Exclusive Interview with Incoming Councilmember Christina Henderson
By Mike Goodman
On Nov. 3, voters in Washington, DC elected Christina Henderson as their newest At-Large Councilmember, replacing outgoing Councilmember David Grosso. Councilmember-elect Henderson served in various capacities in DC government from 2012 to 2017, including as a staffer to Councilmember Grosso. A former resident of Southwest, Councilmember-elect Henderson now lives in Ward 4 with her husband and daughter. In mid-December, The Southwester interviewed Ms. Henderson about her winning campaign, her priorities as a new Councilmember, and her goals over the coming year.
What would you say were some of the highlights of the campaign?
This was such an unconventional race. I enjoyed some of the forums that we did, like the one we did for SWNA [Southwest Neighborhood Assembly], because I appreciated the opportunity to hear thoughts from fellow candidates about what they were thinking for particular issues. In a more traditional campaign environment, I would have seen them a lot more often, but honestly the forums were really the most time that I saw any of them.
I also really enjoyed contactless canvassing, which was more just literature drops, but that was really an opportunity for us to get out and see neighborhoods across the city. I really enjoyed that piece. I didn’t get the chance to talk to as many people as I wanted because we weren’t knocking on doors, so I was only having conversations with people I saw outside, but it definitely felt like I was doing action, and having the opportunity to introduce myself.
And then finally I would say that during early vote, leading up to election day, was a highlight because that is the time that you got to see the most voters. First time voters. Women who were excited to cast a ballot for Kamala Harris. Young people who were voting for the first time and older people voting for the first time. I really liked having the opportunity to have conversations with people, even during the pandemic, so I would say those were some of my favorite pieces of the campaign.
Looking forward, what will you prioritize in your first year on the Council?
Well I think one of the biggest priorities for the Council next year is going to be around COVID-19 recovery. And also various aspects of that, so the economic recovery, probably helping businesses come back online, helping businesses sustain through this moment. And educational recovery, how do we help our LEAs [Local Educational Agencies] have the resources necessary to support students, through overcoming the incredible amount of learning loss that I think everyone admits has taken place over the last few months. And then obviously a health care recovery, in terms of access, and vaccine distribution, and what does that look like. So, I think that is going to be the priority going forward.
I would add to the economic recovery. How are we helping families and individuals recover from this moment from a personal financial standpoint, because we have a lot of people in our city who lost their jobs. We have a lot of people, who as a result of that, are struggling to pay rent, are struggling to provide food for their families, so what are the additional types of support we’re providing to our residents to make sure we’re not having a massive eviction crisis at the same time we’re still in the middle of a public health emergency?
How will you measure success for yourself?
I would measure success in terms of impact. There are specific things I’ve been thinking around, especially in the area of child care, and in the area of maternal health. For me it’s not a question of how many bills did you introduce, but it’s how many of those bills were you able to successfully get implemented? Ie, you have buy-in from the Executive, and agencies, to actually do the work or transform the way that they’re doing something.
I think the other part of measuring success is around, you know one of my, one of the values and principles that I have is that your zip code should not determine your opportunity for success. So how are we moving towards a more equitable DC? There are lots of varying indicators, but a measure of that is do people feel like we’re seeing change across the city, or do people feel like we’re stuck in the very stagnant ways that we were even pre-pandemic? So that’s how I would measure success.
Obviously, Councilmember Charles Allen represents Southwest. How well have you gotten to know Charles Allen so far, and are there any issues that you see yourself working closely with him on?
Charles and I have known each other since we were both staffers on the Council, way back when he worked for Tommy Wells. I’ve known Charles for a number of years, and I would say we had a good working relationship, and we have also developed a good friendship over the last few years since I’ve been gone. It’s funny, literally right before talking to you I was actually on a call talking to Charles. We were talking about some public safety issues, and ways that we might be able to collaborate on those in the future. I don’t anticipate that I might be serving on the Judiciary Committee, but judiciary and public safety are things that impact the entire city, so I definitely want to be involved in those issues as much as I can. So I think we’re going to be able to do some good stuff together.
