State of the District Left

DC is a transient city – more so, at least, than other cities that happen to host a bold political left. This makes it difficult for local leftist strands to capture, retain or execute sustained political power here.

I came to this conclusion after spending a lot of January trying to piece together a clear history of the local left. Like many I spent my early twenties guzzling cheap drinks on U Street, assuming that the D next to the mayor's name meant that they had it all figured out. I was busted out of that mindset after watching cadres of local activists parade the shortcomings of the operating consensus for the past couple of years. Still, it's been hard to get a clear read of where the local left has been in the city.

Building historical narrative is always a hazy endeavor. The past is always shrouded by passions and propaganda. And the local left’s electoral collapse in the ‘90s – which ended after Hilda Mason stepped off the Council in '99 - scattered DC's political counter-culture across the city, banishing anti-capitalist undercurrents deep underground.

But over the past decade, there’s been a new left bursting across DC that is undeniable. The range of activity is decidedly anti-capitalist, and brazen in determination to changing the status quo. Much of it is connected to larger national left-wing political trends and discourse, making it easier for newcomers to identify and plugin. And I’m not referring to the typical assortment of soft-left non-profit organizations that tend to come and go. A stray glance at the local scene reveals a deep bench of serious organizations — of which the local DSA is an example of— that are committed to seriously challenging the corporate holdouts that have been kicking around the city. For once, it seems like DC’s rabble — the punks, contrarians, mudslingers, artists and burnouts — are regimented and united in really advocating for an advancement of public, collective power. If we are able to harness this, we might be able to finally end the pattern of scattered leftism in DC.

A Decade of Neoliberal Retrenchment

For a while, it seemed like DC was stuck in the haze of Obama-style neoliberalism; the pro-corporate consensus in the city rarely went challenged. Muriel Bowser won her first term with 55% of the vote — the only serious challenge coming from an independent who had previously served on the Council as a Republican. Bowser would go on to win her reelection in 2018 with 80% of the vote in the Democratic primary and 76% in the general -- the closest threat to her candidacy being the Green Party’s Ann Wilcox, who received about 9% of the vote. The outcome of these races consistently confirmed the grip of a neoliberal, pro-business consensus that had taken over local elected leadership.

But as the high from Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election began to wane, the sedated anti-capitalist strains in the city began to awaken. The shortcomings of nearly two decades of neoliberal operating consensus started to become undeniable. Decades of pro-charter policies left DC’s schools underfunded and strapped for resources, as teachers’ unions found themselves scattered and powerless to fight back against the incoming regime. Uber and Lyft had effectively taken over the city — subverting the taxi unions and building a growing ambivalence towards effective public transit (even as Metro was literally burning down). Activists had suspected and subsequently battled the DC Metro Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policies, which seemed to continue unchecked for years. The mayor moved to take over the city’s arts commission in a bid to financialize their operations in order to satisfy the whims of capital. (A quick aside on Bowser and the arts: at some point “Mayor Muriel Bowser” began to precede the widely popular “Art All Night” events in the city – Bowser seemingly claiming ownership over what is supposed to be a product of DC’s unique creative communities...a strong demonstration of her gall).

As waves of new development crashed around the city, displacement and high rents remained, turning DC into one of the most gentrified cities in the country. Faith in the “build more” school of housing policy, which was cautiously accepted by many at first, began to fade as housing costs soared while giant luxury buildings began to pop up everywhere. It started to become clear that the pro-developer policies pushed by DC’s sinister consultant class were not truly designed to provide an honest expansion to the District’s housing stock, but oriented around hunting down the disposable income of young (typically white) gentrifiers.

