The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Brianne Nadeau faces heated race in bid for Ward 1 D.C. Council nomination

Democratic candidates for D.C. Council Ward 1, from left: Brianne K. Nadeau, Salah Czapary, Sabel Harris. (Nadeau Campaign, Rudney Novae, Courtesy of Paul Gleger/Nadeau Campaign, Rudney Novae, Courtesy of Paul Gleger )
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With less than a month to go until Election Day in D.C.’s Democratic primary, the race for council member in Ward 1 has turned into a referendum on two key issues: public safety and constituent services.

Incumbent Brianne K. Nadeau, 41, a favorite among liberals with eight years on the council, is fending off determined challenges from former D.C. police officer Salah Czapary, 31, and Sabel Harris, 32, an advisory neighborhood commissioner — and longtime political observers say they see the race tightening.

In recent weeks, campaign signs for all three candidates have flooded the ward’s bustling neighborhoods from Adams Morgan, Mount Pleasant and Columbia Heights down to the U Street corridor over to Howard University and up to Park View.

Mail-in voting has already begun, and sniping on social media between the candidates’ backers is getting testier.

Both challengers have taken aim at Nadeau, with Czapary arguing that she has failed to adequately address rising rates of violent crime in the ward and across the city, while Harris has attacked Nadeau’s responsiveness to residents’ concerns.

Violent crime in Washington is up 18 percent over this time last year, and homicides have risen 8 percent. It is the fifth straight year of rising homicides in the district. So far this year there have been at least seven homicides in Ward 1, the city’s densest ward.

In interviews last week, all three candidates said violent crime was a critical issue.

Czapary, who moved into the ward in 2019 and left the police department earlier this year when he decided to run for the seat, said there is a “morale crisis” on the force because of staffing shortages, canceled days off and extended shifts. He criticized Nadeau for voting to cut the police hiring budget in 2020, which, he said, has depleted the number of officers and the force’s ability to respond to crime.

He also took aim at Nadeau for not working to build connections between the police and the community.

“One of my criticisms of the incumbent is that she hosted a public safety forum a few weeks ago and didn’t invite the police,” he said. “I mean, it’s your role to create those bridges.”

Nadeau rejected suggestions that she has not been responsive to crime in the ward and said she meets regularly with D.C. police. She pointed out that the public safety budget, which includes spending for the police department, has increased from $1.3 billion to $1.8 billion since she has been in office. And this year she voted to increase the hiring budget. But, she said, the focus should not be on “an arbitrary number of police.”

“Public safety includes the police, but it’s not only about the police,” she said. The police department “continues to have a budget of a half a billion dollars a year. But over the years, council has really had to fight to fund other public safety measures that prevent violence and get guns off the streets. … That’s really, I believe, the way we need to be thinking about how we end violence.”

Nadeau pointed to a red-flag law for gun purchasers that she wrote, which allows someone to petition a court to temporarily take away someone’s guns and prevent them from purchasing more if there is probable cause that person will commit violence. She also spoke about the importance of violence-interrupter programs to help de-escalate disputes.

She acknowledged, however, that the issue continues to plague the city.

“Before covid we were actually making progress on homicides,” she said. “But we’ve had too much gun violence. … There’s no question about that.”

Harris, who has lived in the District for about 10 years and serves as an Advisory Neighborhood Commission member in the U Street corridor, said there have been numerous shootings in her district this year. Safety, she said, “is absolutely top of mind for my neighbors.”

But unlike her opponents, Harris said she would not increase funding for the Metropolitan Police Department or hire more officers.

“I am not in favor of giving MPD more money,” said Harris, who if elected would be the first Asian American to serve on the council. “They have plenty of money. We spend over half a billion dollars every year, and they say they need more money to hire. We need to see where they’re spending that money.”

She pointed to large misconduct settlements by the department and said there should be greater oversight and accountability for how it operates and spends.

Harris and Czapary also have seized on the issues of constituent concerns. Harris said Nadeau was more concerned with “flashy, lofty pieces of legislation” than in handling issues critical to residents, including pedestrian safety, affordable housing and sustainability issues.

Nadeau said she’s proud of her constituent services record and that since she’s been in office, her team has resolved more than 8,000 constituent cases, including 2,000 last year.

She also dismisses criticism that she’s not out enough, meeting with constituents.

“To me, that’s kind of silly,” Nadeau said. “I mean, that’s my bread and butter, being out in the community.”

Czapary has come under fire from his opponents over his campaign, following disclosures on social media and in a Washington City Paper story that his campaign chairman, William Pack, had close ties to Republican organizations, including the Claremont Institute, a conservative think tank. Czapary, who was registered as an independent until earlier this year, when he registered as a Democrat, said he removed Pack in mid-May when he learned of the ties.

Czapary, who met Pack when he was a volunteer with the reserve officer corps that Czapary oversaw at the police department, said he did not know anything about Pack’s ties and that it was a mistake not to have asked or learned more about him before making him chairman.

“When I found out that his politics didn’t align, I took immediate action,” he said in an interview. “I will own that mistake.”

His opponents and some of their supporters have questioned his allegiance to the Democratic Party.

“The idea that I’m being painted as a Donald Trump plant is ridiculous,” Czapary said. “I mean, I’m an Arab American gay man. My mom’s a Palestinian refugee. My dad’s a Hungarian immigrant. Donald Trump’s bigotry was personal to me and personal to my family.”

Still, Nadeau and Harris have seized on the issue, saying Czapary exercised poor judgment in his choice of staff.

“I find it deeply concerning,” Nadeau said, adding: “He didn’t even register as a Democrat until he decided to run.”

“I was profoundly dismayed on the lack of judgment he had with his chairperson,” said Harris. “If you can’t make the simple judgment call, you know, what are you going to do if you become council member? That is a disqualifier alone.”

So far, Nadeau has reported raising a total of $184,187, according to May 10 campaign finance filings — outraising both Czapary, who reported raising a total of $108,619, and Harris, who reported raising $47,386. All three have opted into the city’s public financing program, which matches capped donations with city funds.

Still, longtime Ward 1 political observers say they think the race is tightening.

“I think that definitely [Nadeau’s] campaign is scared of the attacks on her positions,” said Bryan Weaver, a longtime D.C. resident and former ANC commissioner who challenged incumbent Jim Graham for the Ward 1 council seat in 2010. He said Harris and Czapary “perceive weakness” on Nadeau’s public safety position and constituent services record and are hammering her on those fronts.

Weaver, who does community outreach for the homeless at Potter’s House in Adams Morgan, said Nadeau’s work on the council “has been about bringing D.C. into a more progressive era with laws that are there to protect workers or provide more opportunities for mothers who might take a leave of work. But often that can seem to come at the expense of bread-and-butter issues like constituent services.”

Mindy Moretti, another former ANC commissioner in the ward, thinks Nadeau will hold on to her seat but says many constituents haven’t been thrilled with her performance.

“The people that are not Brianne fans are frustrated with her lack of attention to detail,” said Moretti, who lives in Adams Morgan. “I think she’s really focused on the big picture of progressive issues, which I totally appreciate. But you’re also a ward council member. You’ve got to get somebody to mow the grass on the median strip.”