By Melissa Silverman
Just weeks before the November 8 general election, seven candidates vying for two At-Large seats on the DC Council met at Riverside Baptist Church in Southwest to answer questions on education, housing and public safety. Despite areas of broad agreement on policy, candidates seized the opportunity to land sharp criticism of their opponents in an effort to stand out from the crowded field.
Sitting Councilmembers Elissa Silverman and Kenyan McDuffie were joined by challengers David Schwartzman, Graham McLaughlin, Frederick Hill III, Karim Marshall and Giuseppe Niosi. Each shared highlights of their resume and accomplishments and asked for the vote of the several dozen community members attending the forum.
While voters citywide will select two At-Large Councilmembers this fall, Home Rule regulations require no more than one to be formally affiliated with the Democratic Party. Sitting At-Large Democratic Councilmember Anita Bonds is up for re-election, but declined to participate in the forum. Her absence did not prevent several of her fellow candidates from tying her current position as Chair of the Council’s Committee on Housing and Executive Administration to the recent release of a report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development highlighting abject failures at the DC Housing Authority.
While Silverman (no relation to the author) collaborated with DC Attorney General Karl Racine to introduce emergency legislation increasing oversight of the DC Housing Authority in the days after the forum, she spent the evening touting the success of her Paid Family Leave program, which she announced in March would increase parental leave from 8 to 12 weeks and medical and family leave from 6 to 12 weeks while reducing the related payroll tax on employers from 0.62% to 0.26%. At the forum, several of her fellow candidates took umbrage at Silverman’s positioning of her central role in passing the legislation, suggesting it was a collaborative, iterative effort.
The other sitting Councilmember, McDuffie, currently represents Ward 5 on the Council but jumped into the At-Large race after an aborted campaign for Attorney General. Asked about his previous accomplishments, he cited his role in passing the Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results (NEAR) Act in 2016, a bill to reduce violence using community-based, public health approaches to violence prevention that also expanded data collection and required reporting for police stops and use of force incidents.
“I’ve seen things on these streets that I don’t want anybody to have to see,” said McDuffie, a native Washingtonian.
In addition to public safety and other citywide issues like the role of charter schools, candidates addressed hyper-local issues, including the pending development at 899 Maine Avenue SW, just blocks from the site of the forum. A question from moderator Andrew Lightman, Managing Editor of the Capital Community News, noted that the developers of the site are requesting 100% more density while setting aside only 15% of units as affordable housing.
Candidates universally agreed on the need for more affordable housing in Southwest and around the District, but offered different approaches to meeting the need. Schwartzman, running as the Green Party candidate, declared the Wilson Building, home to DC’s city government, “developer-occupied territory.”
The role of developers in the city’s political and economic landscape became a flashpoint of the forum, as Silverman cited campaign finance figures showing two of her opponents receiving significant contributions from real estate developers. Those candidates, McDuffie and McLaughlin, strongly disputed her assertion that they would prioritize the needs or requests of developers over other constituents.
The candidate forum was sponsored by the Capital Community News, publisher of HillRag, MidCity DC and East of the River newspapers, and was hosted by organizations such as the Ward 6 Democrats, Southwest Neighborhood Assembly and The Southwester.
Ahead of the general election November 8, voters can cast their ballots during an early voting period from October 31 to November 6, or can complete the ballot mailed to their address by the DC Board of Elections and return via the U.S. Postal Service or at one of the 55 ballot drop boxes stationed throughout the city, including one in front of the Southwest Library.