Once home to abolitionist Frederick Douglass, Anacostia is up in arms over the political candidacy of Smith, 24, a former sidekick to the extremist who rallied hundreds of white supremacists to march in Charlottesville in 2017.
Smith claims he’s a changed man. He says he moved to Anacostia last fall from North Carolina to live with a friend and access the District’s job market for emergency medical technicians; he is running for the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission to help his neighbors build businesses and avoid being priced out by gentrification.
“If I had a problem with Black people,” he said, “I would not have moved into Southeast D.C.”
Many of Smith’s interactions with voters have been positive, he said. But there has been some hostility, too, especially after attention in local news outlets and on social media about his ties to Jason Kessler, a lead organizer of the deadly Unite the Right rally in Virginia three years ago.
Smith publicly disavowed Kessler months before the August 2017 rally but has continued to run in far-right circles that overlap with extremists.
“Don’t believe everything you read in the newspaper,” Smith’s campaign manager fired back Friday at Battaglia, a health-care worker who was on a break from her job when she saw Smith campaigning on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE. “Don’t you know about fake news?”
Battaglia declined his invitation to speak to Smith. “His candidacy is appalling,” she said.
Smith is one of four candidates vying for an open seat on the ANC, a nonpartisan panel that usually weighs in on matters like building permits and liquor licenses.
His candidacy has injected more anxiety into a fraught election season, after a raw summer of racial justice protests and President Trump’s recent instruction to the Proud Boys extremist group to “stand back and stand by.” It has also prompted discussions about when — and whether — those who have flirted with white nationalism should be welcomed back to the civic arena.
“It’s important that we acknowledge that people can change and they do change,” said Peter Simi, a professor at Chapman University who has interviewed hundreds of people who have left white supremacy groups. “But on the flip side, we shouldn’t be naive and uncritical. We should be skeptical, at least in a healthy way, and people do need to put in work and establish their credibility.”
Activists in Ward 8 — the poorest, most heavily African American part of the city — fear Smith could win the race in a presidential year when many voters come to the polls knowing little about down-ballot candidates. They, and Smith’s opponents, have been sounding the alarm.
“This is the way white supremacists begin to infiltrate communities,” said Aiyi’nah Ford, 33, a youth nonprofit leader who is also seeking the ANC post. “Feeling that people of color who have served the community aren’t good enough and you can walk all over them with your access and your money: That is the narrative, and it has been horrifying.”
Smith was 20 when he met Kessler and contributed to a blog where Kessler had declared “the age of innocence is over for whites politically.” Kessler co-founded Unity & Security for America, the group that organized the Charlottesville rally to oppose the removal of a Confederate statue. The group is described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a nativist, white nationalist organization.
Smith, who is gay and has a Jewish father, says he rejects white identity politics and had grown uncomfortable with Kessler’s embrace of an ideology promoting a Whites-only state.
“What I am guilty of is misjudging somebody’s character,” Smith said in an interview. “But that is the extent of what I’m guilty of, and I’m not going to hide under a rock for the rest of my life.”
Outrage at Smith’s run has erupted on the Great Ward Eight Facebook page. Fred Hill, an independent candidate for a Ward 8 D.C. Council seat, announced earlier this month that he would no longer associate with Smith after a backlash to videos of the two campaigning together. April Goggans, a local Black Lives Matter organizer, urged voters not to buy Smith’s story of redemption.
“These are the people who are coming into our neighborhoods to bring that terror closer to us,” Goggans said on We Act Radio. “And it should be scary that he is knocking on your door.”
Some voters on Friday seemed willing to look past the controversy. Cece Smith, 34, bought the candidate a tall drip coffee from Starbucks after hearing his vows to help Anacostia.
Her eyes bulged when a reporter mentioned the backlash to Smith’s past white nationalist affiliations. “That doesn’t sound good to me,” she said.
Nevertheless, she took Smith’s number and shook his hand before he left. “Everyone needs a second chance,” she said.
Isaac Smith’s housemate, Suzzanne Monk, is a pro-Trump Facebook streamer who promotes the Proud Boys — an extremist group with a penchant for street violence that has welcomed Charlottesville marchers to its ranks. DCist first reported that connection.
Smith is also a proud Trump supporter who attended events promoting crowdsourced funding for a border wall — later exposed as a fraud — and a Walk Away campaign gala popular among die-hard fans of the president.
He says the Proud Boys have nothing to do with his campaign and also disputed the group’s white nationalist ties, citing a person of color in its leadership.
“Those who do not dissociate themselves completely are in danger of recidivism,” said Arie Kruglanski, a University of Maryland psychologist who researches deradicalization. “It’s clear he’s not exactly opposed to far-right extremism.”
In explaining his ANC candidacy, Smith cited an “immigration model” of assimilation that has been embraced by conservatives, which he says he has been “preaching ever since 2016.”
“When you move somewhere, you assimilate,” he told Monk in a Sept. 21 Facebook broadcast. “You become invested in your community.”
Black Republicans have aided Smith’s bid for office, including Roussan Etienne Jr., who ran for state Senate in Maryland and is managing Smith’s campaign, and Ralph Chittams, a former D.C. Council candidate.
On Friday, Smith walked down Anacostia’s main commercial strip with Etienne at his side, past a Black Lives Matter mural, a new condo building and a street vendor hawking soap and perfume.
Lisa Slyde, 46, and Tamika Knox, 37, cheered Smith on as he greeted them in front of the Big Chair historic landmark. They blasted the city’s political leadership and promised their vote. Then Robin McKinney, another ANC candidate canvassing on the block, crashed their conversation.
“I’m running against Isaac Smith, and I’m a native Washingtonian. I’ve been here my whole life,” McKinney said, without bringing up Smith’s history.
Slyde said later that she did not know about Smith’s past associations but was willing to forgive him. “I will back him due to the fact people can change,” she said, noting her own battle with addiction.
But her tune quickly changed when asked about Smith’s continuing support for President Trump. “If he’s supporting Trump, then he’s not for Ward 8,” she said. “You’ve got nothing but Black people in Ward 8.”