Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Today's DC Special Election

DC Special Election yard signThere are two items on the ballot to vote for.  Not that my opinion matters so much or carries much weight (this blog is the equivalent of the New York Herald Tribune maybe in terms of influence with the chattering classes, but not the masses), but I should have written about this last week when it might have made more difference.


1.  Vote in favor of the initiative
2.  Vote for Matthew Frumin for Council (but that isn't a strategic vote and maybe that means either Patrick Mara or Anita Bonds wins)


DC Initiative on budget election signInitiative to give DC control over its locally generated budget.  The easy one is an initiative referendum that proposes that DC's self-generated public revenue not be subject to Congressional approval.  Congress has to sign off on the vote, if it passes, and there is no guarantee that it will do so.

Because DC was created as the federal district for the National Capital, technically, everything that "DC as a federal government agency" does is subject to Congressional approval.  Which provides great opportunities for Congresspeople to grandstand, to impose laws and restrictions on DC and DC residents as a political gesture.

And when the Federal Government shuts down, so does the DC Government, which means even the Eastern Market public food market.

This change, if approved, would allow DC to take care of its own business, by restricting Federal oversight to those functions of the city that truly are part of the Federal interest.

So vote yes.

Entry sign for Washington DC on New Hampshire Ave. NEAbout 18 months of the term of a DC Council At-Large position.  The second vote is much harder.  It's to fill the unexpired term of one of the DC At-Large City Council positions, which became open with Phil Mendelson became the Council Chair (because Kwame Brown, the previous Council Chair resigned after pleading guilty to forging bank documents--a charge that came out of an investigation of campaign financing issues for his campaign).

There are six main candidates, four running as Democrats, Anita Bonds, Matthew Frumin, Elissa Silverman, and Paul Zukerburg; one as a Republican, Patrick Mara; and Perry Redd for DC's "third party," the Statehood-Green Party (from the beginning of Home Rule, DC had a third party, the Statehood Party, with its primary platform plank being Statehood for DC--there were representatives on Council for many years from that party; as the Party waned in influence, it merged with the local Green Party affiliate).

For the most part, what matters to me most about DC Council candidates is their stand on what we might call "urbanism," which for me, for the most part, concerns development, smart growth, transit, schools, poverty amelioration and reform, and historic preservation and placemaking.

Most of the candidates talk about affordable housing and jobs.  But I don't think they understand very well the underpinnings of how to address either in substantive ways.  And frankly, I've written far more detailed blog entries about "what should be done" than that espoused by any of the candidates except maybe for Perry Redd.

While there are dozens of related entries, probably the most succinct is this one, the "Ideal Mayoral/City Council candidate campaign agenda: Getting Our City's S*** Together," written after I had a nightmare about sharing an office with Councilman Vincent Orange, and because I couldn't fall asleep, I wrote the entry, with these planks:

- Overall vision
- Quality of life of DC residents
- Economic Development
- Transit
- Participatory Democracy
- Restructuring DC's government political structures to reduce corruption
- Schools Reform
- Health and Wellness
- Poverty Reduction.

I admit it doesn't cover "affordable housing" and "jobs" per se except in the context of addressing poverty in substantive ways.  Although I am fine with new housing production, affordable housing requirements, etc., the reality is that we need to improve how we do things to make it work better (one element of this, the sales and marketing process for AH units, is something I will be writing about, based on an interview I'll be doing with David Mayhood, the proprietor of the region's largest condo sales agency).

political literatureSo who should you vote for?

I always get stuck here because my radical tendencies favor "doing the right thing," and not always being strategic.  Because there are so many candidates, the people with the most name recognition are the most likely to win, especially because the election turnout is likely to be extremely low.  Candidates will need at least 10,000 votes...

Anita Bonds, a many decade political functionary, and Patrick Mara, a younger Republican who has run two city-wide campaigns and a School Board campaign in Wards 1 and 2, probably have the most name recognition.


The establishment: the Post, Examiner columnist Jonetta Rose Barras, and many business interests have endorsed Republican Patrick Mara, in large part because they see DC's elected officials as too pro-government and anti business, and because of the Democratic Party dominance of the local political structure, which because of a "lack of party competition" has experienced many ethical failures.

Some people argue that having an elected Republican in DC Government helps DC in being able to reach out to Republican members of Congress--this matters some because of how Congress ultimately has oversight and theoretical control of local issues (as outlined in the previous section of this entry).

