The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After a decade of turnover at city hall, D.C.’s primary election favors incumbents

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), flanked by D.C. Council members Anita Bonds (D-At Large), Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) and Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5) in January 2017. All four elected officials are up for reelection, but only Bonds faces serious opposition in the Democratic primary.
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), flanked by D.C. Council members Anita Bonds (D-At Large), Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) and Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5) in January 2017. All four elected officials are up for reelection, but only Bonds faces serious opposition in the Democratic primary. (Bill O'Leary/Washington Post)

The past decade has not been a comfortable one for local elected officials in the nation’s capital, as disgruntled voters and rapid-fire scandals have repeatedly toppled District lawmakers. Seven of the D.C. Council’s 13 members have been in office for less than a single term.

But with the 2018 Democratic primary — usually tantamount to a general election in this left-leaning city — two weeks away, voters seem set to deliver a relative anomaly in the District’s recent political history: preservation of the status quo.

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), whose low-key style belies a formidable popularity citywide, is the favorite in a contest against left-wing activist Ed Lazere. The five remaining lawmakers on the ballot, while not uniformly secure, have the edge in fundraising and in some cases benefit from a divided field of challengers.

“This is a city where more incumbents have lost than virtually any other big city in the country,” said Tom Lindenfeld, a political strategist and former adviser to Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), as well as former mayors Adrian Fenty and Anthony Williams. “It is possible for non-incumbents to win. I just don’t see a whole lot of potential this year given the nature of the races.”

Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) is running unopposed. Kenyan R. McDuffie ­(D-Ward 5) faces four nominal challengers, but only two of them, Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners Gayle Carley and Bradley Thomas, had reported raising any money in March, when campaign finance reports were last filed — a combined $13,450 to McDuffie’s $155,594. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) has raised $125,469 and is in a strong position to fend off a challenge from former Obama staffer Lisa Hunter, who has raised $24,454.

But if the District’s political dynamics favor the incumbents, not all of them can afford to rest easy, observers say. The most closely contested and least predictable primary races appear to be those for Ward 1 and an at-large seat. 

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Council member Brianne K. Nadeau (D) represents Ward 1, a racially diverse patch of Northwest Washington that includes Adams Morgan and Columbia Heights. The ward — historically home to sizable black and Salvadoran populations — is emblematic of the District’s demographic remolding, with young, affluent whites flocking to new apartment buildings and condos alongside aging rowhouses and tiendas.

Nadeau pulled off an upset in 2014 against the ward’s long-serving representative, the late Jim Graham, whose popularity had waned amid ethics scandals. She has frequently sided with the council’s progressive bloc, and as chairwoman of the Human Services Committee, she oversaw a controversial strengthening of the city’s eligibility rules for homeless families seeking shelter.

Three challengers have entered the Democratic primary race against Nadeau, each seeking to channel what they describe as widespread dissatisfaction with the council member’s attention to constituent’s bread-and-butter ­issues.

“Basic quality-of-life questions or issues, when there’s outreach to the council member, there’s not follow-up,” said Kent Boese, 53, a law librarian and chairman of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1A who is running against Nadeau.

Boese, who has lived with his husband in Park View for more than a decade, said Nadeau’s unresponsiveness can be seen in what he described as the deterioration of public spaces such as the Columbia Heights Civic Plaza and Girard Street Park. He has received endorsements from LGBT groups such as the Victory Fund and Gertrude Stein Democratic Club.

Lori Parker, 54, a former magistrate judge in D.C. Superior Court who has been endorsed by the Washington Teachers’ Union, said her first order of business on the council would be to revive the ward’s constituent-services fund, disbanded by Nadeau because of concerns over its misuse.

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The funds, which are intended to help needy District residents and organizations, have become notorious for questionable spending, including a $500 donation by council member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) in January to an anti-Semitic event organized in Chicago by the Nation of Islam.

Despite such problems, Parker said constituent-services funds are too important to disband and are needed to help Ward 1 residents being squeezed by gentrification with higher costs on utility bills, rent, child care and burial assistance. “A lot of good things have happened in the ward,” Parker said. “But too many folks aren’t feeling that.”

