Several D.C. lawmakers are urging the University of the District of Columbia to revoke a speaking invitation to Joshua Lopez, a former city official who was involved in an anti-Semitism scandal last year.
Lopez, a UDC alumnus, political operative and ally to Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), is scheduled to speak Thursday morning at the school’s Founders’ Day event.
He was forced to resign from the D.C. public housing authority board after organizing a “unity rally” to defend D.C. Council member Trayon S. White Sr. (D-Ward 8). The rally included a Nation of Islam representative who blasted a Jewish lawmaker as a “fake Jew” while Lopez held the megaphone and later referred to Jews as “termites.”
Lopez nudged the man after his slur and asked him to stay positive, but did not take away the megaphone or immediately condemn the remarks. He later said he did not want to spark a confrontation.
Members of the council who also have sparred with Lopez during their campaigns called the event part of a broader pattern of divisive behavior and called for him to step down.
Now that the city’s lone public university is offering Lopez a platform in the spotlight, the reaction from people who demanded his resignation from the housing authority is split.
Council members Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), who was the target of vitriol at Lopez’s rally, and Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) called UDC President Ronald Mason Jr. this week to express their displeasure and followed up with a Wednesday morning letter asking the school to reconsider the choice.
“The Founders’ Day celebration honors leaders and community members who truly represent the best of UDC: a commitment to improving our city and our community. This is why we find it troubling for the university to choose someone who has a documented history of being divisive and disrespectful,” the lawmakers wrote.
John Gordon, a UDC spokesman, said university officials had wide-ranging discussions about the decision to invite Lopez and have no plans to disinvite him.
He declined to address the anti-Semitism complaints, but noted previous speakers at the university have included a convicted drug felon who became a creative writing professor after prison.
“We think there is a strong message that Josh can bring as a first-generation college graduate from the Latino community,” Gordon said.
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) also plans to reach out to Mason, according to a spokeswoman, and told the Washington City Paper he did not like the selection of Lopez.
Some religious leaders who demanded Lopez’s resignation say he deserves a chance to show he has learned from what happened.
“I see this speaking engagement as an opportunity to make further amends, and I trust he will do that,” said Terry Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations. “As a city and country we need to be building up together and not using language or actions to tear apart.”
Silverman said her concerns about Lopez go beyond the rally, citing what she called bullying in political campaigns and a habit of trying to pit minority communities against each other.
“Holding the microphone to hate speech is horrible, but in addition to that, Josh has a pattern of behavior that I think is really dangerous,” Silverman said.
Lopez volunteered for Dionne Reeder in her bid to unseat Silverman last year, a contentious battle that exposed ugly racial fault lines in the city. Among other things, he sent text messages asking White to get involved in the race, and questioning his manhood if he would not.
Cheh acknowledged it was unlikely UDC would change speakers with such short notice and that doing so may create another firestorm over campus free speech.
“But it seems to me that UDC does not have to be part of his ‘rehabilitation,’ that there are many other extraordinarily accomplished, better people who could have been the keynote speaker,” she said.
Lopez has built a relationship in recent months with Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Shalom synagogue in Northwest Washington, visiting the congregation and attending its events. Herzfeld, who criticized Lopez after the unity rally, said he believes the reconciliation efforts are real.
“If you don’t like Josh and if you don’t like his politics, that’s your right. Just leave anti-Semitism out of it,” Herzfeld said. “This is just about personal politics.”
Lopez did not immediately return a call and text message seeking comment.
In a Wednesday Facebook post, he said he was looking forward to speaking at UDC, where Herzfeld plans to introduce him with a prayer.
“UDC gave me a shot and for that I am eternally grateful,” Lopez wrote. “Now it’s time to pay it forward and give the next generation an opportunity to excel in their respective fields.”