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Candidates short on details as DCDSC ponders appointment

Amid biting budget forecasts, endemic unemployment in struggling neighborhoods, bursting juvenile crime and many other burdens, DC will fill Kwame Brown's at-large seat as he becomes chair. It's a very important position, one of just 13 men and women who will steer a city of 600,000 through tough times.

Photo by samdupont on Flickr.

The city's Democratic clubhouse of about 80 people, the DC Democratic State Committee (DCDSC), is in charge of anointing this next at-large councilmember. They'll choose an appointee on January 6. You won't get a crack at voicing your preference for the seat until the citywide special election, open to candidates of any party stripe, on April 26.

For the most part, the candidates for the temporary appointment do not appear to know what they'll do in that seat, for this city, in these challenging days.

That's the cold but unavoidable summary of a recent evening spent with the leading candidates for the DCDSC appointment. Seven candidates presented themselves before the holiday break to a standing-room-only crowd of DCDSC members, guests from the public, and members of the media.

Bruce DePuyt of TBD valiantly attempted to tease out their views on grappling with endemic unemployment, education reform, juvenile crime, the threat of a meddlesome GOP House, the threat of a rattling piggy bank, and every other malady of governance known well to District residents.

With the exception of Sekou Biddle, a member of DC's Board of Education, the candidates presenting themselves simply stated their repeated beliefs that serious issue X or Y "should be looked at," "needed to be addressed," "must be discussed," and more.

I'm fairly certain that looking at tough issues, addressing tough issues, and discussing tough issues were the reasons Bruce DuPuyt and every other soul in the room gathered that evening. Exactly what the candidates thought should be done about any of the serious issues, however, remained a mystery by nightfall.

Most stunning is that these vague rhetorical outputs too often emitted from candidates Vincent Orange and Kelvin Robinson, a former member of Council, and a former Chief of Staff to Mayor Anthony Williams, respectively.

DC's record-setting HIV/AIDS infection rates? Not a word about the struggle to keep reforms moving forward at DC's long-troubled Office of HIV/AIDS Administration—a struggle literally of life or death for thousands of District residents, especially in the wake of the departure of the reformist Dr. Shannon Hader.

Affordable housing? Not a mention of a single policy idea or tool. Versions of "The Rent is Too Damn High" seemed to suffice, as opposed to, say, any mention of inclusionary zoning, defending percentages in new developments for affordable units, protecting displaced residents at locales such as Barry Farm, or perhaps beefing up DC's Office of the Tenant Advocate.

Juvenile crime? The candidates wish to break the news to you that it is occurring, and that troubled youth would probably benefit by way of some options in filling their recreational time. Congratulations to the candidates, however, for actually referencing an agency name in this instance: DC's Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services. Specifics, it seems, may wait.

Biddle provided the evening's only standout policy suggestion: that earmarks from members of Council should perhaps die, having too often wallowed in a lack of programmatic accountability. Biddle also stood out for articulating the cold truths of unemployment in the District: that job growth is actually not the most serious challenge, rather it is a question of hacking away at literacy and other achievement gaps in equipping more residents for steady employment.

Council business that is finished and done, such as the bag tax or street cars, provided light piñata fare for some. Meanwhile, legislative fantasy appears on the horizon for others, like a special tax for Members of Congress, shutting down the 14th Street Bridge until we achieve a commuter's tax, erecting a massive public hospital with God-knows-what funds that simply don't exist, and doing something or other about the prices of all those new condos around town.

Through the cold fog of all this, what emerges for now: Sekou Biddle holds the greatest promise, but must demonstrate policy grasp beyond his comfort zone of education. Kelvin Robinson and Vincent Orange manage to convey the impression they haven't previously wrestled with the city's challenges, policy solutions, or even agencies.

