At-Large Democratic Primary Race

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At Large Debate Hill Center.Photo: Andrew Lightman

Three candidates are challenging incumbent Anita Bonds for the Democratic at-large nomination. The other Democratic at-large seat is currently occupied by Robert J. White, Jr. who is currently running for mayor but is eligible to hold his seat until 2025.

Two seats designated for the non-majority party are currently occupied by Christina Henderson (I) and Elissa Silverman (I), the latter of whom will appear on the ballot in November; because she is an independent candidate, there is no primary.

Meet the Candidates
Born and raised in Hillcrest, Dexter Williams (www.dexter4dc.com ) graduated from Friendship Collegiate Academy before obtaining a bachelor in health administration from Howard University and a master in public administration from the University of Baltimore. Williams worked as legislative assistant for Councilmember Robert J. White, Jr. until 2020. Since then, Williams has worked for RepresentUs, an organization that lobbies for electoral reforms like ranked-choice voting and voting by mail.

Dexter Williams

Born in Roanoke, VA, Lisa Gore (www.gorefordc.com) graduated from the University of Virginia and is finishing a master’s degree in management from University of Illinois. Currently Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) for 3/4G01 and a resident of U Street, Gore spent 23 years as a federal special agent for the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), rising to Special Agent In Charge. She recently retired from government service after a stint with the Inspector General (OIG) office in the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Lisa Gore

Nate Fleming was raised in Ward 8 and obtained his Bachelors in political science from Morehouse College, a law degree from the University of California, Berkeley and finally, a master’s in public policy at Harvard. In 2013, Fleming was elected as DC’s Shadow US Representative. Currently a resident of Deanwood in Ward 7, Fleming has worked in the office of Councilmember Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) since 2017 as both a Legislative and Committee Director.

Nate Fleming

The trio face incumbent Anita Bonds. A graduate of the University of California, Berkeley who was born and raised in Southeast and is now a resident of Northwest. The incumbent has been involved in District politics for more than fifty years, starting behind the scenes helping Marion Barry run for school board in 1971 and then during his campaign for mayor. She later joined his administration in multiple capacities, including as his special assistant for constituent services. Bonds has been At-Large representative on DC Council since 2012, filling the vacancy created when Phil Mendelson (D) won a special election for DC Council Chairman.

Anita Bonds

Bonds has been re-elected twice since then, defeating two primary challengers in 2016. Currently Chair of the Council Committee on Housing and Executive Administration, Bonds points to legislative successes including the Vacancy Increase Amendment Act of 2020 which limits rent increases on vacant units; and Limited Equity Cooperative Task Force Act 2018, which established a task force to provide policy recommendations to improve existing and add new cooperative housing in the District. “As an at-large council member for all eight wards, I am focused on providing reasonable and resourceful leadership on legislation and constituent services,” she said.

During the campaign, the four at-large candidates met virtually and in-person at multiple debates including one sponsored by the Hill Rag and Ward 6 Democrats at the Hill Center (921 Pennsylvania Ae. SE) May. During these encounters, the three challengers tried, and at times struggled, to differentiate themselves from one another. For her part, Bonds was often the more likely to offer opposing views. Two matters dominated much of the discussion: public safety and housing.

Crime
Public safety and a rise in crime are major issues during this year’s District election cycle and it was no different during the at-large debates. Bonds was the only candidate to say she is in favor of a proposal from Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) to increase Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) ranks to 4,000 officers, noting that she was a “big proponent of community policing” while suggesting that more officers could help improve the police department’s clearance rate in solving crimes and help the community feel safer.

Acknowledging that societal interventions are needed, Bonds emphasized that the community wants additional police support. “I really and truly believe that we need to see more officers on the streets,” Bonds said at the Hill Center forum. “Whether it is a forgone conclusion or not, people feel comfortable when they see an officer in their community and we just don’t have officers in our community as we once did.”

Meanwhile, former law enforcement manager Gore said she sees the importance of police in crime prevention but said there is not a “magic number of officers who will make the city safer.” “I think we need to give MPD what they need, but I would do that with great oversight,” she said at the Hill Center forum. Allocating resources is a difficult balance, she said, adding that DC Council needs to dig into the MPD budget to make sure the agency is effectively positioned to respond appropriately in an efficient and effective way, and to make sure resources are not being allocated where not needed.

Both Williams and Fleming opposed an increase in officers.

Williams addressed the importance of identifying and addressing the root causes of crime in the District rather than adding uniformed officers to the streets. He called for equitable resource allocation across wards, especially for education, school nutrition programs, after-school programs, mental health support programs and opioid treatment.

“We have to invest in causes,” Williams said. “I don’t think increasing the number of police officers is actually going to solve crime; it gives us a false sense of security.” Instead, he proposed the city needs to expand the Mental Health Emergency Dispatch Program to direct certain 911 mental health calls to social workers instead of going directly to MPD. “By not having the police as the sole crisis responders,” Williams added, “we will start eliminating the risk of harm to both residents and the police.”

Fleming agreed, saying a comprehensive approach is needed. He said improving outcomes for young people can help address the root causes of crime. Instead of increasing officer corps, he advocated for the implementation of year-round universal after-school programming.

