2018: The Year of the Incumbent

The District Beat


When the DC Board of Elections removed Independent S. Kathryn Allen from the ballot for the November General Election, it became apparent that incumbent At-large Council member Elissa Silverman likely would prevail against her remaining opponents. That projection means that in 2019 the new legislature will look like the old legislature.

Most political observers believe that the incumbents—Chairman Phil Mendelson, at-large member Anita Bonda, Ward 1, Brianne Nadeau, Ward 3’s Mary Cheh, Ward 5’s Kenyan McDuffie, and Silverman–will take all. The at-large race has been the most contested. With Allen blocked from the ballot, the fight is now between Silverman and small business owner Dionne Reeder, who has snagged Mayor Muriel Bowser’s nomination. That counts for very little, according to recent poll conducted by Public Policy Polling between Sept. 24 through 25 of 598 likely voters from all eight wards in the city underscore that prediction that incumbents.

In response to the question “if the vote were held today,” 37 percent of respondents said they would choose Democratic incumbent Anita Bonds while 24 percent said they likely would vote for Silverman. Only 7 percent said they would select Reeder. However, a full 27 percent said they would either vote for someone else or they are not sure.

To make herself a contender, Reeder would have to snatch all the voters who could be described as undecided. That is highly unlikely.

That’s good news for council members. In the past, Chairman Phil Mendelson, following his personal philosophy, has kept freshmen on the sidelines, refusing to assign them a committee chairmanship. However, in January, when the new session begins, there will be enough committees to accommodate every council member as a chair of a committee.

Further, it’s likely that the tension in the legislature between progressives and centrists will continue, as was present in the fight over Universal Paid Leave and the potential repeal of Initiative 77—a measure that was approved in the June primary by more than 50 percent of people who cast ballots in that contest. A majority of council members, including incumbents Mendelson, McDuffie and Bonds, support the repeal, asserting that many voters were genuinely confused about the proposal. It also means that certain segments of the business community will continue to be unhappy with what they claim has been an anti-business undercurrent of the council’s progressive agenda.

Some pundits and elected officials have argued that the return of incumbents translates into residents’ satisfaction or approval with the direction of the city. “Incumbents have been doing a pretty good job; they had done pretty good job of oversight,” said Bernard Demczuk, historian for Ben’s Chili Bowl and a professor at the University of the District of Columbia.

“We have more money than God,” said Jack Evans, Ward 2 representative and chairman of the Committee of Finance and Revenue; he was only half joking.

It’s true that on the surface things look sweet in DC. One indication the city is doing well is the recent Census Bureau report that the average household income in 2017 was $82,372. That is a 9.1 percent increase over 2016. Higher incomes mean more taxes for the local government and more money for politicians’ favored programs.

“For the most part, things are pretty good. People stop paying attention when everything is going well. It’s when we hit bad times that people start paying attention,” continued Evans.

“Were we not flush with money, we would be in a whole lot of hurt,” said government watchdog Dorothy Brizill.

There are significant problems with which the city is grappling that can be summed up in one word — “inequity.” There is inequity in the housing crisis, the public school’s achievement gap, and the rate of unemployment in certain communities. Many voters care about those issues, and apparently voted for change in the June primary. Nearly 37 percent of the people who cast ballots in the chairman’s race, didn’t vote for the incumbent. But for a crowded field, Nadeau would be packing her bags; she won only 48.28 percent of the vote; more people voted for her opponents than they did for her. Those results suggest a divided city where many residents are, in fact, dissatisfied.

“There is income disparity,” said Demczuk, noting that long time District residents who are from low-income communities, like those in Ward 8, did not turn out in large numbers in the June primary and are unlikely to do so in November. Nevertheless, he said the city must figure out how to ensure those people benefit from the prosperity it is experiencing. “The question is how do you keep people in the city who brought us to the dance?”

The wholesale return of incumbents is fairly new, said DC political operative Tom Lindenfeld. He cited as examples that Ward 1’s Jim Graham was defeated by Nadeau and at-large council member Vincent Orange succumbed to Robert White.

“In DC more incumbents have been defeated over time than in most big cities,” continued Lindenfeld “The fact that it didn’t happen this year says more about the strength of the incumbents and the weakness of the opposition.” added Lindenfeld.

Blame Stunted Political Growth?
Silverman and others partially blame the stunted political structure for the dominance of incumbents. They argue there essentially is no training camp, which results in many individuals entering the arena as candidates without sufficient skills to run a campaign or without general political maturity.

“DC needs to have a farm team. [Its] future hinges on developing the next cadre of leaders,” said Brizill, founder and director of DC Watch.

The lack of credible candidates is complicated by history, she continued, citing previous scandals involving several former council members. “People got weary then like they are getting weary now with the national politics. Some made a conscious decision not to go into that environment.”

The Public Policy Poll seem to underscore Brizill’s assertion, offering through the numbers a glimpse of voter apathy. Consider that only a few weeks from the November elections, only 5 percent of respondents identified their first-choice candidate: 1 percent said David Schwartzman of the Statehood Green Party and 4 percent pointed to Bonds.

When asked who their second choice would be, 51 percent chose someone else or weren’t yet sure for whom they would vote. Reeder was the choice of only 7 percent of the respondents while 13 percent chose Bonds and 14 percent said Silverman.

