Early voting has started in DC, and that means a lot of people are just beginning to pay to the November 6th general election. As always, there is a lot on the line both federally and locally, but since we are disenfranchised at the national level, I’m going to focus on the local.
Before we jump in, I want to address a common concern among a lot of neighbors I talk to in Ward 4.
Does Voting Make Any Difference?
For all of the hype, elections in the United States are undeniably broken and have been for a long time. In grade school, we were taught that representative government was something that we all collectively create, do, and use. It sounded pretty good. We all fund and benefit from the government’s operation. We determine the priorities and the course every few years by choosing representatives to act on our behalf in the interim.
But is that what actually happens in America? Emphatically no.
Elections, especially at the national level, have long been a competition between factions of the wealthy. While it’s easy to get on the ballot, it’s incredibly difficult to be considered a “viable” candidate. To be viable, you need access to wealth. A lot of money is required to fund a campaign operation, hire staff, get the message out. There is an easy way (be independently wealthy, raise money from corporations) and a hard way (raise small amounts from a lot of contributors) to get access to the money you need. Under a capitalist system like ours, there are huge wealth disparities and a cornucopia of incentives to take the easy way.
The truth is that democracy and capitalism are inherently at odds. As this peculiar relationship plays out over time, people are getting wise. Voter turnout isn’t a result of laziness but of a clear understanding that our elected officials mostly represent the very rich.
Our options are primarily limited to two corporate-owned parties that do very little to noticeably improve most people’s lives. One is more despicable, in that it very openly pursues an agenda to further enrich and empower only wealthy white men at everyone else’s expense. They share some of the wealth and power they accumulate with those not in their group who are willing to look the other way or actively participate in the party’s worst crimes. The other party also pursues an agenda to further enrich and empower the wealthy but is willing to share a small amount of the wealth and power it accumulates a little more broadly, with a more diverse group of people.
When I say party, I really mean candidates who affiliate with a party. In modern politics, parties themselves are almost non-existent. Most of the money, donor lists, volunteer corps, and other pieces of a campaign that once were housed within political parties are now controlled by individual candidates and their campaign operations. This is as true locally as it is nationally.
So why do working class people affiliate with one party or candidate over the other? While they are remarkably similar at a macro level, at the micro level the parties’ differences can deeply impact our individual lives. In fact, all of the action in our mainstream national politics play out in these details. Your life may not radically improve, but it can be radically worsened depending on who you are and who is in power. Who will let me vote? Who will let me marry? Who will let me control my body? Who will let me worship? Who will let me stay and who will make me go?
And that is why so many of us still vote. As broken as our system is, as bought and bossed as our government and our parties are, the differences between them have real material impacts on our lives.
While we will never be free nor save our planet from climate doom until we have a political and economic system that is truly deliberative and democratic, I believe we have to use our present system in whatever way we can to seize resources and protections for people right here and now. Voting will not deliver us to the mountaintop, but we can use it to get some relief on the way up.
With all of this in mind, let’s turn to our local elections in DC. Local elections involve less money. Nonetheless, its influence is as strong as ever. Consider the role of wealthy donors in the Initiative 77 debate.
I’m sharing with you below who I plan to vote for for municipal offices and, briefly, why.
In a six-way race, Councilmember Elissa Silverman wins my first vote. Silverman, better than any person in elected DC government, understands the corrosive role that money plays in this town. For that reason, she only accepts contributions from individual donors. She also led the charge on paid family leave legislation, which is likely to provide more economic relief for DC families than any other bill from the last four years.
While I favored full implementation of Initiative 77, Silverman deserves some credit for her compromise effort. She at least tried to defend the intention of the voters while many other Councilmembers approached repeal with carelessness or glee.
I’ve already mentioned some of her shortcomings in another post and do not encourage dismissing them. But with the most pro-worker, pro-voter record on the current Council, she gets my vote.
We get two votes for At-Large. Who does my second vote belong to? Truth is, I’m still deciding.