“[Crime] is a reflection of our young people being in crisis and we have to address that issue both in the short term by improving community and police relations,” Fleming said, adding that this could be addressed in the long term with educational and economic opportunities and expanded mental health care. Fleming said one way to do so is to create jobs and expand entrepreneurship, while avoiding displacement and securing affordable housing. “Making sure that our young people are engaged, I think, is at the heart of this matter,” he said.

Challenging Bonds on Housing
Bonds is currently the Chairperson on the Committee on Housing and Executive Administration. There’s no guarantee that the next at-large council member will serve in the same role, as chairs of council committees are elected by the Committee of the Whole at the start of each two-year council period. Still, given that Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) has referred to Bonds as “the Chair of Housing,” it is no surprise that housing dominated much of the discussion between candidates.

Pointing to her record, Bonds said that since accepting the assignment as chair of the housing committee DC has been recognized as a national leader on affordable housing. “Building, preserving and providing housing at a rent that residents can afford are challenging processes, but DC is slowly overcoming,” she said.

Bonds said she was working to ensure that every District resident has a safe, sanitary, and affordable place to call home, pushing for policies that expand tenants’ rights, increase opportunities for homeownership and preserve and increase of the District’s affordable housing stock.

Bonds said there has been progress made but much work still needs to be done on affordable housing in the District. In April, she created a stir when she said she had not heard of the District’s 37,000-long housing-voucher wait list.

Asked about it at the Hill Center Forum, Bonds said that she was misquoted. She said she was aware of a wait list for public housing, but noted that there is no list for the local voucher program. Of note, Bonds said the Council is researching the public housing waitlist to see which families have already been assisted. While there are upwards of 37,000 people who have been added to the list over the years, Bonds said it was generated over the past twenty years ending in 2015. The incumbent said the government thinks it likely that many have had their needs met in the time that has elapsed since they were added; “We don’t know that,” she acknowledged, “but that’s what we’re working on.”

Gore, former council staffer Dexter Williams and former shadow representative Nate Fleming all pointed to the council’s lack of oversight of the Housing Production Trust Fund as a particular concern. Since 2015, more than $1 billion has been added to the fund, which by law is required to spend half its outlay on funding the construction of units reserved for residents earning below 30 percent of the area median income (AMI). A recent inspector general report found the fund was significantly missing that target.

During the virtual Office of Campaign Finance (OCF) debate, Gore quoted a report issued last year by the Office of Inspector General which found that contracts for affordable-housing development projects were sometimes awarded to applicants besides those recommended by the finance committee. “And we know the Housing Production Trust Fund (HPTF) has been in the news lately with the inappropriate spending of over $82 million in terms of deeply affordable housing,” Gore said. “That is where good oversight comes in.”

Responding to a question about which barriers to building housing should be removed, Williams and Fleming also pointed to HPTF. Williams said mismanagement is putting money in developer’s pockets and preventing the city from building as much affordable housing as possible. “We have policies that can address these issues, but they aren’t being implemented well,” he said at the OCF debate.

Bonds said that a problem with the HPTF is that developers have trouble getting funding to build units in the 0 to 30 AMI range. In response to another questions, she also pointed to the cost of land as a primary barrier to housing construction. “Land prices are so exorbitant it makes it very difficult to build the housing that we need uniformly across the city,” she said.

Affordable Housing
The city is experiencing an affordable housing crisis even as housing prices rise. Fleming emphasized the need to make affordable housing a “priority” in the District and said that unconventional and creative problem solving could be the solution. “We have the least affordable housing market in the country, we have the highest rate of black displacement in the country, we have the largest achievement gap between black and white students, public safety, crime is on the rise,” Fleming said. “So we need creative leadership that can work to solve these problems.”

Williams emphasized a need for increased housing for the middle class as well as affordable units. He pointed to the potential of development around Reservation 13 to fill housing needs. “I have friends who make a high six-figure income [and] they cannot afford to live in this city,” Williams said at the Ward 6 Dems At-Large Candidate Forum. “So I think it gives us an opportunity to build more workforce housing and, as a Councilmember, to advocate for more funding so that we can make those strategic investments.”

Gore said the city can integrate community land trust and social housing models that center permanent affordability. But, she said, DC won’t get out of the affordable housing crisis using one type of model. While DC has built a lot of market-rate units, there’s been less investment in affordable. She said DC should look at new ways to invest, such as the Community Land Trust model used in New York. Gore said DC could close loopholes in rent control law and to make sure to preserve affordable and multi-family units during conversions. DC should also fund public housing repairs, rehabilitating and maintaining deteriorating units. “Public housing residents deserve to live in homes that are safe, healthy, and thriving,” Gore said.

Quick Stands
Positions on other issues were offered in short-answer questions posed at both the OCF and Hill Center forums:

  • All four candidates oppose District financial support for a new Washington Commanders stadium.
  • Bonds favors removal of encampments, noting housing is available to residents. Williams, Fleming and Gore oppose removal, with Gore calling the process “cruel,” noting that camps are cleared before people are fully connected to housing. Williams said that people don’t go into shelters or seek services because they don’t trust government.
  • Bonds is also the only candidate to oppose ranked-choice voting and voting for those under 18. She is the only candidate who supports continued mayoral control of District schools.

Next
The winner of the June 21 Democratic Primary will appear on the ballot for the Democratic Party in the November 8 general election. Learn more about the 2022 Primary Election by visiting dcboe.org/PrimaryElection2022