Bowser Exploits DC Racial Divide to Boost her Power

With the deadline for voting less than a week away as the Washington Socialist goes to press, what once seemed to be a yawner of a DC general election turned interesting with an unexpectedly competitive at-large council race.

While all the winners of Democratic primaries — from Mayor Muriel Bowser all the way down to the candidates for “shadow” congressional seats — were cakewalking to general-election victory, incumbent at-large councilmember Elissa Silverman (I) suddenly faced a real fight for re-election.

Only two months ago Silverman also had reason to look forward to easily retaining her seat, one of two on the council reserved for non-Democrats, when her most prominent opponent, business executive S. Kathryn Allen, was booted off the ballot for fraudulent petition signatures. Allen represented the hopes of DC’s business establishment — and their politician allies, including Bowser, former mayor (and currently head of the pro-business Federal City Council) Anthony Williams and ex-councilmember David Catania — to knock off Silverman, who has been a progressive and an ally of working-class DC residents.

But Allen was barely off the scene when Bowser and her business allies plucked a once-obscure candidate from the shadows to become the race’s next Great Right Hope: Dionne Reeder, owner of a Ward 8 restaurant and a political novice.

The rise of Reeder, an African American (as is Allen) against Silverman, who is white and Jewish, has been cast as a reaction by the District’s African-American community to their diminishing clout in a city increasingly populated by white millennials. A perceptive Washington Post article exposed the well-meaning but sometimes racially tone-deaf actions of the rising “progressive” wing on the council, a group often at odds with Bowser, led by Silverman, David Grosso (at-large), Robert White (at-large), Brianne Nadeau (Ward 1), Kenyan McDuffie (Ward 5), and Charles Allen (Ward 6). That group of six includes four whites and two-African Americans (White and McDuffie).

Reeder, meanwhile, has attracted support from black voters who see her as a champion of African-American re-empowerment, as well as a number of notables in the DC political establishment. These include former Councilmembers Sandy Allen and Kevin Chavous and the late Mayor Marion Barry’s widow, Cora Masters Barry. But her team also includes a local basket of deplorables featuring former Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr., who while in office stole more than $350,000 in city funds intended for children’s programs; Ted Loza, who was convicted of accepting illegal gifts while serving on the staff of the late Councilmember Jim Graham; and Joshua Lopez, who was dumped from a city housing board after organizing a rally in support of Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White that included a speaker who launched into an antisemitic tirade against Silverman. (White himself had come under fire for perpetrating antisemitic conspiracy theories, with Lopez and other supporters of the councilmember coming to his defense). In October, the Washington Post, showing its pro-business bona fides, also endorsed Reeder.

But the eagerness of Bowser and her allies to oust Silverman is at least as much about ideology and pure power politics as it is driven by race. Over her four years as mayor, Bowser has moved ever closer to the DC business establishment. Meanwhile, the progressive faction has taken a pro-consumer, pro-worker stance that has included cracking down on wage theft and turning a skeptical eye to city subsidies to corporate development (with Silverman leading the drive to kill a $36 million giveaway to Union Market for underground parking). The measure that most drew Bowser’s ire was a measure pushed by Silverman that required businesses to provide family leave for their employees. In opposing the bill, Bowser charged that it would mostly help suburban employees working in the District and therefore burden DC businesses to help workers who were not DC residents.

Indeed, from the 1960s through the 1990s, the suburbs drained the District’s population and tax base, with people of means fleeing to greener pastures while leaving behind poverty and blight. But over the last 20 years the process has reversed, with affluent whites streaming back into the city — and in the process, displacing lower-income persons of color. The District has a growing economy that now can support more generous programs such as family leave, but for many that is more than offset by the explosion in housing costs and the influx of newcomers into DC neighborhoods who have little regard for those who stayed during the lean days.

Bowser sees these tensions as a wedge to use in enhancing her own power, for which she has seldom failed to seize an opportunity. Since the beginning of her administration four years ago she has worked hard to strengthen the Green Machine, the political apparatus founded by her mentor and former Mayor Adrian Fenty. Shortly after she took office she established FreshPAC, a slush fund to stack the DC Council with her allies, but she was forced to shut it down under pressure from members of the council and DC Attorney General Karl Racine. She has since turned her attention to punishing her enemies and rewarding her friends on the council.

Bowser’s beef with Silverman and the other progressives is perhaps less about policy than their penchant for independence, for not bowing to the mayor’s priorities. If Reeder should be elected, she can be counted as a reliable member of the pro-Bowser faction on the council that includes Jack Evans (Ward 2), Anita Bonds (at-large) and Brandon Todd (Ward 4), her own protégé and closest ally.

The progressive faction on the council has largely pursued policies to benefit the majority of DC residents, but Reeder’s rise shows they have not made necessary connections with the District’s lower-income minority communities. With the racial divisions that persist in DC as they do around the country the hopes of progressive whites to win lasting support among minority communities is a formidable one, especially in the former “chocolate city” that is increasingly becoming vanilla-chocolate swirl.

That is the disconnect that Bowser is exploiting to build her power as well as reward her allies in the local business establishment. And the challenges of Silverman and her council allies reflect those of an overwhelmingly white organization such as DSA that, despite its own ethnic makeup, is working for racial and economic justice, against displacement, and generally for social change that would benefit low-income minority communities. The left needs to oppose Bowser’s power grab — by returning Silverman, for starters — but also by engaging in struggles of minority communities for decent and affordable housing, neighborhood schools and real voice in community affairs.

But instead of working on behalf of struggling peoples, white progressives must find a way to work alongside them, as allies rather than leaders. That is a challenge that progressives both in and out of elected office in DC could tackle together.

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