The District is holding a special at-large election in April, and voters are scrambling to learn more about the candidates vying for the job. Curators of two of the area’s vibrant online communities are hoping a new public forum can help voters learn more about the race and make informed decisions. We chat with the founders of the “Let’s Choose D.C.” project.
- Martin Austermuhle Editor-in-Chief, DCist.com
- David Alpert Founder, Editor-in-Chief, "Greater Greater Washington"
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, from vine to table, we'll ponder the future of wine with columnist Michael Franz.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut first, pondering a different future for civic engagement in the District of Columbia. The District will hold a special election in April to fill at large seat on the D.C. Council. It's a city-wide race that's attracted a heap of candidates of different political stripes, all of whom offer different visions for what local government in Washington should be.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAs such it's become a herculean task for even the most informed voters to learn enough about all the people running and their platforms to make educated decisions. The curators of some of the city's more vibrant online communities are joining forces to help voters make sense of the race and the candidates running in it.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThey've launched a new online forum called, "Let's Choose D.C.," where candidates will offer answers to questions about critical issues and where residents can tell candidates what they really think of their ideas. Joining us to discuss this "Let's Choose D.C." project and what they think it reveals about civic engagement in the District in 2013, is David Alpert, founder and editor-in-chief of the "Greater, Greater Washington" and a founder and partner of new online community, "Let's Choose D.C."
MR. KOJO NNAMDIDavid, good to see you again.
MR. DAVID ALPERTThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIMartin Austermuhle is editor-in-chief of "DCist" and cofounder and partner of "Let's Choose D.C." Martin, good to see you, too.
MR. MARTIN AUSTERMUHLEGood to see you, too.
NNAMDIYou can join this conversation at 800-433-8850. Are you a D.C. voter? What kind of information about the candidates running in April's special city-wide election would help you to make a better decision? Send email to email@example.com, send us a tweet @kojoshow or 800-433-8850 is the number you can call.
NNAMDIVoters in every ward of the city will get to participate in this special election on April 23rd. It'll determine the winner of an at large seat on the council. There's already an entire gaggle of candidates scrambling for this seat and there is not much time to learn about what distinguishes one from the other. What are you aiming to do specifically with your project? How would it work and why do you feel it's necessary?
ALPERTThank you. Well, there are a lot of candidates. I believe there...
NNAMDIThis is David Alpert, by the way.
ALPERTYes, there are 15 candidates that have taken up petitions to run so far and there are a lot of very important issues facing the city for the April 23rd special election. But most people don't know very much about most of the candidates. Our goal was to make it easier for people to find out about the candidates' positions and to find out about their beliefs on specific policy issues that really matter to the future of D.C.
ALPERTThe way the site works, letschoosedc.com, is we asked each of the candidates one question last week, which people who go to the site can see the answers and vote on what they think about each answer. Each week after this one we will have another question and the answers from the candidates on that question as well.
NNAMDIWho decides which questions are put forward to the candidates, Martin?
AUSTERMUHLEWell, to begin with, David and I and Dan Silverman from Prince of Petworth, who's working with us, we...
NNAMDIPoPville is now what it's called.
AUSTERMUHLEPoPville, exactly. So we all, we brainstormed a couple of initial questions. The first question came from David. Then we came up with the second question which will be on the site next week, dealing with crime, and we try to find questions, obviously, that address issues throughout the city.
AUSTERMUHLEWe want to, sometimes if we want to make them newsworthy in terms of pegging them to something that's happening in the news, so crime was a relevant one because recently police shoot Cathy Lanier and Mayor Grey have talked about the homicide raping at historic low which is fantastic but they've also, they haven't really mentioned that crime in neighborhoods is higher.
AUSTERMUHLEI mean, assaults, robberies, things like that. So we ask the question specifically on that. And moving forward we're going to, you know, brainstorm questions. We're also going to try to work with organizations both advocates and independent organizations to try to get them to give us ideas of what they think the candidates should be answering and then after the fact look at the answers and say, okay this is good, this is a little vague and this could be a lot better.
NNAMDIDavid, what are you doing to make sure the questions cover issues relevant to a diverse group of people? You could take some heat for having a panel of younger, white men all of whom moved here relatively recently.
ALPERTWe are absolutely interested in having a very wide range of questions. As martin mentioned we're going to be working with a number of advocacy organizations and nonprofits that advocate or report on a lot of issues that matter to many people in the District.
