Groundbreaking initiatives like decriminalizing sex work, overhauling the police department or lowering the voting age to 16 could advance or be blocked, depending on who fills the open at-large seat.
And with the rest of the panel expected to remain split 6 to 6 between Black and White lawmakers, the new at-large representative will probably determine whether the legislature for an increasingly White city remains majority White, reverts to majority Black — or includes a Latino member for the first time.
A total of 23 candidates are running for two at-large council seats, with mailed voting and ballot dropboxes already available and early in-person voting beginning Oct. 27. Incumbent Robert C. White Jr. (D) is heavily favored to win a second term, probably leaving the remaining 22 hopefuls to fight for the seat being vacated by David Grosso, a liberal independent. Because only one candidate can run as the Democratic nominee, most of the contenders are former Democrats who dropped their party affiliations to run as independents.
Like White, Democratic incumbents are also expected to prevail in ward-level races — including Brooke Pinto (Ward 2), Vincent C. Gray (Ward 7) and Trayon White Sr. (Ward 8). Democratic nominee Janeese Lewis George, who upset incumbent Brandon T. Todd in the Ward 4 primary in June, is also heavily favored — leaving the open at-large seat as the most competitive contest.
The candidates to fill that seat differ over how much to support the pro-development, fiscally centrist agenda of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who has clashed with the council over police changes and tax increases.
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), who has said voters should be wary of the council moving too far to the left, called the election a choice between “whether the council is going to be more tax and spend or whether it’s going to try to be more responsible.”
Council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), on the other hand, warned against elevation of any of the business-friendly candidates, saying their ascension would mean “seeing big developers and entrenched interests have another voice at the Wilson Building.”
Perusing the field
The independent candidates with the highest profiles, most key endorsements and campaign cash are:
● Former council member Vincent B. Orange Sr., 63, who is trying to mount a political comeback, selling himself as an experienced, fiscally conservative choice who can be a check on more liberal members.
● Longtime budget advocate Ed Lazere, 56, who has a democratic socialist platform and strong support from labor unions and the city’s most left-leaning advocacy groups.
● Christina Henderson, a 34-year-old former aide to Grosso, who has his endorsement and is pitching herself as the middle-ground candidate — generally liberal, but preferring an incremental approach.
● Developer Marcus Goodwin, 31, who is running on a business-friendly platform similar to Orange’s, but as a fresher face without the ethics baggage that led to the former lawmaker’s downfall.
Public campaign financing and eased ballot access requirements made it easier for a host of other candidates to get on the ballot.
Markus Batchelor, vice president of the D.C. State Board of Education, and nonprofit executive Jeanné Lewis are running on leftist platforms. But unlike Lazere, who is White, they are Black candidates hailing from underserved communities east of the Anacostia River. Will Merrifield, a former housing attorney, is running to the left of Lazere on housing and development, calling for the District to stop selling public land to private developers and to build publicly owned affordable housing.
In a more fiscally conservative lane, Chander Jayaraman and Alex Padro are highlighting their work on hyperlocal issues as neighborhood commissioners, while former council staffer and senior agency administrator Eric Rogers touts his inside knowledge of government.
Mónica Palacio, the former director of the D.C. Department of Human Rights, and Franklin Garcia, the city’s elected shadow representative, are running as middle-ground candidates, like Henderson. They note that they, like Padro, would be the first Latinos elected to the council.
Republican Marya Pickering, Statehood Green Party nominee Ann Wilcox and Libertarian Joseph Bishop-Henchman are also running, along with a string of lower-profile independent candidates with few appearances and endorsements: Claudia Barragan, Mario Cristaldo, Calvin Gurley, Kathy Henderson (who is unrelated to Christina Henderson), A’Shia Howard, Michangelo Scruggs and Keith Silver.
The election is seen as a barometer for the city electorate ahead of the 2022 mayoral contest, in which Bowser must decide whether to seek a third term and several left-leaning candidates are contemplating bids.
It comes as the coronavirus pandemic threatens to unravel the District’s economic comeback and exacerbate its deep racial wealth disparities. The council is likely to clash with Bowser in coming months over when to end moratoriums on evictions and utility shut-offs and whether to increase relief funding and shelve ideas such as $100 monthly transit subsidies and a soda tax.
Neither Bowser nor Mendelson has endorsed an at-large candidate. But in an interview, the council chairman criticized Lazere, who challenged him in the 2018 Democratic primary, as someone who would promote “some of these controversial issues like decriminalizing sex work, raising taxes dramatically and radically expanding rent control.”
Council member Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1) says a Lazere victory would make it easier for the left wing of the council “to win victories on things like raising revenue, on ending homelessness, on reforming police.”
