White House domestic policy director Cecilia Muñoz jokes that she isn’t tempted to check her BlackBerry on her morning drive down 16th Street for this simple reason: She worries about taking out the president’s chief of staff or his labor secretary as they bike in from the same little corner of Maryland.
“I passed Denis one morning riding into work and I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I don’t want to be the person who wipes out Denis McDonough or Tom Perez,” Muñoz said. “I think about this every day, actually.”
Call them the Takoma Park
posse; small in number, huge in influence. Three of Obama’s top advisers — McDonough, Muñoz and Perez — are longtime members of the community, one of the most liberal and politically active in the nation, and maybe one of the best illustrations of the administration’s ideological moorings.
Nicknamed the “People’s Republic of Takoma,” the Maryland city has, by local statute, declared itself a nuclear-free zone. Some residents raise pigs and chickens in their back yards — even as others see a moral conundrum in slaughtering them. Noncitizens can vote in local elections if they have a green card.
If Glover Park represented the Clinton administration’s studied New Democrat cool and McLean, Va., symbolized the George W. Bush administration’s comfort with wealth and power, Takoma Park embodies the current White House’s ethos of political activism and social inclusivity. A community organizer would live here. It is enough to make right-wing conspiracy theorists cringe.
“Takoma Park reflects the America that I would like to see everywhere. There’s a lot of diversity, broadly defined,” Perez said in a phone interview, adding of his neighbors, “They believe we all succeed when we all succeed, but only when we all succeed.”
The city prides itself on being a bastion of multiculturalism and economic diversity; there are significant Latino and Ethiopian populations, along with rent control and a history of being a welcoming home for same-sex couples. The mayor is gay, the city has a corn silo to provide alternative heating fuel and the Takoma Wellness Center — just across the D.C.-Maryland line — is the District’s only medical marijuana dispensary north of downtown.
Going into next week’s midterm elections, it is clear that many Democrats think President Obama has not lived up to the expectations they had when he took office nearly six years ago. But when it comes to some of the men and women surrounding the president, many of them share the deeply progressive outlook — and ambitions — of their party’s base.
“It’s the bluest city in one of the bluest states in the country,” said Maryland state Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D), who represents the area. “People here are proud of our public servants and political activists.”
Raskin is married to Sarah Bloom Raskin, the Treasury deputy secretary. Other administration officials who come from Takoma Park include Roy Austin, who directs urban affairs for the White House Domestic Policy Council, and Jesse Lee, the White House director of progressive media.
Perhaps even more telling, the president’s former campaign manager and deputy chief of staff Jim Messina lived there from 2005 to 2010. By contrast, under Bill Clinton, just two top aides hailed from the neighborhood: then-EPA Administrator Carol Browner and deputy press secretary Barry Toiv.
Many D.C. area neighborhoods claim their share of the power players and the policy wonks that define official Washington; federal employees and Hill staff members are everywhere. But few communities have a political identity as strong as Takoma Park’s. While Obama has not said where he will live after he leaves the White House, he has chosen in the past to reside in similar neighborhoods in other major cities, including Chicago’s Hyde Park and Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
The elevation of this community of fewer than 18,000 residents to the highest echelons of government speaks to the influence of progressives in the administration — a bent that will become more pronounced during Obama’s final two years in office, even if Republicans make major gains in next week’s elections. But it also underscores how, for all of its radical leanings, the city has moved closer to the mainstream than one might think. Its residents are no longer fighting the power; they are the power.
A decade ago, Takoma Park’s downtown economic anchors included a yoga studio, a pet food store that sponsored animal rescues and a music store. Those businesses have survived, but that strip now has two coffee shops, three restaurants that serve alcohol and a hardware store. Where Murphy’s Auto Parts once stood is now the upscale restaurant Republic, which offers not just a duck confit Cubano sandwich but a “Fascist Killer” specialty cocktail that features Old Scout bourbon, Amaro Averna, basil and lemon peel.
Noted crime writer George Pelecanos wrote in an e-mail that the city had changed so much during the time he lived there, from 1984 to 1991, saying, “I moved over to Silver Spring Avenue because at the
time  it still retained the working class, drink-a-beer-while-you-work-on-your-car flavor of the area I grew up in.”