ALPERTWe're also just interested in hearing people's suggestions here on this show, emailed to us at firstname.lastname@example.org or post it on our blogs or in many other forums as well.
NNAMDI800-433-8850, we're talking with David Alpert, founder and editor-in-chief of "Greater, Greater Washington" and founder and partner of the new online community, "Let's Choose D.C." His partner in "Let's Choose D.C." is Martin Austermuhle, editor-in-chief of DCist and founder and partner of "Let's Choose D.C."
NNAMDIAnd the third partner is the Prince of Petworth or what is now called PoPville, in this operation. What are the issues that you think defines city-wide races in the District right now? Call us at 800-433-8850. Martin, you've tried pretty hard in the past to help make sense of specific special elections like the one in 2011 that resulted in Vincent Orange getting elected to the council. What did you learn from giving this a shot before and what are you trying to improve upon here?
AUSTERMUHLEI think what I did in 2011 I noticed, well, the reason I did it to begin with is I noticed that there wasn't a lot of attention being paid by residents, by the media, to the special election. I mean, these are small-town elections turn out ends up being about 10 percent and I think to a certain extent a lot of voters just look at the ballot and they have no idea who they're voting for, what these people stand for and that's, you know, part of it's the responsibility of the media and I consider myself of a journalist and I think I'm just as responsible as any of my colleagues.
AUSTERMUHLEAnd, I mean, the city just doesn’t do a very good job advertising the fact that these special elections are coming up and that there's such low turnout means that these races are incredibly competitive. They're city-wide, they're nonpartisan meaning anybody can run, anybody can vote and you end up getting basically the winner wins by a very, very small margin.
AUSTERMUHLEI mean, Vincent Orange won by I think 1,200 votes in a very close election against Pat Mara, the republican. So I think the idea was both make it easier for people to look at the candidates and say, all right this is what this person stands for. Not just in the sense of this is what they're talking point say, this is what their campaign signs say but this is where they really stand on the issues and make it easier for people to find one place to get all this information at once.
ALPERTAbsolutely, and also with so many candidates people also just want to have more information on how other people are feeling about the candidates so they can make up their minds. With the election Martin was talking about and with the primaries last year there was also a lot of game theory analysis that people were doing.
ALPERTYou know, maybe I prefer candidate A the most but I'm also okay with candidate B and I don't like candidate C and people are trying to decide, should they vote for B so that C doesn't win. And, you know, that, a lot of that happened very much at the end of the cycle when maybe some newspaper endorsements came out and there was a little bit of a mad rush to try to decide if people should shift allegiances based on the strategy.
ALPERTAnd we're trying to help people get more information on how other people feel about the candidates early and throughout the race so that they can make those determinations and maybe coalesce around candidates that are best for them or people that share their own values.
NNAMDIOnto the telephones. David, don your headphones please. Here is Art, in Washington D.C. Art, you're on the air, go ahead please.
ARTGood afternoon, gentlemen. There's two questions that I would like to know about any candidate running for office. And those two are, how much have they contributed to charity and what percentage is that of their incomes?
NNAMDIWhy is that important to you, Art?
ARTBecause some of these people who run for office talk about fixing various things in our society through the mechanism of government until it's a collective. Let's tax people to get the money to fix society, I am interested in knowing from a personal basis how many people willing to step up and make personal commitments to society.
NNAMDIOkay, you said you had a two part question.
ARTWell, that was it. How much did they contribute and what percentage is that of their income?
NNAMDIOkay, thank you very much. Both...
ARTI'll take the answer off the air guys, thank you.
NNAMDIBoth David and Martin have written this done, care to respond to Art?
AUSTERMUHLEI mean, at this point I couldn't answer anything. I mean, there's one candidate, his name's John Gann and he's posted his tax returns, he posted them last month and he said it was kind of a first step in him being open about where his money is, how much money he makes, where his money goes, that type of stuff.
AUSTERMUHLEI didn't exactly, I didn't see how much he got, he gives to charity but I know that it's there. I think it's an interesting question...
NNAMDII suspect that's not going to be a trend.
NNAMDIPosting tax returns.
AUSTERMUHLEI think the other thing we're going to do with the site is also kind of dig into campaign finance because it's also important to know where these people are getting their money from, but I think this is another interesting issue. Obviously, it's like, well, okay, so where do you get your money from? But the money that you do have, whether you make it from your job, whatever, where does it go afterwards?