Former ANC1B Commissioner Stanley Mayes puts forward rhetoric equal in quality to that of Orange and Robinson (take from that what you may). Civic activist Calvin Gurley is able to chew the notional fat in a somewhat engrossing manner, and School Board member Dorothy Douglas brings a big heart and the homespun flavor. Saul Solorzano's candidacy only raises the question of DC's latino population deserving a stronger place in our fabric of governance.

The one selected by the DCDSC on January 6 will have a tremendous leg up on competitors for the citywide election in April. The tragedy and the promise of the District teeter on a fulcrum right now. The DCDSC's decision, and then yours in April, could scarcely be more important.

Joel Lawson, a public affairs and communications consultant, is a longtime civic activist residing near 14th Street. 


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Honestly, I cannot figure out why it's so urgent to fill an at-large seat before a special election can be held. The District's business can move forward with 12 *elected* members.

by Ward 1 Guy on Dec 29, 2010 2:41 pm • linkreport

I too attended the same session that Joel Lawson has written so well about. I found interesting is that the candidates refused to freeze DC employees salaries the way that President Obama has frozen federal employees. We have some serious budget issues ahead of us and everyone needs to make some sacrifices.

by DC John on Dec 29, 2010 4:02 pm • linkreport

Brilliant article Joel. Congrats.

by Bill on Dec 29, 2010 6:34 pm • linkreport

"The city's Democratic clubhouse of about 80 people, the DC Democratic State Committee (DCDSC), is in charge of anointing this next at-large councilmember."

Is this because the person vacating that seat was a Democrat?

Honestly, I cannot figure out why it's so urgent to fill an at-large seat before a special election can be held. The District's business can move forward with 12 *elected* members.

Which is the same reason why 1 person out of 13 for a few months won't amount to much of difference from either not filling the seat or doing a city wide vote to fill it earlier ... I really don't see an issue here. Besides, 500,000 voters can err just as badly as 80 ... Look at Fenty, didn't he have a sweeping majority the first time he ran? ... Before he moved us from being the city with the most reserves, to one on the verge of bankruptcy.

Joel, good writing ... but this is really a real non-issue.

by Lance on Dec 29, 2010 7:57 pm • linkreport

Well, there you have it DC. Your potential rulers are incompetent ignorant fools that did their party dues, climbed up the ranks and one of them will now be rewarded, and answer his/her appointment with the usual nepotism.

Ah, what can you expect from a city built in a swamp?

by Jasper on Dec 29, 2010 8:19 pm • linkreport

Juvenile crimes (measured by arrests) has actually decreased in this city year over year, though no one seems to want to admit it (likely because the media focuses reports "high profile" incidents and labels crime committed by someone aged 18-21 as "teen" crime because it gets more attention). Check out MPD's last weekly report, juvenile arrests are down 8.2% year over year while adult arrests are up 1%.

by FactChecker on Dec 29, 2010 8:52 pm • linkreport

The one selected by the DCDSC on January 6 will have a tremendous leg up on competitors for the citywide election in April.

I might concede that point to you. Unlike Fenty where we had four long years to figure him out, this appointed CM won't really have time to do good or bad. On the plus side though, it's likely that an already known quantity will be appointed to that position, so 3 months more or less shouldn't make much of a difference in what the voting public thinks of him or her. I guess the negative side would be keeping a newcomer from having an opportunity to get better known. But there are lots of other ways for people interested in being our leaders to get themselves know. There are a lot of things to rail about with how the District does its politics, and while this one falls in that camp in that it's another example of 'the good ole boys keeping it all in the club', in the long run it won't matter much. A bigger issue to attack would be 'why do we have primaries to begin with?' The fact that you need to belong to a club to get to vote in the real election is banana republic politics at its best. Like the ANC positions, maybe we should make it a requirement that the Council positions (and the mayor's position) be non-partisan. That would solve a lot of problems.