The absence of enthusiasm and the path for incumbents has been made smooth, said Silverman because “There isn’t much opportunity for somebody to be in local politics, “said Silverman, who lost her first bid for office in the 2012 special election for at-large council member. She ran again in 2014 and won.

“It’s not a mature political culture. There is sort of stunted growth,” continued Silverman. She cited as example the fact that in a place like Virginia, someone could run for the state House of Representatives, the state senate, and Congress.

As a result, said Silverman: “You have people who know how to do these things. In the District, everything is ad hoc. You also don’t have a [strong] party structure.”

Brizill said she is “hard-pressed to figure out what the hell the DC Democratic Committee does.” She said it could be providing training in various aspects of campaigning including how to identify key voters and areas similar to what is done by the national organization.

“Without a pipeline for elected office, it is really tough. It’s very hard to have experience in electioneering and governing,” said Mary Filardo, the executive director of the 21st Century School Fund who has been on the political and public policy scene for decades.

Filardo lamented the loss of an elected school board, which, in some respects, acted as a political training ground and pipeline. Consider the fact that Marion Barry was a member of the Board of Education before serving four terms as mayor. Hilda Mason was a school board member before being elected as an at-large member of the city council, as were Republican Carol Schwartz and Democrat Linda Cropp.

“Now, what are you going to go from? ANC?” Filardo asked facetiously.

To be fair, the District’s advisory neighborhood commissions, which are nonpartisan, have produced some citywide political leaders, noted Lindenfeld. Adrian M Fenty, was an advisory neighborhood commissioner before becoming a council member and later mayor. The current mayor, Muriel Bowser followed a similar course, although she had an assist from Fenty. However, said Lindenfeld: “It is very hard to cultivate a platform from which to launch a candidacy in DC. Unless you have a candidate who is flawed.”

Flawed and Fine, Maybe
Undoubtedly, the business community thought it had found that flawed pol in Silverman. While S. Kathryn Allen was supported by a team of individuals, including former mayor Anthony A. Williams and former at-large council member David Catania, who had experience with campaigning and governing, she was defeated before she really got started by her inability to gather the 3,000 signatures of valid DC voters to earn a place on the November ballot; she produced slightly over 2,400, clearing the road for Silverman.

In 2014, Silverman was an unknown commodity. Running in a field of 13 individuals seeking the seat set aside for a non-Democrat, she garnered 41,300 votes about 31.36 percent of the ballots cast. The next highest voter gatherer among her challengers was Robert White, who came back two years later to defeat sitting Democrat Vincent Orange. As a contrast, Democrat Anita Bonds received 85,575 votes in that general election contest.

“People have had four years to make judgments about me,” said Silverman during our interview, noting that the Federal City Council and Georgetown University’s Chris Murphy, former chief of staff for Vincent C. Gray when he was mayor, are a couple of people she may have riled.

While there may be the view that she doesn’t speak with business leaders and others, Silverman said she has compromised on legislative proposals, and she added, “I’m not afraid to engage with people.”

Nevertheless, she knows there are more than a few people unhappy with her public policy agenda. Those are the ones who worry that the progressives on the council may soon bankrupt the city with what they call extravagant spending. She said the idea of a progressive wing of the council and her being one of its ringleaders is “overblown. We’re in the mainstream of the Democratic Party.”

She cited as an example that the controversial paid leave bill, which has become her signature public policy achievement, has been approved in New Jersey, Rhode Island and Washington state. “[Governor] Ralph Northam is saying he might look at it for Virginia.”

The approval of paid family leave was one reason some members of the business community wanted to boot Silverman out of office. More than 50 percent of respondents of the Public Policy Poll said they were more likely to vote for Silverman because of her support for paid leave, which suggest that certain business leaders may be out of touch with many average Washingtonians. Some believe Silverman’s potential win potential win in November could further embolden her and her progressive colleagues, continuing what they call the war against business in the District.

However, Silverman seemed more focus on the bread and butter issues of every other incumbent: education, affordable housing and workforce development. “We need to be more strategic. We need to create a pipeline into our key industry sectors,” she said, citing hospitality, health care, government and IT among others. “The community college and adult high schools should focus on getting their students into those areas.”

She said during the next four years she will push the executive to use the District Opportunity to Purchase Act to respond to the housing crisis. “DOPA could be a game changer.” She also wants more focus on issues related to poverty. “If we have more money, than good. We should be using it to address poverty and all the obstacles stopping kids from achieving—kids who are not eating well, not sleeping well, who don’t have structure in their lives.

“I don’t pretend to know what it’s like going to elementary school and living in a family [affected by] poverty or in an environment with violence,” Silverman continued. “Equity is an issue. It’s not a rhetorical issue.”

As she often does, Silverman has arrived at a place of righteous indignation. The business community, some conservatives and centrist Democrats may not like what they hear, especially when it sounds like a cash register ringing. There likely are enough people in the District who like and support her progressive agenda, however; many of them will show up at the polls on Nov. 6 and vote for Silverman along with every other incumbent up for re-election.


jonetta rose barras is a freelance writer based in DC and host of The Barras report television show.