D.C. Council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) is running for reelection against challenger Dionne Reeder, a community organizer and local restaurant owner who has also done some work in city government.
Silverman used to be a columnist for the Washington City Paper and she worked at The Washington Post, where we once shared a cubicle. After that, she was an analyst for the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute.
I’ve hesitated to write about her, because I didn’t want our history of too many bad desk lunches and snarks about editors to influence my opinion. But in that time working alongside her and in her work with the policy institute, I watched her understand and care deeply about the growing divisions and inequality in the city. And I know that’s at the heart of her work.
Silverman and Reeder share many of the same goals for the city.
In this election, the main disagreement between these smart women is not about race or religion. It is about a piece of legislation — a paid family leave act.
Silverman is for. Reeder is against.
And that should be the debate. Full stop.
But whoa. The chatter and arguments and megaphones surrounding their views has boiled it down to race. Silverman is white. Reeder is black.
Some of this ugliness began with the District’s version of the growing anti-Semitism that has surfaced throughout the nation.
Hate incidents targeting Jews jumped 57 percent last year nationwide. That’s the largest single-year increase on record since 1979, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
In the District, anti-Semitism reared its head this year when council member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) said some dumb stuff about the Rothschilds — the European dynasty that’s often invoked as shorthand for anti-Semitic conspiracies —
supposedly controlling the World Bank and the weather.
Silverman, who is Jewish, was the one who spoke loudest about it. “There are both public and private gestures that need to happen to address this issue and send a clear message that this type of speech is not condoned,” she said.
White apologized and agreed to a guided visit to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum for some much needed education. The tour didn’t go that well. He left early
That wasn’t the end of it. During a rally organized to support White, a guest speaker targeted Silverman and other Jews,
with words including “termites” booming in the megaphone.
Silverman confronted Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and asked that Joshua Lopez, the man who organized the rally and held the megaphone for the guest speaker, be dismissed from his appointed seat on the D.C. Housing Authority Board. Lopez resigned his seat amid the controversy over the rally.
But Bowser’s support for Silverman’s main challenger, Reeder, has stirred up bad feelings and it has people ascribing all sorts of motives.
The District, when it comes to race, is still pretty messed up — wildly unequal when it comes to crime, poverty, education and homeownership. The unemployment among the District’s African Americans is more than twice that of whites.
And those disparities have to be earnestly addressed, especially in a place where whole city blocks — blocks with generations of black history — are being razed and gentrified every month.
But in this case, the story is not about that.
Silverman is ever the reporter, challenging every line of every piece of legislation, budget item and chart that comes her way. It’s what she’s always done. And it’s what a council member should do.
Critics of Reeder believe she will be tied to Bowser and easy on developers and businesses because of the mayor’s support. Reeder is also beloved by many, especially as one of the owners of the Cheers restaurant in Anacostia.
Bowser, a business-friendly mayor who has backed much of the District’s breakneck development, doesn’t back Silverman’s biggest project, the paid family and medical leave act, which levies a 0.62 percent payroll tax on employers to fund it. The mayor believes a good deal of those benefits will go to people who may work in the District but don’t live here. And it could scare businesses away.
Silverman wants the District to be in the nation’s vanguard of governments helping guarantee this type of leave to employees, no matter where they live.
It’s a worthy debate. And that’s all the city should be debating.
We can do better than this, D.C.