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Washington, DC City Council Race Muddy Again

5:01 pm in Uncategorized by E. F. Beall

In a post two days ago I wrote that the April 23 special election to fill an unexpired at-large seat on the Washington, DC City Council revolved around whether one of the two leading white candidates, Republican Patrick Mara and Democrat Elissa Silverman, could siphon enough votes from the other to make a real race of it with front-runner Anita Bonds, the African-American DC Democratic Committee Chair and current holder of the seat by interim appointment.

That may have been too simple an analysis, in particular in that it took no account of the point that a poll held on Monday showed close to half of voters as not having yet made up their minds, nor of the point that turnout is expected to be as low as 10% of registered voters. (We now have early voting in the District, incidentally, and after 10 days of it 1900 people have cast ballots out of approximately 480,000 registered voters, according to an article to be cited shortly. But there is not enough experience with early voting here to make much of that number.) It might be too much to say that the election is thereby wide open, but neither are facile predictions in order.

(Here is an article on an early forum with a photograph showing the six candidates, from left to right: Paul Zukerberg, Elissa Silverman, Perry Redd, Patrick Mara, Matthew Frumin, and Anita Bonds.)

[MyFDL editor:I would be just as happy to simply show the photo in lieu of the above paragraph, but I haven't studied the copyright situation nor how to embed photos. Can you do it?]

In an article in today’s Washington Post beat reporter Tim Craig and local politics doyen Mike DeBonis take account of a candidate’s forum held Wednesday night, and offer what is essentially a view of a wide open race given those facts, and also say that each of the six candidates “face[s] considerable challenges” given his or her statements and/or record.

For example, “Patrick Mara has been hampered by questions about his finances and his support last year for GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney.” The finances questions concern how he is presently supporting himself and, as noted in my earlier post, a possible violation in the use of the list of his donors for a previous election. As for Bonds, she has not attended some recent forums, and has made what “some view” as “clumsy remarks about race,” apparently meaning that she has openly appealed to African-Americans to vote for her. And she has “struggled to distinguish herself on the council.”

One can question whether Mara’s support for another Republican should be thought a big deal, but the attitude toward Bonds betrays WaPo’s and DeBonis’s prejudice. In the first place she has only been on the council for a few months. Secondly, along with many WaPo staffers DeBonis is an alumnus of our so-called alternative weekly, Washington City Paper. It is in the camp of those living in the affluent areas of the city who refuse to recognize that race is going to be an issue in parts of the country where the civil rights movement has still not completely attained Dr. King’s Dream, and that that is the case in the poorer areas of DC. (When black people raise this point such persons dismiss them as “playing the race card.”)

It might be more cogent to note that Bonds lives in a gentrified neighborhood (Bloomingdale) and is more known as an operative of behalf of various local politicians than as someone who worked for specific causes or policies. No one will claim that she has carried on the legacy of the iconic Marion Barry (although she has worked on his campaigns and has his endorsement in the current race) in working on behalf of the city’s downtrodden.

As for Silverman, the article plays up possible inconsistencies in her statements on tax policy, and in the process somewhat raises the profiles of fellow white Democrats Frumin and Zukerberg, while noting that they have problems of city-wide name recognition.

Lastly, the article mentions my candidate, African-American Perry Redd of the Statehood-Green Party, only briefly at the end, as if to telegraph the point that he is not to be taken seriously. (I guess that’s the “considerable challenge” that Craig and DeBonis imply at the beginning of their article that they will spell out for each candidate and have done so for the other five.)

The most dramatic development of the past few days is probably that the Mara camp has elicited the support of no less than Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, to endorse Mara in a robocall to all 10,000 registered Republicans in the District, hoping to get them to the polls. Whether this is a brilliant coup by Mara or an act of desperation after failing to distance himself from Silverman, I cannot say.

I wish I could provide the clarity I thought I had attained in the last post, but that’s the situation.

Washington, DC City Council Race Clarifies

1:21 pm in Uncategorized by E. F. Beall

Shot of DC

How will a shifting racial makeup on Washington, DC's city council affect the poor and powerless?

There are six days to go before the April 23 special election to fill an at-large seat on the City Council of Washington, DC, a city situated between the entities called Maryland and Virginia which you just may have heard of, as it is the capital of the most powerful nation the world has ever known.

