May 31, 2022 - News

D.C. Voter Guide: Meet the candidates running to lead the city

Illustration of a man placing a vote sticker on his shirt.

Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

The District is picking its top leaders for a pivotal new era.

Why it matters: The next four years will include (hopefully) a resurgence from the pandemic, more new residents, and challenges surrounding housing, crime, and transit.

  • Muriel Bowser wants a third term as mayor, a feat only Marion Barry achieved. So does the chair of the D.C. Council, Phil Mendelson. They are both relatively moderate Democrats — by today's D.C. standards.
  • But they face spirited challenges from the left. Progressives argue the status quo isn't working. They demand more affordable housing for the poorest residents and a rethinking of public school reforms.

What's more: The District will pick a new attorney general. Over two terms, Karl Racine built out the office as the city's first elected AG, before deciding against another run.

There are also five other D.C. Council races, with open seats in Wards 3 and 5, and contested races in Ward 1 and at-large.

  • Again, they pit moderate candidates against progressives.

Between the lines: In an overwhelmingly blue city, the Democratic nomination is tantamount to victory.

✍️ Scroll down: We invited all Democratic candidates in the three top races — mayor, attorney general, and D.C. Council chair — to participate in our Q&A.

🗳 Go deeper: Read our guide for how to vote in D.C.

The bottom line: Go vote by June 21.

All Democratic candidates were invited to complete the following Q&A. Answers have been lightly edited by Axios for style and brevity. Candidates are in the order they appear on the ballot.

Mayor

James Butler, 46, is a civic advocate campaigning in his second run for mayor. He is a former advisory neighborhood commissioner and previously ran a law firm before being disbarred in 2009. He lives in Trinidad.

Photo illustration of James Butler as a sticker with the D.C. flag.
Photo Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios. Photo: courtesy James Butler.

Muriel Bowser, 49, is running for a third term as mayor. She was previously a Ward 4 council member for over seven years and an advisory neighborhood commissioner. She lives in Colonial Village.

Photo illustration of Muriel Bowser as a sticker with the D.C. flag.
Photo Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios. Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Trayon White, 38, is the Ward 8 council member. He was previously elected to the State Board of Education and worked as a community outreach staffer for the attorney general. This is his first run for mayor. He is a resident of Southeast.

Photo illustration of Trayon White as a sticker with the D.C. flag.
Photo Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios. Photo: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Robert White, 40, is an at-large council member in his first bid for mayor. A lawyer, he previously worked as a staff member for Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton and Attorney General Karl Racine. He lives in Shepherd Park.

Photo illustration of Robert White as a sticker with the D.C. flag.
Photo Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios. Photo: courtesy Robert White campaign
Should D.C. grow its police department to 4,000 officers?

James Butler: ✅ Yes.

Muriel Bowser: ✅ Yes.

Trayon White: ❌ No.*

Robert White: ❌ No.

How would you reduce crime?

Butler: I would have a police force that is fully funded, not overworked, staffed properly, and doing community-based policing throughout the city.

Bowser: I am the only candidate willing to make the tough calls when it comes to your public safety, including adding police officers to improve our force strength, working with federal partners to conduct major drug and gun investigations and prosecutions, and fully deploying whole of government violence interventions designed by the District’s first-ever Gun Violence Prevention Director.

T. White: Create complete wraparound services to reduce crime in our FIAs (Focus Improvement Areas).*

R. White: I will focus police resources on public safety, address the core problems that lead to violence, expand and coordinate violence interruption so that it’s meeting the scale of the problem, and support survivors of violence and communities that have been traumatized.

D.C. launched a pilot program last year to clear homeless encampments and house some people for one year, an approach that has garnered both praise and criticism. Would you continue the program in its current form?

Butler: ❌ No.

Bowser: ✅ Yes.

T. White: ❌ No.*

R. White: ❌ No.

Summarize in one sentence how you would provide permanent housing for unhoused people.

Butler: I will use city-owned housing stock to provide long term, supportive wrap-around services, instead of selling the city-owned housing stock to private developers!

Bowser: By continuing to invest in our comprehensive approach to make homelessness rare, brief, and non-recurring, which since 2015 has reduced family homelessness by 73%, reduced overall homelessness by 47%, reduced the average shelter stay to 90 days and resulted in the demolition of the unsafe, undignified family shelter at D.C. General.

T. White: By enforcing consistent interagency planning with an all-hands-on-deck process, much like we see every winter to protect homeless people and families from hypothermia, or the yearly budget fight some of us take on to protect funding for school-aged children who are experiencing homelessness.*

R. White: Instead of focusing on clearing homelessness encampments with bulldozers and police, which just shuffles most unhoused people to another location, I will focus on getting people housed by putting the housing vouchers in the hands of outreach organizations that know what they are doing in this space.

