Six-Way Race Splits Support

No obvious LGBT favorite for D.C. Council seat April 23 special election

by John Riley
Published on April 11, 2013, 8:05am | Comments

Shawn Thomas is in a personal state of election fatigue.

The 36-year-old Adams Morgan resident says he can't remember a time in recent years when he hasn't walked down 18th Street NW and seen election signs for various local candidates gracing streetlights, stop signs or front yards.

''For the past seven years, it's felt like we're in a constant, perpetual state of election,'' he says. ''You hear about it so much, you become immune to it. And then you forget about it.''

Thomas, a self-identified ''undecided gay voter'' ahead of the April 23 special election for an at-large seat on the D.C. Council, says several of his friends have expressed similar sentiments.

''It's sad. I should be more involved, know more about this stuff, but I don't,'' Thomas says. ''You'll tell people, 'Hey, there's an election coming up,' and nobody really cares. Nobody feels it makes a difference.''

The April 23 election features six candidates vying to fill the remainder of the term for the seat formerly held by Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D). Following Mendelson's ascension to chairman after former Chairman Kwame Brown (D) stepped down to plead guilty to a felony charge of bank fraud and a separate charge of violating District campaign-finance laws, the D.C. Democratic State Committee named its chairwoman, Anita Bonds, as a temporary replacement.

Now the incumbent, Bonds is competing with Statehood-Green Party nominee Perry Redd, Republican Patrick Mara and three fellow Democrats: Elissa Silverman, Matthew Frumin and Paul Zukerberg. Former Councilmember Michael Brown (I-At Large) had entered the race as a Democrat, but withdrew April 3, too late to remove his name from the ballot.

Even with six candidates, many LGBT District residents tell Metro Weekly that none have distinguished themselves from the others.

Frumin earned the highest score, a 7 on a scale of -10 to 10, among the candidates for his responses to a questionnaire from the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance (GLAA). But Bonds, Silverman, Redd and Mara all ranked closely behind, earning between 5 and 6.5. Silverman and Bonds both got substantial support at the endorsement forum of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, the city's largest LGBT political group, but neither won the 60 percent of the votes needed to secure an endorsement from the group. Mara, the only Republican candidate – in vastly Democratic D.C. – and a supporter of LGBT rights, has been endorsed by the D.C. chapter of the Log Cabin Republicans, an LGBT group.

Thomas is skeptical when he talks about District politicians, particularly in light of recent scandals involving councilmembers. Aside from Kwame Brown, Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) was forced to step down last year, and Councilmember Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) was reprimanded by his colleagues in February following allegations of intervening on behalf of a campaign contributor on a city contract. Graham has denied any wrongdoing.

''I always try to research: 'Do they have a scandal in their past? What was it?''' Thomas says of preparing for D.C. Council elections. ''There's so much corruption, and everyone in D.C. talks a good game about how they care about LGBT rights, or development, or other issues, but in the end it's all about lining their pockets. Are any of these people going to do anything?''

Thomas says that because all the candidates are generally pro-gay, he's largely basing his decision on which candidate is best for development, where he prefers those who aim to foster small businesses and focus on neighborhood improvement, public transportation and an ability to serve as a check on the power of Mayor Vincent Gray (D), whom he disagrees with politically, even though he is a registered Democrat.

Based just on a preliminary browsing of the candidates' campaign websites, Thomas says the one who sticks out to him is Frumin, whom he describes as the most articulate in communicating his policy positions. Still, he remains undecided.

Unlike Thomas, Gay nightlife booster Mark Lee, a lifelong registered Democrat living in the Logan Circle neighborhood, has made up his mind. He recently penned a commentary piece in The Washington Blade supporting the Republican Mara.

''We have the great luxury in the District of having the knowledge that candidates for office will be supportive of LGBT rights,'' Lee says. ''Consequently, we have the freedom to evaluate the candidates on other issues.''

While Lee praises Mara as one of the first political candidates to support marriage equality in his 2008 primary win over Councilmember Carol Schwartz (R-At Large), and notes that Mara carried many ''gay-dominant'' precincts in his narrow loss to Councilmember Vincent Orange (D-At Large) in a 2011 special election, Lee places more emphasis on Mara's ability to be a change agent who can bring reform to ''a city government rocked by ethical lapses and scandal.''

Lee also says that Mara would foster a more business-friendly climate that would aid small business owners, entrepreneurs and members of the city's creative class – which includes many members of the District's LGBT community – in becoming more profitable.

Chris Dyer

Chris Dyer

(Photo by Ward Morrison)

''As a practical matter, it's going to boil down to Bonds versus Mara,'' Lee says. ''The question is: Are we going to elect the 'business as usual' candidate again, or are our voters going to seize the opportunity to represent reform and a diversity of views on the Council?''