But of course, the issues in the contest are local in nature. As I see it the principal concern is whether the council’s racial composition will remain at six African-American and six white members, not counting the (white) Chairman, or will shift to five African-American and seven white. A closely related question is whether DC’s local government will continue or enhance its halting efforts to ameliorate the bleak situation of its least well off citizens, or will take a step toward throwing them by the wayside under such buzzwords as “reform” and “fiscal responsibility.”

To be sure, in some circles it is considered improper (even racist) to frame the issue this way. Thus in his regular Saturday column the other day entitled “Race doesn’t belong in D.C. Council election,” Washington Post senior statesman (and African-American) Colbert King wrote such things as that “race is no indicator of where a candidate stands on the issues,” and that “the winner is accountable to and will serve the entire city.”

The problem with that, Colby, is that you are speaking as if the District is no longer in the throes of the civil rights struggle but is, rather, in a “post-racial” environment. I remind you that the last mayoral candidate who thought that way, then-incumbent Adrian Fenty, lost badly in the 2010 election. The truth is closer to what George T. Johnson, head of AFSCME local 20, said on the occasion of one candidate withdrawing from the race and his endorsement of another:

People have perceptions about what this city is becoming . . . and they want this council to remain black, and if they don’t get out there and put black folks in there, there will be a white city council, … That is a rough thing to say, but that is the truth.

As to specifics, the candidate who withdrew was former member Michael A. Brown (son of the late iconic African-American politician and Clinton administration figure Ron Brown), who lost his re-election bid last fall and presumably has decided his chances are no better now. That leaves three principal candidates and three minor ones.

The three principal candidates are Anita Bonds, chair of the DC Democratic State Committee and interim appointee in the seat in question, an African-American who leads in the polls; white Democrat Elissa Silverman, a former Washington City Paper and WaPo staffer who is now an analyst at the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute (a relatively progressive organization as far as I can tell); and white Republican Patrick Mara, a school board member and the principal of the Dolan Group, which “provide[s] distribution services to a select group of investment management firms to increase their assets under management.”

To be complete, the minor candidates are Democrat Matthew Frumin, an advisory neighborhood commissioner who worked in the Clinton administration; Democrat Paul Zukerberg, an attorney who specializes in defending marijuana possession cases; and my candidate, bless him, Perry Redd of the DC Statehood-Green Party.

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Fire the Fire Chief? Welcome to Washington

12:55 pm in Uncategorized by E. F. Beall

As of last fall I’ve lived in the Washington area fifty years, a bit less than half of them in the Maryland suburbs, then a bit more “in the District,” as we say here. I can attest that the capital city of the most powerful nation in the history of the world has sufficiently serious infrastructure problems that an intergalactic visitor might well wonder how the country ever attained that status.

Chief Ellerbe

Probably the most well known of these problems is that the city, and thereby the federal government, shuts down if we get more than a few flakes of snow. (You might think the tea party Republicans would rejoice, but it costs quite a bit: roughly $70 million a day for the last really big event in 2010.) There have been claims of improvements in the city’s snow readiness lately, but the feds take no chances: Early in the morning on the 6th of this month they told employees to stay home in advance of the storm dubbed “snowquester” (which, however, turned out to be an instance of a frequent occurrence in DC, a predicted storm not showing up).

Part of the problem is our divided government. You may say that other world capitals have the same situation, a city government and a national government; however, apart from the fact that the citizens of London or Paris have representation in their respective countries’ parliaments, while we DC residents have no representation in Congress (just a non-voting delegate as with American Samoa or the Virgin Islands), there is an important demographic difference. The U.S. Congress that has statutory jurisdiction over DC is mostly white; the DC government that Congress lets run local affairs (as long as it doesn’t engage in no-nos like funding abortions for poor women) has been mostly African-American: The City Council become majority white only last year, while the mayor is still black.

(Apart from those two centers there is an unofficial organization called the Federal City Council, made up mostly of business people, which wields a lot of influence in city affairs, although historically it has been somewhat shadowy. It has no Wikipedia entry, and its listed website has apparently gone off-line since Google’s last cache dated a week ago. Update: March 31, 10:20 PM Eastern: its website works now.)

