Not so with covid-19. That came in fast and unforeseen, and already ranks as one of the most destructive events in District history.
Granted, the pressures on the nation’s capital are in play all over the country.
But unlike other state and local jurisdictions, and in contrast with previous challenges, today’s District government — unrepresented in the Senate and voteless in the House — might have to deal with much of the coronavirus aftermath on its own.
The problems are daunting.
District families and communities have been devastated. This crisis has wrecked the city’s economy. Hotels stand empty. Restaurants and bars are limited to pickup and delivery. Retail trade has ground to a halt. The economic pain ripples out through lost wages and business income, and millions in city tax revenue are out the window.
Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey S. DeWitt’s presentation on the re-estimate of revenues was grim. Current revenue estimates are off 7 percent, or $722 million, and are reduced by an estimated $723 million for next year. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) acknowledged that the revised budget she will present on May 12 must reflect the savings required by this sobering reality.
Enter the D.C. Council and this year’s elections.
The council, through consensus, has responded to the crisis with impact-softening measures: rent-hike freezes, mortgage deferrals, consumer protections, hospital funding, expanded unemployment benefits, restrictions on debt collectors and the like. These are necessary but temporary reactions to the public health emergency, and low-hanging fruit.
The hard part — dealing with the economic crisis — lies ahead.
Bowser framed the issue succinctly: “The need is going to outpace what we can do locally.”
That is the issue confronting the council, four of whose 13 seats will be contested in the June primary.
Four council incumbents — Robert White (D-At Large), Brandon Todd (D-Ward 4), Vincent Gray (D-Ward 7) and Trayon White (D-Ward 8) — have signaled their intent to hold on to their jobs. Robert White is uncontested. A fifth incumbent, David Grosso (I-At Large), is hanging it up, putting his seat up for grabs. So, too, is the Ward 2 seat once occupied by Jack Evans (D), who resigned before his colleagues could, with good reason, kick him off the council.
So far, more than a dozen candidates have signed up to fill the jobs, including Evans, who wants his back.
The question confronting the field, both incumbents and challengers, is the same: How would you address the city’s economic crisis?
Past elections have been waged over who could provide more — more new and affordable housing, more middle-class growth, more transportation options, more wage raises, more education resources, greater equity.
Incumbents like to point with pride at their accomplishments. Challengers view with alarm incumbents’ failures. Campaigns follow predictable patterns.
This time, candidates face a financially constrained budget climate and an electorate anxious to know how they will address the stark reality of a city in economic distress.
How will lawmakers come up with the money needed to continue basic services, fund education, set social and public-service priorities, and help restore the city’s depressed economic base?
Tazra Mitchell, the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute’s policy director, told the Washington Business Journal: “We can’t tax-cut our way out of this economic crisis, or take a cuts-only approach. . . . We have to put revenue raisers on the table.”
How will the candidates respond? What are the revenue raisers?
Unfortunately, just when voters need to hear where candidates stand, those candidates will be sitting at home, safely distanced from them.
No more door-knocking, meet-and-greets, candidate debates or handing out literature at grocery stores and subway stops.
Now it’s covid-style politics: virtual events and Internet hookups, along with traditional mailings and phone banking.
On top of that, because of covid-19, the D.C. Board of Elections is encouraging mail-in balloting instead of in-person voting. Just 20 voting centers will be open for early and Election Day voting in the June 2 primary and June 16 Ward 2 special election.
Along with everything else, the simple task of voting has become a serious challenge.
The District has reached its most critical period yet in home-rule history. How will current and prospective lawmakers convince voters that they are worthy of their support, and, more important, up to the challenge?
The answers are . . . ?
Read more from Colbert King’s archive.