Michael Bekesha is running for DC Council in Ward 6, which covers Capitol Hill, H Street, Shaw, Southwest Waterfront, and the Navy Yard. He believes in bus lanes, bike lanes, inclusionary zoning, and in encouraging greater density and more mixed-use housing. He supports expanding public housing, job training, free post-secondary education programs, and services to those experiencing homelessness.
He believes that assault weapons should be banned, that it is a moral imperative to protect the Dreamers, that women should have the right to choose, that stop-and-frisk is a major problem that must be addressed, that the Republican National Committee’s support of Roy Moore was “disgraceful,” and that the #MeToo movement was long overdue. He quotes Barack Obama favorably as an inspiration for his running for elected office.
Michael Bekesha is also a Republican.
He is proud of the central role that he played in pushing the Hillary Clinton email story for his employer, Judicial Watch, during the 2016 election. He has been a guest on Breitbart and Family Research Council radio shows and has defended President Trump on Fox News.
Why is a man with so many left-of-center views running as a Republican in Trump-era DC? In a ward that voted 92 percent for Hillary Clinton, will urbanist voters find his local stances appealing enough to look past his connection to the national GOP?
I spoke to Bekesha (the only Republican running for DC Council this year) about these questions in a wide-ranging interview in March.
What does the “R” stand for?
By running as a Republican, Bekesha has an impossible task ahead. Even in the best of years, the Republican brand is not a popular one in Ward 6. It is safe to say that 2018 is not shaping up to be the best of years for Republicans.
Yet Bekesha believes that, despite his many left-of-center views on local issues and his many disagreements with Republicans at the national level, he must stay and fight for the soul of the party to ensure that it is not entirely engulfed by Trumpism. “If everybody — I don’t want to say sane, I don’t want to quite go there — but if moderate Republicans all leave the party, then what does the party become?” he asked.
Bekesha is keenly aware of the steep uphill climb that he faces as a Republican running for elected office in Ward 6. He is able to rattle off a series of statistics about weak support in the Ward for even moderate Republicans over the years. Yet he feels that running as an Independent would be opportunistic and transparent pandering.
He says he is a Republican because he believes in fiscal conservatism, individual freedom, supporting small business, state and local control, the prudent stewardship of public funds, and in strongly supporting the military and police. Despite the actions of the current Congress and the administration, he continues to believe that the GOP also embraces these values.
Beyond his personal principles and beliefs, Bekesha insists that that the addition of a Republican on the DC Council would provide important benefits to this deeply blue city. In particular, he believes that DC’s democracy suffers from what he perceives as a lack of intellectual diversity in the Wilson Building.
Bekesha makes the case, for example, that a little bit of partisanship could go a long way to ensure that the council does its job. “The DC Council seems to be scared to conduct any real oversight,” says Bekesha. “I think that’s what we’re seeing with the school system scandals right now. The Mayor says that she doesn’t want to testify and the Council just rolls over. I can’t help but think that if everybody was not in the same party, then maybe it would be okay to disagree and more forcefully raise the issue.”
In some ways, Bekesha is not your typical Republican …
Regardless of the letter next to his name on the ballot, Bekesha argues that he is really running as an Urbanist. Indeed, Bekesha has a lot to offer on the issues that matter to Greater Greater Washington.
He speaks passionately and knowledgeably about the importance of improving public transportation, increasing housing supply, encouraging density, and supporting mixed-use, walkable communities. “Ward 6 is an incredible community that everyone should have the opportunity to live in work in,” says Bekesha. “More density would make way for more small businesses in Ward 6. More housing supply would lead to lower housing costs, making Ward 6 more affordable to all.”
Bekesha believes that DC should more energetically identify underutilized land and actively encourage owners to add more density. “There is more that we can do to take advantage of underutilized capacity in DC within the current zoning code. Why build large housing complexes far from Metro, supermarkets, retail, existing schools, and daycares? We need to put housing where people want to live.”
Bekesha also calls on DC to take a far more aggressive approach to expanding dedicated bike and bus lanes throughout the city. “I think the DC Council loves to study,” Bekesha said in response to a question about the 16th Street bus lane that has been under consideration for nearly a decade. “The studies allow councilmembers to be for something without having to actually do anything. You don’t have to make tough choices, you don’t have to spend any money.”
