Divide and Conquer in the At-Large Race

Pictured: Dionne Reeder (Left, photo by Rachel Chason, WaPo) and Elissa Silverman (Right, photo by Jonathan Newton, WaPo)

There’s an important discussion going on in our At-Large Council race.

The narrative looks something like this: mostly-white progressives view the challenge ahead as between DC’s rich and DC’s poor while mostly-black liberals view the challenge ahead as between DC’s white beneficiaries of gentrification and the black victims of it.

The race has made for odd partnerships. DC’s pro-business establishment Democrats led by Mayor Muriel Bowser, whose policies have paved the way for gentrification and seek to accelerate it, are pouring their resources behind a neighborhood advocate and small business owner, Dionne Reeder. Councilmember Elissa Silverman, representing the progressive wing, is being cast by the Mayor’s allies as the candidate of the “outsiders” and “newcomers,” despite being the most aggressive elected opponent of the Bowser’s pro-gentrification, pro-big business agenda.

There’s more to it than this, of course. While the Bowser wing is enacting policies that destroy the very communities that Reeder seeks to lift up, it is credited with being present, with showing up. The progressive wing, on the other hand, is seen as paternalistic, claiming to fight for people whose communities it rarely has a presence in. We see this here in Ward 4, where Brandon Todd’s policies defend the interests of our wealthiest residents. But the Councilmember will at least answer every call and show up at every birthday party, BBQ, and ribbon cutting. Past progressive opponents of his, on the other hand, favored far better policies to lift up the poorest in the neighborhood but too often “went missing” before or after election time.

Beneath the top-tier political races, however, there are other groups at work. One of those, DC’s Democratic Socialists of America, was featured in City Paper this week. They are putting forward a different vision. They see the problem through both an economic and racial justice lens. They view racism and capitalism as the twin, inseparable evils of America. To defeat one, we have to defeat both. Gentrification itself is a result of  economic and racial injustice. The challenge ahead, to socialists, is between the multi-racial (but overwhelmingly black and Latinx) working class who are being displaced, impoverished, and overpoliced and the multi-racial (but mostly white) wealthy class that reaps the benefits of those devastating policies.

I’m a DSA member. I am a socialist. I was endorsed by DSA in my campaign for the State Committee. DSA hasn’t been perfect. While we have developed real and sustainable partnerships with BYP100, Black Lives Matter DC, and other local black-led struggle organizations, DSA itself remains mostly white. We’ve made errors along the way that put those relationships at risk and are working to repair them. But if you’re looking for neighbors who are truly and deeply committed to both racial and economic justice and trying to do something about it, DSA is a good place to start.

In the grand scheme, I see no path to wrest power away from the rich and the racists without a fighting alliance of black community organizers, DSA organizers, and some progressives. Establishment Democrats know this is a threat, which is why they are working so hard to drive this wedge in the At-Large race. If they can keep black, white, and Latinx working and middle class voters fighting each other, the rich can continue to displace and steal with abandon.

That’s why you won’t find me disparaging Reeder. I’ve talked to Dionne. She is smart and sincere. She wants what’s best for her community. I just think her positions on a few big policy items like paid family leave are at odds with her stated goals. You also won’t find me giving Silverman a pass, even though I will be voting for her. I’ve talked to Elissa. She is one of the only Councilmembers who legislates the way she speaks, whose policies are striving to protect people from the Mayor’s worst ambitions. But I’ve heard some very real concerns from black community leaders in Wards 7 and 8, who feel like Elissa doesn’t invest time or resources in their communities.

The fact is that being right on the issues doesn’t entitle you to support while you’re absent from the community. But showing up for the community doesn’t entitle you to support while you’re wrong on the issues. You’ve gotta be right and you’ve gotta be present. That’s a struggle for any candidate, and it’s a struggle for voters who have to choose between them.

With the At-Large race in mind, I encourage you to read Washington City Paper’s look at what DSA is doing to elect socialists at the local level. Ask yourself two questions: 1) who is fighting for policies that would put money and power in the hands of the many, 2) and who is fighting for policies that keeps money and power in the hands of the few?

I think the question I pose in the WCP story sums it up:

“It’s a struggle for the soul of D.C….Are we going to be the type of city where there’s life on the street? The kind of place that asks the ultra-wealthy in upper Northwest, in Kalorama, and the Kushners and the Bezoses, and their 25-bathroom mansions, are we going to ask them to pay their fair share so we can provide things like healthcare, housing, education, and transportation for everybody?”

The question for voters is: which candidate, imperfect though she may be, will legislate best for that type of city? Whoever you choose, I hope we all remember the bigger forces at play, and that we unite to overcome them after this race is over.

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