Old alliances and special-interest politics frequently fuel election endorsements. Unions and political action committees typically are out to advance their interests, not necessarily those of the entire city. Consider, for example, that when the Hotel Association of Washington, D.C.’s PAC announced its support for candidates in the District’s April 1 Democratic primary, including incumbent D.C. Council member Anita Bonds (At Large), it asserted that the favored pols “value the policies that recognize our industry’s economic contributions, as well as support initiatives that bring additional travelers to Washington, D.C.”
Surely Bonds’s opponents — Nate Bennett-Fleming, Pedro Rubio and John F. Settles II— value the hospitality industry. They aren’t longtime political fixtures, however. That makes them a tad unpredictable. Special interests prefer predictability in their politicians.
I didn’t support Bonds when she used that post to finagle a temporary appointment to the council in 2012, filling the seat left vacant after Phil Mendelson (D) ascended to the chairmanship. She subsequently ran in last year’s special election, winning 18,027 votes out of 57,238 cast. A win next month would set her up for a four-year term.
Her critics have labeled her ineffective. Certainly during her 11-month tenure, she has sometimes seemed out of her depth, unable to fully grasp complex financial issues and the nuances of certain public policies while struggling with the details of her own legislative proposals.
Bonds strongly rejects that assessment: “I have done a good job, based on what citizens tell me.” She said she has “worked to reduce poverty, bring balance to neighborhoods and improve affordability of housing,” among other things.
It’s true she has introduced or co-introduced more than 70 measures, including the marijuana decriminalization bill, a proposal to bring tax relief for senior citizen homeowners and a program to stabilize rents in the city. Still, Bonds hasn’t distinguished herself.
“I do not chair a committee, so I don’t have a bully pulpit like some people,” she argued. Neither does David Grosso (I-At Large), but he has made a noticeable contribution, offering unique, sometimes controversial, policy ideas.
Bonds’s lack of gravitas has made her vulnerable. While Rubio, a federal contractor, didn’t respond to requests for an interview, Bonds’s other challengers have mounted aggressive campaigns, attempting to separate themselves from the current body politic while casting themselves as innovators.
“We need urgent leadership that can create a city that works for everyone,” said Bennett-Fleming. A Ward 8 resident, he asserted that many of the District’s outstanding economic and social issues “are in my back yard. But I am a coalition builder [and] can build a bridge across the city.”
In 2010, Bennett-Fleming ran for “shadow” U.S. representative, a largely ceremonial position whose occupant is charged with advocating statehood. He lost that contest but received impressive support citywide and demonstrated a substantial base in Wards 5, 7 and 8. In 2012, he ran unopposed for the same office, securing 43,000 votes.
Those numbers and his fresh thinking make him the incumbent’s greatest threat, which explains efforts to discredit him. Critics have made much of a DUI charge filed against Bennett-Fleming eight years ago, when he was 21. “I was an at-risk youth. I made some bad choices,” said Bennett-Fleming, adding that he has been up-front about the incident. “One mistake shouldn’t stop you from offering what you have to offer to your community.”
He has advocated creating business incubators and education cafes; converting the Office of Youth Programs to a full agency; investing in the arts economy; and conducting stronger oversight of executive-branch agencies. “I don’t see enough people bringing thoughtful focus on a lot of issues,” Bennett-Fleming said. “Residents are not getting the return on their investments.”
That last bit also is Settles’s view: “There are things the city should be doing that just are not being provided.” Officials need to be “more proactive — not reactive.”
A Ward 4 resident, Settles is a mortgage banker. In 2011, after struggling unsuccessfully through the Great Recession, his real estate business filed for bankruptcy. “I know what’s it’s like to be up, to be down and to have to build back up,” he said. After his mother had a stroke, Settles said he came to recognize the paucity of government resources available to seniors. With three children in D.C. public schools, including one in the fifth grade, he said he understands the middle-school dilemma faced by many D.C. parents. “There is no other candidate, no other person on the council, with the depth and breadth of experience on the key issues,” he asserted.
Settles has pushed for creation of a land bank, which would require the city to squirrel away property for future needs; development of more labor-intensive low-tech businesses to provide work for those with minimal education; and greater collaboration between charters and traditional public schools. “I have not been backed by the establishment,” Settles said. “I’m just a concerned citizen trying to use my experiences to help turn things around.”
So, here’s the question Democratic voters face: Which is better — stale status quo or slightly bruised new leadership?