Imagine a D.C. 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 percent by individual donations.
We are at a crossroads in D.C. history. For the first time in 60 years, the black population is about to fall below 50 percent. The primacy of the affordable housing issue among the attendees of Mayor Gray's One City Summit last year (corruption was ranked the second highest concern) offered irrefutable evidence that the double-sided coin of displacement and gentrification is the number one concern in D.C.
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 D.C. 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 at some point, 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."
What didn't get as much airtime was Kojo Nnamdi's 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 was surprised at how scandalized a lot of white people were at Bonds' expression of popular sentiments in this city. I agree with her when she says, "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 one of the largest construction companies in the region, one that's gotten hundreds of millions of dollars in D.C. contracts over the last six years, and an Anita Bonds victory would seem to be a coup for a company with a well-documented history of political manipulation.
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 D.C. 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 allegedly 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 -- 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 one foot in two 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 D.C. Democratic State Committee. Chaired by Bonds, the DCDSC is a group of one hundred or so delegates that last year decided to stop putting its members up for election at the ballot box, and is now full of people elected in 2008 whose terms should have ended in 2012.
Other candidates in the race have things to offer, but none 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 and policy expertise on workforce development, which was her area of advocacy at the D.C. FIscal Policy Institute. Silverman's experience covering D.C. Council for over a decade at the most influential city papers prepares her well for one of the Council Members' 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 the most 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 barely worth mentioning.
D.C. Council corruption -- legal and illegal -- is endemic. Rare candidates like Elissa Silverman are the antidote. 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 facilitation of governance for the wealthy interests that are displacing people of color. Remember that this special election is only happening because of corruption. Why would we choose anyone but a transparent, 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.