In passing, divided government is arguably responsible, at least in part, for another famous infrastructure boondoggle involving the subway system called “Metro” (or “Metrorail” as opposed to “Metrobus”). Namely, unlike most subway systems that do not operate 24/7, ours does its maintenance work during operating hours, specifically on weekends and after 10 PM. During these times Metro typically shuts down the track normally used for trains heading in a given direction and makes them share the track with trains headed in the opposite direction, staggering the times when each has the track. This results in delays which are officially announced in advance as from 15 minutes to 30 minutes, depending on details, but which in practice are often longer.

When pressed, Metro officials have said that there is no alternative to the weekend track work, since the few early morning hours when the system is not open are insufficient to move the equipment they need in and out. But what is key, it seems to me, is that the feds work 9-5 weekdays, and for a time window from a couple of hours before that to a couple of hours after they need an efficient transportation system to get their (mostly white) workers in from the suburbs in the morning and back in the evening. It is the (mostly black or Latino) menial workers who have to work nights or weekends, and whose lives are therefore disrupted by the setup. If the situation were reversed you can bet that Metro would quickly find a way to do its maintenance outside of operating hours.

All that is by way of background to my subject today, the city’s emergency medical service. Like everything else in town it has been plagued with problems. Examples:

Earlier this month, a D.C. police officer was seriously injured in a hit-and-run and had to wait 15 minutes for an ambulance from neighboring Prince George’s County, Md., because no city ambulances were available. Two days later, a man suffering a stroke had to be taken to a hospital on a fire truck because the nearest ambulance was nine miles away. The department also struggled with slow response times on New Year’s Day, when dozens of firefighters called in sick in what their union denies was an organized sickout.

Thus the day before yesterday the City Council’s public safety committee held a hearing lasting some five hours where the head of the Fire/EMS Department, Kenneth B. Ellerbe and to a lesser extent deputy mayor Paul A. Quander, Jr., received a grilling at the hands of the committee’s chairman Tommy (“a liveable, walkable city”) Wells, and of the Council’s Chairman himself, Phil Mendelson (both white, whereas Ellerbe and Quander are black).

An aspect of the meeting played up by the local rightwing media is that Ellerbe admitted to having operated with faulty data on the state of readiness of the ambulance fleet until quite recently, provoking a response from Mendelson: “I just don’t understand how the chief of the fire and EMS department would not know how many vehicles are available.”

But according to reports it was Wells (who btw has mayoral ambitions) who told the chief his job was on the line. And here enters one Patrick Mara, who distinguished himself in 2008 by causing the loss of the Republicans’ only seat on the Council, namely, by running against the popular member Carol Schwartz from the right in the Republican primary, defeating her, and then of course losing by a large margin in the general election. Five years later he is again running for a Council seat, in a special election to be held next month (and has the Washington Post’s endorsement), and it is undoubtedly in this connection that he has already called on the mayor to replace Ellerbe, in the wake of a no-confidence vote in the chief by the firefighters’ union (over issues described here).

So the upshot is that in the special election on April 23 for an at-large seat on the DC City Council a campaign issue, with marked racial overtones, is likely to be whether or not the fire chief should be fired. And if he survives that test, the mayoral election in 2014 may provide another.

But would the replacement of Chief Ellerbe actually cause city ambulances to get to emergency situations with dispatch at last? Your guess is as good as mine, but I wouldn’t count on it.

Update March 31, 2013 7:15 PM Eastern

When I wrote this post I had not yet seen this weekend’s issue of our “alternative” weekly Washington City Paper, but its “Loose Lips” column turns out to be about Ellerbe’s situation. It was written before last Thursday’s committee hearing, but notes some points not covered by the reports on the meeting itself that I have seen.

As a whole this article seems sympathetic to getting rid of Ellerbe. (CP grew out of the “hip capitalism” movement of the early 1970s which wanted the freedom to smoke dope and use four-letter words in print, but was not big on social reform; thus today it is fairly subservient to the city’s white establishment, if it hardly realizes the fact.) Still, it reveals such points as that Wells and Mendelson were already suspicious of the chief before the meeting. And we learn that even as the union was issuing its vote of no confidence, “outside the union hall Monday, a group of African-American current and retired firefighters held a rally to show support for Ellerbe.”

As a curiosity, I note that according to the article there is a special fire truck for the purpose of rescuing the President if fire breaks out at the White House. The article makes an issue of the fact that it is currently broken. However, I’ll lay odds that the WH security people have contingency plans for such an event that don’t rely on local government.