by Lance on Dec 29, 2010 11:07 pm • linkreport

I forgot to congratulate Joel on a nice post. After all, the point here is to call out the candidates on the fact that they have nothing specific to add to the debate. I've been to these candidate forums and been frustrated at how they become a contest to see who's best at delivering an applause line. Really sad.

by Ward 1 Guy on Dec 30, 2010 8:27 am • linkreport

We've got a pretty weak field when it comes to citywide candidates. The ones that should run don't or can't win. And the ones that do are usually hacks.

by Fritz on Dec 30, 2010 9:17 am • linkreport

DC John,

The Council and the outgoing Mayor have frozen DC government employee salaries and step-rate increases in the FY11 budget. I suspect this policy will continue in FY12, too. Not sure how this policy affects represented employees with collective bargaining agreements.

by DC government employee on Dec 30, 2010 9:55 am • linkreport

I'd like to see the new Mayor, Chairman and Council members all agree to cut their salaries by 25%. It's absolutely ridiculous how much money they make. And they should also cut their staff by 10%. The massive growth in the Council's own budget expenses over the past decade has been incredibly underreported.

by Fritz on Dec 30, 2010 10:18 am • linkreport

@ Fritz: We've got a pretty weak field when it comes to citywide candidates. The ones that should run don't or can't win. And the ones that do are usually hacks.


by Jasper on Dec 30, 2010 10:20 am • linkreport

@Fritz - I believe City Council members make approximately $125,000 - hardly a ridiculous amount. Not sure about the Mayor and Chairman, although the notion of Kwame Brown voluntarily cutting his salary is laughable - he needs all the extra income he can get.

by dcd on Dec 30, 2010 11:48 am • linkreport

Not one constructive comment so far. Really, this process is going to go forth whether or not you folks think it makes sense, so how about you save the crying about how we shouldn't have a primary, or that there is no need for an interim appointment. Get with the program people- it is what it is! This is in fact a major issue, and we need to get to the issue of choosing someone, even if that person is the lesser of evils, so-to-speak. The article was a good start and informative, but again the prior comments are mostly an exercise in rhetoric. I expected better from this site.

@ Jasper-
Wassup with the hateration?

by KevinM on Dec 30, 2010 3:16 pm • linkreport

@ KevinM: Get with the program people- it is what it is!

How can you howl about having no federal representation when your internal democracy is rather obscure?

Wassup with the hateration?

Exasperation. You've got 600.000 people in the District. How hard can it be to find a dozen or so competent folks to run the city? Seriously.

by Jasper on Dec 30, 2010 9:25 pm • linkreport

@ Jasper-
There are plenty of states and local jurisdictions with less than competent representatives. More dysfunctional people in office across our land than I could list here, and you know that, so save the rap. You haven't suggested that any of those jurisdictions are not worthy of representation. What gives?!? Seriously...

by KevinM on Dec 30, 2010 10:15 pm • linkreport

@dcd - If $125,000 for a part-time job that also allows Councilmembers to earn outside income isn't a "ridiculous amount", then the word ridiculous no longer has any meaning. What other state legislature pays its representatives that amount of money for a part-time job?

And it's absolutely pathetic that when these same Councilmembers are taking about belt-tightening, they're clearly not referring to their own belts. Nor when they talk about the need to share the sacrifices, are they including their own selves.

For those Councilmembers that want to hike taxes to pay for their bloated, bleeding heart agenda, why not donate a third of their salary back to the DC Treasury to pay for their much-beloved social safety net? Why is it that their only response is to stick their hands in everyone else's pockets to pay for their bad spending decisions?

As for Kwame, you're right. The guy's luxury car was taken by the repo man and he's counting down the hours until he gets to drive around in the city-owned Lincoln Navigator the Chairman can use. Which is a very environmentally-friendly and gas cost conscious move, by the way.

by Fritz on Dec 31, 2010 9:33 am • linkreport

@Fritz, I can't see how a job that requires you to be on duty 24/7 including attending every neighborhood's meeting (day night weekends), council meetings and committee meetings till the wee hours of the morning, can be considered part time. If you have facts to disprove, I for one would like to hear them.

by Lance on Dec 31, 2010 12:38 pm • linkreport

@Lance: David Catania serves as a general counsel to some tech company. Mary Cheh teaches courses at GW Law. Jack Evans has clients at Patton Boggs. Those are just 3 off the top of my head.

