D.C. Council candidate Elissa Silverman came four votes shy of the threshold needed to earn the endorsement of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, the city's largest LGBT political group, at a lively candidate forum Thursday night that featured the five Democrats running in the April 23 special election.
Silverman, a former political reporter for Washington City Paper and The Washington Post, won the highest number of votes from Stein Club members; followed by Anita Bonds (D-At Large), incumbent councilmember and chairman of the D.C. Democratic State Committee, who was appointed by that committee to fill the vacancy left by Councilmember Phil Mendelson's election to D.C. Council chair.
The other Democratic candidates being considered Thursday were Councilmember Michael A. Brown (I-At Large), who switched back to the Democratic Party to run for this seat; ANC 3E Commissioner Matthew Frumin; and Paul Zukerberg, an attorney running on a platform that includes decriminalizing marijuana in the District.
The final vote tally among the five candidates had Silverman in the lead with 31 votes, or 43.7 percent; Bonds in second with 23 votes, 32.4 percent; Frumin with 10 votes, 14.1 percent; Brown with five votes, 7 percent; and Zukerberg with two votes, 2.8 percent. Because no candidate received the required 60 percent for a Stein Club endorsement in initial voting, a runoff was held between Silverman and Bonds.
In the second round, Silverman won 39 votes, 55 percent; while Bonds got 26 votes, 36 percent. Five members who voted in the first round people abstained during the runoff, and one ballot was ruled as ''spoiled.'' Accordingly, Stein's executive board ruled that no endorsement would be given for the April 23 special election.
During the forum, Silverman, highlighting her background as a reporter and her work at the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, stressed her ability to ask tough questions and pursue data-driven solutions. Bonds focused on her long record of service in local politics and the personal relationships she has built through the years. Brown focused mainly on his achievements during his term on the D.C. Council.
Frumin touted his rating from the bipartisan Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance (GLLA), his 7 – on a scale of -10 to 10 – being the highest of all candidates running in the special election, as well as his experience as an ANC commissioner. Zukerberg focused on his ''outsider'' credentials and his platform of decriminalizing marijuana possession.
Early on, it became clear that Bonds and Silverman were the chief competitors, each supported by large blocs of visible supporters.
At times, the meeting turned contentious. Hostility between supporters was particularly evident when candidates were asked to leave the room and Stein members in good standing offered assessments of candidates. Bonds was the only candidate to have Stein members speak against her, with some members citing her record as chairman of the Democratic State Committee, an organization that Ward 8 member and longtime activist Phil Pannell called a ''travesty'' and a ''disgrace.''
Several Bonds supporters angrily countered anti-Bonds sentiments, with multiple arguments erupting inside the evening's venue, the Metropolitan Community Church of Washington, D.C.. One woman wearing a Bonds sticker said it was ''disgraceful'' to allow people to speak negatively about other candidates and made comments suggesting that Stein amend its forum rules to prevent such criticism.
Local LGBT activist Christopher Dyer, who spoke on behalf of Bonds, said Thursday's forum was ''jarring'' with regard to the vitriol directed at Bonds.
''I've been in forums where people speaking for one candidate spoke out against another, but this is the first time I've seen an unaffiliated person just start bashing another candidates,'' Dyer said. ''But that's professional politics.''
Dyer said he supported Bonds because of her long history supporting the LGBT community, as far back as the 1970s when it was a particularly unpopular position. He also cited her strong record of advocating on behalf of the community, both on the D.C. Council and as a fixture in the D.C. Democratic Party.
Dyer said that with the number of candidates running and the divisions in the local Democratic Party, Republican candidate Patrick Mara has ''a decent chance of winning this race.''
''Bonds and Mara are probably the favorites,'' he guessed. ''But Frumin and Silverman both seem to have a lot of resources and money at their disposal, so they could still pull it off. It's going to come down to their ground game, getting people to turn out to vote.''
Speaking with Metro Weekly after the forum, Silverman attributed her strong performance at the Stein forum to her campaign's ability to organize, saying she was ''honored'' to receive such support from the LGBT community. She also said that while she did not get an endorsement from Stein, she considered it a victory that she won a majority of the votes of Stein members.
''I was a former reporter, and Stein is always one of the big endorsements,'' Silverman told Metro Weekly.
She also said that she didn't want her campaign to be ''pigeon-holed,'' which is why she has reached out a number of different communities within the district.
''I haven't just appealed to people as LGBT, but as District residents,'' Silverman said. ''In fact, I've been a little disappointed with the LGBT press – they keep seeming to focus on Michael Brown and Patrick Mara. This race is not between Brown and Mara. Tonight showed that. What happened tonight is reflective of our campaign's grassroots organizing approach.''
Stein Club President Martin Garcia said he felt the forum was successful, with about 100 people in attendance, and 71 members voting and seeming ''passionate'' and ''engaged.'' He and Angela Peoples, Stein's vice president for legislative & political affairs, both rejected the idea floated – mostly by Bonds supporters – of doing away with the ''3 speakers for, 3 against'' typically included in endorsement forums.
''It's been a tradition to speak for or against a candidate,'' Garcia said. ''It's more so for people who are undecided or may not have a candidate in mind, so supporters can try to sway them.''
''It's a way of providing information,'' Peoples said. ''That's the nature of democracy and the nature of campaigns.''
Garcia said all five candidates showed a good understanding of LGBT issues during the question-and-answer period. He also said that while the Stein Club was not endorsing a candidate, it is supporting two ballot measures – one to grant the District the ability to spend its own tax dollars without congressional or presidential approval, and another involving nurse-to-patient ratios known colloquially as ''safe staffing.''