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.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Sort of a repeat: DC At large City Council Election: one insider picking off another insider is not a "game changer"

After the 2012 At Large election, when David Grosso, running as an independent defeated Michael Brown, this was touted as an insurgent defeating the system.

I disagreed, writing "DC At large City Council Election: one insider picking off another insider is not a "game changer"," making the point that someone who had worked for many years for Councilmember Ambrose and Delegate Norton, both Democrats, before going to work for as a lobbyist for a regional health care provider in the "government relations" section, is hardly an outsider, even if he had a non-standard upbringing.

Image from Petworth News.

Despite the Post's article today ("How a DC political novice unseated longtime council member"), which terms Robert White as a novice, the same is true.

He might be a neophyte as a candidate, this being his second try, but he is already a member of the city's system of political insiders, having worked for Delegate Norton and Attorney General Karl Racine.

From the article:
White, a former aide to D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), lost his first race, in 2014, for an open at-large seat. Soon after that loss, he was hired by newly elected Attorney General Karl A. Racine as director of community outreach, boosting his visibility for nearly a year before he decided to take on Orange.

Heeding the lessons of his failed 2014 bid, White hired the same consultants who ran Racine’s campaign. He worked to clear the field of potential spoiler candidates, though Garber stayed in and drew 15 percent of the vote.

Those actions illustrate how Robert White was integrated into the system, and even that it is a misnomer to term him a neophyte.

As older members of the system lose their allure with the electorate they need to be replaced with other equally agreeable actors so that the system can maintain its control and influence. To keep control, there will be turnover, as legacy Councilmembers are defeated by newer members of the machine.

(Disclosure: I voted for him, figuring that as a newer member of the machine he has less baggage than the incumbent.  But that doesn't mean that things won't change over time.)

The Growth Machine.  I am a fervent believer in the Growth Machine thesis, first laid out by sociologist Harvey Molotch, in the seminal article,"City as a Growth Machine: Toward a Political Economy of Place." From the abstract:
A city and, more generally, any locality, is conceived as the areal expression of the interests of some land-based elite. Such an elite is seen to profit through the increasing intensification of the land use of the area in which its members hold a common interest. An elite competes with other land-based elites in an effort to have growth-inducing resources invested within its own area as opposed to that of another. Governmental authority, at the local and nonlocal levels, is utilized to assist in achieving this growth at the expense of competing localities. Conditions of community life are largely a consequence of the social, economic, and political forces embodied in this growth machine.
It is troubling that Attorney General Karl Racine is shaping up as another political force, as two proteges, Robert White and Trayon White, having won the Democratic nomination for At Large and Ward 8 seats respectively.

I was strongly supportive of creating a separately elected AG, partly because "the law belongs to the people, not the Executive," and to add capacity to the city's governance and political structure.

Some people raised the issue of an elected AG becoming another power center within the city's political system in ways that could be counter to better government.

I scoffed, figuring that the duties of the AG office would be more than enough to keep the AG occupied.  Little did I know.

The Growth Machine thesis doesn't preclude intra-elite competition within a locality.  But media coverage tends to focus on this kind of intra-elite competition without recognizing that there is an overarching political-economic coalition with for the most part, a shared agenda.

Labels: , ,


At 9:25 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

All models are wrong, some are useful.

GM is both wrong, but it can be useful. No question it understands better than anyplace else the powerful force of real estate development.

I just finished a good book on the Chinese community party; the author bring out the good point about the tremendous intra-China competition; between regions, between cities, between neighborhoods.

Far more than DC.

In terms of Race, everything needs to change, so everything can stay the same. But having an alternative power center try to appeal and grab voters is very useful.

The real test thought if Racine can move the ball on big issue -- such as returning criminal prosecutions to local control. The bit about the US Attorney's office not tracking juvie arrests is insane.

(Again, I'd say the majority of bad elements in DC have 20+ arrests)

At 10:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, the entire framing of a 'game changer' for one vote out of 13 never made much sense to begin with.

But don't pretend that the people who make up the council don't matter. They do. But you change the composition of the council (or any legislative body) incrementally.

Likewise, the idea that adding an elected office (the AG) would somehow be outside of politics? C'mon, man.

At 10:27 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

one of the things that troubled me about his campaign is that lots of the different literature he sent out was about "issues" on which the AG office wouldn't normally be involved.

And then wrt divvying up monies on judgements, he could have organized a participatory budgeting type method rather than just dole it out to groups he had been involved with:

But yes, on the area where the AG is active, juvenile prosecutions and diversion, like my general lament about opportunities for DC to be the "city on the hill" because we are a city-state, why not develop and execute the absolute best of national practice.

