Walking into the office of Josh Gibson, the communications director and public information officer for the D.C. Council, feels a bit like walking directly into his brain: When I visit in September, D.C. postcards, maps, photographs, pins, posters and license plates inhabit nearly every inch of available wall and shelf space. Much of the floor, meanwhile, is taken up by a graffiti-covered metal electrical box the size of a mini refrigerator. The graffiti is by legendary D.C. graffiti artist Cool "Disco" Dan; Gibson had spotted the call box last year while riding the Metro's Red Line and decided to set up a Cool "Disco" Dan exhibit in the council's lobby. The fact that graffiti is illegal in Washington apparently didn't faze him. "It seemed like a hurdle that could be overcome," he says of successfully pitching the exhibit to the council.
As government bureaucrats go, Gibson is a bit of a renegade. For the past four years, he has been operating the D.C. Council’s Twitter feed, turning it into an unexpectedly funny stream of Washington-themed jokes, trivia and D.C. voting rights advocacy. Back on his first day on the job in the John A. Wilson Building, the seat of D.C. government, the @councilofdc Twitter account had a modest 4,467 followers — a statistic that Gibson keeps on a handwritten note, taped above his desk for motivation. (He compares it to a restaurant owner’s first dollar bill. “For me, it’s this Post-it,” he says.) Today, with more than 28,000 followers, the council’s Twitter feed has become something unusual: a steady supply of government content that people actually want to read.
In person, Gibson, 46, has a friendly, avuncular vibe. His face is host to a perennial five o’clock shadow and large glasses that make his big, round eyes appear even bigger. His appearance matches his voice on social media, which is, by the standards of his profession, rather irreverent.
To most government employees, this type of wit would seem too risky to be worth it. “Most members of legislative staffs are quite wary of getting out in front of their elective leaders and saying something that could be politically damaging,” says Tom Sherwood, a reporter who’s been covering the Washington region for decades. “He provides much-needed humor in an otherwise unhumorous time. I’ve never heard of that before in covering any legislature.”
The few politicians who choose to dip their toes into the humor pool do so at a risk. Take Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who got mocked on Twitter this year after posting a video of a watermelon getting blown up by a firework in an effort to discourage people from setting off fireworks on July 4. “You idiot, you just made fireworks seem even cooler than they already are,” wrote one Twitter user.
Thus far, Gibson has avoided that fate. He describes his own Twitter etiquette by referencing — what else? — the 1984 horror comedy flick “Gremlins.” “You know how the Gremlins have a few rules that are very important?” he said. “It’s like that.” Rule No. 1? Stick to topics that all members of the 13-member council agree on: voting rights for D.C., marijuana legalization, gun control, or opposition to a certain U.S. president’s proposed military parade.
Gibson grew up in Montgomery County, Md., and moved to the District after earning a graduate degree in public policy from Harvard in the late 1990s. His first job was at the Latino Economic Development Corp.in Adams Morgan, and he fell hard for local politics at an Adams Morgan Advisory Neighborhood Commission meeting in 1999. "Someone was screaming, and I think someone even resigned," he recalls. "And I was like, I want this."
He ran, won a seat on the commission and served for five years. Stints in France (he’s a fluent French speaker and Francophile) and on unemployment followed. Then, in 2012, at-large council member Phil Mendelson hired him to manage his special election campaign for council chair. The two made an odd couple: The Washington Post described Mendelson at the time as “a legislator more concerned with details than charisma” and, more to the point, “a nitpicker.” Gibson, however, ran the campaign — and the next one, two years later — with a sense of humor. “Do you love long, hot ... oversight hearings that go on and on and on?” read one fundraising email Gibson wrote on Valentine’s Day in 2014. “Do you like to cuddle up by the fire ... with the latest DC Auditor’s report, especially the charts and footnotes? If so, will you be our Philentine?”
After the 2014 campaign, Mendelson pushed for Gibson to be hired into his current position with the council. “I think he does an excellent job,” Mendelson says with his trademark straightforwardness. The goal of council communications, he explains, “is to increase public awareness and interest in what we’re doing, and his social media presence is a great way of doing so.”
Taken individually, the members of the D.C. Council aren’t the folks you’d hope to see approach the stage at an open-mic comedy show. They’re suit-wearing lawmakers who spend their days debating legislation that often ranges from mundane (Advisory Neighborhood Commission Purchase Cards Amendment Act of 2017) to esoteric (Northwest One Surplus and Disposition Approval Omnibus Act of 2018) to downright niche (Elephant Ivory and Rhinoceros Horn Trafficking Prohibition Act of 2017).
“There are 13 of us, and we’re all probably a little weird,” says Ward 3 council member Mary M. Cheh. “He’s able to navigate around all of our personalities, which is pretty remarkable.”
Of course, not everything Gibson touches turns to Internet gold. “I have a three- or four-page document of tweets that I don’t think were appreciated as much as I wanted them to be,” he told me. (I couldn’t tell if he was serious, so I asked him. Turns out, he was: The document is titled, quite literally, “Underappreciated Tweets,” and it’s in fact six pages long.) He also tweets out hearing notices and line items in the city budget that barely attract a single “like.” His pet project, a podcast of one-on-one interviews with council members, gets only a few dozen listens per episode on SoundCloud. Still, he takes it seriously. “This is not just a comedy show. This is not, ‘Let’s entertain the people,’ ” he says. “We have information to share.”
Mikaela Lefrak is the arts and culture reporter for WAMU-FM 88.5.