valid petition signatures.) She has easily fended off challengers in the past; the last time she ran, in 2018, she won about twice as many votes as each of her two primary opponents. “I’ve always had at least three or four run against me,” she said. “I don’t know why. I attract talent.”

When she announced her intention to run for another term, Bonds said she would announce some surprise policy ideas on the campaign trail. And that’s no surprise at all, in some sense, given that Bonds often says the unexpected.

Sometimes that means a shift in position: She helped introduce legislation to lower the voting age to 16, then doomed her own bill by voting against it; initially voted to make large employers such as Walmart pay a higher minimum wage and then voted against it; said she would “wholeheartedly support” diverting funds meant for expanding the D.C. streetcar to public housing repairs, and then voted against such a move the next day.

Sometimes it’s an off-the-wall comment from the dais: In a recent council meeting, Bonds mused that D.C. must levy taxes on residents because the city can’t grow and sell crops to fund its budget.

“Anita is a really serious thinker. She’s actually grappling with these things as they’re happening,” said Jermaine House, Bonds’s former spokesman. “A lot of politicians tend to have a defined position beforehand … so they’re clear about what they say. She’s really grappling with what’s the best policy on the spot. It can be an asset in some places. In some places, that can be perceived to be not an asset.”

Sometimes Bonds’s public pronouncements have gotten her and others in trouble, such as the time she made public the identity of a whistleblower who had wanted to report alleged government corruption anonymously, or just recently, when Bonds said in a hearing that she was unaware that there is a waiting list for housing vouchers in D.C. The waiting list for the rent assistance is more than 37,000 people long; some have waited for decades.

Bonds, who lives in Northwest and worked for the politically connected Fort Myer Construction company before running for office, has since 2015 chaired the housing committee, one of the most contentious and high-profile assignments on the D.C. Council. Housing is one of the city’s most urgent needs and an issue where advocates seem deeply entrenched in competing ideological camps, divided not just by wealth and position but by competing viewpoints about how the economics of housing production even work.

One broad camp sees supply as the problem and believes building more housing will alleviate many woes; another says that new construction tends to bring in gentrifiers while pushing out longtime residents, and that only targeted affordable development makes sense. Advocates who have watched Bonds’s housing committee for years say they don’t know which of the two perspectives she believes.

“I try hard not to fall into either one,” she told The Post. “I must tell you, both of the explanations are real.”

Katalin Peter, a lobbyist for housing companies at the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington, said that Bonds’s desire to alleviate the problems of any person she talks to is genuine — and sometimes helps steer her colleagues toward a more personal and less ideological approach to legislating. “I think it’s what makes her the moral compass of the D.C. Council,” Peter said.

Others who testify regularly before Bonds’s housing committee say she lacks information and has rarely proposed sweeping legislation.

“D.C. is in a housing crisis, so given that, you would expect the leader of the committee on housing to have more of a crisis response, a comprehensive response to the problem,” said Elizabeth Falcon, who has advocated for rent-control reform as a leader of D.C. Jobs with Justice. “And I can’t point to major legislative proposals from her that address the problem.”

Parisa Norouzi, who as executive director of Empower DC has met with Bonds to push ideas on affordable housing policy, said: “I have not seen Anita Bonds as a proactive, thoughtful, innovative leader on housing. What I have seen is a nice person who will present as though she cares but not follow that.”

Some of the candidates running against Bonds this year — Chevy Chase advisory neighborhood commissioner Lisa Gore, former council staffer Dexter Williams and former shadow representative Nate Fleming — pointed to the council’s lack of oversight of the Housing Production Trust Fund as a particular concern.

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has allocated more than $1 billion to the fund, which by law is required to spend half its outlay on funding the construction of units reserved for residents earning below 30 percent of the area median income (AMI). A recent inspector general report found the fund was significantly missing that target.

In the interview, Bonds initially responded to the scathing report by bragging that she had helped enact the law that set the 30 percent AMI target in the first place. Then a few minutes later, she said she actually believes the target ought to be different from what she wrote into law, allotting half the spending to units reserved for people earning 50 or 55 percent of AMI.

Bonds has been a mainstay in the District’s politics for as long as the city has been electing its own leaders. And in the decades after Barry’s mayoral election, in between working on presidential campaigns for Jimmy Carter, Ted Kennedy and Jesse Jackson, Bonds remained close to Barry — she sat at his defense table at his 1990 trial on drug charges — and served in the cabinets of two more D.C. mayors, Sharon Pratt (D) and Anthony Williams (D).

Bill Hasson, who was involved in campaigns with her at the time, remembered Bonds as a source of strength. When he first heard of Barry’s arrest, he and a friend stopped putting up Barry’s campaign signs in Southeast and called Bonds. “When we got the news, we said, ‘Neets!’ That was the nickname we had for her back then,” he remembered. “She said, ‘Yeah, Marion got busted, but we have a campaign.’ … That’s the way it went. She’s able to turn bad news into good ideas and more energy.”

She eventually ran for the at-large seat vacated by Phil Mendelson when he became council chairman in 2012, and won the seat for the remainder of the term. Little more than a year later, when she ran for a full term, opponents were already saying she had not accomplished enough legislating. (One of them was Fleming, who is again challenging Bonds this year; The Post’s editorial board endorsed him then, saying Bonds “has generally been viewed as ineffective.”)

Bonds defended herself then as she does now: by pointing to bills she has passed, such as one in her first term reducing the property taxes paid by low-income seniors, and by saying she governs in an unflashy style. “I am not out here kicking up dust. I’m a worker. If you want to get something done, I’m going to give it very thorough review. I’m going to talk to a variety of people that would be affected,” she told The Post. “I’m not zippity-zam.”

Over a recent breakfast with a reporter, she pitched some of her ideas for housing legislation in her next term, including tax abatements for developers in exchange for housing concessions, and came up with some new ones even as she talked.

She said she now supports a policy that some advocates for tenants have long clamored for and which she has declined to advance in the past: further lowering the allowable annual rent increase on rent-controlled units, currently capped at 2 percent a year plus the cost of inflation. “I’m going to try to set it lower. That’s my goal,” Bonds said.

(Norouzi of Empower DC was skeptical: “She’s been in the leadership position for eight years, and that hasn’t moved.”)

Bonds said that pandemic-era housing provisions, including emergency prohibitions on evictions and rent increases, led her to be more interested in moving away from a free-market approach to the rental market and toward more government price-fixing. She mused about fixing commercial property rents — perhaps allowing businesses to just pay their landlords a set percentage of their sales — and about freezing some residents’ rents forever.

“The bill that we need is a bill that is unconstitutional. That is: to deal with the rent increases as a societal concern. You and I know in the open market, you cannot put a hold on the rent,” she said

Though she did not explain why exactly it would be unconstitutional, Bonds was, as ever, experimenting.