Mara came to political prominence because of a Tea Party like initiative to knock off the one Republican on Council, Carol Schwartz, who was seen as too liberal, practically a Democrat, especially because of how she moved legislation through Council requiring that DC businesses provide sick leave to ill residents.  That right there is a knock against Patrick Mara.

He won, but lost in the General election.  He ran again and lost.  And then he won a race for the "District 1" School Board.  While he doesn't show much of a platform, his main push for his candidacy in terms of local issues is on education--although with the change to school governance in the city, the "School Board" doesn't deal with specific K-12 education issues, except in terms of setting very very very very broad requirements.

More DC political literatureI tossed a bunch of the political literature that I've gotten, but then I started saving it.  I got at least three mailings from Patrick Mara and two from Matthew Frumin, but then they knocked on my door and I gave them my name, especially as he had been mentioned to me by a former teacher at Wilson High School as a good candidate.

As much as I would like to see more and better competition within the local political structure, the failure to present a substantive platform, and his support of people like John McCain and Mitt Romney as Republican candidates for President make me leery of supporting him.

There are Republicans, not here but elsewhere, who make a strong case for a Republican interpretation of local governance for big cities.  Of course, there is New York City, and the mayoral terms of both Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg.  So much has been written about them but it's tricky.  Guiliani, as a former District Attorney was very prominently involved in local civic affairs.  And Bloomberg is so damn wealthy. Both are kind of outliers, so it's hard to make sweeping generalizations of their relevance to governance in other cities

Although Bloomberg disagrees clearly, since his philanthrophic organization is funding a program initiative, the Mayors Challenge, for cities in the hinterlands to do programs and act more like how he has).

Rick Baker was mayor of St. Petersburg, Florida, and even wrote a book, Seemless City, on his experience there.  Mike Turner, now a Congressman, was mayor of Dayton, Ohio and clued into issues like disinvestment, commercial district revitalization, population decline, etc.  And Indianapolis is probably the poster child for a Republican run "city," actually a consolidated city-county (Marion County) government, has mostly been run by Republicans, including Stephen Goldsmith, who has written many books on the subject, and the current pro-bicycling mayor, Greg Ballard.

So far, Patrick Mara hasn't done anything to rise to this level.  Maybe that's too high a bar for me, but at least the local Republicans could lay out a platform that reaches for these heights.  A "platform" that mostly advocates for the Republican alternative without providing any specifics isn't much of a platform.  (cf. "Lack of appetite for conservative senator" from the Post.)  Especially when the default positions are pretty anti-progressive.

And the reality of being the "odd man out" in local politics is that a "Republican" Councilman, in and of himself, is probably not enough of a force to change very much, especially without a platform, support institutions (in NYC it's the Manhattan Institute) and policy papers.  (Then again, the local Democratic Party doesn't do that either.)

Support Perry ReddStatehood-Green

Perry Redd is probably the strongest candidate for the impoverished, calling for an end to school closures proposed , and full rights for ex-criminals.  While most of his agenda isn't my priority, he's probably my #2 choice, solely from the standpoint of mixing things up.  

He definitely would provide a different political perspective on Council, one that is not supportive of  what are termed neoliberal, market-oriented policies.  But the bulk of his agenda would be more like that of the so-called social justice agenda espoused by Marion Barry during his many terms as mayor (see the books Dream City by Jaffe and Sherwood and Between Justice and Beauty by Gillette).

Since I never voted for Marion Barry, and the modern City of Washington has been shaped by and still executes much of this agenda, I have no desire to support the provision of even more of it, since it isn't working very well as it is.


There are five Democrats on the ballot, but one, Michael Brown, a former Councilman defeated last fall, pushed a new candidacy forward for awhile and then dropped out.

Anita Bonds is chair of the DC Democratic Party and a longtime fixture of DC Government and Marion Barry.  She was appointed to fill the expired term that became open.  Under her leadership of the Party, the party hasn't held elections so most of the Committee members of the "DC Democratic Party" are serving beyond their term of office.  That doesn't bode well.

But neither does her long time association with DC politics and DC government.  If you think that DC government isn't working very well, it hardly makes sense to elect more of the same.

Paul Zukerburg's primary campaign plank is legalizing marijuana.  While the libertarian side of me believes in drug legalization (even though at the same time I don't believe in drug consumption), and using the monies spent in that aspect of "the war on crime," on treatment and poverty reduction, it's hardly the most important element of local policy.

So the choice comes down to Matthew Frumin or Elissa Silverman.  

Lotsa younger people and Greater Greater Washington have endorsed Elissa Silverman, given her past work as a journalist for the Washington City Paper (where for a number of years she wrote the Loose Lips column of local political commentary) and a brief stint at the Washington Post and her current work as a policy analyst for the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, a division of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and the foremost nonprofit organization in DC advocating for the impoverished.