What is one way you would improve city services for constituents?

Butler: I will have a full and complete audit of 311 and every single city department from day ONE!

Bowser: I will fully deploy 75,000 new smart street lights in all 8 wards, a first-ever public-private partnership that leverages private investments to convert D.C.’s streetlights to energy-efficient LED technology, extend the reach of D.C. Net free wi-fi, and provide climate, customer service, and public safety benefits.

T. White: Create a more proactive and responsive government that is well funded and addresses the needs of everyone, not just a selected few.*

R. White: I will appoint the best and brightest people to lead our agencies, not political loyalists or campaign contributors, so that our government works the same way for the rest of us as it does for the rich and well-connected.

What is one major inequality in D.C? Summarize in one sentence how you would address this.

Butler: Affordable housing is not affordable, and I will change the way we calculate AMI and abort HUD’s formula and adopt our own local formula.

Bowser: As a historically Black city, the disenfranchisement of Washingtonians is anti-democratic, un-American, and one of the remaining glaring civil rights issues of our time.

T. White: We must continue to empower workforce and economic equity across the city, so that people of D.C. who are brilliant can take their lives back — because despite the wealth, we are not well until this city works for everyone regardless of class, race, sex, and gender.*

R. White: I will address the massive inequality in our public schools — where 60% of Black and brown students are behind grade level — by providing all students with equitable mental health support, stable environments, and the resources they need to succeed.

What is one big idea to improve public education? Summarize in one sentence.

Butler: Earmark funds for underperforming schools so that they can make the grade, as the per-pupil formula favors schools predominantly west of the river!

Bowser: Rethink High School: our initiative to redesign all DCPS high schools — while staying the course on reforms that have attracted families back to public schools, improved the achievement of Black and brown students, and provided mayoral accountability for, and D.C. Council oversight of, unprecedented investments in teachers, students, and school buildings.

T. White: Fund comprehensive mentoring grants for organizations serving school-aged youth.*

R. White: I will ensure every student leaves high school either college or career ready and prevent students who do not plan to go to college from dropping out by overseeing the most significant expansion of vocational education in D.C. history.

D.C. plans to build 10 miles of protected bicycle lanes a year. As mayor, would you fund to build more, build fewer, or build the same amount?

Butler: ⬆️ Build more.

Bowser: 🟰 The same.

T. White: 🟰 The same.*

R. White: ⬆️ Build more.

How would you restore the vibrancy of downtown D.C. in a post-pandemic recovery? Summarize your ideas in one sentence.

Butler: Grants for small businesses and restaurants; assure that adequate street dining is available; and open streets events on weekends.

Bowser: The pandemic sped up some of our thinking about interacting with the downtown and commercial corridors, and we are focused on filling spaces (attracting new businesses focused on tech, health, and medical), changing spaces (transforming older office buildings to vibrant housing, transforming public spaces with streateries, open streets, parks and parklets, busways and bike lanes), and bringing people to the downtown (more partnerships with festivals like Something in the Water, conventions, and remote workers).

T. White: I will build more amenities and job centers in areas where people do not have them, so they do not have to drive and put their health at risk by solely seeking vibrancy in downtown D.C. because of a scarcity of vibrancy in marginalized neighborhoods.*

R. White: Recognizing that the pre-pandemic reality is unlikely to return, we must take innovative approaches to revive downtown, including converting office space to affordable housing, increasing the amount of bike- and bus-only lanes to ease the commute to and from the area, and creating indoor and outdoor workspaces to attract people who telework.

Summarize the state of the city in five words or less.

Butler: Failing at every metric!

Bowser: Right track, ready for comeback.

T. White: Complaints that go unheard!*

R. White: Resource rich and implementation poor.

Name 1 big thing you will accomplish in your first year, in 15 words or less.

Butler: I will make D.C. one of the SAFEST cities in America.

Bowser: D.C.’s comeback will be the most equitable to ensure all have a fair shot.*

T. White: Create 300 new jobs a year for D.C. residents!*

R. White: I’ll end pay-to-play politics and focus government operations on people who need us most.

What is 1 fun thing voters don’t know about you?

Butler: 🎙 I almost became a TV news anchor.

Bowser: 🍸 I like Lemon Drops in the summer and Manhattans in the winter.

T. White: 🏀 My basketball game is on point!*

R. White: 📺 The inspiration behind the senior co-living bill I wrote was the Golden Girls, my favorite show.

*Editor's note: This guide has been updated with one answer from Muriel Bowser and all answers from Trayon White, who responded after publication.

Attorney general

Brian Schwalb, 54, is a former partner at the Venable law firm. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1992. He lives in Chevy Chase.

