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Politics


DC's staggered elections give a random half of politicians an edge for higher office. That's a problem.

The system of elections in the District of Columbia gives a big advantage to councilmembers who represent half of the wards over those elected from the other half. This discourages good councilmembers from running for mayor or council chair.


Staggered lane number image from Shutterstock.

Half the council seats, for wards 1, 3, 5, and 6 and two of the at-large seats, come up for election in the same years as the mayor and council chair (such as this year). The other half, wards 2, 4, 7, and 8 and the other two at-large seats, run in the even-numbered years in between (such as 2012 and 2016).

This means councilmembers holding one of the mayoral/chair election cycle seats must choose between running for re-election or trying for higher office. Meanwhile, their counterparts in the other half of the seats can avoid taking risks and run for chair or mayor without giving up their seats.

Since half of all councilmembers must vacate their seats to run for mayor or council chair, the mayoral system dissuades some of the city's most experienced and productive leaders from running for DC's top government posts. The data show that this is indeed happening.

Since DC home rule was enacted in 1973, those in off-mayoral/chair seats have run for council chair 4 times and for mayor 17 times. Conversely, those in mayoral/chair election cycle seats have run for council chair 3 times and for mayor 6 times (and 4 of which were incumbent council chairs).

If this continues then one can expect more candidatesand more mayorsfrom Wards 2, 4, 7 and 8, thus giving an undue advantage to councilmembers and their constituents from those wards. Indeed, all three DC mayors elected with prior council experience (four if you count Marion Barry twice) came from one of those wards, and only Arrington Dixon and Linda Cropp have ascended from off-cycle seats to chair. Even Cropp is a particular exception as she won during a special election, and thus her council seat wasn't at risk.

What can be done?

DC could extend council seats to 6-year terms and have councilmembers alternate running between mayoral and non-mayoral elections. Or, there could be separate primaries for chair and mayor, similar to what we do for presidential elections.

Even better, we can follow the federal model and let people stand for two offices at once, as Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan did during the 2012 election while running for vice president. Or, perhaps DC rearranges the election calendar so all council seats come up for election in council-only elections, while the chair and mayor have their own elections.

DC should explore all options to ensure its election calendar and political circumstance doesn't discourage quality candidates. The current system is unfair to half the city. Of all places, the nation's capital needs a system that encourages its political talent to seek higher office and is fair to all its voters.

Politics


DC Council race reviews: At-large and chairman

To choose our endorsements, we polled our active regular contributors and editors to hear their views. Sometimes, as with Ward 1 (Brianne Nadeau), Ward 5 (Kenyan McDuffie), and Ward 6 (Charles Allen), the consensus was clear. For other races, such as DC Council at large and chairman, our contributors were clearly divided or conflicted.


Split pea photo from Shutterstock.

For these races, therefore, we are not making an explicit endorsement. But many of you are not just looking for us to give you a name; you want information to help you make up your minds.

Therefore, here are a selection of comments that various contributors and editors made in the endorsement poll, to illuminate the various reasons to vote for or against various candidates.

At-large Councilmember

Contributors were unified in agreeing that Anita Bonds is not a good councilmember. She has had virtually no accomplishments in her year on the council, continues to pose a significant potential for ethical conflicts of interest as a paid employee of a construction contractor which does work for the DC government. See correction below.

However, they were just about evenly split on the question of who is the best alternative.


John Settles, Nate Bennett-Fleming. Images from the candidate websites.

Contributors largely split into two rough camps. Some have been engaged in progressive organizations and causes, know Nate Bennett-Fleming from them, and supported him. Many of those also participated in the endorsement processes of organizations like DC for Democracy, Jews United for Justice Action Fund, and the DC Sierra Club which have endorsed him.

Others formed their opinions based on public statements specifically around Greater Greater Washington topics at candidate events or on our video interviews; those contributors largely preferred John Settles and said Bennett-Fleming seemed to lack real ideas on topics like housing and transit.

One could interpret this two ways. It could be that Settles is the best candidate, and Bennett-Fleming simply has built up more personal relationships with some contributors. On the other hand, it could also mean that those who know Bennett-Fleming well see beyond simply some weaknesses in talking about issues and know his deeper strengths.

Here is what contributors said for John Settles:

"My impression is that [Settles] has the best ideas on how to help solve the affordable housing issues. I think if that were the sole criteria, he would easily get the nod. I also think he would be aligned with smart growth principles like the zoning rewrite, although his standard response is that he's in favor of anything that will help with getting more affordable housing."

