What I learned on the campaign trail

In the two months since finishing fifth in the District’s Democratic primary for mayor , I have spent a lot of time reflecting on my campaign. Though I have always worked hard, running for office was the hardest job I’ve ever undertaken. I came away humbled by the process and with a newfound respect for politicians.

And, yes, I would do it again.

In a five-month sprint that began Nov. 8, when I announced my candidacy at Ben’s Chili Bowl, I learned much about my beloved city and, as a nice bonus, had my faith in humanity restored. I met thousands of people, passed out literature and fliers at bus stops and grocery stores, attended dozens of forums, read little other than policy papers and visited dozens of schools, more than 20 churches, eight barbershops, four housing projects and countless house parties and fundraisers.

Here is some of what I learned:

Voters are much smarter than we are led to believe. They know what the problems are, and they want solutions.

I also learned that endorsements from people outside the city feel good and bring in money but don’t translate into votes. I learned that praising your opponent at a debate is a good idea and slamming the media is not. I learned that more than two shoes can drop. And I learned to not read the comments on an article written about me, to avoid watching television and to enjoy reading a budget.

I learned that people are hopeful. No matter where they fall on socioeconomic lines, they clutch at hope despite the endless letdowns and empty promises from their political leaders. This is particularly evident in poor neighborhoods where one would think that hope had long been extinguished. It turns out that hope does spring eternal.

People want to know that someone cares enough to listen. They want to believe again. I loved hearing their stories and was awed by the trust they afforded me. There are searing moments that I will carry with me forever: The woman standing in line for hours at a social services office on a cold December morning telling me about being laid off from her job and looking for help to pay her rent and feed her child. The man just released from prison trying to get work in construction so he could be self-sufficient; “can you help me?” he asked through teary eyes. The senior who showed me three unfilled prescriptions because she ran out of money before the end of the month.

And I learned a lot about racial dynamics. I don’t know about other cities, but in 2014 in the District, race matters a lot. No matter the issue, race is the variable lying beneath the surface. Confronting it is a necessary yet tricky dance that few politicians are willing to attempt. Rather than dealing with it head on, they substitute coded language.

Take, for instance, “gentrification,” a word fraught with racial undertones. For many whites, it means clean streets, greater police presence and cool coffee shops; for many blacks, it is code for displacement. This isn’t to say that black people don’t want clean streets and a more responsive police department. But, they wonder, does it have to come at the cost of cultural extinction?

To be sure, there are clear differences in how blacks and whites, old and new residents, people living east of the Anacostia and those living west of Rock Creek Park see the city and its future. Yet we have not taken the time to articulate an inclusive vision for the city — a way forward, if you will.

Meanwhile, the cranes keep on building while anxious residents feel the ground shift beneath them. We need to shift our gaze from those cranes and focus on the future of the city. We need to reinvest in public schools, define and act on our housing needs and make public transportation more affordable and accessible.

In short, we need to make sure, first and foremost, that longtime residents are not pushed out. They are this city’s most important asset, and they deserve to benefit from the economic boom we are experiencing. We cannot become the “one city” everyone aspires to unless we acknowledge and address this reality.

But when we do, we will become the world-class city that we can be.

The writer is owner of the Busboys and Poets and Eatonville restaurants.