Throughout the last decade, activist formations attempted to fight back. A tenants’ union was formed and slumlord watchdogs kept eyes on DC’s poverty profiteers. Identity-based resistance groups began to weave class into their approach to organizing -- counteracting the corporate appropriation of marginalized identity that the style of corporate interests had effectively weaponized in DC. Socialists began sneaking onto local Advisory Neighborhood Commissions and DC’s Board of Education. Progressives in the city began to run bolder campaigns — as evidenced by the campaigns of Elissa Silverman and Brianne Nadeau. Even artists began to join the fight — street-art connoisseurs might fondly remember the anti-Bowser, anti-developer propaganda that was popping up around the city during the late ’10s — in desperate bids to wake DC’s leftist core up from the neoliberal nightmare.

But agents of capital fought reform at multiple levels. The city continually dragged its feet in adopting any sort of sensible rent control legislation despite impassioned pleas from a wide coalition of advocates to change direction. Massive lobbying efforts by Airbnb squashed citizen-driven legislation that sought to banish the company and it’s awful business model out of the city. A cabal of pro-business councilmembers voted to overturn Initiative 77 a public referendum that would have ended DC’s tipped wage — despite the initiative passing in nearly every ward and with 56% in favor city-wide. The city council opted to give in to a well-financed propaganda campaign orchestrated by high-rolling service-industry profiteers (and a counter proposal pushed and adopted by the Council’s business bloc in response to wage theft would never even be funded). In that same year, Bowser and her allies attempted to squash the reelection of progressive Councilmember Elissa Silverman, in order to boost a pro-business candidate intent on putting a stop to DC’s growing progressive organizers. Bowser’s bloc was so desperate to stop the leftward lurch of the city that they began to dabble into anti-Semitic race-baiting — a sleazy gambit which, thankfully, failed.

The 2020 Breakthrough

A decade of these leftist mobilizations finally paid off in 2020 when democratic socialist Janeese Lewis George unseated an ex-Republican rubber stamp in DC’s Ward 4 council seat.

This victory provided a model for how seemingly divergent local activist blocs can build and unite to win power in the city. Acting as a coalescing agent between a range of organizations and unions dedicated to building working-class power, Janeese was able to mobilize the diverse and truly grassroots phalanx of left-wing activism that had been fighting against the city’s establishment for the past decade. For once, the old order buckled.

While this coalition failed to nab a slam dunk in the candidacies of Ed Lazere (DC Council At-Large) and Mysiki Valentine (Board of Education At-Large), that the coalition was assembled and mobilized to engage competitively in these two city-wide races is indicative of the strength of DC’s left-labor-progressive bloc. Excluding Robert White, Ed came in third with 61,882 votes compared to winner Christina Henderson’s 79,189 votes; and Mysiki came in second with 50,610 votes compared to Jacque Patterson’s 83,782 votes.

But does Ed’s loss in the at-large race suggest that leftist strands in the city were short-lived? Hardly.

Ed’s campaign took up the mantle for arguing a bold new direction in DC. During the live-streamed debates that came to typify the race, Ed publicly battled with the conservatives in the race (Goodwin and Orange) who attempted to masquerade as “progressives.” He openly made the case for a left-approach to policy — defunding the police, decriminalizing sex work, raising taxes on the wealthy, and so on — never shying away from or qualifying them. When establishment candidates began to release bad-faith smears on younger formations on the local left, Ed stood by them. Ed enthusiastically embraced his activist base, who paid back the favor by staying plugged in to his campaigns’ GOTV operations. The Democratic Socialists, in particular, paid back Ed’s embrace of the left by mobilizing the local DSA’s wide network to  make over 35,000 calls for his campaign, in addition to knocking on doors and maintaining a messaging campaign to boost his candidacy across the city.

This approach was completely distinct from Henderson, who flew under the radar during these public debates and opted to describe herself an unideological, “pragmatic” progressive in a bid to reach to more moderate heads in the city. Henderson is an ex-staffer for Senator Chuck Schumer, so politicos might characterize her strategy as a demonstration of political acumen and experience. Or, might it have been evidence of fear -- in taking on on the web of corporate interests that DC’s activists have been fighting for the last decade? Maybe its both.

