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Bowser to back Dionne Bussey-Reeder, council challenger to Elissa Silverman

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) is backing Dionne Bussey-Reeder in her bid to unseat council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), according to the mayor’s campaign chairman.

It’s a major boost for Bussey-Reeder, a first-time candidate who entered the race last year as a business-friendly alternative to Silverman but struggled to raise money.

The endorsement also comes a week after election officials disqualified S. Kathryn Allen, a well-funded insurance agent with the backing of high-profile business and civic figures, from the ballot because of fraud in her qualifying petitions.

“The mayor feels that Elissa has been not helpful to D.C. residents and has pushed a national agenda more than a local agenda and as a result has been divisive, so for those reasons, she is going to support Dionne Reeder, who has promised to focus on needs of D.C. residents,” said Bill Lightfoot, Bowser’s campaign chairman.

“I’ve consistently been an advocate for working families and local businesses,” Silverman said in an email. “However, the mayor will have to point to me where getting [the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs] to enforce our building code and issue permits on time is on the national agenda, or getting [the Department of Employment Services] to implement the First Source law properly so residents truly have a first shot at work in construction.”

Lightfoot said the mayor plans to raise money for Bussey-Reeder and encourage her volunteers to canvass for the candidate. The mayor faces no credible competition in her campaign for a second term. No public endorsement event is scheduled.

“We do know the mayor is interested in doing something for Dionne, but her office would have to confirm that,” said Alfreda Davis, Bussey-Reeder’s campaign manager. “We would certainly welcome support of the chief executive of the city.”

Bussey-Reeder has sought the mayor’s endorsement since late last year, Lightfoot said.

The council member met Bowser in her home in April after a former campaign staffer for the mayor organized a rally where a speaker derided Silverman as a “fake Jew.”

Silverman said the meeting became heated and the mayor accused her of being “condescending and overly aggressive” to administration officials during oversight hearings. Bowser defended her old campaign aide, Joshua Lopez, but ordered him to apologize, according to Silverman. Lopez later resigned from the board of the public housing authority, which Bowser appointed him to.

Lopez is now listed as one of the hosts for a Bussey-Reeder fundraiser on Wednesday night.

The mayor’s endorsement comes as Allen supporters decide whether to stay out of the council race or switch allegiances to Bussey-Reeder.

Allen’s campaign was co-chaired by former mayor Anthony Williams (D) and former council member David Catania (I). Business executives helped her raise more money than Silverman this summer.

Collapse of Allen campaign is latest defeat for D.C. business community

Bowser also quietly boosted Allen. A business executive was solicited by the mayor to support Allen as a way of ousting Silverman, and the mayor’s reelection campaign staff helped Allen collect signatures to get on the ballot.

Bowser “found Kathryn Allen and Dionne Reeder interesting, but they were pushing different issues and advocating different issues, and the mayor wanted to wait to see who could qualify for the ballot,” Lightfoot said.

Some Allen supporters are already gravitating to Bussey-Reeder.

“You can lick your wounds for a couple of days, but you got to get back in the game,” said A. Scott Bolden, an attorney and former chairman of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce who donated $1,000 to Allen and now plans to raise money for Bussey-Reeder. “For our business interests, anyone would be better than Elissa Silverman.”

Silverman, a 45-year-old former policy analyst and journalist, is a target for business interests because she co-sponsored a law taxing employers for a paid family and medical leave program. The mayor also opposed that law and has sparred with Silverman.

Bussey-Reeder said she entered the race in part because of the paid leave law and the 0.62 percent payroll tax it imposes on employers.

Raised in Columbia Heights, Bussey-Reeder spent much of her career as a local community organizer and opened the Cheers at the Big Chair restaurant on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in Southeast in 2015. She said the paid leave law might force the restaurant to shrink its staff.

Bussey-Reeder struggled to attract high-profile support and donors, forcing her to lend herself money to keep her campaign afloat, according to August campaign finance records.

The at-large race is shaping up as the most competitive of the District’s general election.

D.C. voters can select two candidates for at-large seats in November, only one of whom can be a Democrat under city law. In practice, many Democratic candidates re-register as independents.

The Democratic nominee is incumbent Anita Bonds. Silverman, Bussey-Reeder and university professor Rustin Lewis are the independent candidates, and a host of third-party candidates are also on the ballot.

Bowser has a mixed record with her council endorsements.

In 2015, LaRuby May and Brandon T. Todd won special elections with Bowser’s endorsements. The next year, Bowser allies Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7), Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-At Large) and May (D-Ward 8) lost their reelection bids, while Todd (D-Ward 4) held on by a surprisingly close margin. The mayor did not publicly weigh in on any of the primary challenges to lawmakers this year.

Paul Schwartzman contributed to this report.