In 2014, DC political headlines were dominated by the mayoral primary campaign, with several people running against then-mayor Vincent Gray, and the general election between Muriel Bowser and David Catania. In 2018, the mayoral race is looking likely to be a sleepy affair. But that shouldn't stop District residents from paying close attention to the down-ballot elections.
DC primary voters will select nominees on June 19 for mayor, attorney general, council chairman, council at large, and four ward-level council seats. There is also early voting beginning June 8. In DC, the Democratic nominees are virtually certain to win in November.
Transportation regularly ranks as a top issue for residents. The District needs a healthy, safe, and functional Metro system and has offered to contribute more funds to its operation, but that issue is mainly in the hands of the Maryland and Virginia legislatures.
Meanwhile, there is plenty the District can do to improve mobility. The District Department of Transportation is studying a number of bus lanes, and elected leaders can help chart a bold course for better bus service or bog changes down in battles over individual parking spaces. DDOT will also need mayoral and council support to fix the Circulator's reliability problems, secure a new garage and maintenance facility, and roll out new electric buses.
The DC Streetcar is another transit system starved for money. Council chairman Phil Mendelson has a habit of announcing cuts to streetcar funding just before the full council votes on the budget. He chopped millions from the mayor’s streetcar budget last year, imperiling plans to extend the H Street line east to Ward 7 along Benning Road and west to Georgetown through downtown. Mendelson was also behind significant streetcar cuts in 2014. (It's worth noting that Ed Lazere, his opponent, was also a strong supporter of the 2014 tax deal that included the cuts.) The mayor releases her next budget on March 21 and she said late last year her administration hadn’t decided how much money to allocate for the streetcar.
Elected leaders will have a significant role in helping or hindering progress on safer sidewalks, Vision Zero changes to intersections, new bike lanes, dockless bikeshare, performance parking changes, curbside loading zones for ride-hailing, and much more.
The cost of housing is a persistent issue in DC. Limits on new housing from zoning, preservation, the height limit, and other restrictions — all amid strong demand — contribute to making the District an expensive place to live. The District's Affordable Housing Production Trust Fund and inclusionary zoning program are among the tools currently used to address the problem. But with consistently increasing rents and home prices, much remains to be done.
The District is in the process of updating the Comprehensive Plan for the first time since 2011. The Office of Planning has received thousands of public comments and recently unveiled its first set of draft amendments to the plan. Greater Greater Washington has called for the Comp Plan to prioritize more housing to meet demand, to plan for more affordable housing, and protect tenants from displacement.
For both housing and commercial development, elected officials in DC will also have to decide what kind of development taxpayers should subsidize. Last year, the DC Council approved $36 million in tax-increment financing to subsidize 600 additional parking spaces at Union Market and voted down a proposal to use it for affordable housing and a new NoMa Metro entrance instead of parking. That's just one of many potentially controversial tax breaks the council has or will discuss.
Historic preservation has continued to envelop more and more of the District, including proposals for new historic districts in Bloomingdale and Kingman Park that have sparked concern in those communities. Meanwhile, lawsuits have stopped a number of new developments which included needed affordable and market-rate housing.
For mayor, Bowser currently faces only minor opposition and holds a huge campaign war chest. Unless Gray opts for a rematch, which looks increasingly unlikely, she's set to sail smoothly into a second term.
Since returning to elected office as Ward 7 councilmember in the 2016 election, two years after Bowser ousted him as mayor, Gray has consistently said he’s undecided on trying again for the top job. Gray is known for waiting until the last minute to announce his campaigns, and the deadline to file petitions to get on the ballot isn’t until March 21.
The biggest contest after the mayoral race is for council chairman. Phil Mendelson, the incumbent, is seeking a second full term. The race had looked uncompetitive until January 24, when Ed Lazere, head of the left-leaning DC Fiscal Policy Institute, jumped into the race.
Lazere says he's running because of income inequality in DC and its impact on affordable housing and homelessness. Progressives are frustrated with Mendelson for supporting a paid family leave law but then seeking to change it after it was enacted, and for blocking other workplace-related measures like a ban on last-minute scheduling for hourly employees.
Two at-large council seats are on the ballot. Democratic incumbent Anita Bonds is running for a second full term. She’s facing several millennial challengers in the primary: community activist Jeremiah Lowery, real estate firm associate Marcus Goodwin, and former Ward 8 Council candidate Aaron Holmes.
Most elections in DC are decided in the Democratic primary. But the DC Charter reserves two at-large seats for members who aren’t members of the majority party; one seat is up every two years. In these races, we don’t know the winner until November. The current seat holders are indepdents Elissa Silverman and David Grosso.
This year, Silverman is running for a second term. Challenging her is Dionne Bussey-Reeder, who owns a restaurant in Anacostia and says she’s running because she’s against the paid family leave legislation Silverman spearheaded. Former Ward 7 councilmember Yvette Alexander is also weighing a bid; she was a Democrat when in office, but could switch to independent to run (as is common in these seats).
Further down the ballot, Brianne Nadeau in Ward 1 (Adams Morgan/Columbia Heights), Mary Cheh in Ward 3 (Cleveland Park/Spring Valley/Tenleytown), Kenyan McDuffie in Ward 5 (Bloomingdale/Fort Totten/Brookland) and Charles Allen in Ward 6 (Shaw/Capitol Hill/Southwest) are seeking re-election as Democrats.
Nadeau faces a number of challengers in the primary: former judge and former ANC commissioner Lori Parker, librarian and ANC commissioner Kent Boese, architectural drafter Sheika Reid and sign language interpreter Jamie Sycamore.
In Ward 6, Allen has one primary competitor: Lisa Hunter, who worked in the Department of Health and Human Services during the Obama administration.
No serious challengers to Cheh or McDuffie have yet surfaced.
The mayoral race could be a nail-biter or a snoozer. The council could be chaired by a newcomer to elective office or a 20-year veteran. In the at-large and ward races, it’s possible we’ll see new faces and it’s possible all the incumbents will be re-elected. But one thing is certain: the elected leaders seated in January 2019 will make critical choices about what kind of city DC will be for decades to come.