But the special election is far from irrelevant.
The victor on June 16 will almost immediately assume office and get plunged into the District’s most consequential budget battle since 1996, when the city returned from the brink of disaster to fiscal solvency.
Ward 2 occupies a unique piece of D.C. real estate — it’s home to the National Mall, the White House, monuments, museums, most of downtown and some of the city’s oldest residential neighborhoods, and its special election comes with two key, and similarly unusual, distinctions.
First, Evans, who held the seat for nearly three decades before resigning in disgrace on Jan. 17, will not be on the ballot. He has, instead, opted to compete only in the June 2 primary. Second, unlike the party primary, the special election is open to any registered Ward 2 voter, regardless of party affiliation, which means that non-Democrats in Ward 2 can also have a chance to pick a winner.
Whoever wins is going to walk into a financial crisis that may be more dreadful than the one the city confronted in the ‘90s.
The Ward 2 victor must join 12 colleagues in figuring out how to reduce the shortfalls in this and next year’s budgets due to the impact of covid-19. In all, the mayor and the current council must find more than $1 billion in savings to balance those budgets.
Preserving core government functions such as protecting the health, well-being and safety of residents and businesses is an essential goal of the budget Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) will submit this month.
Maintaining sufficient resources to cover the public health response to covid-19, as well as looking out for residents and businesses hit hardest by the disease, will be declared musts in Bowser’s proposals.
But as Kathy Patterson, now D.C. auditor and a council member during the 1990s crisis, advised Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) and Council members in an April 27 letter, “avoiding RIFs, furloughs or layoffs” — another Bowser goal — “may not be possible given the financial challenges.”
That is a sobering assessment from one who has been there and done that. Patterson’s letter outlines the tough and painful actions that were forced upon her and her council colleagues in the financial crisis 25 years ago.
Personnel actions could not be taken off the table. Nor could spending on big-ticket items be ignored. Revenue raising measures, as well as spending priorities were critically examined. Drastic actions were taken.
As noted in a prior column on this issue, I, along with my Post Editorial Board colleagues, observed and offered commentary, often critical, during that agonizing stretch of D.C. history.
Are there inefficient and wasteful services that can be pared back, as some community advocates have charged? How much of the city’s 2019 surplus and rainy-day reserves should be applied to closing the budget gap? Should the requirement to replenish the reserved be changed? Are there corporate tax loopholes that warrant closing?
The Ward 2 special election winner will have to step up to those questions. And unlike the sitting council members, he or she will face the daunting challenge of getting up to speed on the city’s budget, spending obligations and revenue-raising capacity on the fly.
Seven candidates — six Democrats and one Republican — are on the ballot. Their names will also have appeared on the June 2 primary ballots, along with Evans’s.
But the immediate importance, though it comes second in the election cycle, is in the special election, and it warrants voters’ laserlike attention.
The field is replete with arresting candidates. They range from community war horses devoted to grass-roots issues, to advisory neighborhood commissioners, to a political newcomer with labor union and progressive-group endorsements, to a self-described “anti-Trump maverick Republican.”
Perhaps most striking is the array of prominent officials seeking to affect the outcome of the Ward 2 race.
Endorsements have been awarded by the likes of Mendelson; former Board of Education and four-term Republican at-large Council member Carol Schwartz; D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D); Congressman Joe Kennedy (D-Mass); Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn); D.C. Council member Elissa Silverman (I); and former U.S. surgeon general Vivek H. Murthy.
But it’s all up to Ward 2 voters. Their decision, not endorsements, will impact the rest of the city for years.