Democratic Primary for DC Council Held Against Backdrop of Crime in the Nation’s Capital

June 4, 2024by Ashraf Khalil, Associated Press
Democratic Primary for DC Council Held Against Backdrop of Crime in the Nation’s Capital
A sign for an early voting site at the Stead Park Recreation Center is photographed in northwest Washington, on May 29, 2024. (AP Photo/Robert Yoon)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Tuesday’s Democratic primary in heavily Democratic Washington will largely focus on crime, policing and law enforcement — hot-button issues in a city where violent crime spiked dramatically last year.

Although the numbers for homicides and carjackings are down so far in 2024, the political dynamics and tensions from last year’s crime spree continue to play out this year, with leftist and centrist wings of the Democratic Party facing off in multiple races.

Five of the 13 council seats are on the ballot, with easily the most competitive being the race to replace retiring Ward 7 Councilmember Vincent Gray. A former Washington mayor, Gray has served on the council for 13 years in two separate stints. A total of 10 candidates are vying to be his successor: Wendell Felder, Nate Fleming, Ebbon Allen, Kelvin Brown, Roscoe Grant, Eboni-Rose Thompson, Villareal “VJ” Johnson, Ebony Payne, Veda Rasheed and Denise Reed.

No clear front-runner has emerged, although Gray has endorsed Felder, a longtime local political figure and city government official.

Gray, then the D.C. Council chairman, was elected mayor in 2011. But he only served one term before being defeated in the Democratic primary in 2015 by current Mayor Muriel Bowser. After his defeat, Gray returned to his old Ward 7 council seat in 2016, representing one of the poorest and Blackest wards in a fast-gentrifying capital city.

The 81-year-old has suffered from declining health for years and has fended off quiet speculation that he was no longer able to physically carry out his council duties. His office announced last month that Gray had suffered a second stroke.

The primary is largely viewed as a de facto election in a city where the Democratic Party dominates political life. However, losing primary candidates have regularly reclassified as independents in order to take another shot in November’s general election.

In other races, Ward 4 councilmember and pillar of the council’s leftist wing Janeese Lewis George is seeking a second term against a pair of challengers: Lisa Gore and Paul Johnson. Both have criticized George’s politics as soft on crime.

A pair of Bowser’s most recent mayoral challengers — Ward 7 Councilmember Trayon White and at-large Councilmember Robert White (no relation) are expected to retain their seats. Trayon White is being challenged by former high school principal Rahman Branch and Salim Adofo, a representative of D.C.’s neighborhood-level Advisory Neighborhood Commissions. Robert White is being challenged by comedian and community activist Rodney “Red” Grant, a frequent candidate for multiple elected positions.

Ward 2 Councilmember Brooke Pinto is running unopposed.

Two other members of D.C. Council whose seats aren’t being contested this year — Charles Allen of Ward 6 and Brianne Nadeau of Ward 1 — face recall campaigns aiming to gather enough signatures to force a special election. In both cases, the main criticisms of the councilmembers center around their criminal justice policies.

Bowser, a former councilmember currently in the midst of a third mayoral term, generally doesn’t get publicly involved in the council races and has not endorsed any candidates. One notable exception came in 2018 when she openly supported a failed effort to oust then-at-large Councilmember Elissa Silverman.

Bowser has frequently sparred with the D.C. Council over public safety issues, charging that overly progressive policies have fueled spiraling violent crime rates in 2023 and damaged police morale.

Those differences came to a head last year when Bowser vetoed a sweeping rewrite of the criminal code, citing objections to the lowering of maximum sentencing guidelines for several crimes. The council quickly overrode her veto but the new criminal code was later overturned by the U.S. Congress — with multiple Democratic members citing Bowser’s opposition as proof that the council had strayed from mainstream Democratic policies.

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