The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Backlash to Elissa Silverman’s D.C. Council first term fuels campaign to unseat her

D.C. Council Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) talks with a potential voter on Nov. 1 ahead of Tuesday’s election. Silverman had a clear path to reelection until Dionne Reeder won the endorsement of Mayor Muriel Bowser, along with a boost from the mayor’s donor network. Now Silverman has a battle on her hands. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

In her campaign for reelection, council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) has faced a barrage of attacks for supporting a paid family medical leave law that challenger Dionne Reeder and Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) say is a burden to businesses.

But Silverman was one of nine lawmakers who favored the bill. And although she is a co-author, Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) rewrote it and corralled the necessary votes to ensure its passage. None of the others have been criticized for it in the way that Silverman has.

Silverman’s handling of the legislation is among the reasons that the one-term progressive has become the most endangered incumbent on the D.C. ballot next week.

While her support for labor-friendly policy made her a favorite of activists, that same voting record and the lawmaker’s sometimes brash demeanor has alienated business leaders, black community leaders and officials in the Bowser administration working to oust her.

And Silverman is also reckoning with fallout from her scrutiny of sacred cows in city politics, such as the summer jobs program founded by former mayor Marion Barry.

Bob Schlehuber, a community organizer, said he often agrees with Silverman on policy and appreciates the questions she raises about project costs, such as those she brought up during planning for a new entertainment arena in underdeveloped Southeast Washington. But he said that her influence is limited by her inability to build support, particularly among civic leaders in the District’s poorest wards.

“Even when Elissa goes on the ledge on progressive issues, she’s not making headway because the other council members aren’t backing her and she doesn’t have that grass-roots coalition,” said Schlehuber, who hasn’t decided whether he will vote for Silverman again. “She doesn’t have a racially and geographically diverse coalition of partners.”

Campaign finance complaint over Bowser rally for Reeder is dismissed

Silverman was no stranger to City Hall before her 2014 election. She promoted left-leaning policies as an analyst for the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute and chronicled local politics as a columnist for the Washington City Paper and, briefly, as a reporter for The Washington Post.

Silverman, 45, acknowledges she made mistakes transitioning from outsider to insider.

“It took me a long time to own being a council member because I felt uncomfortable being seen as a person of authority. It just wasn’t my style,” Silverman said in an interview. “Where I’ve fallen short is working with community leaders and folks, especially east of the [Anacostia] river, to be the credible messengers on what I’m trying to accomplish and to get more feedback on what they think are the missing elements.”

Reeder, a restaurant co-owner in Southeast Washington with deep roots in community activism and local politics, says that is why Silverman should lose her seat.

“I collaborate with people better, I’m not divisive, and I don’t ignore people,” said Reeder.

Silverman counters that Reeder can’t be an independent voice on the council because of her support from the mayor and city contractors who don’t want council scrutiny of how taxpayer dollars are spent.

“There are people who want to see the status quo stay in place because they profit from it,” Silverman said.

An activist's transition

Silverman launched her first run for office on a clean government platform in 2013, while the D.C. Council was reeling from corruption scandals that led three members to plead guilty to felonies, including bribery and embezzlement.

She lost to Anita Bonds, a Democrat who is expected to win reelection on Tuesday, taking one of two at-large seats.

Silverman ran again the next year, re-registering as an independent to compete for a single seat that is reserved for a non-Democrat. She prevailed in a crowded field.

Adam Eidinger, a marijuana advocate, says he got an early window into Silverman’s style as an exacting inquisitor when she sought his endorsement in the 2014 race and he asked her to support Initiative 71, which would legalize possession of marijuana in small amounts.

As he recalls it, Silverman grilled him in his driveway for an hour about legalization.

“She made me have to argue with her about it. The fact that I had to argue about the merits, to me, is a sign of someone who is taking me seriously,” said Eidinger, a Silverman supporter. “It was not pleasant.”

