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Politics


Will vote-splitting help Vincent Orange win again?

Vincent Orange has been a terrible at-large member of the DC Council. David Garber is running to unseat him in the coming Democratic primary, and now there are reports that Robert White will jump in as well. Can DC avoid the vote-splitting that has stymied reformers' past electoral efforts?


Photo by Sheila Sund on Flickr.

In his last primary in 2012, Orange faced a crowded field of challengers. In the end, Orange won the nomination with 42% of the vote. Sekou Biddle got 39%, Peter Shapiro 11%, and E. Gail Anderson Holness 8%.

Many voters, including a lot from the Greater Greater Washington community, were torn between Biddle and Shapiro, both of whom would have been good councilmembers in their own right, not to mention far better than Orange.

The same thing happened in the special election the previous year, when Orange got into office with 29% of the vote versus 25% for Patrick Mara, 20% for Sekou Biddle, and 13% for Bryan Weaver, all of whom, again, would have been good councilmembers.

What's so bad about Orange?

Vincent Orange made headlines in 2013 for intervening to stop public health officials from shutting down a wholesale food business with a rat infestation.

Orange was admonished by the then-new ethics board. He was the first public official to face sanction by the board, which was created after multiple councilmembers resigned for ethical issues spanning a spectrum up to outright corruption.

Orange has a poor record on housing and transportation as well. He rushed to propose a blanket moratorium on homeowners adding onto their homes or renting out parts of their houses in row house zones. His overly broad (and likely illegal) bill would have exacerbated DC's housing crunch and shut the doors to new residents.

When the council was hotly debating whether to tax out-of-state bonds, Orange agreed to support an amendment by Tommy Wells on the condition that Wells would agree to set aside $500,000 for an Emancipation Day parade at the Lincoln Theatre, whose board Orange serves on.


David Garber. Image from the candidate's website.

Will the field narrow before the primary?

At David Garber's campaign kickoff, supporters likened him to Brianne Nadeau, who took out long-serving Ward 1 member Jim Graham in part by focusing on Graham's scrapes with ethics issues.

Nadeau also had one more advantage: a clearer field. She was able to build up a strong enough campaign that others decided not to run as well.

That's now not going to be the case. Personally, I like both Garber and White and would love to see both on the council. But I worry that both will draw from overlapping, though not identical, bases of support, again threatening a vote split.


Robert White. Image from the candidate's Facebook page.

Absent technology to fuse the two into a super duper "Dobert Warber," either one of them would have to singlehandedly amass more votes than Orange, or convince the other to drop out of the race either early or late in the process. (Or the DC Council could institute instant runoff voting or some similar system, though that's very unlikely to happen in time, if at all.)

In places with real competition between two parties, primaries serve this role. There's a vote, and most of the time the loser of a primary goes and supports the winner in that same party. But everyone's a Democrat this time. In some places, like California, the primary is nonpartisan, and the top two winners go on to the general even if both are Democrats or Republicans. We don't have that either.

In a presidential primary, the series of state primaries and caucuses helps winnow the field by demonstrating which candidates have real electoral strength and which don't. DC also does not have any kind of rotating set of ward primaries.

What could narrow the field?

What to do? We need some sort of mechanism for fairly identifying one who has the better electoral strength, whether through polls or some other method. Both candidates should then take a pledge that whichever one wins this kind of pre-primary will go up against Orange one-on-one.

To get candidates to sign on, voters, volunteers, and donors also need to agree only to support a candidate who himself signs the pledge and/or to ultimately support the pre-primary winner.

If I had more time, I'd try to meet with candidates, political operatives, big donors, and others behind the scenes to push this idea. But I don't, so I'll just write it on a blog. What do you think?

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Bicycling


Which DC Councilmembers support fully protecting the Pennsylvania Avenue bikeway?

To stop drivers from making dangerous U-turns across the Pennsylvania Avenue bikeway, DC has installed physical barriers—except on two blocks right where DC councilmembers park. Are councilmembers the obstacle? We asked them if they support completing the barriers.