"I have met Settles many times and I like his openness to new ideas. He listens and has a good sense for smart policy."

"I was impressed with him in the last go round (during Let's Choose DC). He also had the most nuanced and complete answer in the video series."

Here are some of the contributor comments in favor of Bennett-Fleming:
"Nate is sometimes green, but he's a strong progressive voice and I believe he would be a quick study on the council."

"Nate has shown follow-through in his role as shadow-rep, and I think he can take it to the next levelnot without some expected hiccupsas an at-large CM."

"Nate is young, smart and energetic and full of good policy ideas. He is a committed progressive focused on making DC a better place to live and work, mainly through proper public investments, and through higher wages, better labor laws, and more job training. He would work to combat poverty from multiple fronts and make living in the city more affordable, and he has good ideas on education such as smaller class sizes and investing in the arts."

What about strategy? Does one have the edge? Unfortunately, nobody seems to yet have polled this race. If one of the two turns out to be well ahead of the other, that could be a good reason to strategically choose that candidate.

For what it's worth (and money is far from everything), the DC campaign filings came out today. Settles raised $20,000 this period for a total of $48,000 in the race. Bennett-Fleming raised $5,800 to bring his total to almost $32,000. And Bonds brought in about $17,000 bringing her total to $61,000.

Pedro Rubio also impressed some contributors with his thoughts on the issues in our video series, but he seems to have garnered far less support (and cash, raising $7,500 for a cumulative total of about $10,000). Still, we hope he will stay involved in citywide local issues besides through electoral politics.

Chairman of the Council


Phil Mendelson. Photo by mar is sea Y on Flickr.
The question here is not really between two candidates. Incumbent chairman Phil Mendelson is the one for whom almost all contributors and editors, at least those who filled out the survey, will be voting. However, many are doing so with some definite reservations.

One wrote, "I'll be voting for Phil, but in general, I find him lackluster and a bit too reserved/conservative." On the other hand, another said, "Mendelson has been a solid chair. He has managed the Council effectively and gotten through some important pieces of legislation. He is a strong voice on environmental issues."

Several voted to make no endorsement (which was one of the options in our poll), with statements like these:

"Phil Mendelson, while being a reliable vote on a lot of progressive social issues, is actually quite conservative on issues related to smart growth."

"I have strong views against Phil for his continued actions in support of NIMBY causes; witness the continued and unnecessary hearings with OP and his appalling actions on opposing changes to the Height Act on the grounds the council and the citizens could not be trusted to make their own decisions. ... His scaling back of the medical marijuana initiative to make it extremely tough for those who need it to get it is shameful."

This is perhaps the most even-handed summary:
"Phil Mendelson has been skeptical of the zoning rewrite, streetcars, and more. But at the end of the day he has helped to push things forward despite a diverse and fractious Council. He takes a patient, measured approach to issues which has been helpful for DC."
Meanwhile, Calvin Gurley has waged numerous campaigns but none seem to have been very serious or built up any significant support.

So why not endorse Mendelson? We feel that any endorsement needs to factor in a balance of how good a candidate is on Greater Greater Washington's issues, how contributors might feel about the candidate based on other issues as well, and the likelihood a vote will ultimately sway the race.

Given that Mendelson is not seriously facing a challenge, it seems unreasonable this year to give him an endorsement simply on the basis of other issues and competence when he has only posed obstacles on the issues we follow most closely. His ability to do so is also greater this year since he gained oversight over planning in 2013.

Correction: The original version of this article said that Anita Bonds was still employed by Ft. Myer Construction, where she was working before being appointed and then elected to a seat on the council. According to Bonds, she stepped down from her position at Ft. Myer after being elected to the council.

Her LinkedIn page still lists Ft. Myer as a current job, but her spokesperson David Meadows says that has not been updated. The DC Board of Ethics and Government Accountability says that all councilmembers are required to file a form listing outside income, but because Bonds was not a public official for 30 days in 2012 (she was appointed as an interim member in early December), she does not have to file that form until May 15, 2014.

Bonds also said that the reason her campaign never responded to our requests to include her in the video interview series was because a lot of messages that went to the contact person listed on their filing with the Board of Elections never reached them. She said that they didn't receive a number of organizations' issue questionnaires for the same reason.

Politics


For DC Council in Ward 6: Charles Allen

DC's Ward 6 has had excellent leadership for the past 7 years, not just from its councilmember, Tommy Wells, but also Charles Allen, Wells' chief of staff, who would make an excellent councilmember for the ward in his own right. We urge DC Democrats to choose Allen in the primary on April 1 and in early voting starting March 17.


