Four years later, he’s still very much a community activist.
With his district in Southeast Washington home to the most covid-19 victims in the city, White is out in the streets daily, wearing a mask, delivering supplies and breaking up groups who are not socially distanced.
The 36-year-old lawmaker live-streams mundane parts of his day — from visits to community parties to budget oversight hearings — on his popular social media channels. In addition to the usual council member visits to crime scenes to denounce violence, White is also unafraid to confront police directly, his mobile phone recording the interaction.
In some ways, White is still running as an outsider in Tuesday’s Democratic primary, which in an overwhelmingly Democratic ward will likely determine whether he wins a second term.
White faces three challengers: Congress Heights neighborhood commissioner Mike Austin; White’s former campaign manager, Stuart Anderson; and civil rights attorney Yaida Ford. Republican Nate Derenge is unopposed in the GOP nominating contest.
White’s opponents say he has failed to use his city hall powers to deliver for the most marginalized part of the city, focusing on populist outreach at the expense of drafting and passing bills and revising the budget. White, who was a former school board member and nonprofit founder before his election, says legislation and activism are both essential parts of the job.
“I have to be a legislator and an activist for those struggling with education disparities, poverty mindsets, housing insecurities, extreme health challenges, and for some, hopelessness,” White said in a text message interview.
“I often meet people at their worst, so I learned at the end of the day, I’m a servant and I have to feel the people’s pain and figure out how to help them.”
Ward 8 has lagged during the District’s two-decade surge of development and population growth. It has few of the sit-down restaurants or other amenities that have sprouted west of the Anacostia River but some of the highest violence and concentrations of poverty.
Former D.C. mayor Marion S. Barry Jr. ended his political career representing Ward 8 on the council, serving until his death in 2014. Austin, who is seen as White’s most formidable opponent, says the incumbent lacks the gravitas at the Wilson Building to champion Ward 8 like Barry did.
“It’s frustrating to see Ward 8 residents get complacent with activism, turkeys and backpacks, and they really want a legislator,” said Austin, a 32-year-old former executive for the safety-net hospital United Medical Center who worked on legislative issues for White’s predecessor, LaRuby May, and in the administration of D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D).
“When people think of what made Marion Barry great, he was an activist, but he also was a skilled negotiator able to strike a deal,” Austin said.
White, then a school board representative, lost to May in the squeaker 2015 special election to succeed Barry. He unseated her handily the next year, despite her financial edge and support from Bowser, with his campaign fueled by a strong showing of support among the disenchanted young people and older voters who saw him as a younger version of Barry.
The devoted following helped protect White when he sparked global outrage in 2018 after suggesting the Rothschilds — a prominent Jewish family — control the weather and federal government. That controversy has not resurfaced in White’s reelection race, which has instead focused on the material needs of Ward 8 residents.
Political operatives have generally seen White as heavily favored, but the coronavirus pandemic has unleashed uncertainty in the election cycle. Voter turnout has been plunging in Ward 8, and just 3,500 voters have requested absentee ballots in what is supposed to be primarily a mail-in election.
That compares to more than 14,000 voters requesting absentee ballots in both wards 3 and 6, despite there being no competitive council race on the ballot. Ward 8 has three in-person polling places, at Anacostia High School, Malcolm X Opportunity Center and Barry Farm Recreation Center. They are open 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Monday and 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Tuesday.
White’s reelection pitch is simple: He understands the ward and its residents best, and has cultivated the experience to continue serving them.
“I learned that I can have the greatest ideas in the world, but my job is to get six others to see my vision and support it,” said White, referring to the votes necessary to pass a bill on the 13-member council.
During his first term, Ward 8 celebrated the opening of a Wizards practice facility and entertainment venue, its first sit-down Starbucks and its first development deal funded by tax increment financing to bring affordable housing, office space and a hotel to Anacostia.
In recent weeks, Bowser announced a deal for a new hospital in Ward 8 to replace United Medical Center.
Anderson, who managed White’s 2016 campaign, says the incumbent failed to fulfill other promises, such as new grocery stores in a ward with only one supermarket. He contends White does not have the types of relationships with local civic leaders and D.C. political players to bring meaningful change.
“The residents of Ward 8 are fed up with subpar leadership, and this is why we’ve been on this downward trajectory in terms of voter apathy,” said Anderson, a 60-year-old activist who has championed formerly incarcerated people and is involved with a coalition promoting an excise tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.
Ford, an attorney who worked as a staffer for the D.C. Council before running for office, is also stressing the importance of working from within the system in her challenge to White.
“What Ward 8 needs is a policymaker and a guardian of the interests, and you can’t necessarily do that just from being an activist,” said Ford, who is in her late 30s. “I’m a civil rights attorney, so I would never frown upon activists. But the approach needs to be balanced. Deals are being made, and you need to be at the table as a council member.”
White has drawn support from left-leaning activist groups, but his record on their priorities is mixed.
He has been a reliable vote on expanding social services and championed such policies as outlawing driver’s license suspensions for unpaid tickets and programs. But he also voted against other liberal priorities, such as lowering the voting age to 16 and guaranteeing tipped workers a full minimum wage in addition to gratuities.
Council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), one of the most liberal members of the council, endorsed White’s reelection bid. She says it’s challenging for White to be on the vanguard of policy when his office is consumed by tending to constituents facing violence and poverty.
“The day-to-day needs of his community are so immense it’s hard to think systemically,” Silverman said. “He is constantly pushing us on equity on addressing poverty and the real threat to the daily lives of Ward 8 residents around gun violence. In his second term, he will be more skilled at moving legislation and putting resources into addressing this on a more systemic level.”