A U-turning driver strikes a cyclist. Image from David Garber on Twitter.

From the moment the bikeway opened on Pennsylvania Avenue, there were problems with drivers parking in the lanes and making U-turns mid-block. U-turns are very dangerous, as drivers often do not see cyclists riding in the lanes.

It took three years and a mayoral order to even confirm that these U-turns were actually illegal. During this time, many cyclists were struck by drivers, and 12 of Capital Bikeshare's first 14 crashes happened on Pennsylvania Avenue.


Wheel stops on Pennsylvania Avenue. Photo by the author.

After almost two years of experiments with tools like "zebras," the District Department of Transportation started lining the lanes with rubber curb stops. At Bike to Work Day in May, officials announced plans to install them all the way from 3rd Street NW to 13th Street NW.

But curiously, that announcement omitted the two westernmost blocks, from 13th Street NW to 15th Street NW. DDOT spokesperson Keith St. Clair said in an earlier statement to Greater Greater Washington, "In the immediate future, DDOT will not be installing the park-its between 13th and 15th streets, NW, on Pennsylvania Avenue. The agency still needs to analyze those blocks along with several mitigating factors that it must take into consideration."

Are politicians one "mitigating factor"? Along that stretch is the John A. Wilson Building, which houses the executive and legislative offices of the District of Columbia government. Councilmembers park in front of the Wilson Building, and many make U-turns to either get to the parking space or leave.

I reached out to all 13 members of the DC Council for comment. Here's the scorecard.


Top from left to right: Vincent Orange, Elissa Silverman, David Grosso, LaRuby May, Brianne Nadeau, Brandon Todd, Anita Bonds, Charles Allen. Bottom from left to right: Yvette Alexander, Jack Evans, Chairman Phil Mendelson, Kenyan McDuffie, Mary Cheh.
Green circles denote members who stated they support barriers, question marks show members who did not reply, and X's show those who made negative statements. Image by Greater Greater Washington from base image by the DC Council.

I got supportive comments from at-large councilmembers Anita Bonds, David Grosso, and Elissa Silverman, and ward members Brianne Nadeau (Ward 1), Jack Evans (Ward 2), Mary Cheh (Ward 3), Brandon Todd (Ward 4), Kenyan McDuffie (Ward 5), Charles Allen (Ward 6), and LaRuby May (Ward 8).

I got no response from Chairman Phil Mendelson or at-large member Vincent Orange.

Ward 7 representative Yvette Alexander's office did not reply to my request for comment, but I had the opportunity to speak with her during a recent rally in support of adding barriers to the rest of the bikeway.

At first she equated cycling with lawbreaking, complaining that bicycles need to get off sidewalks and follow the same laws that apply to drivers. I explained that better bike lanes means more people will use them and follow the laws, a statement which she found funny for some reason. She then complained that the demonstrators were blocking the U-turn she wanted to make that day.

Update: Yvette Alexander says on Twitter that yes, she does in fact support barriers for the Pennsylvania Avenue bikeway. She has not yet responded to GGW's request for clarification that she supports barriers specifically between 13th and 15th Streets.
Below are the full comments from each councilmember's office who responded.

Anita Bonds (At Large): "Councilmember Bonds supports the completion throughout PA Avenue. Additionally, she prefers the usage of 'sticks' as she calls them to create a visible barrier on as many bike lanes possible throughout the city."

David Grosso (At Large): "As you know, Councilmember Grosso joined the protest a few weeks ago on the 1300 block of Pennsylvania regarding protected bike lanes on that block and the 1400 block. The Councilmember is very supportive of increasing DC's bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, including moving forward as quickly as possible on planning that has already been done. Grosso [has met] with DDOT director Dormsjo to discuss these issues more in-depth. And he has been biking to work on a regular basis, which gives him a firsthand look at the issues facing bicyclists in DC."