The City Paper endorsed Elissa, as you might imagine.

While I like the work that DCFPI does, especially their advocacy against financial support for professional sports teams and the often tooeasy provision of tax abatements and other supports for development, what pains me is that they (like everybody else) have provided no deep, detailed alternative policies and programs for dealing with poverty other than spending more money.

And during the campaign Silverman, probably pandering to upper income residents happy with the way things are right now (in the city zoning changes that can have some marginal impact on residential density and parking supply have got some people up in arms), said a bunch of things about development and zoning that I found troubling.

Matthew Frumin is no radical.  And he's yet another lawyer (his specialty is international trade, working for large corporations), but...

Matthew Frumin has lived in the city for 30 years or so and his three children attended/attend DC schools.  He was a leader in the citizen side of the rebuilding and expansion of Wilson High School.  He has been an ANC Commissioner for three terms, and has shown leadership on development and growth issues, including on reductions of parking requirements in new developments proximate to the subway.

So of all the candidates, save Anita Bonds, he's actually been a pretty committed civic activist, not just being involved, but as a leader, and he has gotten things, good things, done.

Like everyone else, he advocates for more affordable housing and more jobs.  But interestingly, while he doesn't have a special plank on transit, he does advocate for significant investment and reinvestment in local infrastructure, and to his way of thinking that includes transit.  So that's an urbanism plus.

On smart growth type issues, including accessory dwelling units, he's probably the best candidate.

But there is another element to his experience that is "unsurpassed" amongst the candidates and I think this differentiation gives him a special quality that is very interesting and worth adding to Council

For many years he's served as a volunteer election observer overseas, to ensure fairness and inclusion of all participants in the election-democratic-voting process.

Given how monopolistic local politics is in DC, and how because of the monopoly there is a great deal of impropriety and corruption (the Growth Machine writ large), having someone with a great deal of experience dealing with political and civic participation in very difficult and contentious circumstances could give the city a leg up going forward in how it could restructure local politics, governance, and civic participation and capacity building systems locally.

Rather than the half-assed actions we seem to prefer and be comfortable with.

So vote for Matthew Frumin.

(I don't know how well the other campaigns have been organized and where they focused their resources, but I did experience a door-to-door canvasser from the Frumin campaign, but not from anyone else, although I have received a bunch of mailed campaign literature from the campaigns.)

But since Frumin and Silverman (and a soupcon of Mara supporters) are likely going after the same pool of voters, neither one may have enough support on their own.  That might mean Anita Bonds or Patrick Mara wins.

That would be bad, but I don't see how either one is such a big foot (unlike say Ted Cruz, see "Scary Cruz control" from the Post) that they would make that much difference on Council for the next 18 months, and maybe we still have the opportunity for a new, better Councilmember for the 2014 election.

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At 12:28 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

Well written and great persepctive.

(debating betwen Mara and Frumin. I don't think you can beat Bonds)

Appreciate throwing some bones at the "imaginary republican urban agenda". You're right, there isn't much to work with.

(for instance, DC has spent how much on the physical rennovation of school -- enough to build the blue line)

and if the DCFPI scrares you take a lot at Silverman's donor list --employing more people to fight poverty isn't going to help.

At 1:55 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

well, this would have been more important had I written and published it earlier.

2. And I still aim to do that R piece one of these days.

At 2:15 PM, Anonymous rg said...

The best analysis I have seen of this race (and perhaps of overall DC politics). I hate these special elections with miniscule turnout for the same reason you do -- the idealistic side of me does not like the "strategery" of voting for the best candidate with a chance to win rather than my top choice. But, you make a good point: one councilmember for 18 months is not necessarily a game changer. That makes a Bonds or Mara win somewhat easier to swallow.

At 8:25 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

For your R piece:

I'll have to bring up a R think tank for DC next time I have dinner with Grover.

At 10:36 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Grover's the wrong person to be asking something like that. Stephen Goldsmith maybe (although as we know, he has his own issues) and Bloomberg definitely.

At 10:57 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Very interesting paper. (David Levinson's work generally is pretty amazing.)

I don't fully agree with it because it holds transit to a different standard than automobility, but it still makes many important points and provides a deep framework for more serious thinking about the issue.

It definitely supports the argument that local transit should be paid for locally, rather than federally.

But it's a complicated issue because of the multi-decade subsidy of automobility and sprawl, which has made transit inefficient both in terms of time and economics.


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