The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why a progressive D.C. lawmaker is suddenly facing opposition

D.C. Council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) speaks in March at the More for Housing Now rally Foundry United Methodist Church. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Since her election four years ago, D.C. Council member Elissa Silverman has emerged as a leading progressive voice in the District, most prominently co-authoring legislation to require paid family leave for private-sector workers in the city.

As a result, she has incurred the wrath of the business community, and now two pillars of the District’s political past — former mayor Anthony Williams and former council member David Catania — are teaming up in an effort to unseat Silverman (I-At Large) in November.

Williams and Catania are co-chairing the campaign of S. Kathryn Allen, 63, a businesswoman who recently switched her party affiliation from Democrat to independent to launch what is her first political race, against Silverman in the general election.

Allen, who served as a banking commissioner under Williams, said she decided to challenge Silverman because the council member championed the paid-leave legislation, which is among the nation’s most generous and imposes a new tax on businesses.

The council passed the bill despite vigorous opposition from Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and members of the business community, who portrayed it as a costly initiative that largely benefits residents of Maryland and Virginia who work in the city.

“It’s out of step,” Allen said in an interview. “We can’t take another four years of almost experimental or radical kinds of legislation. The council was elected to work for the interests of District residents. They’ve lost sight of that.”

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Silverman, 45, a onetime Washington Post reporter and former analyst at the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, portrayed Allen as a tool of the business community. She dismissed Allen, Williams and Catania as “out of step” with the needs of District residents struggling to survive in a costly city.

“This city has been booming, but the benefits to residents have been uneven,” Silverman said in an interview. “It is hard to live in this city, not just if you’re a working-class family but if you’re a middle-class family. And paid family leave is one of the tools to make it a little easier.”

Bowser, who is seeking reelection and recently adopted a baby, is not endorsing in the council race, according to John Falcicchio, her chief of staff. “She’s focused on being a mom and running her hometown and her own race,” he texted.

But a business executive, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said the mayor recently solicited the executive’s support on Allen’s behalf and touted her candidacy as a way to remove Silverman from the council.

Elected to the council in 2014, Silverman was among several new lawmakers who had campaigned as reformers. But she also describes herself as a “fiscal hawk,” proposing to cap, for example, the amount the District would spend on the Washington Wizards’ new practice facility in Ward 8. She also voted against a proposal to spend an additional $5 million on finishing touches at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, after a $165 million renovation was already $100 million over its budget.

As chair of the Labor and Workforce Development Committee, Silverman oversees the District’s employment agency and has subjected Bowser aides to stringent questioning. She also voted to terminate the contract of a company with political ties to Bowser that was hired to manage the city’s only public hospital but whose rocky tenure included financial and patient-care problems.

D.C. lawmakers cut short contract for city’s only public hospital

More recently, according to Silverman, she clashed with Bowser during a private meeting when the mayor refused her request to fire Joshua Lopez, a former campaign aide and her appointee to the public housing board. Lopez had organized an April “unity rally” on the steps of the District government building at which a Nation of Islam representative called Silverman a “fake Jew” and referred to Jews as “termites.”

Silverman is one of two Jewish members of the 13-member council.

Nation of Islam representative calls Silverman ‘fake Jew’ at rally

Lopez and David Jannarone, another close Bowser ally, recently contributed to Allen’s campaign, which has raised $37,000 since March. Allen said she refunded Lopez’s $100 contribution “because I was concerned that because of his recent issues it would take focus off my campaign.”

Williams, executive director of the Federal City Council, a nonprofit economic-development group, described Silverman as a “diligent and conscientious” legislator. But he also said the paid-leave law that she co-authored “is crazy to me,” saying it imposes an onerous tax burden on the business community.

“I like to see council members who are committed to social issues, to dealing with inequality, broadly speaking, just as long as it’s done in an economically feasible way that delivers the benefits to our people,” said Williams, who is credited with mending the District’s failing finances during the late 1990s and laying the groundwork for its economic revival.

While the public may support paid family leave, Williams said, “we’re here to lead, not just give everyone what they want because it’s nice.”