Independent Dionne Reeder, beloved as she is by her neighbors, embraced Republican positions on campaign finance, taxation, and social programs at a recent forum hosted by the Ward 4 Democrats. As a result, I cannot vote for her. Same goes for Ralph Chittams, Sr., who is a registered Republican.
Rustin Lewis, a well-regarded independent, struck a more centrist tone at the Ward 4 forum but failed to make the case that he has a vision to address the myriad crises we face.
I agree with David Schwartzman, the Statehood Green candidate, on most policy prescriptions. Unfortunately, Schwartzman’s 2018 campaign, as he himself will tell you, is primarily an effort to preserve his party’s ballot access until Fair Elections kicks in in 2020 and levels the field a little bit for the Greens.
Then there’s Councilmember Anita Bonds, the only Democrat. As a Democratic State Committee member, I’m supposed to tell you to cast one of your votes for Councilmember Bonds. The truth is, though, that I was elected to the DCDSC on a slate committed to rebuilding a party that crumbled under her leadership. As a Councilmember, her record is one that too often favors luxury developers at a time when affordable housing and displacement are full-fledged emergencies demanding radical action.
Karl Racine gets my vote. Racine deftly fought off an effort by Mayor Bowser to reduce the power of DC’s first independent Attorney General, has helped move DC toward a public health approach to violence reduction, and has taken on some wage-stealing employers and infamous slumlords. That’s a well above average performance, and it’s worth seeing what he does with another term.
Write in “RESPECT THE VOTE,” or consider Ann Wilcox. Mayor Bowser has been a champion of gentrification since she was first elected to the DC Council and has doubled down since being elected Mayor. She regularly dismisses immigration and police accountability activists at a time when ICE and the MPD are tearing communities apart.
Bowser is a firm believer in privatization of public services, from our schools to our transit systems, and refuses to enact any mechanisms to hold private actors accountable, regardless of the impact on students and transit riders.
Bowser has also prioritized PR campaigns over actual policy implementation on everything from the NEAR Act to Vision Zero.
Some progressives angry at elected officials for overturning Initiative 77 are encouraging people to write in “RESPECT THE VOTE” for Mayor. Unfortunately, DCBOE doesn’t publish the actual text of our write-in votes unless they have some outcome-altering effect. It’s likely we won’t know how many people actually write those words in.
Ann Wilcox is the Statehood Green candidate. As with Schwartzman’s, I haven’t seen much of a pulse in that campaign, but I do find myself agreeing with her often. If you want to cast a vote for a real person, check her out.
Write in “RESPECT THE VOTE.” Phil Mendelson is hardly the worst member of the Council and has often demonstrated his independence from Bowser. Unfortunately, he has also consistently shown that on bold solutions, like paid family leave, he favors the policy prescriptions of big business over those that would share the wealth with DC residents. His campaign coffers are full of conflicted contributions. For a guy who claims consensus as his north star, he played bulldog for industry on Initiative 77 and enthusiastically belittled Democratic party activists at a time when he could have united the city around a compromise.
Ward 4 ANCs
There are a lot of good people running for ANC this year in Ward 4, so it’s going to depend on where you live. I haven’t talked to everyone running nor read every single questionnaire response from candidates. I will tell you that I’ve had good experiences working or talking with the following people on the ballot:
- Candace Tiana Nelson in 4A06,
- Evan Yeats in 4B01,
- Erin Palmer in 4B02,
- Tiffani Johnson in 4B06,
- Charlotte Nugent in 4C01,
- Ashik Siddique in 4C03,
- Krieg Rajram and Kim Varzi in 4C07
- Jonah Goodman in 4C10,
- Renee Bowser in 4D02, and
- Aaron Polkey in 4D03.
Across the city, my fellow Democratic Socialists are running an impressive slate, too.
Voting is just one of many strategies we can use to help make DC a city for the many, not the few. I encourage you to do it. There are real differences between some of these candidates, and there are real resources at stake for our communities. Early voting has already started, and you can register at the polls now or on election day.