The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The man in the middle of D.C.’s ugliest political race

D.C. Council Member Trayon White Sr. (D- Ward 8). (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

D.C. Council member Trayon White Sr. is a man caught in the middle of what has turned into the District’s most contentious political fight of 2018.

On one side is Dionne Reeder, the independent at-large council candidate and White’s friend who supported his insurgent campaign to win the Ward 8 seat two years ago.

On the other side is Elissa Silverman (I), the incumbent whom Reeder is seeking to oust, who refrained from attacking White when he was accused of anti-Semitism in the spring and has supported his legislative initiatives.

White (D) has told both sides that he is remaining neutral in the race because he considers both to be friends. Yet with next Tuesday’s election looming, several of Reeder’s prominent allies have pressured him to endorse her, a group that includes the Rev. Willie Wilson, Cora Masters Barry and Joshua Lopez, a former appointee of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who is also backing the challenger.

For Reeder, an African American who lives in Columbia Heights and owns a restaurant in Ward 8, White’s endorsement would help turn out black voters east of the Anacostia River and perhaps neutralize Silverman’s expected strength in predominantly white precincts to the west.

But White, who did not respond to text messages seeking comment, also has an alliance with Silverman, who is white, and does not want to undermine her campaign, his friends say.

“It’s political wisdom for council member White to stand down,” said Stuart Anderson, White’s former campaign manager who also helped Reeder when she began running more than a year ago. “Elissa has been the most supportive of things that White has pushed on the table. When you don’t appear to have a lot of friends on the council, you don’t slap the gift horse in the mouth.”

‘A Band-Aid is off’: In a changing D.C., race infuses bitter council campaign

When early voting started, and turnout in Wards 7 and 8 was far below the wards across town, the pressure mounted on White to back Reeder. In a text exchange last Sunday, Lopez used an invective to question White’s manhood when he asked the council member whether he was planning to “stay silent” or urge his supporters to vote for Reeder.

White responded angrily, according to an image of the exchange shown to The Washington Post by a friend of the council member.

Another friend, Jauhar Abraham, in two videos posted on Facebook that had more than 1,500 views by week’s end, called Lopez a “clown” and a “punk” and excoriated him for sending a “disrespectful text to my council member.”

“You crossed the line and we are not going to be able to come back from the line you crossed,” said Abraham, a community organizer and Reeder’s onetime business partner who has said he is not supporting her.

Lopez did not respond to an email and several text messages seeking comment.

This year’s city election had been shaping up to be a sleepy affair: Bowser and the incumbent council members were facing only nominal opposition — until mid-September. That’s when Bowser endorsed Reeder and portrayed Silverman as an uncooperative progressive whose policy positions — her support for paid-family-leave legislation, in particular — damage the city.

There are two at-large council seats up for grabs Tuesday. But one — the seat Silverman occupies — is reserved for someone not in the majority party, in this case, the Democrats. The other seat is held by Anita Bonds (D), who is expected to win reelection. The rest of the field includes David Schwartzman (D.C. Statehood Green Party), Ralph Chittams (R) and Rustin Lewis (I).

With the mayor’s blessing, Reeder’s name recognition soared, and her campaign account, which contained $5,000 before the endorsement, bulged to more than $310,000, compared with Silverman’s $240,000. Most of that money came from Bowser’s donor network, which includes members of her administration, real estate developers, business executives and attorneys.

Once Reeder emerged as a potent challenger, supporters from both sides became enmeshed in a vituperative debate, with Reeder’s defenders portraying Silverman as an outsider and Silverman’s surrogates dismissing Reeder as a mayoral pawn.

At one point, the mayor jumped into a Facebook exchange that began when Bryan Weaver, a civic activist, predicted that “the fallout from the Bowser v Silverman proxy war will have larger long-term repercussions on DC — far beyond who wins the At-Large race.”

“My endorsement is not in any way a war,” the mayor wrote. “This is an election — a competition of ideas for the city and the independent, at-large Council member’s role in it. Incumbents can be challenged.”

Reeder promised a plan for paid family leave. Now she says wait till after election.

Michael Fauntroy, a Howard University political science professor and a longtime observer of D.C. politics, said the campaign seems more intense than past races, in part because of Bowser’s involvement, but also because social media has provided a convenient way for partisans to clash at all hours.

On a recent afternoon, he said, he saw something he has never seen in the District — a yard sign attacking a candidate, in this case Reeder, over her opposition to the paid-family-leave legislation co-authored by Silverman.

“The stakes are high because the city is in a precarious position right now, culturally and economically,” Fauntroy said. “In some corners of the city, there’s a view that black people are being pushed out, and that tension is not far from the surface. I think it’s alive in everything, including this race.”

Backlash to Silverman threatens to unseat her

Although the mayor endorsed Reeder, along with the editorial pages of The Washington Post and Northwest Current, Silverman is backed by labor unions, D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine and council members Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), David Grosso (I-At Large), and Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1).

Yet a majority of council members are remaining neutral, including White.

When she asked for his endorsement, Silverman said White told her he was friends with Reeder and would remain neutral.

As a restaurant owner in Ward 8 and a longtime organizer in southeast, Reeder has known White for years and supported his campaigns for school board and the council, according to mutual friends.

Silverman, too, has forged a friendship with White, backing several of his bills. She also sought to help him make amends last spring after he was portrayed as an anti-Semite for suggesting that the Rothschild banking family controls the weather and for using his constituent fund to subsidize a Chicago event for the Nation of Islam where founder Louis Farrakhan railed against Jews. Silverman and Nadeau are the only two Jewish members on the council — Nadeau called for White’s censure, Silverman did not.

Anti-Semitism controversy exposes fault lines — and leadership vacuum

China Dickerson, a senior strategist for Reeder, said when she asked White about endorsing Reeder in September, “He said, ‘China, of course I support Dionne.’ ” Dickerson hoped that would translate into an endorsement.

“I keep it moving,” said Dickerson, who hasn’t asked him again. “I’m not going to beg for someone’s endorsement.”

Lopez reached out to White weeks later, after early voting began. By Friday afternoon, turnout in Wards 7 and 8 — 4,667 — was about a quarter of 16,109 votes cast across the river in Wards 2 and 3.

Lopez is a vocal Reeder supporter. He was also Bowser’s appointee to the Housing Authority’s board when he hosted a unity rally outside city hall earlier this year during which a Nation of Islam representative called Silverman a “fake Jew.”

Anti-Semitic slurs erupt at unity rally

Silverman demanded that Bowser fire Lopez. The mayor declined, though she did ask him to apologize. Lopez then resigned from the board. As a Reeder booster, Lopez has criticized Silverman, suggesting on Facebook in September that she “return home” to Baltimore where she grew up.

Abraham, in an interview, said it was inappropriate for Lopez to pressure White, particularly in language that was offensive. “Where I’m from, it’s one of the worst forms of disrespect to talk to someone like that,” Abraham said.

As Ward 8’s representative, it could be politically risky for White to back Silverman, whose campaign is being opposed by some African American community leaders. But it could also be problematic to support Reeder because of her alliance with Bowser, who has been accused by some residents of neglecting neighborhoods east of the river as the rest of the city prospers.

Better for White to steer clear, said Anderson, his former campaign manager, particularly because of another possibility: Both Reeder and Silverman win.

“If that happens, he has two friends on the council,” Anderson said. “Each would appreciate that he didn’t choose the other.”