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, June 14, 2016

Voting in local elections: what you see is what you get

Today is the primary election in DC, and besides the presidential primary in which Bernie Sanders has not yet conceded ("Bernie Sanders Refuses to Concede Nomination to Hillary Clinton," New York Times; "3 days before D.C. primary, Sanders calls for statehood," CNN) people can vote for candidates for At Large Councilmember, and Councilmembers in Wards 2, 4, 7 and 8. (I live in Ward 4.)

DC's Ward elections.  Outside of Ward 2, where the incumbent has been in office since 1991, the Ward elections are particularly spirited, featuring incumbents supported by the Mayor all facing challengers.

The contests in Ward 7 (Yvette Alexander, once endorsed by then Council Chairman Vincent Gray, now being opposed by the former Mayor, Vincent Gray) and Ward 8 (LaRuby May, winner of the special election held after the death of Marion Barry. facing Trayvon White once again--he lost to her by fewer than 100 votes) will demonstrate how much having the support of the Mayor is worth.

Of course, the same is true in Ward 4, Brandon Todd, constituent services director when Muriel Bowser was Councilmember who won in a special election last year, faces a leading challenger, Leon Andrews, who has been reeling in endorsements.  This is her home ward, how long are her coat-tails, how strong is her support?

DC's At large candidates.  The At Large election is interesting too, pitting incumbent Vincent Orange, now in the Mayor's camp, against two challengers, Robert White, who has worked for Delegate Norton (the city's representative in Congress) and Attorney General Karl Racine, and David Garber, a grassroots community activist.

(I like Vincent Orange as a person but generally I don't like his proposals, which tend to be old fashioned big projects that are a lot less urban than I'd like.  He does have ethical challenges too.)

Voting for the candidate they can become.  Wondering about my choices, I was talking to my next door neighbor (a lifelong Washingtonian) and she said her approach to picking who to vote for is if they are capable of growing into the position of Mayor.

I thought that was an interesting approach to the quandaries we face in making our choices.

It's all relative: in many respects DC is dominated by an urban flavored suburban agenda.  As I have written before, most of DC's elected officials live in the "Outer City" and employ what the most ardent urbanists would term more suburban policies and understandings about the center city ("DC as a suburban agenda dominated city").
L'enfant plan
The original urban district of Washington is mostly comprised of three of the city's eight wards: Wards 2 and 6 almost in entirety, and Ward 1, which mostly lies outside of the original "L'Enfant City" but was developed almost completely in city form.  Three of the city's four at-large councilmembers live in the Outer City as do the Mayor and Chairman of the City Council.

Note that while I live close to Montgomery County too, Mayor Bowser's new house is practically in Montgomery County ("Muriel Bowser's new neighborhood is a 'mystery' to many," Washington Post),  (But I lived in the city's core for about 20 years before moving to the Outer City.  She's always lived in the Outer City.)

What you see is what you get?  The thing about Councilmembers, in my experience, it doesn't seem like "they grow while they are in the job" in terms of significantly improving their policy positions and pro-urban philosophies and understandings about cities.

I hope I am wrong, and Councilmembers and their staffs probably would take offense and argue, rightly, that it's very difficult to move a "pure position on urbanism" forward.

I am not saying they aren't smart, dedicated, articulate, etc.

It's just not clear that they "get better" on the issues over time.  (I can think of a couple of exceptions, but their exceptionality proves the rule.)

When I was considering running myself in the special election in 2015, I got some advice from some elected/former officials in the area, and one specifically said "it's really hard to move a Council in a different direction" because Councilmembers believe because they won that they already know everything, and that their position on issues was endorsed by the electorate, so there is no need to learn -- once you're elected it's not a setting for an ongoing seminar in urban management and vision.

Instead the focus is on executing on the platform/issues you committed to at the start of the campaign and that's not so easy since a majority of Councilmembers is required to pass legislation, and there isn't much support for a particularly progressive urban agenda on most of the Councils in the Washington metropolitan area

So I think what you see is what you get for as long as a Councilmember is in office.

