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This week’s special election for the District’s At-Large Council seat could alter the trajectory of local public policy, from affordable housing to public education. WAMU 88.5 reporter Patrick Madden joins Kojo to examine the results of the race and what it means for local government in the nation’s capital.
- Patrick Madden Reporter, WAMU 88.5 News
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, a classic Hemingway tale as told by dance. The Washington Ballet's Septime Webre joins us to share the vision for his interpretation of "The Sun Also Rises."
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut first, incumbent at-large Councilmember Anita Bonds successfully defended her seat yesterday, fending off five other candidates in a citywide special election. It was the District's seventh election in the past two and a half years, a contest necessitated by the former chairman of the Council pleading guilty to a federal crime and stepping down last year.
MR. KOJO NNAMDISeveral candidates claimed the mantle of reform and pledged to shake up the Wilson Building and root out corruption. But in a contest with extremely low turnout, D.C. voters ultimately sided with Bonds, the longtime Democratic activist with the closest ties to the city's political establishment. Joining us to explore yesterday's results and what they'll mean for the city's political dynamics is Patrick Madden, reporter with the WAMU 88.5. Patrick, good to see you again.
MR. PATRICK MADDENGood afternoon, Kojo.
NNAMDIA lot of talk about how this race had the potential to dramatically alter the trajectory of local government in D.C., but in the end, voters went with the candidate tied most closely to the Council and the city's traditional levers of power. You reported from Anita Bonds' victory party last night, which was attended by roughly half the Council and the mayor. What do you think tipped the race in her favor yesterday, and what's your immediate reaction to the result?
MADDENAs you mentioned before, clearly, Anita Bonds was the establishment candidate in this race. She's a longtime, you know, party insider, head of the local Democratic Party, and that's what helped her actually become appointed to this interim spot. And, you know, she was endorsed by, I think, most of the Council.
MADDENShe was endorsed by the mayor and many of the labor unions. So she really had a lot of support, a lot of ground game going into this race, and she did well in, you know, Wards 5, 7 and 8, whereas most of the other candidates sort of split the other wards. So it really -- I think that's what ultimately proved to be decisive.
NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments about yesterday's election in the District of Columbia, give us a call at 800-433-8850 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. You could send us a tweet, @kojoshow. Patrick, for a while last night, people were entertaining the possibility of this being the lowest turnout in local history in D.C. -- is eventually about -- what -- 9.9 voters showed up, less than 10 percent of the voting population. What do you think explains that?
MADDENI mean, to me, it's...
MADDENI mean that's -- as you mentioned, seven elections, you know, in -- in the what -- past two and a half years, sure, voter fatigue. But this is the District of Columbia. This is the nation's capital. This is one of the most educated cities in the world and clearly the most politically savvy, politically active cities in the U.S., if not the world. So to be honest, I don't know what gives. It -- to me, it's mind-boggling that only 10 percent...
NNAMDIIn other words, nothing explains it, you bad, bad, bad soldiers who...
MADDENYeah. Not -- where's the civic duty out there but especially -- I mean all the people involved in politics, whether you work on the Hill, I mean it's just amazing that only 10 percent of registered voters went out and cast a ballot.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. If you did not cast a ballot yesterday, you may want to share with us why or if you did and would like to make a comment on the result of the election or if you just want to join the conversation, the number is 800-433-8850. We're talking with Patrick Madden. He's a reporter with WAMU 88.5.
NNAMDIBonds took some heat a few weeks ago for comments she made right at this very table in a forum about the importance of black representation on the Council. With her victory, the Council maintains seven white members and six African-American members. How do you think the dynamics of race ultimately shaped yesterday's contest?