Some of the “fringe” ideas Takoma Park residents have championed for years are broadly held now, such as support for same-sex marriage and legalizing marijuana. “The rest of the country is moving in our direction in terms of cultural values, if not in political values,” said Bill Samuel, government affairs director of the AFL-CIO, who has lived in Takoma Park since 1981.
For decades, the community — which was founded as an affordable commuter town in the late 1800s and boasted a Socialist mayor in the early 1980s — was a mecca for artists, hippies and motorcycle riders. Montgomery County imposed restrictions on co-housing in 1987, setting in motion a shift from group houses to single-family dwellings.
“It’s my impression now, 27 years out, that it may have been a significant shift for the town from a town that folk revival of that era to a little bit more of a family-friendly environment,” said Dan Metcalf, a Realtor with the Finn Family Group of Long & Foster and a born-and-bred Takoma Park resident.
Still, it is a city that takes politics seriously. In a year in which many Democrats are unenthusiastic about voting, the lawns there are crammed full of campaign signs. Many residents are still upset that only 16 percent of the city’s registered voters — where Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 6 to 1 — cast ballots in the state’s June primary.
Although plenty of residents work on issues ranging from reproductive rights to immigration and the environment, labor may have the strongest hold on Takoma Park. Union stalwarts include Fred Feinstein, who served as general counsel for the National Labor Relations Board under Clinton; the AFL-CIO’s Samuel and its policy director, Damon Silvers; and the Service Employees International Union’s government affairs director, Peter Colavito.
Steve Rosenthal, a former political director of the AFL-CIO who moved to the city in the 1990s, said that when he and his wife were house hunting, “friends of ours from the labor movement said, ‘You have to look at Takoma Park.’ ”
Most residents — including Muñoz, who lives just across the line in Silver Spring but sent her daughters to school in Takoma Park and considers herself a member of the community — say they were drawn to the area because of its ethnic and economic mix, and its outlook. It is somewhat of a chicken-or-egg question: Washington’s progressives have settled there because the concepts of community and social tolerance are valued so highly, and living there has reinforced their beliefs and shaped their children’s worldview.
“We wanted to live in a neighborhood where we didn’t stand out as being terribly different,” said Muñoz, whose husband is Indian American. Her children and Perez’s attended the same Spanish-language-immersion elementary school in Takoma Park.
Heather Mizeur, a member of the Maryland House of Delegates, recalled that her being a lesbian did not cause a ripple when she ran for City Council in 2003. When a voter said that she was supporting the other candidate because he was Latino, Mizeur said her sexual orientation represented diversity as well.
“Oh, honey,” Mizeur recalled the voter saying. “This is Takoma Park. That doesn’t count as diversity anymore.”
Even the city’s most traditional activities have a twist. Its Fourth of July parade celebrated its 125th anniversary this year. While plenty of towns have parades, not many have not just a yoga studio float but a 9/11 Truth float, as Takoma Park does. During a raucous Halloween parade Saturday sponsored by the city’s recreation department, the winner of “most creative costume” in one of the youngest categories was a 4-year-old girl dressed as a forest fire.
Perez and McDonough have coached their children’s sports teams even while climbing Washington’s professional ladder, and Raskin said that is just par for the course for Takoma Park parents. “Not coaching is like not voting,” he said.
Serving in the White House, however, has cut down how much time Obama’s advisers spend in Takoma Park.
“The hard thing about this job is that you have much, much less time to live a life in a real community,” Muñoz said, adding that some of the people she runs into on the street are “frankly, beneficiaries of some of the policies that I work on. I watch people pay for their vegetables at the farmer’s market with food stamps. I have neighbors whose families are affected by the immigration policies that I work on.”
Some residents do corner Obama’s aides to discuss policy at times — Perez was buttonholed recently on the issue of raising the minimum wage — although Muñoz said that’s rare. “People are actually very respectful and nice, and are mostly glad to see that I’m not in the office.”
And at Saturday’s Halloween parade, several attendees said they had no idea White House officials were living in their midst.
“They’re not in my circle of friends, and I don’t know anything about it,” said William May, an engineer who has lived in Takoma Park since 1985. “I know where a couple of activists live.”