Photo illustration of Brian Schwalb as a sticker with the D.C. flag.
Photo Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios. Photo: courtesy Brian Schwalb campaign

Ryan Jones, 37, founded and runs his own law firm. He has degrees from Southern Illinois University School of Law and George Washington Law School. He lives in North Michigan Park.

Photo illustration of Ryan Jones as a sticker with the D.C. flag.
Photo Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios. Photo: courtesy Ryan Jones

Bruce Spiva, 56, is a former partner at the Perkins Coie law firm. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1992. He lives in Crestwood.

Photo illustration of Bruce Spiva as a sticker with the D.C. flag.
Photo Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios. Photo: courtesy Bruce Spiva campaign
How would you shield the independence of the attorney general’s office?

Brian Schwalb: I will strengthen independence by advocating for greater control over the OAG budget, which under the current process allows the mayor, rather than the independently elected attorney general, discretion over the budget as it is initially presented to the D.C. Council.

Ryan Jones: Take on strong cases that win judgments that significantly increase our budget to act independently, without having to compromise politically for funding.

Bruce Spiva: While lowering the temperature between the attorney general and the mayor is a top priority of mine, I will fiercely protect the office’s independence by always prioritizing the public interest of the residents of the District of Columbia in my decision-making process.

Name the top three targets you’d go after to protect D.C. consumers.

Schwalb: In addition to collaborating with other state AGs to address nationwide unfair and deceptive practices that adversely impact D.C. residents, I will aggressively tackle unscrupulous actors that (i) mislead homeowners (often seniors) into selling their homes far below fair market value, (ii) engage in predatory and discriminatory lending (often via artificial intelligence and machine learning), and (iii) induce residents desperate to own a home into buying “lemons,” often from flippers acting through LLCs.

Jones: 1. Cybersecurity/data protection; 2. Protect against refinancing scams; 3. Protect against market and cryptocurrency scams.

Spiva: As a plaintiffs’ consumer lawyer with decades of experience, I would prioritize going after corporations or other bad actors taking advantage of D.C. residents who are elderly, people living in poverty, and members of the immigrant community, all of whom are the most likely to be exploited and for whom the stakes are the highest.

The AG currently runs the violence interrupter program "Cure the Streets" in about ten neighborhoods with high rates of gun violence. Would you want to increase funding, decrease funding, or keep funding the same?

Schwalb: ⬆️ Increase funding.

Jones: 🟰Keep funding the same.

Spiva: ⬆️ Increase funding.

D.C. launched a pilot program last year to clear homeless encampments and house some people for one year, an approach that has garnered both praise and criticism. Do you support the program in its current form?

Schwalb: ❌ No.

Jones: ❌ No.

Spiva: ❌ No.

Summarize in one sentence how you think the city should provide permanent housing for unhoused people.

Schwalb: The city must have different, tailored strategies for providing permanent housing that focus on the root causes of why people are experiencing homelessness (e.g., domestic violence, discrimination against LGBTQIA teens, aging-out of foster care, job loss, substandard housing, mental illness, substance abuse addiction, etc.), and that address those causes with a network of wrap-around services to ensure that the transition to permanent housing will be successful.

Jones: We can convert unused and vacant buildings into housing.

Spiva: Although there are many strategies needed to combat our ongoing housing affordability crisis, some of the best tools include: increasing funding for permanent housing vouchers, the production and preservation of deeply affordable units through the Housing Production Trust Fund (including project-based subsidies for these units), and outreach to and supportive services for unhoused people to ensure they can access these programs.

What is one major inequality in D.C? Summarize in one sentence how you would address it as AG.

Schwalb: Under my leadership, OAG would address the inequalities that have prevented Black and brown families from building intergenerational wealth through home and business ownership by dismantling discriminatory and systemic barriers, such as unfair lending and insurance underwriting, predatory home valuation and inspection scams, ineffective and/or corrupt procurement practices, and algorithmic discrimination that incorporates predictive bias and negatively impacts access to mortgages, credit, and insurance.

Jones: There is a design of inequality that reveals itself with symptoms that we often categorize with popular political soundbites, but until we redesign/rewire/rewrite code to create equality in the law we won't have justice and a fair and equitable society.

Spiva: A disciplinary issue in a predominantly white school results in a trip to the principal’s office while the same disciplinary issue in a predominantly Black school all too often can result in law enforcement being called; I will decline to prosecute disciplinary issues that should be dealt with by administrators and teachers.

Summarize the state of the city in five words or less.

Schwalb: Uniquely positioned to tackle big challenges.

Jones: New solutions cure old problems.

Spiva: Thriving, bustling, yet unequal, unaffordable.

Name 1 big thing you will accomplish in your first year, in 15 words or less.

Schwalb: I will implement my 6-Point Crime Reduction and Neighborhood Safety Action Plan.

Jones: Establish legal clinics to expunge records, and get people wills and trusts.

