Two aspiring politicians with strong ties to Washington's poorest ward are mounting challenges to D.C. Council members Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) and Anita Bonds (D-At Large), citing concerns about how economic changes in the city are impacting working-class residents.
Dionne Bussey-Reeder, 46, who opened Cheers at the Big Chair on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in Southeast in 2015, said she is running against Silverman because of the landmark paid family and medical leave program that Silverman co-sponsored.
The program, which levies a 0.62 percent payroll tax on employers to generate $250 million annually to fund the program, poses a threat to small businesses such as her own, Bussey-Reeder said. The council is considering amending the program, which is opposed by the District's business community and which Bussey-Reeder said could force her to shrink her eight-person staff.
"Paid family leave is progressive, and I think we should focus our attention on it, but I don't think it should be on the backs of small-business owners," said Bussey-Reeder, who will run as an independent next November. City law requires that two of the council's four at-large seats be reserved for non-majority party members.
Silverman, a progressive lawmaker who was elected in 2014, said she thinks the bill that was passed last year helps small businesses and benefits working families. The program, which is one of the most generous in the nation, guarantees eight weeks of paid leave to new parents, six weeks of paid time off to care for ailing relatives, and two weeks of personal sick time.
"In particular, it benefits our lowest-paid workers, who can't afford to take a day off to take care of themselves and their families," said Silverman, a former policy analyst and journalist. "We heard from small businesses that they want to provide this benefit but can't afford to do it out of pocket."
Bussey-Reeder grew up in Columbia Heights and returned to the District after graduating from West Virginia State University with a degree in political science. A resident of mostly gentrified Ward 1, she has spent most of her career in community organizing, including developing a program to prepare at-risk youth for college and spending a decade at the Far Southeast Family Strengthening Collaborative.
Although some worry that new development east of the Anacostia River — including a Starbucks and a Busboys and Poets — will displace longtime residents, Bussey-Reeder is excited about the changes.
"Business draws business," she said. "But as people bring businesses, it is their responsibility to hire in the community where they are located."
The city's rapid economic transition, now spreading east of the river to Wards 7 and 8, is also an important issue for Aaron Holmes, 34, who works at a communications firm and joins two other millennials in challenging Bonds in the June 19 Democratic primary.
"Gentrification is really the question, and jobs are the answer," said Holmes, a resident of Fairlawn. "We have to economically defend populations that we want to remain in the city."
Holmes, who unsuccessfully sought the Ward 8 council seat in 2016, said the city could begin to combat the displacement of longtime residents by focusing on providing entry-level jobs for residents instead of devoting resources to training programs that do not necessarily lead to jobs.
He said he has no specific criticism of Bonds, 72, who has served on the council since 2012 and chairs the D.C. Democratic Party.
"You don't run against a person," he said. "You run for office. This is a marketplace of ideas. I really do believe that there is an opportunity for us to make greater gains in the space of expanding opportunities. We can think bigger."
The other Democratic candidates are Marcus Goodwin, an acquisitions associate at a real estate development company, and Jeremiah Lowery, an organizer at the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.
Holmes, whose father was a D.C. police officer, founded a program in March called MyPD that brings D.C. police into public schools to speak with students and improve relationships between officers and community members. The program has connected more than 50 officers with 1,000 students and is continuing this school year, he said.
Strengthening traditional public schools is a priority for Holmes, who graduated from Oxon Hill High School in Prince George's County and studied at the University of Maryland but did not graduate.
"There are 24 charter schools in my neighborhood, and there is one grocery store," Holmes said. "I don't have a problem with educators being creative and innovative. But I do have a problem when education is the most profitable business in my neighborhood."