Elissa Silverman (At Large): "I support extending the existing wheel stops through 15th Street. They are in place to protect both cyclists and car drivers. I biked to work on Pennsylvania Avenue this morning, and I was behind a mom commuting with her toddler in a seat on the front handlebars. As we encourage people to get out of their cars and use alternate transportation—walking, biking, subway, bus, even Segway—we need to keep everyone safe. Installing the wheels stops between 13th and 15th will do that. And, by the way, I also drive that route—and when I park in front of the Wilson Building I make a left turn at the light and drive around it to get back on Pennsylvania. It does take an extra minute or two—and I've been late to a meeting to do it!—but it is worth the time."

Brianne Nadeau (Ward 1): "Councilmember Nadeau is a strong supporter of building more protected bike lanes throughout the District, including along this section of Pennsylvania Ave where it's especially important to prevent illegal U turns. She is currently working with WABA on a letter to DDOT requesting the prioritization of several protected bike lane projects in Ward 1, and also secured a commitment from the Director of the DMV to provide drivers with information about bike lanes. Recently, she also joined Bike Ambassadors in Columbia Heights and participated in Bike to Work Day."

Jack Evans (Ward 2): "Councilmember Evans supports protecting the Pennsylvania Avenue cycletrack between 13th and 14th."

Mary Cheh (Ward 3): "The Councilmember feels that as long as safety equipment isn't affected, the curbs should be added now."

Brandon Todd (Ward 4): "Councilmember Todd fully supports improving bicycle safety along Pennsylvania Avenue, including adding curbs wherever necessary along the bike path. He would like to see those safety improvements implemented as quickly as possible, especially in those areas where bicyclists are particularly vulnerable and currently unprotected."

Kenyan McDuffie (Ward 5): "Councilmember McDuffie is in support of installing curbs between 15th and 13th streets on Pennsylvania Ave."

Charles Allen (Ward 6): "The Pennsylvania Avenue cycletrack is an important east-west connective link in the District's bicycle infrastructure. Protecting these bike lanes with parking curbs, while not a perfect solution to dangerous illegal U-turns, is an important means of improving safety for cyclists. Leaving two blocks unprotected is, frankly, baffling and unacceptable. A physical barrier to deter illegal U-turns is needed the full length of the corridor."

LaRuby May (Ward 8): "Councilmember May absolutely supports protecting the Pennsylvania Avenue cycletrack between 13th and 14th and is a strong supporter of more protected bike lanes in Ward 8 and across the District."

We will update this post if other councilmembers respond with comments.

Update: Councilmembers Kenyan McDuffie (Ward 5), LaRuby May (Ward 8), and Yvette Alexander (Ward 7) followed up soon after this article was published to state their support for protecting the Pennsylvania Avenue lanes. The graphic and post have been updated to reflect their positions.

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Development


A development on Florida Avenue would add affordable housing, but the DC Council is stalling

Around Florida Avenue and 9th Street are large superblocks of mostly-vacant land. Current plans to redevelop one long-debated parcel would bring activity to the area, a grocery store, and substantial new affordable housing—but only if DC Council moves on the project.


Rendering of 965 Florida Ave. NW by MRP Realty.

The project, led by MRP Residential in partnership with The JBG Companies, will include 352 apartments including 106 affordable units, anchored by a ground-floor Whole Foods.

The affordable housing will meet the requirements of a new law passed this spring last fall to increase the city's affordable housing supply. Under the law, when the District sells off public land for new housing development, 30% of that housing must be affordable to "deeply affordable" levels. This is especially important here, since the site is so close to a Metro station and major bus lines.

Accordingly, 106 of the project's 352 apartments (30%) will be permanently affordable for households earning below 50% of the area median income (AMI) and 30% AMI. For example, a two bedroom apartment affordable to a family earning 30% AMI would rent for $722 rather than the market price of more than $3,000.