Photo by Tommy Wells on Flickr.

Allen worked tirelessly with community groups to build consensus on controversial development projects. He stood up with Hill East residents frus­trated at the slow pace of progress on devel­oping the adjacent city-owned land. He helped H Street businesses adapt to streetscape construction and prepare for the streetcar. He pushed the city to formulate better visions for M Street SE/SW and NoMA and the ballpark district.

In many ways, he already has been doing the job of Ward 6 councilmember.

Anyone who has worked on local issues in the ward has worked with Charles Allen already. In taking the survey of contributors which we use to determine endorsements, one contributor wrote, "Charles is brilliant and will be a worthy successor to Tommy Wells." Another said, "Charles knows Ward 6 inside and out, and has proven himself to be an effective leader, both as Wells' chief-of-staff, and with the Ward 6 [Democrats]."

Another wrote, "Charles has the experience and knowledge required to be a fantastic Councilmember. He's a passionate supporter of smart growth, streetcars, livable streets, and more." Charles Allen is not simply the better of two alternatives; he is a very strong candidate and a good choice for Ward 6, which includes Capitol Hill, Southwest Waterfront, Near Southeast, H Street, NoMA, Mount Vernon Square/Triangle, and since the 2012 redistricting, also Shaw.

Charles' opponent, Darrel Thompson, seems to have a great heart and a likeable personality, but little to no experience with local issues. He has spent recent years doing good work in the Capitol and on the national stage, but as those of us who live and breathe local matters know, there is a huge gulf between Capitol Hill, the federal enclave, and Capitol Hill, the neighborhood. Pushing for national health care and mortgage relief and other issues nationally does not inherently make one qualified in local policy.

A candidate coming in as a blank slate on local issues often lacks a grounding in key issues to navigate the inherent conflicts. If he were in the legislature of a sharply divided partisan state, Democrats would know where Thompson stood on the most divisive issues. But while the DC Council has important and controversial issues, they are not the same ones as in Congress, nor do all Democrats think alike.

Instead, Thompson seems to have picked up a few of the worst complaints from irate citizens, like those who implacably fought development at the Hine school or those who never wanted a streetcar. On other issues, Thompson seems to have simply copied Allen's platform, talking about family affordable housing and middle schools almost identically to Allen. Residents have often seen Allen first talk about an issue, and then Thompson do the same a few weeks later.

DC would be greatly enriched if Darrel Thompson chose to lend his experience and talent to local matters by being involved with an Advisory Neighborhood Commission, neighborhood group, or advocacy on a specific issue. We hope he will get involved for the long run, and maybe he would make a great at-large member, or better yet, delegate to Congress one day in the future, once he has been able to form his own clear views on many topics.

For now, Thompson claims he's running because we need "new leadership." If he lived in one of a number of other wards, that would be an attractive slogan. In Ward 6, it is not. The leadership the ward has is some of the best. We know what Charles Allen believes and will do. He has done it, and has done well for Ward 6.

We shouldn't assume that staffers for elected officials necessarily deserve to step into the top role. Charles Allen does, not because he worked for Tommy Wells, but because of what he has done for Ward 6. We urge Democratic voters in Ward 6 to cast their votes for Charles Allen on April 1 or vote early beginning March 17.

For more information on Allen and Thompson, see our video interviews with the candidates on housing, transportation, and education.

This is the official endorsement of Greater Greater Washington. To determine endorsements, we invite regular contributors and editors to participate in a survey about their preferences and opinions about upcoming races. The editorial board then decides whether to make an endorsement based on the responses in the survey and whether there is a clear consensus.

Government


The DC Council tells Congress: "We don't want to make our own choices"

On Tuesday, the DC Council sent a message to Congress on the subject of self-determination. That message: "Congress, please don't give us more control over our city. We need you to tell us what's good for us. We don't want to make our own choices."


Photo by Nathan Jones on Flickr.

The issue was the 1910 Height of Buildings Act, which limits how high buildings can rise throughout the District. ... Most of the debate about the height limit has indeed revolved around whether one appreciates or reviles tall buildings. It would be understandable to think that DC leaders were debating this week whether to loosen the rules that made the city's skyline look the way it does.

They were not. The issue was not whether to increase building heights. It was whether DC residents and leaders should get a say on the issue.

Continue reading my latest op-ed in the Washington Post.

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