Imagine a DC in which someone could run for mayor free of corporate influence. Before you laugh, think about how the political landscape will look if an At-Large candidate wins with a campaign funded 100% by individual donations.
We are at a crossroads in DC history. For the first time in sixty years, the black population is about to fall below 50%. The primacy of the affordable housing issue among the attendees of Mayor Gray’s One City Summit last year offered irrefutable evidence that the double-sided coin of displacement and gentrification is the number one concern in DC. Not surprisingly, corruption was found to be the second highest concern.
A mind-boggling six Walmart stores threaten to both culturally and economically homogenize some of the city’s predominantly black neighborhoods. Development around the new retail behemoths, if they go through, can be expected to raise property values in some of the lowest-income parts of the city. If the Council fails to pass the Large Retailer Accountability Act (LRAA) and obligate stores like Walmart to pay reasonable living wages, income in those areas will remain depressed while property values rise, leading to further displacement.
I read Colby King’s widely-circulated op-ed with some consternation. I felt awkward as a white person dropping a printout of it, with the headline “Race doesn’t belong in D.C. election” at the homes of African-American folks while canvassing for Elissa. Race does matter; in a society with vastly different levels of fortune and opportunity between races it should always be part of political conversation. It matters what effect each candidate will have on the racial makeup of our city – and to figure out what that will be takes a more nuanced approach than just looking at the color of their skin.
The LRAA bill to make Walmart pay a living wage never got a hearing under Council Chairman Kwame Brown, despite being proposed twice under his tenure. Under Phil Mendelson, this legislative hedge against displacement and for good jobs suddenly has a chance. The day Mendelson brought it to hearing, with strong support from At-Large Council Member Vincent Orange and over a hundred advocates, community members and workers, Elissa Silverman released a statement giving it her full support.
What about candidate Anita Bonds, corporate relations director at Fort Myer, which has companies building Walmarts in DC as some of its clients? Not so much. Bonds is the front-running African-American candidate in the race. She brought up the race conversation that had to happen, when she said in a Kojo Nnamdi debate, “People want to have their leadership reflect who they are. The majority of the District of Columbia is African-American… there is a natural tendency to want your own.”
I was surprised at how scandalized a lot of white people were at the truth in there. Of course we have an affinity to want leadership that reflects who we are. Most white people tend to vote as white as black people vote black (Obama being the grand exception). Elissa Silverman is Jewish; I’m Jewish. Many of the people I know who volunteer for her are Jewish. I can’t tell a population that comes from a very different background and history than me how to vote. But I also firmly believe in choosing based on the fundamental qualities of a candidate: who’s paying, what skills does she have, what has she done for the city, what promises she’s made.
What didn’t get as much airtime in Nnamdi’s debate was his own take: “Why do you think it’s important for there to be a majority of black people on the Council? I tell you why I ask the question – it’s because of the assumption that if a member of the Council happens to be black, that member will be an advocate for poor people. I don’t happen to agree with that.”
I agreed with Bonds when she said, “the council should be representative of the people who live in the District of Columbia.” But it’s hard for me to imagine her representing the people as well as she would represent the company. She has not said she’ll step down from her position at Fort Myer, one of the largest construction companies in the region, which has gotten hundreds of millions of dollars in DC contracts over the last six years. An Anita Bonds victory would seem to be a coup for a company with a well-documented history of political manipulation and fraud.
A Washington City Paper article from 2011, “Paver Power,” enumerates some of the allegations against Fort Myer over the past decade: “knowingly and fraudulently” using another construction company as a shell company to qualify for federally funded contracts; having company employees bribe DC officials and over-billing the city for three years (for which Fort Myer signed a plea deal and paid almost a million dollars to the U.S. Attorney’s office), and being “part of a vast bid-rigging scheme involving a complicit District government.”
“Close doesn’t even begin to describe the nature and extent of” the relationship between DC Council and Fort Myer, The Washington Post editorial board wrote in 2003. Getting one of its own executives elected to the council would be enormous for fraudulent Fort Myer – it would no longer have to break so many laws to wield power in the Wilson Building. This recent report by the Sunlight Foundation shows Bonds having the most corporate donations in this race – largely from construction companies, which push for gentrifying development – and the least campaign finance transparency. Notice that Elissa Silverman is the only candidate with a campaign fully sponsored by individual donations.
If it wasn’t enough for Anita Bonds to have her feet in multiple parts of the revolving door, her regard for democratic processes is further demonstrated by having been put in office not by the voters but by the DC Democratic State Committee. Chaired by Bonds since 2006, the DCDSC is a group of 87 members that last year decided to stop putting its members up for election at the ballot box, so is now full of people elected in 2008 whose terms should have ended or gone up for re-election in 2012. Those are the people who put Council Member Bonds into office and gave her the name recognition, fundraising power, endorsements and general campaign machine inherent in incumbency.
(I’m picking on Bonds because she’s the perceived frontrunner, because race has to be part of the conversation, and because she exemplifies the entrenched, cronyist party institutionalism that Elissa is running against.)
Other candidates in the race have things to offer, but none, other than Redd, have shown Elissa’s dedication to honesty in campaign financing or to important workers’ rights issues like paid sick days for restaurant workers, living wages at Walmart, or a higher minimum wage (Silverman and Bonds both said they would raise the DC minimum wage to $12.50 – Mara said he would keep it at $8.25. Redd, $14; Zukerberg and Frumin, $11.75.). At the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, Silverman did budget analysis and analysis of workforce development programs. Her experience covering DC Council for over a decade at The Washington Post and the Washington City Paper prepares her well for one of the Council’s biggest duties – questioning, examining and overseeing city agencies.
Matthew Frumin has an apparently solid liberal platform, and he would make a fine Ward 3 council member for his upper Northwest community. But he doesn’t stand out as a real change maker, and his focus on education will have little impact with the Council’s Committee on Education already full. Perry Redd has played an important role in the conversation by consistently speaking for black Washingtonians, workers and the disadvantaged, but he hasn’t had enough funding or ground game to make himself a viable winner. Similarly, Paul Zukerberg has moved the conversation on incarceration and marijuana decriminalization lightyears ahead of where it was before; while he’ll help get a win on that someday, he won’t be winning the election this year. Pat Mara, who said at a recent forum that workers don’t need legal protections like paid sick days because they can work that out with their bosses, is soon to be irrelevant.
DC Council corruption – legal and illegal – is endemic. Rare candidates like Elissa Silverman are part of the solution. A win by her will show other candidates, black and white, that they can win without the influence of landed wealth and conflicts of interest, and end the reign of governance by wealthy interests that are displacing people of color and increasingly stratifying society.
Remember that this special election is only happening because of corruption. Why would we choose anyone but an honest, citizen-funded candidate? In the era of Citizens United, with increasing corporate interference in our government bodies, voters must make winners of candidates like Elissa – white or black.