... which would further the argument for why DC should get control of its criminal prosecution system for adults.

I don't know what absolute best practice would be, but there ought to be a white paper about it.

And infographics to interpret the data.

And like you say, a hyper focus on the hyper predators, and identifying the characteristics that define them and learning from them to determine what the inflection points are to reduce the likelihood of the criminal justice system in abetting the creation of juvenile hyper predators.

2. wrt your point about China, there's competition and there's competition. At the end of the day, a Karl Racine agenda I don't think that it will be fundamentally different from the general GM agenda as expressed by the Mayor and others.

... it reminds me of a joke about Mass. Because the state is so Democrat (some Republican governors to the contrary), everyone is a "Democrat" even if they are conservative, so the Democratic Party there actually expresses a wide range of positions and agendas.

I don't know if that is true or not.

In DC, I've argued that "because everyone is a Democrat" instead of a wide range of policies and agendas being expressed, it allows people to run without having a particularly distinct and actionable agenda-platform.

And at the end of the day, everyone pretty much follows the GM agenda. there doesn't seem to be room for alternatives. Which is why I advocate for two Councilmembers per ward, rather than one, etc.

And re your earlier point about Singapore, here there is too much inter-mixing between the money and political sides. We don't have that kind of "fire wall" between the two that they have.

David Wilmot is a perfect example. I mean how did he get control of a set of group homes and then pay himself and other connected people (like Scott Bolden) who he put on the board, hundreds of thousands of dollars annually. (Until the public coverage of this a few years ago meant he too gave up control.)

At 10:29 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

re: anon -- I just thought that the agenda for AG would primarily be focused on getting control of adult prosecutions and that, to pull off, is a multi-year involved process, not leaving much time to get involved in the everyday politics/Growth Machine miasma.

Yes, naive. (My only excuse is that I focus more on governance than politics.)

At 12:26 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

In terms of GM;

Again I am not the same fan as you of the model.

Clearly, when it comes to executive/Mayor it explains a lot.

For council members, less so. Other than they want to be Mayor and win the big bucks. Developers are clearly mostly funding the council at this point but that is more insurance+relationships investments rather than leverage.

Thoughts on the small dollar donor program in DC?

The Larry Littlefield model (This is about jobs, call it the Ward 9 model in DC) or my owner pokery-industry complex might explain the council better.

At 1:04 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Even though Zoning is legally independent of the executive and legislative branches DON'T THINK FOR A MINUTE THAT COUNCILMEMBERS ARE NOT INTIMATELY INVOLVED IN/INTIMATELY AWARE OF THE PROJECTS, the developers usually involve them at the outset.

But yes, it's about leverage, participation and probably a hope that the CM office can keep a lid on possible opposition, especially of the most vociferous type (e.g., vis a vis the 901 Monroe St. NE project).

2. I don't see small donor assistance programs making much difference in the scheme of things considering how the GM agenda is predominate.

But I might just be overly cynical.

You have people like Kshama Sawant in Seattle who are reflexively against the GM, but ultimately I think it's pretty rare.

At 2:17 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

RE: Councilmembers and GM

Yep, I think we are agreeing here.

"A chicken in every pot, and a trama hospital in every ward"

At 2:49 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

note, not that you don't know, DC is probably the only jurisdiction in the US, where zoning approvals are mostly separate from the executive and legislative branches.

In most communities, the legislative body is the ultimate approver.

In DC, there is the executive branch interpretation function for zoning as part of the building regulation system, and it probably has more discretion than it should, but that's separate and still not subject to too much suasion, because interpretations are based on the zoning regulations and the body of law interpreting them.

In some places, like Chicago and Philadelphia, ultimately the ward councilmember is the caudillo for the ward as it relates to approval.

It's very capricious. But judges in Chicago have ruled that since that is the SOP, it's legal.

I mean, from a "cost" standpoint it doesn't seem to make that much sense to pay into campaigns, given that critical legal distance here that isn't present in most other places.

But they still do so. Again, I think in part it's a desire to work with elected officials to suppress particularly vocal opposition to projects, although as we know that isn't always successful.

At 11:34 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

RE: lobbying

It isn't the check, it is the relationships. That is what you are buying. Ability to get phone calls returned. Very cheap, and you can't do it two months. Takes years. The ROI on lobbying is very high but it is a long term effort. "pay for play" just means you are trying to short circuit the dance.

Off topic:

At 7:16 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...


Here's one, not super scintillating about how "one party politics is no party politics" in PGH and the in-fitting amongst factions of what the author does not call the Growth Machine. But it is akin to the various factions here (Bowser, Gray, Racine).


Post a Comment

<< Home