The project is also slated to incorporate support for a number of job training and local business assistance programs. These will include a Community Grants Program to support local non-profit organizations provide employment training and skill development for DC residents, as well as a Local Retailers Assistance program to provide rent subsidies for nearby small businesses.


The surrounding area. Image from Google Maps.

Community members support the project, but it hasn't moved forward

The DC Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED) reached an agreement to sell the land to developers MRP and Ellis Development in 2013, but it was then modified to comply with the new law requiring substantially more affordable housing at deeper levels of affordability.

Despite agreement on the revised plan between the development team and the mayor, the DC Council hasn't yet approved the deal. According to the Washington Business Journal, if they don't move soon, Whole Foods could pull out of the project.

On Thursday night, Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1B, where the project is located, passed a resolution encouraging the council to move the project forward. "965 Florida is critical to continuing the growth in our neighborhood, and meeting the expectations of our neighbors, numerous civic and neighborhood associations, two Mayoral Administrations and their agency offices, and the current and previous Ward-1 Council members," said Commissioner Robb Hudson, who chaired the evening's meeting.

Councilmember Brianne Nadeau has introduced an emergency resolution aimed at pushing the project ahead. The bill, which is expected to come up for a vote at the DC Council on Tuesday, would both declare the land surplus and approve of its sale.

Bills to declare the parcel surplus and approve the sale to MRP and Ellis Development have been before the Council's Committee of the Whole since May, but haven't been brought up for vote. If the emergency legislation passes Tuesday, the development team's next step will be to take their plans through the review process at the DC Zoning Commission.

Paying for more affordable housing is the sticking point

The sticking point for Council Chairman Phil Mendelson and Councilmember Mary Cheh (ward 3) may be the proposed sale price of $1.4 million, given that DC government appraisal has valued the property at $27 million.

Despite the District frequently selling DC land for a nominal price in exchange for public benefits, this proposal seems to have caught the attention of some decision makers. As Rebecca Cooper reported, at a hearing in June, Cheh said, "[It] seems so paltry, compared to the other valuations. I'm trying to find out that the District [is] getting proper value for this property."

But DC is getting more value than just $1.4 million; it's getting substantial affordable housing which it would otherwise pay money for. According to Matt Robinson of MRP Realty, the sale price was reduced thanks to the increased affordable housing components earlier this spring, when Council passed the new law mandating 30% of public land deal projects be deeply affordable. That requirement increased the number of affordable units from 65 to the current 106, and made them even more affordable.

Regardless, given the community's strong support of the project, and the urgent need for additional affordable housing stock close to Metro, advocates say the Council should move the project forward.

"Political battles should not be fought over this well-discussed and well-settled development," said ANC Commissioner Hudson. "It's costs are real, but 965 Florida Ave should not fail just because some on the Council are not comfortable with the unintended consequences of last year's affordable housing legislation—namely moving the price of affordable housing from essentially a line item in the budget and into the land valuation of public parcels up for development—we all must pay for it somewhere."

In advance of Tuesday's expected vote, the Coalition for Smarter Growth is hosting an email-writing campaign to the Council in support of the project.

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Public Safety


Mary Cheh wants to change the definition of assaulting a police officer. Here's why that's important.

On Tuesday, Ward 3 DC Councilmember Mary Cheh introduced a bill to reform some elements of criminal justice procedure. It would change the law around "assaulting a police officer," strengthen prosecutors' duty to turn over evidence to defendants, and other things. Why does Cheh feel these laws need reforming, and what will her bill do?


Image by chriswhite313 on YouTube.

First, a quick quiz: Which of the following would be considered "assaulting a police officer"?

  1. Punching a police officer in the face.
  2. Standing behind a gate holding it closed while an officer tries to push it open.
  3. Sitting in your car grabbing the steering wheel while an officer tries to drag you out of your car.
  4. Standing at a Metro station with your hands in your pockets, refusing to take them out of your pockets when an officer commands you to.
  5. Being a Metro passenger and having transit police drag you from your wheelchair and smash your face into the ground.