No doubt a few legislative Council meetings went until the crack of dawn; but that's a rarity. Mostly they go on for most of a day and that's it. It's also incredibly rare to have a many hours-long committee hearing. Sure, community meetings can be numerous and go on for hours, but those too aren't an everyday occurrance.

How about we require members to use time sheets, recording where they are at each minute of the day? That's the best way to see if they're earning their astonishing level of pay.

by Fritz on Dec 31, 2010 7:20 pm • linkreport

@Fritz, While their salaries are definitely above the mean, so are their duties and responsibilities. If they were CEOs which is somewhat what their jobs are analogous to, they'd be severely underpaid. If they were doctors or lawyers in this town, they'd again be very underpaid. We wonder why we're getting people in these positions (sometimes) who really aren't up to fixing our problems (or even understanding them), maybe it's because the job really doesn't pay much given the hours and the responsibilities. I'd be all for doubling or tripling the salaries since it would mean attracting the kind of talent we'd like to have in there. Now do we really need 12 councilmembers (I think that's the number?) that's a different story. You do have to wonder why we don't just have one councilmember per ward ... or less.

by Lance on Jan 1, 2011 9:07 am • linkreport

@ KevinM: More dysfunctional people in office across our land than I could list here, and you know that, so save the rap

True. The difference is that I do not have to live with the results of the incompetence of the Board of Butcreek County. I do have to live with the inconveniences of the incompetence of the DC Board.

So, no, I won't save the rap. Listen to yourself man. You're condoning the DC council.

by Jasper on Jan 1, 2011 10:33 pm • linkreport

I am not condoning anything, most especially not anything that the DC Council has done or is doing. However- the DC Council is what we have, and so while I am not here to praise them, I am also not here to berate them either.

by KevinM on Jan 3, 2011 6:33 am • linkreport

I'm usually not one to nitpick on things like someones salaries but I think our council pulling in 125K/per for what is technically a part time job (most of our council makes outside income) when say...the New York City Council salary is 112K/per, is pretty outstandingly insane.

Our population is 8% of what NYC's is. Our yearly budget is 5.5 billion versus the 63 billion budget for NYC.

Chicago City Council salary is $110K/per.

Obviously cutting their salaries isn't the cure all solution to our budget problems. It would barely be a decimal point, but it would buy them credibility considering these folks are so insistant on telling us how to run our own finances and a couple of them have an embarrasingly number of financial issues themselves.

by freely on Jan 3, 2011 8:54 am • linkreport

Councilmember jobs are part-time in name only.

I don't see what NY's population has to do with anything. Both NY and Chicago have a lot more council members/alderman than DC does.

I'm also pretty sure that the Council froze their automatic salary increases last time around. They're with you on the symbolic part of it.


Thanks for the constructive comments. You really advanced the discussion there.

by Alex B. on Jan 3, 2011 9:18 am • linkreport


I would have thought that a little "reading between the lines" would have answered your question. I will be more specific.

The responsiblities of being on the Council of NYC or Chicago are much greater than that of DC. NYC Has 51 Council members 4x's DC but they have 14x's the population and a yearly budget of nearly 12 x's DC's. The "per capita" responsibilities of Councilman in NYC or Chicago are much greater than one in DC and a comparison to NYC or Chicago is certainly relevant. If you can't see that than I can't help you.

And if the Council member job is full time, one would wonder how Catania has time to pull in another 120K a year as General Counsel for M.C. Dean. Or how does Jack Evans have time to pull in another 240K a year working for Patton Boggs?

by freely on Jan 3, 2011 9:56 am • linkreport


You're asserting that salary should only be based on the number of people per capita represented? Or based on the size of the overall budget?