MADDENI mean it's a good question. If you look at the wards where she did well, predominately African-American wards, you know, Ward 7, 80 percent of the vote; Ward 8, 80 percent of the vote. So she clearly, you know, that she did well in the wards where -- that were predominately African-American. And I know that that had issue that was raised here, I think, it really was highlighted here during the debate we held. During the final weeks, I mean that was a big issue, and I think, you know, it's hard to tell what impact that had on voters. But you couldn't say that it wasn't out there.
NNAMDIWell, the impression I got was that while Anita Bonds took a lot of heat, especially in the media, for making remarks that she felt it was important that she was an African-American candidate in this race. Even as she said it, I got the impression that that, frankly, was a part of her campaign strategy that her advisers probably knew in advance that they'd probably take a lot of heat for it.
NNAMDIBut they said this is an important message that needs to be getting out. And it seems, to me, that quite a few people heard that message. I've seen quotes where people said, yes, that is one of the reasons they voted for Anita Bonds in this race. And so what's likely to continue in this city, not that it's ever abated is the ongoing conversation about the significance of race in electoral politics in Washington, D.C. 800-433-8850 is the number to call.
NNAMDILongtime followers of D.C. politics know Anita Bonds from her work for several former mayors. She's also been the chair of the D.C. Democratic state committee. You've reported pretty extensively on her and the people who supported her campaign financially. How does that inform us about the kind of councilmember that Anita Bonds is likely to be?
MADDENWell, again, she's -- I think, you know, as we've established, she is the establishment candidate. Obviously, she, you know, there are a lot of corporate contributions in her campaign finance records. She was a contractor with Fort Myer Construction. That's if not one of the -- if not the biggest city contractors.
MADDENThey do a lot of paving. Although I did believe I read today that Tim Craig is reporting that she will -- of The Washington Post -- that she will be leaving her job at Fort Myer. So unlike some of the other councilmembers who do have outside jobs, she will be a fulltime councilmember.
NNAMDIAnd she did indicate on this broadcast that she would leave her job.
MADDENMm hmm. And so, I mean, I think -- I don't want to say it's going to be -- I guess the way to put it is a lot of the other candidates were trying to make the issue of corporate contributions a big issue. And clearly, Bonds did not have a problem with that, did not have a problem with receiving those contributions and the role that that may or may not have on how the Council governs.
NNAMDII suspect that it will be -- we'll certainly see a lot more request for transparency. From those of us in the media, we will see a lot more scrutiny about how contracts are given out in the city. If the story last night was about Bonds winning, it was every bit as much about the apparent collapse, if you will, politically of the Patrick Mara, a Republican candidate who was endorsed by The Post, oh, maybe four times, supported by four times...
NNAMDI...supported by multiple...
MADDENEvery weekend, yeah.
NNAMDI...editorial page pieces throughout the contest. He finished third and pretty much underperformed throughout the city. What do you think explains his poor showing?
MADDENWell, I mean, first of all, it was never going to be easy for a Republican in D.C. I mean Democrats outnumber Republicans 11 to one. It's just -- it's a lot of headwinds that you're up against. And Mara really tried to position himself as sort of this new style of Republican, someone who's socially progressive but fiscally conservative.
MADDENAnd that was the message that they were trying to hit on. I mean, there were many articles, even national newspapers, reporting on Patrick Mara as this new urban Republican. But it looks like it didn't hold. I mean, it sounds like he got the Republican votes that he needed to get, but the Democrat supporters that he had in the past, they didn't show up for him this time.
MADDENAnd so, I mean, I'm sure there will be, you know, when they do a -- when the Mara campaign does a postmortem, they're going to try to figure out what happened, how did we lose independents or Democrats in this race because that -- I mean to be quite frankly, that's the only way you're going to win as a Republican. You need to expand your base, and also, this may have been the best shot, I think, for Republicans in a long time because this was an open seat, nonpartisan, low turnout, which in cases like this, would help a Republican candidate.