Silverman derided as ‘fake Jew’ at rally outside city hall

On the council dais, Silverman developed a reputation for bringing a reporter’s tough questioning and a policy wonk’s fixation on detail.

She often appears at oversight hearings convened in the wake of government scandal, even if she’s not on the relevant committee. Silverman was among the lawmakers grilling officials in Bow­ser’s administration over trouble at the city’s public hospital, the ouster of an internal government watchdog and setbacks in new homeless shelters.

As chair of the Committee on Labor and Workforce Development, Silverman credits her oversight of the long-troubled Department of Employment Services as one of the reasons the agency was removed from a federal watch list.

But the department’s then-
director, Odie Donald, said the corrective plan came from the mayor’s office and laughed when asked whether Silverman’s oversight helped. “At best, Council Member Silverman’s efforts were a hindrance,” he said.

Silverman’s critics say she has been grandstanding at oversight hearings and fraying relationships in the process.

“We should all be able to come together — the legislative branch and executive branch — and work things out,” said Yvette M. Alexander, who represented Ward 7 on the council until 2017. “It’s just been a very antagonistic relationship without even the attempt to work things out. That’s very frustrating.”

Elizabeth Falcon, who advocates for better enforcement of labor laws as head of the group D.C. Jobs With Justice, said Silverman is unfairly singled out for her oversight, noting that similarly tough male lawmakers haven’t faced similar criticism.

“The way that she approaches being aggressive at her job is described or reinterpreted by other people as being unfriendly or mean,” said Falcon, who knew Silverman before her election.

Asked about her legislative record, Silverman touts measures she calls “wonky but critical.”

They include a law requiring the city to detail its spending on workforce development and her work on budget items allowing the city to hire more construction inspectors and to steer more money to repair of public housing.

She highlights the paid family leave law in campaign advertising, but in interviews, she acknowledges Mendelson made it possible.

Although Silverman has supported more funding for social services, she is facing a backlash over instances when she questioned government spending on programs that are prominent in Southeast Washington.

Silverman sought an audit of the Marion S. Barry Summer Youth Employment Program as the city was expanding it.

She called it an effort to make sure the program was working properly as a pathway to gainful employment. But Reeder and her allies say Silverman failed to understand the history of a beloved program.

In 2016, Silverman proposed a $50 million cap for city spending on a 4,200-seat arena and Washington Wizards practice facility, which opened in September. She said she wanted to protect taxpayers from cost overruns.

But it made her seem insensitive to the residents of the heavily black Ward 8, which has seen little development compared with the rest of the city.

“My impression from Elissa Silverman is that black people don’t deserve nothing beyond housing,” said Mary Cuthbert, a Ward 8-based activist who was the subject of a critical column Silverman wrote at the City Paper. “We also need entertainment, just like people west of the river.”

Silverman said the pushback to the spending cap was a learning moment.

“The Wizards’ practice facility debate almost killed me. Afterward I was called racist, and I will tell you I was so depressed after that debate, my mental health took a real hit because I internalize everything,” Silverman said.

In retrospect, she said she should have met with Cuthbert and other activists before proposing the spending cap.

While she acknowledges past political miscalculations, Silverman says she considers them lessons for a second term where, if reelected, she says she will push for the creation of a local student loan refinancing authority and regulations to help hourly retail workers.

She will have better relationships with fellow lawmakers, Silverman said. And she’ll focus on finding more allies outside City Hall and listening more to the people who would be affected by her proposals — particularly in Southeast Washington.

“Why is economic progressivism here seen as white?” said Silverman. “We need to create better relationships and connect more with black residents of the city.”

Read more about the at-large council race

Why Bowser is taking the rare step of publicly targeting an incumbent lawmaker

Race infuses bitter D.C. Council contest in a divided city

Reeder promised a paid family leave plan, but now says wait until Election Day

Bowser donor network infuses cash into Reeder's re-election bid