If you guessed just #1, you are wrong.

All of these are cases which happened in recent years and where people were charged with Assaulting a Police Officer (APO). The DC Court of Appeals upheld APO convictions in #1, #2, and #3. The US Attorney argued #4 was APO, but the appeals court said no. In #5, charges were dropped after the incident was caught on video.

This post revises and expands on one from 2011 on this issue, when incident #5, above, was in the news.

When assault means assault

#1 is obvious. If you do that you can be charged with a felony APO. DC law § 22-405, "Assault on member of police force, campus or university special police, or fire department," reads:

(c) A person who violates subsection (b) of this section and causes significant bodily injury to the law enforcement officer, or commits a violent act that creates a grave risk of causing significant bodily injury to the officer, shall be guilty of a felony and, upon conviction, shall be imprisoned not more than 10 years or fined not more than $10,000, or both.
But the law contains another kind of APO, a misdemeanor, which most of us would probably not consider "assaulting" a police officer. It's more like what we think of as "resisting arrest."
(b) Whoever without justifiable and excusable cause, assaults, resists, opposes, impedes, intimidates, or interferes with a law enforcement officer on account of, or while that law enforcement officer is engaged in the performance of his or her official duties shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and, upon conviction, shall be imprisoned not more than 180 days or fined not more than $1,000, or both.
To be guilty of misdemeanor APO, someone might need to only "oppose" a law enforcement officer without cause. Courts have drawn a distinction between "passive" resistance, like slumping to the ground when being arrested in a protest, versus "active" resistance against the officer's actions. That's why the court overturned a conviction in Ava Howard v. United States (#4 in the quiz), where a trial court only found Howard guilty of refusing to sit down and take her hands out of her pockets.


Riot image from 1000 Words / Shutterstock.com.

When it's really just resisting arrest

But in other cases, the Court of Appeals has upheld APO convictions even without evidence of actions that the average person might consider "assault." In Dolson v. United States, Dolson ran from police and went to his own house, where he went inside a chain link fence. Dolson pushed the gate closed while the officer tried to push it open. The Court of Appeals upheld Dolson's conviction just based on this action, finding it constituted misdemeanor APO.

In Coghill v. United States, the court upheld a conviction for misdemeanor APO. Coghill was stopped by police while driving a car and refused to let police search it. He got out of the car at their instruction, but at some point got back in. Officers tried to drag him out of the car, but he braced himself against the floorboards and gripped the steering wheel.

The court held that it counts as "assaulting a police officer" just to be "actively interposing some obstacle that precluded the officer from questioning him or attempting to arrest him" and upheld Coghill's conviction.

Why does this matter?

If someone is convicted of misdemeanor APO, a future employer might look at their record and think they're quite a violent person if they assaulted a police officer. But they might have just panicked and resisted, without even touching or hitting an officer.

If the police respond to someone resisting arrest by savagely beating him or her on the ground, as has happened in some places, it can be very difficult to file a civil rights lawsuit with a conviction for "assaulting a police officer," even if it's again not really what most people consider "assaulting."

In one incident, New Jersey police beat a Rutgers student who was lying on the ground, all the while yelling "stop resisting." And in 2011, a shocking video showed transit police roughly dragging Dwight Harris, a homeless man in a wheelchair, out of his chair. They charged him with APO, but dropped the charges after the video surfaced.

It's important to keep in mind that some people really do hit police officers, and many who do should be prosecuted. Legally, "assault" also covers more than just physically punching; it includes spitting on someone or threatening to cause physical injury, for example.

Dolson, for instance, did end up hitting an officer in the face and breaking his nose later on, after the chain link fence shoving match. Neighbors say this was self-defense and the officer was choking Dolson. Without video, we can't really know.

If there hadn't been video of Dwight Harris, the charges might have stuck, too. This is the same pattern we've been seeing in high-profile cases around the country, where the presence of bystanders with camera phones belies a police claim of why they had to hit, shoot, or even kill someone.