Nadeau’s third challenger is Sheika Reid, 27, an architectural drafter who has been endorsed by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees District Council 20. Reid, who grew up in Columbia Heights, has also pledged to reestablish a constituent-services fund. She said she could advocate more effectively than her opponents for the ward’s mix of residents.

“Ward 1 is so unique and dynamic, and over the past few years it has not lived up to its promise,” Reid said.

Nadeau, 37, said she has been able to offer help to Ward 1 residents without the use of a constituent-services fund by steering dollars to more effective citywide programs, such as the Emergency Rental Assistance Program and Burial Assistance Program.

Constituent-services funds, she said, “have become slush funds in a lot of cases, and we certainly saw a lot of that in Ward 1 in the past.”

On issues involving parks and the Columbia Heights Civic Plaza, she wants to “make sure we’re moving forward with larger fixes so that people don’t have to keep calling about the same issues” and said that some of the ward’s public spaces weren’t built with an eye to long-term upkeep.

As of March, Nadeau had raised approximately $214,704, more than her three opponents combined. Such an advantage can have a marked effect in the final weeks of a local race, when a well-funded candidate can pay for advertising to inundate voters tuning in to the election. Yet some in the ward say the race remains unsettled.

“I think a lot of people are undecided still,” said Mindy Moretti, a former ANC commissioner and longtime Adams Morgan resident who is not aligned with any of the candidates. “I think there is definitely some anti-incumbent sentiment in the ward, but I don’t know that all those people are all that enamored” of Nadeau’s challengers.

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D.C. Council member Anita Bonds (D-At Large), a stalwart in District politics who has served in the administrations of three mayors and chairs the D.C. Democratic State Committee, faces two challengers for the seat she has held since 2012. Marcus Goodwin had outraised her as of March, reporting $80,474 to Bonds’s $65,317. The other challenger, Jeremiah Lowery, has raised $31,799.

Goodwin, 28, grew up in the District, attended the University of Pennsylvania and works at Four Points, a real estate development company. He said he hopes to focus on workforce development if elected, strengthening the city’s laws that help minority businesses and creating better job-training programs.

He said that as chairwoman of the council’s Committee on Housing and Neighborhood Revitalization, Bonds had been ineffective in stanching the city’s loss of affordable housing.

“People see that Anita’s time is up,” Goodwin said.

Lowery is carrying the banner of the far left and has received endorsements from influential progressive groups, including Jews United for Justice and D.C. for Democracy.

Lowery, 32, opposes the city’s efforts to woo Amazon’s second headquarters and says he would work to ensure that the city’s landmark legislation guaranteeing eight weeks of paid family leave to private-sector workers is implemented properly.

He said Goodwin, while presenting himself as a fresh face in District politics, shares Bonds’s more centrist approach when it comes to policy.

“This is a race about where we stand on the issues. It’s not about that [Goodwin is] young and he’s new — no. He aligns with Anita Bonds on almost every issue,” Lowery said. “And I’m different. I’m more of the progressive champion in this race.”

Bonds defended her record on housing, saying she helped Bowser preserve an annual investment of $100 million in the city’s Housing Production Trust Fund. She also pointed to legislation she co-introduced that offers tax benefits to first-time home buyers.

Bonds said her power to address the city’s high rents and home prices is limited. “As a legislator and a member of the council, I don’t run any programs,” she said.

She said that with the council’s budget deliberations ending, she is trying to devote more time to campaigning, talking to voters and setting up yard signs.

“Any time you’re in a political context, you’re vulnerable,” Bonds said. “I would never, ever say that I don’t feel vulnerable. I am ­working.”

An earlier version of this article erroneously stated that Ward 1 D.C. Council candidate Kent Boese received the endorsement of GLAA. The LGBT organization rates candidates but does not make endorsements. Its highest rating in Ward 1 went to incumbent council member Brianne K. Nadeau, who received a rating of +9.5 (on a scale of -10 to +10). Boese’s rating was +9.