NNAMDIThis city showed a great deal of love for Carol Schwartz, a Republican, when she ran in citywide campaigns for the Council, not so much when she ran for mayor, even though she did get a lot of votes in those races. David Catania was elected as a Republican who decided to leave the party, but it seems as if the Patrick Mara effort to rebrand the Republican Party so far has met essentially with failure in the city.
MADDENYes. And there were some tough articles, you know, in the weeks leading up to the election that sort of raised questions about Mara, his ties to the national GOP, lobbying efforts. And so I think that damaged him leading up into this race to sort of I think he was trying really hard to say I am not the national GOP. I am completely separate, and I think those articles hurt.
NNAMDIWhat's next for Patrick Mara you think?
MADDENI spoke with him last night at the...
NNAMDIDid he have to give up his seat on the Board of Education to run for this?
NNAMDIHe maintains that position.
MADDENI'm pretty sure. I'm 99 percent sure. I spoke with him last night. He doesn't -- I'm not sure what his future plans are. I think he was still, you know, I think they're a little bit in shock last night -- the Mara campaign -- about how things went last night. I don't think they expected to come in third.
NNAMDIMeanwhile, former journalist Elissa Silverman ended up finishing second. She courted the so-called progressive vote heavily over which she competed with fellow Democrat Matthew Frumin. Late in the race, she apparently asked Frumin to step aside so a progressive candidate would have the best chance at winning the seat.
NNAMDIFrumin took home about 11 percent of the vote. Silverman ended up losing to Bonds by about, oh, three, maybe four percentage points. How would you explain Silverman's success after all she was a first-time candidate in this race, and do you think it's fair to say that Frumin ultimately played the role of spoiler in this race?
MADDENI mean it's -- if you look at the numbers and you try to do the math, sure. I mean if Frumin's votes had been -- if you gave Elissa half of those votes, she probably would have won. I think that Silverman clearly did really well in this race, surprisingly good. I mean she was the progressive candidate. She swore off, you know, corporate contributions. She had the good government policies, you know, fighting corruption.
MADDENAnd she did really well. I mean I think, you know, coming in at 28 percent, that's -- she did -- she won I believe two of the wards. She performed well in four of them. I mean this really sets her up I think for -- I mean people are going to be talking about her now when you look to the future, whether it's a citywide race or a Ward 6 race, where she currently lives.
MADDENSo I think this was a good showing for Elissa Silverman, and I think a good showing for, you know, those so-called progressives in this city who constantly seem to be finding themselves in situations where they sort of the next day after the race they realized, oh, yes, we have now split the vote again with our candidates.
NNAMDIThat means she was running against an incumbent who had the support of the Democratic Party establishment, an incumbent who herself in many ways personifies the Democratic Party establishment in the District of Columbia, and she still ran a pretty decent second. We've got an email from Jess in Columbia Heights who says, "While I'm disappointed by the voter turnout, I'm happy with the candidate turnout. Elissa Silverman and Matt Frumin are the kind of people who we want participating in the public forum here in D.C.
NNAMDI"They had good ideas. They ran good campaigns. D.C. will be a better place the more people we have like them who put their money where their mouths are and get in the ring and run. Let's have more of that." That's from Jess in Columbia Heights. What do you think we can expect from Elissa Silverman in the future? Do you think we'll see her running for office again? I'm saying yes.
MADDENI would say yes, too. I mean, she -- I think she did so well that it would be hard for her not to strongly consider running again. And again, this is the District where we seem to have elections -- gosh -- almost every...
NNAMDIThey're going to be running for this same seat again in...
NNAMDI...about a year and a half.
MADDENExactly. And it just -- it's, you know, we seem to have a lot of elections here. So...
NNAMDIFrumin said he's not interested in challenging Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh. Are we likely to see him as a candidate again?
MADDENWell, on that issue, I would -- let's wait and see on that because I think, you know, Frumin did really well in Ward 3. I think he received 27 percent of the vote. I mean, that's really strong. And I think it's -- when that seat is up again against incumbent Mary Cheh, I think -- Frumin says right now he's not running, but I think we have to wait and see because I think there'll be a lot of pressure on him to challenge the incumbent.