(Disclosure: My wife works for the DC Public Defender Service. She did not work on any of the cases listed in this article, and nothing here represents the official opinion of the Public Defender Service.)

Cheh's bill makes APO into two offenses

Among other changes, Mary Cheh's bill deletes the "assaults, resists, opposes, impedes, intimidates, or interferes with a law enforcement officer" language. Instead, it creates two, separate misdemeanor offenses, both punishable to the same degree (up to $1,000 or six months in prison).

One, Assaulting a Police Officer, would get narrower. Instead of "assaults, resists, opposes, impedes, intimidates, or interferes with a law enforcement officer..." the law would read just "knowingly assaults a law enforcement officer." Someone accused of this would also have the right to a jury trial.

But the bill also adds language saying, "A person may not intentionally resist a lawful arrest; or prevent an individual who the person has reason to know is a law enforcement officer from making or attempting to make a lawful arrest or detention of another person."

It'd still be illegal, and a misdemeanor, to resist arrest. However, this would only apply while an officer is trying to make a "lawful arrest," not at any time whatsoever as under current law.

That's not all

APO and resisting arrest represent just one of the sections of the bill. Another would codify and expand prosecutors' duty to turn over evidence, especially evidence that could help the defendant. One section would make more information available to the Office of Police Complaints, which handles—you guessed it—complaints against police.

Another would set stricter standards for how police get eyewitnesses to make identifications, ensuring that if the witness is looking at a set of photos, for instance, the process doesn't unfairly bias the witness toward picking out the person the police have in mind.

This bill is just one of many that councilmembers introduced at the latest legislative session. Kenyan McDuffie (Ward 5) now chairs the judiciary committee and will decide whether to hold a hearing on the bill. If he does (and he ought to), prosecutors and/or police may oppose some provisions, and the legislative process will determine what, if anything, becomes law.

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Transit


A history of streetcar planning in the District

DC's streetcar plans have evolved over 20 years, ebbing and flowing mayor-by-mayor. In advance of the H Street/Benning Road streetcar's eventual opening, we take a look back at how we've arrived at where we are now.

You can trace plans for modern streetcar service in the District back to the Transportation Vision, Strategy and Action Plan, which the District Department of Public Works completed in March of 1997. This plan identified a need for better inter-District transit to complement the Metro, and it proposed three possible streetcar lines to make that happen.

In the following years, WMATA conducted two studies of its own. The first was 1999's Transit Service Expansion Plan, which identified three possible downtown streetcar lines as part of a larger region-wide transit vision. 2002's District of Columbia Transit Development Study was a more direct follow-up to the 1997 Vision study.

The result of the Transit Development Study was a proposal for four lines, including a starter line in the Anacostia region.

In 2003, DDOT started the DC's Transit Future program, which expanded on the 2002 study and assessed the transit possibilities for fourteen corridors across the District.

The program culminated in the release of the DC's Transit Future System Plan and Alternatives Analysis in September 2005, which identified nine corridors for transit investment, including four streetcar lines. The report got an update in June 2008, and in October 2009 DDOT unveiled a substantially upgraded and expanded streetcar vision before making a second update in April 2010.

Due to funding concerns and shaky construction efforts on the first lines in Anacostia and the H Street/Benning Road corridors, DDOT refined this 37-mile plan down to a 22-mile "Priority System" in June 2012, focusing efforts on three major corridors of the original vision.

As revenue service moved further into the future and political support for the DC streetcar network declined, more funding cuts in October 2014 meant shifting the near-term focus to just the two lines under construction (8.2 miles).

The Bowser administration has so far only committed to completing the planned extensions to the H Street/Benning Road line to Georgetown and down Benning. The performance of that first line will likely play a huge role in determining whether the broader vision's other plans become a reality.

In the coming days, we'll take an in-depth look at modern streetcar proposals in Northern Virginia, as well as the two DC routes that made it out of the planning phase and into actual construction.

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