Race is a subject many in D.C. politics prefer not to discuss. But it is at the forefront of the city’s most competitive election this fall.
That contest pits incumbent D.C. Council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) — white, Jewish and a champion of the left’s agenda at city hall — against Dionne Reeder, a third-generation Washingtonian who is black.
Their increasingly caustic campaign has come to embody tensions in the nation’s capital far larger than the candidates. In a city that is growing whiter and more affluent, and where African Americans have been losing long-held political clout, Reeder’s supporters have tapped into enduring resentments by painting Silverman as an outsider.
Silverman has largely run a conventional campaign, touting her record of aggressive government oversight and legislation that has boosted benefits for the working poor. Reeder and her supporters have taken a different tack, arguing the council needs the voice of an African American woman and asserting that Silverman has behaved rudely toward blacks and Latinos — an allegation Silverman rejects.
The result has been a campaign of rare emotional intensity, reminiscent in some ways of the gone-but-not-forgotten era when Mayor Marion Barry Jr. dominated the city’s public life and the combustible politics of race was on full display.
“History repeats itself,” said former D.C. Council member Sandy Allen, who supports Reeder and said that Washington, for all its apparent unity as a left-leaning bastion in the age of President Trump, has never addressed — or honestly discussed — its deep-seated divisions of race and class. “This is not new. It is probably more prominent now. But it’s not new.”
In some ways, the moment is ripe for a baring of racial fractures. The city’s dwindling plurality of black residents is watching the rise of a new generation of progressive, white politicians whose preoccupations — ranging from campaign finance reform to bike lanes — sometimes seem less important in the struggling and mostly African American neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River.
Reeder and her campaign staff have tried to highlight that disconnect, pointing to Silverman’s scrutiny of government spending on a basketball arena in Southeast Washington and of the management of a summer jobs program that benefits many young African Americans east of the river, in Wards 7 and 8.
In a recent Facebook post addressed to black girls, Reeder said that “it is imperative that you see yourself in your elected legislators.” She has also leveled personal attacks at Silverman, saying she felt insulted at a recent campaign forum when the incumbent remarked that Reeder was an “eloquent speaker.”
Reeder said she took the comment as sarcastic. “When you make sneers like that, as an African American woman, to me that’s uncomfortable,” said Reeder, who lives in Ward 1.
Silverman said her remark was meant as an honest compliment. A former reporter for Washington City Paper and briefly The Washington Post who also worked as an analyst at the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, Silverman said she is forthright in her questioning of city officials about the efficiency of government programs.
“I’m a direct communicator. I’m honest in my dealings,” said Silverman, who lives in Ward 6. “I try in my oversight to make sure that I’m getting the best return on investment for our taxpayer dollars, especially to help those that have been left out.”
Silverman said her record during her first term showed she was acting in the interests of all D.C. residents, including African Americans in Southeast Washington who have not been touched by the city’s tide of prosperity. Just this month, she said, she had worked with council member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) to advance a jobs bill that will offer public-sector apprenticeships in D.C. government.
“I think my record at the Wilson Building shows that I’m interested in making sure the District works for all its residents — including residents who feel like it doesn’t work for them,” Silverman said.
Sandra Seegars, an African American Ward 8 resident who is supporting Silverman, said Reeder’s campaign is floating the issue of race to distract from more substantive issues. “People ask why I’m supporting a white person,” Seegars said. “I say, why not? She’s done good work.”
China Dickerson, a senior adviser to the Reeder campaign, said conversations about race can’t be avoided in a city where gross disparities in education, income and other measures persist between white and black.
“In a city where these people are suffering the most, we have to talk about race,” Dickerson said. “The people most affected in this city are black and brown.”
The campaign’s resonance has increased with the involvement of another African American woman: Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D).
Silverman and Bowser have clashed over Silverman’s championing of legislation guaranteeing District residents paid parental leave that the mayor opposed, among other things. Still, many were surprised when the mayor announced her intent to openly campaign against a fellow occupant of the John A. Wilson Building, breaking with an informal tradition of mayors staying out of incumbents’ races.
A turning point in the relationship came earlier this year, when Silverman demanded that Bowser remove a political appointee, Joshua Lopez, from the board of the D.C. Housing Authority. That episode, too, was fraught with racial and religious tensions.
Lopez had held a rally at city hall to support White, who was taking international criticism after he espoused a conspiracy theory that Jewish financiers control the weather. At the event, Nation of Islam representative Abdul Khadir Muhammad took the microphone, called Silverman a “fake Jew” and referred to Jews as “termites.” (White did not attend or help organize the rally.)
Lopez, who later apologized for the man’s comments, ultimately resigned from the housing board. He is now campaigning hard for Reeder, and he said this past week that Silverman had “stirred up religious animosity and racial animosity to benefit her politically” during the anti-Semitism controversy.
Lopez also suggested in a Facebook post last month that Silverman, who grew up in Maryland before moving to Washington in the 1990s, should “return home to Baltimore.”
Asked to comment on the tone the race had taken as she was leaving a recent candidates’s forum, Bowser demurred. “What’s important to me . . . working with any council member, especially at-large council members, is that they’re open minded, that they’re collaborative and that they have a real focus on D.C. residents,” she said.
A flier that Bowser mailed last week to residents advertising a get-out-the-vote rally featured a photo of the mayor surrounded by African American supporters, along with a picture of Reeder and D.C. Council member Anita Bonds (D-At Large), both black women on the ballot. Bonds has not backed either Reeder or Silverman.
The mayor’s endorsement last month also opened a spigot of cash for Reeder’s campaign, which reported this past week that it had raised more than $100,000 to Silverman’s $57,000 over the past two months, much of it from Bowser’s donor network. (Bowser herself is running for reelection without serious opposition.)
With less than a month left before the election, it remains to be seen whether Reeder can turn those dollars into votes. She and Silverman are vying for the second of two citywide seats; the first will almost certainly go to Bonds, an incumbent Democrat. Last month, Silverman’s campaign released an internal poll showing her leading Reeder by 17 points.
Eugene Puryear, an African American activist who ran for the council as a Green Party candidate in 2014, said Reeder’s alliance with Bowser — who has close ties to the city’s business establishment and has sometimes been criticized for neglecting Southeast Washington — should give voters pause.
“If you’re cozying up to someone like that, whatever your reasons may be, to me it raises some serious questions about your sincerity when you say, ‘I’m going to be the one to stand up for the interests of people east of the river,’ ” Puryear said, referring to Reeder. He is not backing either Silverman or Reeder in the race.
Reeder said her support from Bowser and business interests is a sign of her inclusive approach to representing the District.
“No one is perfect,” she said. “We have bad business people. We have bad council people. We have bad churches. We have bad presidents. So we can’t just say that that’s a bad community, or that a particular developer is bad so all developers are bad.”
Bryan Weaver, a progressive neighborhood activist in Adams Morgan who plans to vote for Silverman, said it would be a mistake to simply write Reeder off as the tool of special interests eager to topple Silverman. He said the racial resentments infusing the campaign point to the continued weakness of the progressive agenda in large parts of the city.
“The progressive movement in D.C. does have a blind spot when it comes to the experiences of African Americans,” said Weaver, who is white.
Weaver said he worries that once the campaign has run its course, the divides it has highlighted could be hard to bridge.
“It’s like a Band-Aid is off,” he said.