AUSTERMUHLEObviously, you know, you're going to spend some of it on yourself to survive but do you give any of it to charity? I think it's an interesting question to ask.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Art. You too can call us, 800-433-8850, what would it take for you to pay more attention to local races in your neighborhood or to play a more active role in the process? Where do you see gaps in media coverage of local elections and whom do you think should be stepping up to fill those gaps? 800-433-8850, and if you don't, why don't you vote in these smaller special elections? Let us know.
NNAMDIDavid, you've already got your first question up on the site, what kind of responses have you been getting from the candidates?
ALPERTI think the majority of candidates have given answers to the questions. We did not get responses from Michael Brown and Nina Bonds and one or two possibly candidates that jumped in very late in the race. There was someone who joined, who took petitions, I think, the day before the site went live and things like that.
ALPERTI believe we have all of the other candidates and we're hoping to get the rest of the candidates as well. as far as people in the District, we've had a lot of people voting already based on the posts that we've posted so far on "Greater, Greater Washington," DCist and PoPville. We had, I believe, over 2,000 votes so far, as of when I checked this morning on the questions.
NNAMDIWhat are the, well let me put this a different way, what are you doing in the cases where the candidates don't participate and B, what do you think could be the political consequences for a candidate who doesn't participate?
ALPERTWe're, the plan, we're working together to figure out exactly how everything will go. one of the, I think principles of this is, it's an experiment a little bit and so as we hear feedback and as things proceed we'll figure out exactly what to do about different scenarios. We don't have to, you know, know everything and we are trying to, we want to try a number of different ways to do things.
ALPERTMy thinking right now is when the results come out, once the voting ends for this question at midnight on Monday, January 14th, after that we'll do some analysis of the questions and prepare some information, maybe an info-graphic about what people's reactions were to the questions. Hopefully, folks will share that info-graphic as well and it will mention which candidates were a part of it and which candidates were not.
AUSTERMUHLEI think part of it is probably peer pressure, I mean, this is all out in the open, you can go to the website and scroll through all the answers and see that there's going to be candidates that didn't answer the questions. now, you know, I don't think so highly of myself to think that I can, you know, the two of us alone are, you know, the website can force someone to do something that they don't want to do, but at the end of the day, it's beneficial for them to put their name out there.
AUSTERMUHLEThere's nothing, you know, there's no harm in putting their positions out on paper or on a website in this case. So hopefully they'll see that other candidates are doing and they're going to want to jump in and participate and not leave the issues to be defined by other people.
NNAMDIHere's Ester in Arlington, Va. Ester, your turn.
ESTERI want to react to the first caller...
ESTER...who made a suggestion about charitable contributions. I think this is a part of what I'd like to see is greater transparency but that is an excellent way to approach, I think, what I'm looking for is who is it that's wanting to run, why is he wanting to run? Is it to actually serve the public or does he have a less noble reason for running? I think that's a great suggestion.
NNAMDIYou say you want to serve the public. You say you want to get paid for serving the public. What indications we have that you were serving the public or helping the public when you were not getting paid. What contributions did you make? You would like to know that kind of information, or are you seeking this job because you're looking for a lifestyle upgrade? Is that what you're...
ESTHERYes, you said it so well.
NNAMDIEsther, thank you very much for your call. Gentlemen, this is an open race where candidates from any party who gather enough signatures can get in the same field for a shot at the same seat. But D.C. is not a place where party ID issues work the same way as in, well, some other places. There's a lot of ideological diversity here among democrats. Local Republicans try to assert their differences from the National Party when they're running here locally. What sense do you have going into this process about how party identification affects local races like this one? This one is a particularly intriguing one for me because everybody's in one race. There's no primary. David.
ALPERTThere really is not a strong difference on policy issues between the parties in D.C. whereas there is a strong difference between people within the same party. There are a lot of Democrats. Almost everyone is a Democrat but there are Democrats with very different views about whether and how they would like the city to grow, about what we should do for the less fortunate. Should we, you know, be focusing on cutting taxes or on funding social issues?
ALPERTAnd when we had the debate in the D.C. council two years ago, for example, on whether to have a tax increase, almost everyone on the council was a Democrat. And half of them were on one side of that issue and half of them were on a different side. So to say that, you know, one person's a Republican in this race and, you know, there's someone who's a Statehood Green, but that doesn't -- you can't look at the party label and know to the extent you can in national issues where people are likely to stand on some of the most contentious issues.
