Harry Jaffe, a longtime chronicler of the people and politics of Washington, D.C., writes an opinion column for NBC Washington's First Read DMV blog.
The mini-drama over fraudulent nominating petitions playing out before D.C.’s Board of Elections proves the new normal in District politics: Business elites and political machines no longer call the shots.
On Monday, the elections board is set to decide whether S. Kathryn Allen properly gathered the 3,000 signatures on petitions necessary to challenge incumbent Elissa Silverman for the second at-large seat in November’s election. In challenging the petitions, Silverman has presented evidence that thousands of signatures were forged, fraudulent or otherwise invalid.
Based on testimony at last week’s hearing, Allen stands a good chance of being knocked out of the race by the end of the day. The registrar threw out 3,028 signatures in a preliminary review, leaving Allen with 3,040 that still had to clear full review. Even so, Allen released a statement declaring she had “met the required signatures,” though the board had yet to issue its final ruling.
Ironically, it might be better for Silverman if Allen remains in the campaign. In D.C. politics, a crowded field of challengers increases an incumbent’s odds for reelection.
The more revealing question is not whether Allen gets tossed but how — and why — she got in.
Short answers are rage and desperation.
The District’s business community was furious that Silverman, a leader in the Council’s progressive wing, engineered passage of a generous paid family leave program for D.C. workers. The law, funded by a tax on private business, would allow employees to take paid leave to care for newborns and sick family members.
Silverman’s version of paid leave is becoming mainstream. California, New York, Rhode Island and New Jersey have passed similar laws; other states and cities are considering them.
That didn’t deter many business leaders from casting Silverman as enemy No. 1 and plotting to take her out. They considered a slate of potential candidates before settling on on Allen, a 63-year-old businesswoman who had neither run for office nor showed much interest in serving on the Council.
Allen described herself as “handpicked” when she asked another challenger, Dionne Reeder, to get off the ballot, according to sources in Reeder’s camp.
With zero name recognition, Allen needed to demonstrate she had a chance of unseating Silverman, a dedicated and popular incumbent. Former mayor Anthony Williams and former Councilmember David Catania agreed to throw their considerable heft behind Allen and co-chair her campaign.
By many accounts, Williams was the District’s best mayor. During his two terms from 1999 to 2007, he helped the District recover from congressional control and put it on the path toward prosperity. Catania was a force on the Council for 16 years and ran for mayor in 2014. He almost single-handedly established a health care system that’s provided free coverage and decent care for all D.C. residents.
Now both Williams and Catania have different priorities. Williams is executive director of the Federal City Council, a group of the city’s top executives. In backing Allen he says he’s seeking a “better balanced” Council — as in less progressive. Catania now heads a public affairs firm dominated by local clients whose businesses will be affected by the paid family leave act. He has said he backs Allen because he’s close to her family, but his reasons might be closer aligned with the needs of the local health care providers, car dealers, builders and parking magnates that he serves.
Williams, in his measured way, has spoken well of Silverman’s record on the Council but says her paid family leave act is flawed.
“The majority of the benefits would go to workers outside of the city,” he said. “It could have been done in a much more collaborative way.”
Williams first promised to support Dionne Reeder but was convinced Allen had a better chance of unseating Silverman.
“I will help Kathryn any way I can,” Williams said.
The help hasn’t shown in Allen’s campaign. So far, both Williams and Catania have thrown in with a candidate who’s come off as seriously ill-equipped and unprepared.
In an appearance on Kojo Nnamdi’s Politics Hour on WAMU, Allen botched the basic arithmetic behind the family leave act. She repeatedly told listeners the tax on businesses would be 6 percent. When co-host Tom Sherwood told her the tax was actually 0.6 percent, she seemed surprised.
“She totally imploded on the major issue of her campaign,” Sherwood said. “She came off as not a great candidate.”
The implosion came as Silverman’s challenge of Allen’s nominating petitions was surfacing evidence of forged signatures and phantom canvassers.
Whether or not Silverman’s challenge succeeds, it demonstrates a fundamental weakness in her candidacy. Rather than use volunteers to gather the required 3,000 signatures, Allen out-sourced the task to contractors that might have botched the job.
“I was disappointed in that,” says Williams. “She will learn from it.”
Williams learned the hard way about using surrogates to gather signatures. In his 2002 reelection campaign, invalid signatures on his nominating petitions bounced him off the ballot and forced him to run as a write-in candidate. He prevailed despite the debacle, but unlike Allen, he was not a newcomer to D.C. politics, after having served as mayor and the District’s CFO.
Despite the petition debacle, neither Williams nor Catania has backed off supporting Allen. That might seem admirable, but it also reveals a basic misunderstanding of D.C. politics. Voters have elected candidates who they have seen working in the community, who have demonstrated a commitment to public service, who have an authentic understanding of a broad array of issues. So far Allen has shown little of that. Candidates who show up and expect to get elected – I am reminded of Patricia Harris taking on Marion Barry in 1982 – rarely get any traction.
Even if Allen survives the petition challenge, she faces a formidable opponent in Silverman. In her four years on the Council, she’s showed up in all eight wards, proven her oversight duties and served constituent needs citywide. She’s been a consistent and hard-working progressive voice, which paid off in her success in passing the paid family leave legislation.
Out of public view, Mayor Muriel Bowser has been trying to knock Silverman off the Council. “The mayor has not backed a candidate in the at-large race,” her spokesman LaToya Foster said. Perhaps, but sources say the mayor tried to groom her economic development aide Courtney Snowden to take on Silverman, but Snowden proved to be unappealing. Then, according to multiple sources, Bowser’s political aides made it clear the mayor was behind Kathryn Allen.
“The mayor’s top aides helped recruit Allen,” said a source involved in the campaign. “And they directed donors to help her out.”
If Allen is forced off the ballot or continues her campaign and fails, she would become the fourth Council candidate Bowser has backed in a losing effort. Meanwhile, Silverman and Bowser have clashed so often on personal and political matters they have become implacable enemies. Silverman’s victory would empower her against the mayor and embolden the Council’s progressive tendencies.
Bowser’s only hope might be to back Dionne Reeder, who stands the best chance of challenging Silverman.
In the 2000s, Williams and Catania played instrumental roles in making the District a better place to live and work. Williams resurrected the city from bankruptcy and set the stage for its rebirth as a mecca for young professionals and new families. Catania bullied the Council into establishing a health system for all. Now the government is stable and swimming in budget surpluses; new residents are putting pressure on longtime Washingtonians in the workplace and housing market.
“The issues now are more about income inequality and better schools,” Silverman said. “We want affordable housing. We need a better educated work force and families that can remain healthy.”
And that, one would think, is good for business.
Harry Jaffe, a longtime chronicler of the people and politics of Washington, D.C., writes a column for NBC Washington's First Read DMV blog.