On some issues, his views seem to lie further left than many of those currently on the DC Council. Bekesha, for example, believes that DC should do much more to help public servants, including teachers, police officers, and first responders afford to live in the District. “We have all these great people dedicated to improving the District. Why are they being forced to live out in the suburbs because they can’t afford to live here?” Bekesha believes that we should expand support for these groups through rental assistance and points to a program in Newark that used public and private funds and inclusionary zoning to create a subsidized “teacher’s village.” Bekesha proposes that DC should consider a similar program.
It does not seem that Bekesha is just saying to us what he thinks we want to hear. While Bekesha is not necessarily running a campaign on our issues, he has consistently been public in his support of bike infrastructure and Metro.
If we really care about improving our infrastructure, we need protected bike lanes, designated bus parking spaces, and so much more. We are not holistically thinking about how to improve our roads to make them safe and accessible for all modes of transportation. https://t.co/E1glvwe8mi— Michael Bekesha (@Bekesha2018) May 9, 2018
They don’t because they are unsafe! And because there is no enforcement!— Michael Bekesha (@Bekesha2018) May 9, 2018
Bekesha also agrees with David Alpert and DC Sustainable Transportation that the DC Council should have taken a tiered approach to its ride-hailing tax to encourage shared rides. He proposed re-authorizing the parking tax increase that was repealed in 2017 to pay for it, an excellent idea and far from a the knee-jerk anti-tax attitude of many Republicans nationwide.
… but he has associated with darker corners of conservatism
Despite his attractive stances on key urbanist issues, many Ward 6 voters will see the R next to Bekesha’s name and will automatically reject him. Bekesha thinks that this is unfortunate and that we must look beyond the Republican brand and the ugly national partisan fights. But the reality is that the R next to his name is highly meaningful.
Bekesha may say that he's not a Trump supporter, but he has played one on TV. He is proud of his work as the face of “but her emails” for Judicial Watch, an organization that has pushed the Vince Foster and Seth Rich conspiracy theories, has characterized climate science as “fraud science,” and has spread Islamophobic and xenophobic lies about ISIS training camps in Mexico.
Bekesha insists that he was not involved in any of the above conspiracy theories and that it is not quite fair to judge him based on the actions of others at his organization. He also was quick to point out that Judicial Watch is on track to sue the Trump administration more than it sued the Obama administration. “I am proud of the work that I have done at Judicial Watch and I am proud of the work that Judicial Watch has done in general. I will also add that it is my job and that I don’t agree with everything that happens there.”
Fair enough. But as a part of his work on holding Hillary Clinton accountable for her email practices, Bekesha was a guest on Breitbart and Family Research Council radio shows. Breitbart is a racist and sexist propaganda organization that many Washingtonians likely see as being outside of the bounds of respectable discourse. The Family Research Council is designated as an anti-LGBTQ hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Bekesha did not say anything hateful in these appearances, and I fully believe him when he says that he does not agree with their hateful stances. But engaging these groups does not fully square with his professed desire for “a Washington for everybody,” including, his website says, its black and LGBTQ residents.
Could an Urbanist Republican gain support in DC?
One of the wonderful things about cities is that liberals and conservatives can simultaneously advance many of their ideological priorities (equality, fiscal responsibility, sustainability, freedom, social justice, self-reliance) through good urban policy. Some of our readers are Republicans and might even agree with national Republicans from time to time.
Back when endorsements were individual rather than decided by our Elections Committee, GGWash founder David Alpert endorsed Republican Patrick Mara in 2008 for council at-large against Independent Michael Brown, who was bad on urbanist issues (and later went to prison for taking bribes). That was a race for one of DC's designated non-majority party seats.
Bekesha's road in November will be much more difficult than Mara's. In DC, the Democratic nominee has always won in November. On top of that, Bekesha must contend with the national climate and local alarm over the state of the Republican party, but also the fact that he's very likely to go up against Charles Allen, whom GGWash has endorsed in the Democratic primary. (Bekesha is unopposed on the Republican side.)
Allen has established a tangible record as a strong supporter of many urbanist issues. Bekesha has not been active locally until this cycle. Ward 6 has a record of seeing candidates who work on national issues and don’t participate in local issues until they run for office, such as with Allen's challenger Lisa Hunter. While we believe Bekesha is saying many of the right things, he so far has a longer record on State Department email practices than on local urbanism. Regardless of how this race turns out, we hope Bekesha will continue to advocate locally for greater urbanism in the years to come.