Mar 9, 2022 - Politics

Town Talker: Sleepy Palisades becomes D.C. political hub

A voter signs his signature for a candidate running for office on the sidewalk at a farmer's market.

Phil Thomas (left), a candidate for D.C. Council from Palisades, receives a voter's signature to qualify for the ballot. Photo: Cuneyt Dil/Axios

At the Sunday farmers market in the well-to-do enclave of Palisades, residents are more used to finding $4 kale than wannabe politicians hawking stump speeches.

Why it matters: A wide-open race to succeed Ward 3 council member Mary Cheh has produced a political frenzy in this sleepy neighborhood, with four residents of Palisades, in addition to a few not far away, running for the seat.

  • The outcome could mean that the District's next council member hails from a part of town more known for its suburban character.
  • Ward 3 observers are surprised more political energy isn't emanating from the denser Wisconsin and Connecticut avenues, home to many students and young professionals.
  • Palisades is downright rural in contrast. Its main street, MacArthur Boulevard NW, is a homey postcard of small-town America. It has hosted an annual Fourth of July parade since 1966, drawing neighbors on lawn chairs and pols on the campaign trail.

For citywide onlookers, Palisades is Ward 3 distilled, with an abundance of luxury SUVs, socialites, and single-family homeowners resisting change, an area Washington City Paper called “The Mild, Mild West.”

“The mindset is changing,” candidate Tricia Duncan told me at Black Coffee, a Palisades café and daytime gossip house.

  • As a new Palisades resident myself, I asked about the last development brouhaha, when residents opposed Safeway rebuilding its grocery store with condos above it. Safeway walked away in 2019, leaving the well-heeled in a sort of, well, “food desert.”
  • “Safeway called their bluff,” said Duncan, who leads the Palisades Community Association.
  • Today the site plans to turn into an upscale senior living community. (Duncan says developer Trammell Crow will open a 5,000-square-foot grocer.)

Between the lines: In a crowded race, candidates will jockey for endorsements to stand out. Duncan said she recently met with Attorney General Karl Racine, another Palisades resident.

What's happening: Ben Bergmann, a Cathedral Avenue resident who chairs the Palisades advisory neighborhood commission, said he and newer leaders are replacing an “old guard.”

“This area has always been expensive, always exclusive,” he said, campaigning with his kids in a stroller at the farmers market. But for relatively high earners dealing with childcare and other costs, “even this area is unaffordable.”

  • “We can't have a city where only the top 1% can live here,” he said. “That exists. It's in California.”

Eric Goulet, who lives near views of the Potomac River, jumped into the race despite being well-aware that a council member's salary of $145,000 would be a step down from what he made as an aide to Ward 7 council member Vincent Gray.

  • “I do support transit-oriented development,” he adds.

Deirdre Brown, the owner of a title company and who is running for the seat, said the political hubbub in her neighborhood is thanks to “constituents who are very aware and paying attention.”

State of play: Nine Democrats are running in the June primary. (A new entrant is Beau Finley, a Cleveland Park neighborhood commissioner.) A Republican, David Krucoff, is also campaigning.

A neighborhood away, over lunch at Millie’s Spring Valley — a preppy outpost that Washingtonian dubbed “MILFie's Spring Valley” — candidate and AU Park resident Matt Frumin calls the influx of Palisades rivals “just a fluke.”

  • “Coincidentally, a bunch of them are from Palisades,” says the public schools advocate. “It's not like there's something in the water.”

Its denizens may be over all this politicking.

  • Phil Thomas, who chairs Ward 3 Democrats and lives near the farmers market, was among a handful of candidates last Sunday.
  • When asked to sign his ballot petition, one man replied: “Nope, I'm going to play golf!”

💬 For the record, I wouldn't pay that much for kale. Town Talker is a weekly column on local politics. Drop me a line about what your friends are chatting about: [email protected]

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