Democracy, Block by Block: The ANC Elections Working Group

Every day I wake up, I walk a few blocks past corner stores and businesses, past kids waiting to go to school and cops eyeing them suspiciously, and get on the Metro. I take a train to work, reading a book I got from the public library on the way. When I get home, if I want, I can use the city’s public recreation center to exercise, and then meet some friends for a drink at a local bar.

Which is to say that my life, like yours, runs along neighborhood structures -- local libraries and businesses, the placement of residences and the distribution of law enforcement. Among the politically active, our attention is often drawn to the important fights happening around the world and across the country. Socialists should also, however, recognize and appreciate the politics that construct our neighborhoods -- and contest those politics. That’s why we’ve started the ANC Elections Working Group (co-chairs Matthew Sampson and John Grill) to put leftists on DC’s neighborhood councils.

The Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (ANCs) in DC are 40 small jurisdictions, each of which has a variable number of constituencies within, about six usually. ANCs hold monthly public meetings where the public can stand up and speak on any issue they like, city government officials hold presentations and outreach, and the commission votes on resolutions.

ANCs wield a lot of important power, mostly in being consulted on decisions made by city agencies. Does DDOT want to change the way traffic flows in your neighborhood? Do the Nationals want to fund the construction of a baseball park for Little League games? Is someone trying to get a liquor license? All of these things will come up at your local ANC. They will be presented, debated on, opened for public comment, and finally voted on. Some of it is minutiae that you may not be interested in, but it is the real nuts-and-bolts of self-governance at work. Socialists should care about these matters, because we know that preventing climate catastrophe and building a city that works for the many starts on the smallest scales.

In some ways, however, the most interesting socialist opportunities are the powers that ANCs wield informally. Most prominently recently, ANCs have become a springboard for issues to push themselves onto the public agenda. When the DSA-allied DC ReInvest campaign started, we did not have the ear of council members or city government. But after eleven ANCs endorsed divesting from Wells Fargo in favor of a public bank, we have been able to secure meetings with the chief financial officer, the Council, and the Department of Insurance, Securities, and Banking. Candidates for City Council are being asked about the issue in public forums and it’s clear that they can tell public opinion is not on the side of big banks. That didn’t happen because of the moral rightness of our cause; it happened because we were able to use these small centers of power as loudspeakers for democracy. Similar models have been used by local groups like HIPS (sex worker safety and decriminalization), the Working Families Party, and the Stop Police Terror Project. Socialists on ANCs have capability to directly boost policies and initiatives that help workers in the District, making them impossible for the city’s political class to ignore.

Passing resolutions is all well and good, but there are opportunities for further local democracy in ANCs. For instance, most ANC meetings include a representative from MPD standing before the commission to report on crime statistics. That is an opportunity to push back on MPD abuses and to interrupt the reproduction of police ideology with a skeptical voice. Furthermore, our experience going to ANC meetings in DC ReInvest has taught us that ANCs are often sites where communities come together to discuss issues like rent strikes and tenant actions in their communities. A socialist commissioner could foreground these struggles even more and begin to build a site of mutual aid and mutual struggle against landlords and capitalists in their neighborhoods.

Every ANC seat -- called a single member district (SMD) -- represents only a few thousand voters. The elections are nonpartisan, and many go unopposed. We believe there is a great opportunity here if we can identify people who are able and interested in taking those seats. Getting on the ballot for ANC isn’t hard -- you need twenty-five signatures -- but time is short, with signatures due back at the Board of Elections by the close of business on August 8. Our plan is to recruit candidates and help them complete that process, and then to identify as many as possible to help undertake small campaigns. None of these campaigns will reach the scale or depth of the work our chapter has done in Manassas or Montgomery County, but this is a matter of breadth, of putting a socialist voice everywhere we can in the city. DC ReInvest taught us that the hardest thing to get in a busy neighborhood meeting is attention. We don’t have to take majority control of these ANCs to make a big difference, we just need to get some oxygen. As part of candidate recruitment, we’ve developed a Statement of Principles which we ask all our candidates to sign onto, to ensure that we are helping only those who are going to reflect our values and fight for the kind of city we want to live in.

As always, the election is only the beginning. During the election, after the election, at ANC meetings across the city, we need to be speaking up and putting forward a bold vision of how this city can serve the people who live here, not the interests of developers or Jeff Bezos. We hope that this working group serves as the nucleus of a Neighborhood Caucus, providing a forum for discussing these issues and providing a network for ANC activists across the city to share ideas and support each other. Being the only socialist in an ANC meeting can be isolating, but it doesn’t have to be. We can build the neighborhoods we want to live in, and we can start today.

If this interests you, and you’d like to learn about your ANC and consider running for a seat on it, come to our public kick-off event July 15, 1pm, at the Columbia Heights library and/or sign up on our form.

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