The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In run for D.C. mayorship, Robert White aims to win over skeptics

D.C. Council member Robert C. White Jr. speaks in 2017. White is running for the Democratic nomination for D.C. mayor. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
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On a humid Saturday in Northwest Washington, mayoral hopeful Robert C. White Jr. struck up a conversation with a longtime resident, hoping to earn her vote.

Nickei Bent, 36, detailed how she has tried and failed to buy a home in D.C., where some of her family members have lived for more than 60 years. She walked White through the time when she had nowhere to live at all, pressing him on whether he’ll help families on the brink of being pushed out of the District. Bent said she’s ready for a change after voting for Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) in the previous two election cycles — but how can she trust he’ll be better than the incumbent?

White, in turn, talked about how displacement has affected his own family and outlined some of his ideas to boost affordable housing. If he became mayor, White pledged, outcomes for residents like Bent would be different. After several minutes, the two shook hands.

“He has my vote, for now, but he needs to effect change and show his word is bond — we shook on it,” Bent, a housing advocate, said later. “We need someone who’s not just fresh and new, but who will implement these things they promise, no matter how hard or difficult.”

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With about a week to go until D.C.'s Democratic primary election, White, an at-large representative on the D.C. Council, has found that Bent’s skepticism isn’t unique. Some residents have taken him to task over the course of his campaign, he says, particularly seniors in the historically underserved Wards 7 and 8 who’ve heard many doorstep promises from politicians over the years, often with infrequent follow-up.

“They say, ‘I believe in you, but don’t hurt me,’ ” White said. “It hurts to feel neglected when you see so much prosperity in the city. We’ve got to have a leader who’s going to pull those people forward and inspire them to believe again.”

He is now in the closing days of what political observers consider to be an uphill quest to unseat Bowser, who is seeking a third term and also facing challenges from council member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) and former advisory neighborhood commissioner James Butler. All three men are running on platforms they say will make the District more equitable, which has prompted some to wonder whether they’ll split votes among those looking for a change.

But Robert White, 40, says he’s unfazed by those who’ve raised doubts about his run, citing the adversity he faced as a young student decades ago.

A near-fatal collision

White’s mother died of breast cancer when he was 8 years old, and while he was riding to school a few weeks later, a truck flipped over a median in the road and landed on top of the car he was in; his skull split open and the roof of his mouth collapsed, requiring several surgeries to repair.

While he recovered, his third-grade peers continued their learning. White struggled to keep up, even after summer school: “A kid with significant scars on my face, no front teeth, a scar all the way across my head — I remained behind,” he said.

White was still behind when he was accepted into St. John’s College Preparatory School, and couldn’t shake his reputation as a troublemaker. At the same time, he says he began to develop a talent for writing — and by his sophomore year, was determined to be a lawyer. But an academic adviser told him higher education was out of the question.

“It kind of knocked the wind out of me,” White recalled.

Determined that he needed a change of scenery, White says he forged his father’s signature on a transfer application to attend Archbishop Carroll High School the following year. The plan worked, and by senior year he was enrolled in advanced placement classes. He went on to graduate from the American University Washington College of Law.

“As someone who didn’t have a lot of support, believers or an abundance of visible talent, I know there’s a lot of promise in people who have been counted out,” White says. “And there are missed opportunities for people who don’t get a chance to find their strengths.”

After earning his law degree, White clerked in a Montgomery County court, then served as legislative counsel for D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D). In 2014, he led community outreach efforts in the office of D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D) and later that year ventured into city politics, falling short in his first campaign for D.C. Council. But in an upset victory two years later, he beat veteran Vincent B. Orange for an at-large seat on the legislative body.

Gauging momentum

As a lawmaker, White frequently weighs in on issues pertaining to education, minority-owned businesses and rights for incarcerated residents. He often references a bill he wrote that granted inmates the ability to vote while in prison, in which he again invoked a personal story — this time, of his brother, who was once incarcerated.