Council member Anita Bonds (D-At Large), who frequently allies with Bowser and Mendelson, said voters should “strive as much as possible for a balanced body.”
“If we tip too much to the conservative side or quote-unquote progressive side, then I think we got a problem,” Bonds said. “If you are on the progressive side, you tend to push very hard to spend every penny.”
Straddling the center
No candidate has been as critical of the current council as Orange, who represented Ward 5 on the panel between 1999 and 2007 and held an at-large seat from 2011 to 2016. He has repeatedly blasted a new paid-leave law that taxes employers to fund time off for D.C. workers caring for ill relatives, new children and themselves.
“I’m seeing a far-left council willing to pay for paid leave benefits for nonresidents but won’t push an agenda to provide laptops and free Internet for our young people,” he said.
Orange says boosting schools and the economy are his top priorities. He backs subsidies to bring professional football back to the District — citing his experience championing public funding for Nationals Park, which ultimately turned a profit for the city.
His critics say his time has come and gone, noting that this is his 12th run for office and that several lawmakers demanded his resignation in 2016, when he tried to lead the D.C. Chamber of Commerce while still on the council.
None of Orange’s former council colleagues is backing him. Some gravitated toward Goodwin, including former council members Frank Smith (D-Ward 1) and Charlene Drew-Jarvis (D-Ward 4), as well as Gray, a former mayor. Donors and supporters of Bowser who back Goodwin include her longtime political adviser Bill Lightfoot.
Goodwin emphasizes homeownership to close the racial wealth gap, pledging to champion greater spending on down-payment assistance and help women and people of color launch businesses to expand the tax base. He said he would bring an understanding of “basic economics” to the council, as well as an important racial perspective as the son of a Senegalese immigrant and a Black American who moved to Washington to attend Howard University.
“I don’t just read and study racial inequality, I have lived it,” Goodwin said. “Black people want more investments in their communities, especially economic opportunity expanded, as opposed to simply social services.”
Goodwin has been attacked by Lazere supporters for his work as a developer and his decision to eschew public financing and accept contributions from business interests. He counters that his experience makes him better equipped to make sure land deals help surrounding communities and says public dollars should not be used on campaigns.
Racial undertones in the campaign have bubbled to the surface in recent days. The youth environmental group Sunrise Movement D.C., which endorsed Lazere, protested outside Bonds’s home on Oct. 8, citing her support for Goodwin. (Bonds has also said she supports Orange and Christina Henderson.)
Goodwin then called on Lazere to denounce his backers for “terrorizing” a Black woman. On Wednesday, a group of Black protesters demonstrated outside Lazere’s home to demand he condemn Sunrise; Goodwin’s campaign said it was not involved with that effort, and Lazere said he will not tell activists how to protest.
Leftist activists and organizations have coalesced around Lazere, hoping to solidify a strong majority willing to tax the wealthy and spend reserves.
The self-described democratic socialist left his job as co-founder of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute to run for the council. His platform includes a permanent ban on evictions and utility shut-offs for anyone who lost work during the pandemic and significantly shrinking the size of the police department.
Lazere says D.C. officials have been too captive to a fiscally conservative framework imposed by Congress years ago, when the city teetered on bankruptcy.
“If you are keeping money in your reserves because you are worried about Wall Street rather than D.C. residents, that’s thinking the wrong way,” he said. “We should create a vision of the world where we take care of each other and make sure basic needs aren’t a luxury.”
Henderson would not go as far as Lazere in defunding police or challenging the mayor’s control of D.C. Public Schools. But she shares some of his priorities, such as expanding rent control and raising taxes on the wealthy.
Henderson, who has a toddler, lists creating an affordable child-care system as her top priority and says her plan for doing so reflects her approach to lawmaking.
In 2018, the council passed — but did not fully fund — a law to eventually cap early-childhood education costs at 10 percent of income. Henderson says the city must focus first on beefing up the industry workforce so there are enough caregivers to meet demand. She wants the city government to subsidize pay for child-care workers and help them cover the costs of becoming credentialed.
“Sometimes progress has to be incremental,” said Henderson, a former staffer for Grosso who is on leave from her job at the office of Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). “If there are not the votes to do the full shebang, how can we find a way to progress in this moment so we can make the lives of those we are trying to impact here better?”
Criticism of Henderson has been relatively muted: Lazere says he’s offering a bolder vision, while Orange says his legislative experience is superior to hers.
The crowded contest has laid bare the transformation of city politics in recent years, a steady shift to the left that means positions once considered radical are now mainstream.
In debates, candidates were asked whether they would back a measure — fiercely opposed by police and prosecutors — that would allow inmates who committed violent crimes before age 25 to seek early release after serving 15 years of their sentences.
Not a single candidate offered outright opposition to the proposal, which is awaiting a council vote.