Obviously I think for folks in Southwest, the redistricting that is going to come up is going to be an area of deep collaboration, as it pertains to Ward 6.
Since you brought it up, do you know yet which Committees you’ll be serving on, or are there particular ones you want?
I don’t know which ones yet – we will find out the week of Christmas. I made some priority areas known to the Chairman – we’ll see what happens. I have an interest in health care. I have a strong interest in education. And an interest in transportation issues. But the committee structure of the Council is going to be shrinking, so we’ll see what happens in terms of how the Chairman reconfigures the Committees and decides to place new members.
What are the city’s biggest needs right now?
Top of the list, we have a big, big need around affordable housing. There are a number of people, even people who have homes right now, in the rental space, who are struggling to keep up with the rising cost of rent, while wages are still remaining stagnant in a lot of areas. So I definitely think that affordable housing is a need in lots of areas of the city, so I’ll just underscore that. Fifty percent of affordable housing is in one part of the city east of the river, and I don’t consider that to be equitable or fair. So I think being more strategic around where we are placing our affordable housing is going to be largely important.
Another need is around supporting our small businesses, which are the drivers of revenue and success in the district. Every day that I go online, there is a new restaurant or bar that is closing because of the pandemic, and so our recovery is around how do we sustain what we have, but also how do we create an environment where new businesses want to pop up, and grow and thrive, here in the district.
And then finally we have a really big need – and this is not an inclusive list, these are just the top three that come to mind – but we have a really, really big need around closing the digital divide. Mostly as it pertains to young people – that is certainly part it – but with families in general. COVID has shown us what we’ve already known around the need for individuals who want to be successful in our city in this 21st century environment, to have access to internet, to have access to technology. We’ve seen some further progress happen in our downtown areas, where we now have free wi-fi, but now nobody’s down there. So what are we doing to bridge that divide in our residential areas? I’m of the belief that young people need laptops not just during a pandemic, but they need laptops year-round. It’s how they keep up. It’s how they compete. And in many ways it helps to grow and foster lifelong learners to have a type of intellectual curiosity right there at your fingertips.
You have mentioned you are a former resident of Southwest. Where did you live in Southwest?
Yes I used to live in Southwest, at 6th and Eye Street – across from Amidon-Bowen at Waterfront. That was in 2012 up to 2014, so when you talk about change that is already happening – and I loved living in Southwest – but this was also pre-groundbreaking on the Wharf. This was also pre-all of these new apartment and condo buildings that have gone up. There was just so much more greenspace. And when I drive down there now, I’m like where do the people go for the pick-up soccer games that used to happen on this field? And I wouldn’t even call it a field – it was just an empty space that has now been developed into something else. Southwest has changed so, so much.
In closing, what do you think that voters and residents should pay attention to, when it comes to the business of the Council? What type of interaction would you like to see from residents, and what differences do you think residents can make when it comes to the priorities of the Council?
Interestingly enough with COVID-19, it has made the Council far more accessible to folks, because of virtual hearings and virtual meetings and the ability for folks to be able to engage and interact where they are. Or because you don’t need to do in-person testimony – you can email, you can do it through voice mail, all these different options. What I would say is that folks really need to be paying attention the first quarter of the new year to what’s going to be happening, because a lot of it is going to be coming fast and furious, between the Comp Plan, between performance oversight, between the FY22 budget conversation, between a conversation about what if any cuts need to be made to the current fiscal year that we’re in. I think it’s just going to be very important that we continue to maintain the level of engagement that we’ve had over the last year of pushing and asking for questions, and asking for transparency. But also speaking up around how issues and situations have been affecting your daily life, even at this moment. The Metro proposal, for instance – you need to engage on these things to ensure that changes are not happening that are going to dramatically change how folks get around, how folks interact with the city, how folks get to work, how folks get to school, all of these different pieces. So, there is a lot going on, and it has been an onslaught. But I would say my suggestion to your readers is that you don’t have to show up for everything, but don’t check out completely.