Baring extraordinary circumstances, the platform and positions espoused during the campaign for the most part are what we will get, with tweaks along the same lines, as new circumstances warrant.

On that metric, I am not enamored with the choices.

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At 3:09 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

Interesting overlay -- saying that the at large system is rewarding the suburban city rather than the L'Enfant city.

Of the ward council members, the only ones that are L'Enfant would be w1 and w6. In both cases I don't think they are particularly urban minded.

Realigning the wards might work as well. Good size chunks of 2 and 6 are very urban now.

At 3:59 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

well, both the ward structure and the at large system both end up favoring the outer city.

Hadn't thought of the At large issue comparable to the complaint in Montgomery County that all of the at large members end up coming from 'down county' that up county is under-represented.

The same is true for at large. I hadn't thought about it this directly but Orange, Bonds, and Grosso all live in W5, although Grosso had worked for CM Ambrose of W6 and maybe he lived in W6 at that time.

Chairman Mendelson and Mayor Bowser live in W4. CM Silverman in W6.

2. WRT the wards, in Ann Arbor, all the wards were pie shaped, emanating out from the core, so all the wards had a piece of both the core and the outer city (the ward where I ran, W4 also, happened to be dominated by Republican precincts in the outer city).

Yes, it hadn't even occurred to me that maybe the wards should be redrawn to better represent the different types of geographies of the city.

3. wrt the L'Enfant City, I count Georgetown although technically it was outside of the original L'Enfant City. As you know, the border was Florida Ave. (then Boundary St.). So more of W2 than I thought of is outside of it. But most of W1 is outside of Boundary St. but as I wrote, shares the same spatial orientation. I am pretty sure that these days (since W7 has moved west) that all of W6 is inside the L'Enfant City.

I'd say the W6 Councilmembers have been more urban oriented. I don't think the W2 CM is particularly attuned to urbanism. Not sure about W1. I think it might have just been happenstance but CM Graham took a lot of pro-urban pro-transit positions.

At 8:54 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

RE: Redrawing, yeah, it was the way you framed it that made me think of it.

The ward populations should be roughly the same, correct?

Evans is clearly "urban" but not about city living (Biking, walking. etc).

The w1 councilperson is an idiot.

At 9:44 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Ward populations are roughly equal. That's why the wards in the core are much smaller physically.

It'd be hard to design them the Ann Arbor way, because there would be opposition by the commercial building community -- imagine downtown split across 8 wards, with 8 or more ANCs covering it.

In the last ward redistricting, Evans was adamant about putting all of the major central business district in his ward, where it had been split between 2 and 6 (when I was on the ANC6C planning committee we weighed in on a big chunk of Downtown, which made being on the committee a lot more interesting).

So Ward 6 ended up getting a chunk of Shaw to compensate, which from a commonality standpoint, doesn't make sense.

Still, there is a lot to be said for it. You could do it from east and west points, so that 4 wards go from downtown east and 4 wards downtown to the west.

2. Good distinction with Jack Evans about urban focus vs. city living or placemaking. He lives a car centric life I think. But then again, he brought up three young children (now they are probably adults) for a long time and as a widower.

3. I have had no substantive dealings with the new Councilmember in W1. If what you say is true, that's unfortunate.

wrt the elections, they went the way I expected. I expected Brandon Todd to win in W4 and ended up on the right side of things there (I even went to the victory party which was only 2 blocks away -- there were stupendous sweet potato cupcakes from

At 11:34 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Robt. White lives in W4, so that means two at large CMs live in W5, one in W4, and one in W6.

At 12:33 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

Ah, I knew some of the backstory of how w6 got shaw but didn't see all of it.

Would be interesting to compare turnout vs population -- my guess is the "outer wards" have much higher turnout rates.

Interesting about Todd, was feeling he would go down. I should have made better friends with White.


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