Michael K. Fauntroy, an associate professor of policy and government at George Mason University, recalled that White hinted early in his political career that he might make a run for mayor; political insiders generally view White as the most viable of Bowser’s three opponents. But with a dearth of credible, public polling in this election cycle, Fauntroy said, it’s difficult to assess the candidates’ chances.

White’s campaign has pointed to individual contributions from D.C. residents as a marker of support, and finance reports submitted Friday show White has recently outpaced Bowser in local donations, although Bowser has outraised White overall.

While mayoral debates have typically centered on issues like public safety and housing, it’s not clear if enough voters view these as problems worthy of ousting a two-term incumbent. For White to win, Fauntroy said, “there’s got to be synergy around an incumbent having a vulnerability, issues that resonate with voters and the ability of a challenger to galvanize those two things to advance a candidacy.”

“They’ve all got to work at the same time for a candidate to win,” he added. “And that’s the challenge White faces.”

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White has been more aggressive since the campaign’s earliest months: he nearly ousted Trayon White from the race by way of a petition signature challenge and has gone after Bowser’s record at debates, in mailers and on social media. She’s increasingly singled him out, too, accusing Robert White of “waffling” on some of his proposals.

“It’s easier to claim I’m waffling on mayoral control of schools than to debate me on the issue,” White said, highlighting one policy area where Bowser has said he’s inconsistent. “She’s seeing the same thing that I’m seeing, which is clearly that momentum is on our side.”

Ambitious proposals

Longtime pollster Ron Lester, who is not representing any of the mayoral candidates, has also noticed the increased attacks. He said White might be better served spending the campaign’s closing days focused on his vision for the city rather than taking shots at Bowser — particularly if he wants to win over senior voters who may still be hesitant to go with someone new. Political strategists say seniors are an essential voting bloc because they are more likely to use city services and more inclined to vote.

A February Washington Post poll found 75 percent of the city’s registered Democrats who are 65 and older have a favorable view of Bowser, while 28 percent said they had a favorable impression of Robert White. Sixty percent of seniors said they did not know enough about him to have a favorable or unfavorable impression, compared with 7 percent for Bowser.

“Seniors in particular in D.C. are skeptical; someone who is trying to get their votes has to be very specific about what they’ll do, especially somebody who’s trying to get them to change from their preference or move away from the incumbent,” Lester said. “He’s got to convince voters that he would be better than her, and I think he does that through presenting his ideas.”

White has rolled out big proposals in recent months, including an expansion of vocational education and public boarding schools in the District, as well as a separate plan that guarantees every resident a job. He’s also promised to reevaluate how housing is developed on city property through novel approaches like social housing — an idea never implemented in the United States but popular among certain D.C. advocates.

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Sandra Seegars, an activist in Ward 8 who supports Bowser, is critical of White’s job guarantee; she said he’d have a stronger pitch if he talked more about the ways he’s created jobs for residents during his time on the council. White notes that he’s tried through legislation to create more incentives for employers and contractors to hire D.C. residents, particularly those who are excluded from the job market, but not at the scale of his latest proposal.

Seegars, 71, also argued that White should spend more time clarifying his policies instead of talking about his main opponent. But when voters meet White for the first time, they often ask him to make the comparison anyway.

“What’s the difference between you and Bowser?” Amanda Gant asked White after running into him recently in Ward 3′s Glover Park.

“The biggest difference is we’ll solve problems,” White responded. “Spending money and solving problems are two very different things. You look at education, the cost of housing, you’ve got to make progress at some point.”

Gant, who volunteered for David Catania when he ran against Bowser in the 2014 general election, says she was already inclined to vote for one of her opponents in next week’s primary — though she was equally impressed by Trayon White, who made his own appeal to Gant seconds later.

She’s concluded that Robert White has the best chance to win.

“It’s not a high bar for me,” Gant said. “I’ve seen Bowser. Now let’s see something else.”

Julie Zauzmer Weil contributed to this report.