Reta Lewis Embraces Outsider Status

Reta Jo Lewis isn't shying away from her outsider status in D.C.'s mayoral primary. Instead, she's embracing it.

"I'm an outsider candidate, but I'm not an outsider in that I don't understand local government," she said in a recent interview. "I'm an outsider because I'm not tied to the local political establishment or that air of corruption."

Granted, her candidacy declaration last summer may have seemed to come from left field. Lewis is a former Department of State official with a lengthy career in national and international, not local, politics.

But she's lived in the city 35 years -- long enough to refer to it as her hometown -- and she is, in fact, no stranger to city politics, having served as chief of staff for the D.C. Department of Public Works under Mayor Sharon Pratt-Kelly in the early 1990s.

Lewis' decision to run was influenced by her frustration over the disparity between those benefiting from the district's prosperity and those being pushed aside, she said. Another big factor in her decision: the cloud of corruption over the city, she said.

"You know, [with the state department], I [was] out talking to state leaders about America's values... and I came home and we were not doing that in my own hometown," Lewis said. "People would say to me they would understand the Washington of the monuments and the mall... The only [other] thing they knew about D.C. was the corruption. Looking at that, it really spurred me to say I know we can do better."

While Lewis spoke obliquely about the D.C. corruption scandal, she is focusing more on the sin of inaction, citing city leaders' missed opportunities in multiple areas.

"It took our current political establishment three years before they started talking about the minimum wage...." she said. "It took them three and a half years and an election before they started talking about affordable housing."

"They've been talking and making promises and not really delivering," she said.


Lewis says her campaign centers on affordable housing, job training, education reform and listening to the people -- something she says city leaders haven't been doing.

She is incensed that officials haven't held an election for attorney general despite voters' approval of a 2010 referendum that called for the position to be put on the ballot.

"Since, 2010 when 90,000 residents voted to put an A.G. on the ballot, time and time again, our leaders have denied that person to get [on] the ballot. They say they're not ready," she said. "They're not ready because they would run on a law-and-order platform."

Unemployment is another issue she says the city is facing, one that came up again and again, particularly in Wards 7 and 8, when Lewis embarked on a listening tour.

That jives with a recent poll by NBC4, WAMU, the Washington Informer and Marist that shows more voters care about jobs and the local economy than other issues about which they were asked, including crime and ethics.

Lewis identifies widespread unemployment in some areas of D.C. as a chronic challenge, one that local leaders are not rising to meet.

"We're talking about becoming an IT hub, but are we really training our residents for that work?" she asked. "How are they going to participate in that economy?"

Bringing living-wage jobs to struggling neighborhoods would do a lot to solve the issue, but beyond a quick fix, Lewis said partnering with employers for job training programs is crucial.

What she sees for herself strikes home just as much as what others tell her. Lewis says she likes to "wander," walking through her downtown neighborhood and seeing a city bursting with prosperity -- but not for everyone.

"We've got our teachers, our firefighters, our policemen not living amongst us like when we all grew up," she said. "Seniors that want to maintain their residence.... Who are we building Washington for? We see apartments going up but we see our people, our seniors, being put upon by people who want to take their house out from under them. "

Lewis said she wants to increase the number of affordable housing units available, use mixed-use developments as another source of affordable housing, and work to protect seniors from being pushed out.

But many newcomers haven't been faring any better, she said: "Young people are here now and they're living five or six deep like they're in a dormitory."

Education, too, has long been a hot-button issue in the city, and Lewis said residents' frustration with neighborhood schools is understandable. Some schools are succeeding, but others aren't, and that needs to be addressed.

"We've got to go into partnerships in a much more aggressive way," she said. "We've got to find out what's working in successful schools and use the resources we have with the private sector.... To say we are a world-class city, we've got to get the education right."

Despite her experience outside the realm of city politics, Lewis said she's offering herself as a candidate who has the experience, if not the name recognition.

"I think here in the District of Columbia, it's just time for a shakeup," she said.

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