ALPERTAnd I think that's a reason we really wanted to highlight candidate views on many of these policy topics.
AUSTERMUHLEYeah, absolutely agree. I think the -- I mean, the only candidate that really sells himself on party affiliation is Pat Maren (sic) . I think -- he's a Republican. He's always run as a Republican but then again he's not a traditional Republican in any sense of the word. And on a lot of topics he might agree with Democrats, he might agree -- or, you know, other Democrats might disagree with their fellow Democrats, like David was saying.
AUSTERMUHLEI think the key thing that we're doing with the site is we're not specifically mentioning, we're not highlighting, we're not putting party affiliation front and center. We're letting the candidates' answers stand for themselves. And I think that's important, especially in a town like D.C. where, as we all know, you know, party affiliation doesn't count for much. And I wish it could just go away but that's obviously a ways down the road.
NNAMDIHere is Rebecca who is on Capitol Hill in D.C. Rebecca, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
REBECCAHi. I was wondering -- I was listening to the show and was wondering how it was that you gentlemen expected to get your word out to folks who don't have internet access. This is an issue, particularly for some people across the -- east of the river. And I hear a lot of dot coms, I hear presumption of internet access. But as it relates to getting the word out I'm wondering how you're going to deal with the hundreds of citizens in the District who have no internet access.
NNAMDIWell, Rebecca, before they respond allow me to share with you a Tweet that we got from lalalalives (sp?) . "If I wasn't on Twitter," she writes, "which many Washingtonians are not," as you are pointing out, Rebecca, she said, "if I wasn't on Twitter I would have no idea that this election was even happening. We need more info all around." So I guess that means our radio, television and newspaper, so called mainstream media have not been doing, in her view, a very good job of getting the information out. And so she feels that it's now left to the people who are online. But allow me to have them respond. First you, Martin.
AUSTERMUHLEWell, I mean, it's certainly a valid complaint, but at the same time, I think it's -- you know, you should notice that you can go to a library -- a public library east of the river, west of the river, anywhere in the city and notice that every single internet terminal is taken. People will find access to internet if they can and they want to. I don't think that us being an online project alone limits the reach. Does it mean the people at home might not have internet access and might not be able to see the site on their off hours? Yes, it's obviously true.
AUSTERMUHLEBut another example is, one of my favorite voter guides is put out by the Current Newspapers. The Current Newspapers is an absolute establishment. It's a must read in my opinion but it only publishes in paper form. It has a website but its actual -- it doesn't have any of its articles in an easy-to-read format online. So it's the opposite. They reach a fantastic audience and they do have a really broad reach across a certain part of the city, but they don't reach everybody. So I think you could balance it out then that they -- because they're going to do a good job covering this election. We're just -- we're doing something similar to what they do. We're just doing it in a different format.
NNAMDIRebecca, thank you very much for your call. D.C. voters don't often get chances to vote in truly open races. David, do you think the city would be better off scrapping close primaries in favor of a different process? There are a lot of different ways to do it. Some places do the so called blanket or jungle primaries.
ALPERTThere's no one voting system that's perfect, but I do think that given what we talked about that parties -- party affiliation doesn't mean a lot. It would be better to come up with a good system that isn't as based on party. I like the idea of having the open primary with a runoff. People talked about things like instant runoff voting. And another problem with the party affiliation system I see is the system of having the party committees pick interim council members.
ALPERTJust because Phil Mendelson was a Democrat means that the Democratic State Committee, which most people don't have a lot of connection to, picked the successor. And I'm not trying to impugn the state committee particularly, but why necessarily is that the way to choose an interim council member? It doesn't make a lot of sense to me.
NNAMDIDavid Alpert, he is founder and editor-in-chief of Greater Washington. Martin Austermuhle is editor-in-chief of DCist Together along with the Prince of PoPville. They are the partners in the new online community "Let's Choose DC." David, thank you very much for joining us.
ALPERTThank you so much, Kojo.
NNAMDIMartin, good to see you. Thank you for joining us.
AUSTERMUHLEGood to see you too. Thanks.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, From Vine to Table. We'll ponder the future of wine. Columnist Michael Franz joins us. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.