Lee also says the Bonds campaign and several high-profile people with ties to Bonds have sent out emails to supporters or published op-eds attacking Mara and even the papers that have endorsed him, such as The Washington Post, The Washington Examiner and The Current, because Mara poses the greatest threat to Bonds's campaign.

Similar discussions occurred on Facebook Tuesday, with several prominent local LGBT activists heatedly debating whether Mara's support of and role as a delegate for 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who supported a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, would have harmed progress made in recent years on LGBT rights.

''I think it's very clear why the Bonds campaign is attacking Mara and attempting to nationalize the election by portraying him as a monster, in terms of his political affiliation,'' Lee says, dismissing Mara's critics. ''They're attempting to link him to the national Republican Party. But that shit ain't selling. There's no danger of Newt Gingrich landing on the doorstep and taking over the city.''

Bonds supporters are similarly enthusiastic in their support of their incumbent candidate.

Christopher Dyer, a local activist and former head of the Office of GLBT Affairs under Mayor Adrian Fenty (D), says many are trying to unfairly link Bonds to her past dealings as campaign manager and legal advisor to former mayor and current Councilmember Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), noting that one of Bonds's first actions on the D.C. Council was to vote against Barry and Graham in order to keep in place a plan that penalizes families receiving welfare benefits if they do not comply with the program's requirements.

''I am the least likely to support an establishment candidate,'' says Dyer. ''But I got to meet Anita. She's an incredibly nice person, and much more than what people are trying to make her out to be.''

Greg Cendana

Greg Cendana

(Photo by Todd Franson)

Dyer cites Bonds's track record of support for the LGBT community through her stewardship of the D.C. Democratic State Committee as a reason she has earned his support. He also says Bonds represents a constituency that's very important in D.C. and can serve as a voice in government for poorer District residents who have been displaced by some of the city's various economic-development projects.

''All the candidates would be capable councilmembers, but after careful consideration, I've decided to support Anita,'' Dyer says. ''She's always been there for us.''

Lateefah Williams, a former president of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club and also a Bonds supporter, notes that Bonds, while straight, has been a member of Stein Club since 1978, when it wasn't as popular to stand up for LGBT rights.

''During my time in D.C. local Democratic politics, I've had some time to see how much she cares about all people in the District, and how willing she is to make sure all people can enjoy success,'' Williams says, noting that Bonds is not an attention-grabber. ''I've seen her work behind the scenes to focus on an end result. She doesn't feel she needs to take the spotlight.''

Local activist Greg Cendana, of Adams Morgan, says he's not supporting either Bonds or Mara. Instead, he's thrown his support to Silverman, believing she is the ''true reform candidate.''

Cendana says his support of Silverman stems from her ability to engage with a diverse set of communities, her knowledge of budget-related issues from her time at the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, and her promises of bringing transparency and accountability to local government.

Cendana, a Stein Club member, also said he viewed Silverman's first-place finish at the Stein Club endorsement forum, where she fell four votes shy of the 60 percent threshold, as emblematic of the level of support in the community and a result of her continued efforts to reach out to various stakeholders.

''Stein historically supports incumbents, and the fact that Bonds couldn't even muster a majority of votes speaks to the level of support for Elissa, both inside and outside of the community.''

But key to who will actually win the seat may be people more like Drew Brown, another undecided gay resident, who lives near Logan Circle. With about two weeks to until the election, he says he's considering Bonds, Mara and Silverman.

Like Lee and others, Brown says he doesn't believe there are any positions that help distinguish the candidates on LGBT issues, so he's looking at ethics and fiscal responsibility.

''Given the multiple scandals associated with the leadership in D.C. government over the years, I'm looking for someone that will add their voice to ethics reform for the City Council and mayor's office,'' Brown says. ''Also, with the impact of sequestration not yet known, I would prefer a candidate that would stress fiscal caution in the next decade. We may have a surplus now, but that could be gone in just one year.''

Ticking down to Election Day, Brown says he's paying closer attention to the candidates and trying to research the issues. But he still hasn't decided on a candidate.

''Even though I am a Democrat, I believe the city might benefit from a different perspective, so I would have to strongly consider voting for Patrick Mara,'' Brown says. ''Silverman's responses to the issues on her website seem comprehensive. Her stance on holding back some of the surplus is definitely a plus. Bonds, as the current appointee, is worth considering since she has the political favor right now.''

He pauses for a beat, then says, ''Frankly, I wouldn't mind a Republican for proportional representation.''