On a recent afternoon, almost a year after launching her long-shot campaign for the D.C. Council, Dionne Reeder found herself in a downtown restaurant facing a flurry of questions from the District’s most powerful Democrat.
As she outlined her plan, Reeder recalled later, the mayor appeared to like what she heard.
“’I want to endorse you,’” Bowser told her, according to Reeder, a blessing that suddenly catapulted the little-known political novice to new prominence and gave hope to a campaign that had less than $5,000 in the bank in August.
“Thank you, God! You do love me!” Reeder said of her change in fortune.
Bowser’s endorsement is the first time in memory that a D.C. mayor has sought to oust an incumbent council member. It is a public display of political muscle that no predecessor — not even Marion S. Barry — ever dared, and it has injected a dose of drama into an otherwise sleepy local election cycle in which Bowser faces only nominal opposition.
At the same time, the mayor has imbued Silverman with new stature as her primary adversary on the council.
“’We’ve got to get her out of there,’” Bowser told a political donor who spoke on the condition of anonymity to recount a private discussion.
Silverman (I) responded to Bowser’s endorsement of Reeder by releasing an internal poll that showed her with a 17-point lead, a margin that she cited as evidence that voters want a lawmaker “who’s not a rubber stamp for the mayor.”
The enmity between Bowser and Silverman has simmered through policy debates and the council member’s aggressive oversight of mayoral agencies. But it boiled over last spring during a dispute over the mayor’s response to a racially charged rally hosted by Joshua Lopez, a Bowser campaign consultant and appointee.
With Lopez standing alongside, a Nation of Islam representative called Silverman “a fake Jew.”
At a heated private meeting at the mayor’s home, Silverman later recounted, Bowser rejected the council member’s demand that she strip Lopez of his seat on the Housing Authority board.
Lopez subsequently apologized for the incident and resigned from the board. But now he is campaigning for Reeder and publicly deriding Silverman as “condescending and disrespectful” toward “people of color.” Reeder is African American; Silverman is white.
“Elissa can return home to Baltimore and do great things there,” Lopez wrote in a Facebook post last month, a reference to Silverman growing up in Maryland before moving to the District in the 1990s.
In another post promoting Reeder, he wrote, “Say no to the outsiders who work against us and seek to divide us.”
Reached on his cellphone, Lopez declined to talk to a reporter and then hung up.
Reeder, who is gay, touts herself as a lifelong Washingtonian who has worked as a community organizer and co-owns an Anacostia restaurant. In addition to Bowser, prominent figures in the city’s African American community such as Cora Masters Barry and former mayoral candidate Marie Johns have trumpeted Reeder’s candidacy.
Reeder also has supporters who have been at the center of scandals and controversies, figures such as the Rev. Willie Wilson, an ally of Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan who has a history of making anti-gay remarks.
Among her volunteer canvassers is Ted Loza, who, as an aide to the late council member Jim Graham, pleaded guilty to accepting bribes in 2011. Reeder’s team has paid $2,500 for consulting services from former Council member Harry “Tommy” Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5), who pleaded guilty in 2012 to misappropriating $300,000 in city grants.
Reeder, in an interview, said that she and Loza are old friends and that she is “very fond” of Thomas, who has helped her in Ward 5. Although she describes herself as a “bridge-builder” who wants to end “divisiveness,” Reeder said Lopez’s criticism of Silverman “doesn’t bother me at all. He’s stating his opinion about a person.”
As for Wilson’s support, a Reeder spokeswoman, Raymone Bain, said the minister’s endorsement signals he “is not anti-gay rights.”
Silverman, 45, a former Washington Post reporter and analyst at the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, noted in an interview that when she ran for the council in 2014 her supporters included Barry, the former mayor and iconic figure in the black community, who was then representing Ward 8. She also said that she has long advocated on behalf of black residents, including most recently when she opposed the repeal of Initiative 77, a measure that was overwhelmingly supported in Ward 8.
“It is disgusting what they’re trying to do,” Silverman said, her voice tinged with exasperation, referring to Bowser, Reeder and Lopez. “This is just divisive and hurtful. We need to close the achievement gap and the opportunity gap. Instead they’re trying to kick me off the council.”