Spiva: Protect the independence of OAG, while improving relations with the mayor to benefit D.C. residents.

What is 1 fun thing voters don’t know about you?

Schwalb: 🥃 I like tequila on the rocks with a squeeze of lime.

Jones: ✍️ I've written a children's book called "Dream Forever."

Spiva: 📕 I served on the Harvard Law Review with President Barack Obama. I like to joke he was my president before he was America’s.

D.C. Council chair

Erin Palmer, 40, is an ethics lawyer and has been an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Ward 4 since 2018. She lives in Takoma.

Photo illustration of Erin Palmer  as a sticker with the D.C. flag.
Photo Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios. Photo: courtesy Erin Palmer

Phil Mendelson, 69, has served on the D.C. Council since 1998 and is running for a third full term as chair. He entered city politics in 1979 after winning an advisory neighborhood commission seat in Ward 3. He lives in Capitol Hill.

Photo illustration of Phil Mendelson as a sticker with the D.C. flag.
Photo Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios. Photo: Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images
Should D.C. grow its police department to 4,000 officers?

Erin Palmer: ❌ No

Phil Mendelson: ❌ No

Summarize in one sentence your solution to reducing crime.

Palmer: Safe communities require stability, support, and resources to meet basic needs; targeted and coordinated violence intervention efforts for data-driven solutions; and accountable government agencies, including a crime lab that meets national standards, responsive 911 emergency services, and ethical and transparent policing.

Mendelson: Ensure MPD has the resources they need to increase case closure rates; press the U.S. Attorney to aggressively prosecute violent crimes; improve community trust by ensuring police accountability.

D.C. launched a pilot program last year to clear homeless encampments and house some people for one year, an approach that has garnered both praise and criticism. Do you support the program in its current form?

Palmer: ❌ No

Mendelson: ✅ Yes

Summarize in one sentence how you think the city should provide permanent housing for unhoused people.

Palmer: Fully invest in housing as a right so that all D.C. residents have safe, stable, and secure housing, which includes fully funding the support services needed to transition from homelessness and building trust with our unhoused neighbors.

Mendelson: In the short term, expand our voucher program and prioritize it for homeless families and individuals; in the long term, increase the supply of affordable and deeply affordable housing together with wrap-around services such as mental health services.

What is one major inequality in D.C? Summarize in one sentence how you would address it as chair.

Palmer: Every map of D.C. is the same — whether we are talking about housing stability, access to healthy food, high-quality education, patient-centered healthcare, or community safety — the result of decades of chronic disinvestment, and I am dedicated to values-based leadership that uses the D.C. budget, legislation, and oversight to meet residents’ basic needs.

Mendelson: I’m pursuing a two-prong strategy for food insecurity, which affects individuals’ health as well as children’s ability to learn: funding to attract grocery stores to food deserts; and supporting non-profits (like FreshFarm, Martha’s Table, and DC Greens) to get nutritional foods to families.

What is one thing you would do to improve D.C. public education, in one sentence?

Palmer: I would end our status as the only legislature in the country without a standing education committee to ensure robust, meaningful, and dedicated oversight of our public schools and that at-risk funding goes to the students who need it.

Mendelson: I am focusing on getting more resources to individual schools, establishing budget stability for individual schools, reducing teacher/principal turnover, encouraging school autonomy, and expanding training for educators to better address literacy.

D.C. plans to build 10 miles of protected bicycle lanes a year. As chair, would you fund to build more, build fewer, or build the same amount?

Palmer: ⬆️ Build more.

Mendelson: 🟰 Build the same amount.

How would you restore the vibrancy of downtown D.C. in a post-pandemic recovery? Summarize your ideas in one sentence.

Palmer: We must move past old ways of thinking that are not sustainable in a modern work environment by acknowledging that the largely commuter-focused downtown is a thing of the past and focus on building complete neighborhoods for residents to live, work, and play.

Mendelson: Restoring vibrancy requires people being attracted to the downtown, so people have to feel safe, and therefore addressing public safety is critical to reopening downtown; but also, rethinking regulatory hurdles so that it is easier for new businesses and events to come to downtown.

Summarize the state of the city in five words or less.

Palmer: Rich in resources, poor execution.

Mendelson: Teetering on the brink of greatness.

Name 1 big thing you will accomplish during your first year, in 15 words or less.

Palmer: Implement the proposals in my Council Accountability Plan for a modern, ethical, and accountable council.

Mendelson: Successfully create a new Department of Buildings out of the current DCRA.

What is 1 fun thing voters don’t know about you?

Palmer: 👶 I gave birth to my youngest child in the backseat of my sister’s car at 13th and Gallatin streets NW on the way to the hospital, and their birth certificate says “en route” for the location of their birth.

Mendelson: 🐱 I have two cats, Archie and Luna. Archie likes to attend protests outside my house.

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