Catania left the council after losing the 2014 mayoral race to Bowser. During what was a bitter campaign, Catania dismissed Bowser as an unaccomplished candidate who lacked a vision for the city’s future. More recently, Catania has appeared to have forged a more cordial relationship with the mayor, joining her and friends for lunch at Ben’s Chili Bowl on the afternoon of the June 19 Democratic primary. Bowser posted a photo of the group on Twitter.

In February, Catania opened a District-based lobbying firm with Benjamin Young, his former chief of staff and campaign manager, who recently gave Allen’s campaign $1,000. The firm’s clients include Unity Health Care, a network of community health centers in the District; Miller & Long, a long-standing construction company in the area; and Starship Technologies, the manufacturer of robotic delivery vehicles.

Catania said he has known Allen and her family for years and became involved in her campaign after she sought his support. “Kathryn is going to make a fantastic council member,” Catania said.

He said the paid-leave law would impose “the largest tax increase in the city’s history.” Catania said his husband, a District resident, would not qualify for the benefit, because he does not work in the city. “This is not about her,” he said, referring to Silverman. “This is about someone who I think is better.”

Told of his remarks, Silverman pointed out that Catania supported D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), who played an integral role in the bill’s passage. Catania also supported council member David Grosso (I-At Large), who co-authored the bill.

“Catania was at Phil’s victory party,” Silverman said. “But then they’re trying to tear me down. What’s Catania’s answer to that?”

Catania did not respond to follow-up emails.

Besides Allen, four other candidates are challenging Silverman: Traci Hughes, the former director of the D.C. Office of Open Government; Dionne Reeder, a Ward 8 business owner; Rustin Lewis, a professor at the University of the District of Columbia; and Omekongo Dibinga, a professor at American University. They are all running as independents.

But Silverman is focused on Allen. In a fundraising appeal to supporters, she described Allen as “loyal and beholden” to “big money interests.” Silverman contended in the letter that voters want an at-large leader who is “truly independent and unbought.”

Allen said she felt “insulted” by Silverman’s inference.

“To make a statement about a person of color — for her to write that I was bought by anybody — was insensitive and insulting, and she needs to apologize,” said Allen, who is African American. “I am absolutely my own person.”

Silverman countered: “Why should I apologize? She’s backed by one big interest — the real estate industry,” a reference to Allen’s campaign contributors, including developers Tim Chapman and Douglas and Norman Jemal.

Silverman has raised about $80,000 from donors including Andy Shallal, the owner of the Busboys and Poets restaurants; Robert Bobb, a deputy mayor under Williams; and Cynthiana Lightfoot, the wife of Bowser’s campaign chair, Bill Lightfoot.

Her supporters also include Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D), who described the business community’s “ire against Elissa” as “myopic and, for me, unconvincing. No single council member is responsible for the passage of any law.” He described Silverman as “thoughtful, thorough and consistently rigorous.”

Pat Lippold, a leader of SEIU 1199, said that the Service Employees International Union local has endorsed Silverman in the past and that she expects it to support her in the fall because “she has been nothing but helpful” to its 2,000 members.

“Most unions and progressives have worked well with Elissa and find that she shares our union’s values,” she said.

Two months ago, Silverman found herself at the center of a political maelstrom when an ally, council member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8), said that the Rothschilds, a wealthy Jewish family, control the weather and the federal government.

White was derided as an anti-Semite, and several of Silverman’s council colleagues called for his reprimand after it was revealed that he had contributed $500 from his constituent services fund to a Chicago event at which Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan denounced Jews.

Silverman, while insisting White needed to distance himself from Farrakhan, stood by the council member, saying she believed he had spoken out of ignorance and not malice.

In April, after Lopez held his rally where Silverman was assailed as a “fake Jew,” she met with Bowser at the mayor’s home.

Their interaction became heated and personal, Silverman said. At one point, Silverman said, the mayor repeated a prior complaint, accusing the council member of being “condescending and overly aggressive” toward administration officials at oversight hearings.

As for Lopez, Silverman said, “the mayor’s position was that Josh had no control over the hateful words” spoken at the rally.

“I was demoralized,” Silverman said. “I was disappointed the mayor didn’t see how hurtful and deliberately divisive Josh’s actions were.”

Bowser ordered Lopez to apologize but refused to dismiss him. He later resigned.

Asked about the meeting with Silverman, a mayoral spokeswoman declined to comment.