Whether or not you think DC Council members are overpaid or not, I will submit that this is a very poor metric for their salaries.

I'm not sure what you mean by the fact that the 'per capita' responsibilities for a NY councilmember are greater - you mean that they represent more people? Of course, each member there is also just one out of 51, therefore each individual member has less power than one DC Councilmember.

The council job is full time. I don't know how else to say it. The fact that a few members draw outside salaries doesn't disprove that fact. Perhaps you should campaign on changing that law.

by Alex B. on Jan 3, 2011 10:10 am • linkreport

I am asserting that salary should be commensurate with responsibility.

Council Members in places like NYC are responsible for more people per ward/district, for controlling a larger budget, hence would assume to make more money. They don't in this case.

And "agreeing" to a council salary freeze for 3 years after raising it 31% in one go is hardly commendable.

You seem to maintain the Council job is full time but can't give any rationale, reason or explanation for the Council pulling in incomes (half of them do by the way) equal to or more than their city salary. Someone isn't getting their moneys worth. It is either the City taxpayer or the companies/instituitions they work for.

I will agree that the Council members schedule is unique. Late night council meetings, ward meetings etc, but there is no way any of them are putting in 40 hrs per wk (2080 per year) on the Council.

by freely on Jan 3, 2011 10:27 am • linkreport

@Freely: Chicago has 50 wards and about 2.8 million people, so each alderman or alderwoman (as they call them there; no seats are at-large) has about 56,000 constituents.

Each of DC's eight ward-based councilmembers has about 75,000 constituents; if we add the five at-large seats to the denominator, we get about 46,000 residents per councilmember.

Either way, it looks to me like the jobs _and_ the salaries are roughly comparable.

by davidj on Jan 3, 2011 10:36 am • linkreport

Also, it's important to note that the DC Council is both the city and state legislature. In other cities, some of the laws and budget decisions are handled by the state. A DC Councilmember does the job of the state legislator as well as that of the city councilmember.

by David Alpert on Jan 3, 2011 10:38 am • linkreport

Freely, I haven't defended the DC Council salaries one way or the other. I have, however, asserted two points:

1. The job is actually full time, no matter what the letter of the law says. They and their staff put in the time.

2. Your ideas of what a member's salary should be based on (# of people represented, % of city budget) are baseless. Compensation should be based on the total benefits (retirement, insurance, cost of living, etc) commensurate with the job's responsibilities.

I'm not sure why the full time bit is so hard to grasp. Ask yourself - why would a private employer find it useful to keep someone on staff who just so happens to be a DC Council member? Would they accept shorter hours to take advantage of this connection?

by Alex B. on Jan 3, 2011 10:50 am • linkreport

@Alex why would a private employer find it useful to keep someone on staff who just so happens to be a DC Council member? Would they accept shorter hours to take advantage of this connection?

You've hit the nail on the head. In the same way that company Boards are filled with all sorts of people who devote little to no time to them, the Councilmember's benefits to their 'other' employers are their connections and pivitol positions. For example, it's not surprising that some councilmembers earn far more in the way of their 'other' salaries than from their council salaries. I believe the feds prohibit such practices in their ethics codes. We really should too. I'd much rather pay more for a competent individual and know his single focus and driver is giving us a better city than paying less for a councilmember who by necessity must position him or herself to getting his real salary from a firm benefitting from his or her position on items he or she is voting on. It's 2011, this kind of thing isn't allowed anymore.

by Lance on Jan 5, 2011 2:42 pm • linkreport

Again, Lance, I make no comment on whether that's a good idea or not, I only bring it up to shoot down the notion that somehow those council members that do have other jobs aren't putting in the necessary time.

by Alex B. on Jan 5, 2011 2:44 pm • linkreport

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