NNAMDISpeaking of Ward 3, Vera in Washington, D.C. wants to know something about Ward 3. Vera, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
VERAHi, Kojo. I am curious as to how Anita Bonds did in Ward 3. If we are any indication, my husband and I, independently at the very last minute, decided to support her. And there were several reasons. One, we just -- it seemed to me that the other candidates, Frumin and Silverman, they couldn't get their act together, and she was asking him to get out of the race. Then there was a lot of innuendo.
VERAWe got messages on the phone saying, you know, don't vote for a Republican, but not saying who to vote for, not even mentioning Anita Bonds. And then, I mean, I was amazed that The Post actually got itself to write two very, very troubling little pieces about Patrick Mara, connecting him with a right-wing group and implying that he was employed by this group.
NNAMDIWell, I don't represent The Post, but I know The Post would say they'd like to make a distinction between what's reported on their news pages and what's reported -- on what is opined, if you will, on its editorial pages that there is a firewall between the two. But here's Patrick Madden.
MADDENRight. So I have the numbers in front of me. So Bonds in Ward 3 received 5 percent of the vote, and that was easily her worst performance for any of wards. So she did not do well in that ward. And just to follow up on what Kojo was saying, yes, you know, The Post had some, you know, some strong articles looking into Patrick Mara. But at the same time, you know, the editorial board, I think, you know, had four -- count them -- four editorials endorsing Mara and trying to get the word out for him.
NNAMDIWhich led a lot of people to believe that he would be the frontrunner, not so much, on the budget referendum that was voted yesterday. It seems that, well, just about everybody voted in favor of budget autonomy for the District of Columbia.
MADDENRight. Eighty-three percent, that -- so clearly, most people supported the budget referendum. It's amazing to me that people did not support the budget referendum 'cause if you look at it, it's basically saying let the District have more control over how it spends its tax dollars. Who can be, you know, who would oppose that?
MADDENBut clearly, there was a small, you know, a small number of voters that did oppose it. And this is interesting, Kojo, because it's still unclear how this is actually going to work, what's going to happen. Congress has a chance, you know, 35 days to do a disapproval. Again, people do not think that is going to happen because the Democrats control the Senate.
MADDENPresident Barack Obama, you know, would have to sign off on this disapproval. But Darrell Issa, the Republican from California, who oversees the District, he is not a fan of this. He has said that he thinks -- but he has been a fan of the District and giving it more autonomy over its budget. So let's see how this plays out. This may have some repercussions.
NNAMDIAnd we get the final comment from Chris in Washington, D.C. Chris, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CHRISHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. With regard to -- there were a few quick comments I wanted to make with regard to Patrick Mara. He seemed to be putting out a lot of comments leading up the election that he thought that he had it in the bag. There was an article in The City Paper in which referred to his polling that he said that he thought everything was, you know, coming up roses for him.
CHRISAnd I can't help but wonder if that didn't hurt him. You know, the -- you want to get people motivated to go out and vote and if people think that you've got it in the bag, particularly on a low-turnout election, I wonder if people don't think, well, there's no point in me going to vote.
NNAMDIHere's Patrick Madden.
MADDENI think that is -- it's a very astute point because if you look at some of the precincts where Mara did really well, in Ward 3 in 2011 when he ran, he -- in some of those, he didn't hit those numbers. And these are precincts where Mara should have done really well. So perhaps that is a reason why voters who normally would be supporting Mara stayed home.
NNAMDIAnd that's about all the time we have. Patrick Madden is a reporter at WAMU 88.5. Patrick, always a pleasure.
MADDENThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIWhen we come back, a classic Hemingway tale is told by dance. The Washington Ballet's Septime Webre joins us to share his vision for his interpretation of "The Sun Also Rises." I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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