Bowser, through a spokesperson, declined to discuss the race, which also includes incumbent council member Anita Bonds (D), David Schwartzman (Green Party), Ralph Chittams (R) and independent Rustin Lewis. Two seats are on the ballot but one is reserved for a candidate who is not a member of the majority party — in this case, that’s the Democratic Party.
Another candidate, S. Kathryn Allen, a business owner backed by former mayor Anthony Williams and former council member David Catania, was kicked off the ballot last month after it was determined that her qualifying petitions included fraudulent signatures. Before Allen dropped out, Bowser had quietly encouraged allies to support her.
Bill Lightfoot, Bowser’s campaign chairman, said the mayor’s opposition to Silverman is grounded in legislation she co-wrote to grant paid family leave to private sector workers, an initiative that has been endorsed by progressive groups across the country.
The council passed the bill despite robust opposition from the mayor and business leaders who complained it would levy a new tax and mainly benefit Maryland and Virginia residents who commute to work in the city.
“This dispute is about policy,” Lightfoot said. “Elissa promotes a national agenda.”
Bowser herself has tapped into local issues that carry national weight, tweeting her opposition to President Trump’s immigration policies and mocking the president after he withdrew plans for a military parade on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Reeder cited the family leave bill to accuse Silverman of casting the business community as “the enemy of the city.” At the same time, Reeder said she thinks private employers should be required to provide family leave to their workers, as long as they are District residents. Asked how she would revise Silverman’s legislation, Reeder said, “We’re working on that. I don’t want to speak out of turn.”
Silverman said she’s not anti-business and pointed to support she has received from groups such as the Apartment and Office Building Association. She also said that the family leave legislation can actually help businesses “keep talented workers in the workplace. It prevents turnover.”
With more than $1 million in her campaign account and the city’s economy prospering, Bowser’s political strength allows her the luxury of choosing sides in a council race without potentially alienating voters.
Since her endorsement of Reeder, the mayor has attended at least two fundraisers on her behalf, one of which cost as much as $1,000 to attend. A fuller picture of the mayor’s impact on Reeder’s campaign will be available Oct. 10 when the next round of campaign finance reports are released.
When he was mayor, Barry preferred to assist candidates quietly, fearful that he would appear diminished if he endorsed a loser. In Bowser’s case, though, “there’s a lot more upside potential than downside” because she’s running unopposed, said Ron Lester, a pollster who advised Barry. “There’s a lot of goodwill toward her in D.C. She might increase her own support in the business community.”
Julius Hobson, a former Barry adviser who recently gave Silverman’s campaign $100, said Bowser’s endorsement of Reeder, if successful, sends a message that “I got a lot of political clout, I took this person out.”
But she’s taking a risk, he said.
“If it doesn’t work, it’s a disaster,” Hobson said. “Then the council can thumb their noses.”
Reeder said the prospect of running for office was suggested two years ago by friends, one of whom was Jauhar Abraham, a community organizer who has criticized Bowser for neglecting the city’s poorest wards. Abraham invited Reeder to join him as a partner at Cheers, the Anacostia restaurant, thinking she could help herself politically by raising her profile as a business owner.
Since then, though, Abraham and Reeder have had a rift, and he is no longer supporting her. “We don’t stand for the same stuff,” he said. Reeder confirmed the breach, though she declined to elaborate.
The split occurred after Abraham last spring publicly criticized Bowser, whose support Reeder hoped to win. In a Facebook video, Abraham mocked Bowser for favoring developers, saying she was “sitting around with all these white dudes popping champagne.”
By then, Reeder also had sought backing from former mayor Williams, for whom she had worked as a community liaison. But Williams, along with Catania, decided to co-chair Allen’s campaign.
Then, in early September, Allen was knocked off the ballot.
Several days later, Reeder ran into the mayor at a downtown hotel.
Bowser hugged her.
“Can we talk today?” the mayor asked, kicking off a new, if improbable, political alliance.
An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect figure for the lead in an internal poll released by Elissa Silverman. The poll shows her with a 17-point lead, not a 30-point one. The story also gave an incorrect name for the Apartment and Office Building Association. And the story incorrectly said Lopez hung up on a reporter seeking comment; he first said he had no comment and then hung up. This story has been updated.