Regardless, even if Henderson’s positioning in the race were never as bold as Ed’s, she continually made a clear distinction between herself and the corporate-friendly candidates. Given that voters were given two votes to use in the at-large race, I suspect that there were many split Ed/Henderson ballots. But given that Henderson was able to eek out ahead, it suggests that  she was able to persuade enough moderate voters to expand DC’s progressive bloc on the Council. This positioning prevented Vincent Orange — who narrowly beat out Ed by about 3,000 votes — from sneaking back onto the Council. If Orange had won, it would have erased the gains made over the last year to shift local political power away from DC’s covetous business cartels. And since the election, Henderson has been engaging with activist cohorts across the city -- a good sign that she is willing to be friendly, if not allied with, the left in the city. A good sign that the at-large race was not just a wash.

Strategy Points

The outcome of last years at-large race leaves the local left well positioned to follow up on the wide list of demands sought by activists. With Janeese acting as an anchor to DC’s progressive bloc (Allen, Silverman, Robert White, Nadeau and Henderson), the local left will have multiple channels by which they can stake demands, push policies, and engage in legislative campaigns. If the progressive bloc stays reliable, then activists can focus pressure and ire on the conservative voices on the council who have tended to stymie activist efforts (Bonds, Mendelson, McDuffie, Gray and Pinto) while working harder to persuade the city’s true moderates (Cheh and Trayon White) to move left.

In order to really exploit these electoral channels, the left needs to retain and build on the power and networks built over the past few years. But what are the next moves? Well, I’m not in much of a position to inform that decision. This is something better decided by through DC’s activist cohorts. But in consideration of the (brief) history recounted here, I recommend the local left consider these five points as strategic guidance:

  1. Do not shrink from pushing bold policy. Ed Lazere lost, but showed that engaging openly in debates for bold, specific policy can attract a wide and resilient coalition. That his election came so close to winning should act as proof that leftists do not need to kowtow to centrist policies to pull together competitive coalitions.
  2. Avoid performative pushes — demand policies that affect people materially. We don’t need more reports or commissions, we need redistribution of power and resources to the city’s working class. Performative policies risk providing cover for local conservatives, or for progressives who might not be up to the task of engaging in larger, change to the structure of the local economy.
  3. DC’s activist groups must act in alliance. There will always be debates and disagreements between organizations; but these should be resolved using back channels, away from the destructive discourse endemic on social media, where possible. DC’s smattering of progressive groups are multi-generational and multi-racial — spanning collections of young rabble-rousers to old-school lefties. Getting people on the same page can be difficult, but as we observed over the last year, the local left can impact electoral politics when we act in consort.
  4. Be wary of any approach to identity politics that doesn’t include class. The city’s corporate establishment has shown that they are more than willing to weaponize identity to trip up and stall progressive coalitions. This is not a call to reject identity-based organizing, or an assertion of “class essentialism,” but a reminder to avoid spectacle and be leery of racial politics that exclude discussions of capitalism or redistribution of power. That said …
  5. Understand DC’s racial dynamics and history. Socialists and leftists promising the world need to engage carefully in discussions of class and race. For many longtime District residents — especially Black residents and those who grew up east of the river –calls for dramatic change can be exhausting, flimsy, even insulting. A leftward lurch will only be possible if activists develop a deep understanding of the wide web of organizations, unions, community institutions, and cultural reference points that create a shared narrative in DC. Successes have come by navigating and understanding these dynamics -- nothing good will come from ignoring them.

I don’t pretend that achieving any of the left’s local objectives are as easy as checking off these points. Praxis is the hard part. But remembering what happened before – and assessing where we’re at now -- is essential if we’re to retain the momentum that’s been built up over the last decade. All signs suggest that the old order has been bluffing their way through fights with the local left in the past few years. If we can exploit this opportunity, we have the potential to take radicalism mainstream.

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