A reshaped DC Council will take on education, policing, elections

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In liberal DC, where political factions typically fall along a spectrum with varying shades of blue, the results of Tuesday’s Democratic primary offered something of a mixed bag.

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser, a moderate, won the Democratic mayoral nomination against challengers who ran to her left. But the contests for seats on the DC Council, which has shifted more to the left in recent years, were split.

Self-described progressives like incumbent Brianne K. Nadeau (Ward 1) and State Board of Education member Zachary Parker in Ward 5 won their races, and while the Ward 3 contest wasn’t fully determined by Thursday afternoon with thousands of votes left to tally, moderate candidate Eric Goulet had already conceded to liberal activist Matthew Frumin.

While there’s still a general election in November, Democratic candidates overwhelmingly tend to win. And some political observers are already speculating how the council’s presumptive new members might leave their mark on key issues in the legislature’s pipeline.

Left-wing candidates, moderate incumbents win DC Council primaries

“The political message sent by supporters during a campaign isn’t always the most accurate, but there’s no question the council appears to be continuing to move to the left,” said Phil Mendelson, a moderate Democrat who bested liberal attorney Erin Palmer in his own reelection campaign for DC Council chair, a top city position with strong influence over what bills make it onto the legislative agenda.

But what does that shift mean for the council, exactly? “Until we get to specific issues,” Mendelson said, “I can’t say for sure.”

DC lawmakers rarely align strictly with their political labels. For example, while outgoing moderate Democratic council members Mary M. Cheh (Ward 3) and Kenyan R. McDuffie (Ward 5) each have voted against tax increases on wealthy residents, they’ve also introduced and voted in favor of bills that are popular among the city’s liberal bloc, such as McDuffie’s bill that created “baby bonds” to invest money for infants born in the District and Cheh’s environmental policies.

Bowser seeks to follow Marion Barry, but some Black voters are skeptical

Bowser, who has jockeyed with the council in recent years over issues like public safety and schools, weighed in on the new-look council at a news conference Wednesday after a reporter observed that both Frumin and Parker have spoken favorably about making tweaks to the city’s education system to increase accountability; the current structure, which was a hot topic in both the mayoral and council primaries, puts Bowser firmly in charge.

“I’m quite sure we’ll continue to have rigorous debates in the council about what’s best for kids,” Bowser said, adding, “I haven’t been convinced of why shifting boxes on an organizational chart makes schools better.”

Education is among several major issues that winners in the Democratic primary will likely be asked to weigh in on after taking office in January.

  • Perhaps the council’s most important job each year is finalizing DC’s multibillion-dollar budget. Expect vigorous debates over how much to tax residents and businesses, how much to spend on police and which new programs to fund.
  • DC passed a major police reform bill on a temporary basis in 2020, which removed the police union from bargaining over disciplinary consequences for officers and prohibited the police from using chemical irritants like tear gas in certain situations, among other significant steps. But the law has yet to pass on a permanent basis and could still be reshaped by the council. Meanwhile, a council-chartered Police Reform Commission has recommended more sweeping changes that the council has not yet made law. And some winners in the Democratic primary have their own ideas – Parker wants to end qualified immunity for police officers. The committee that oversees public safety law should be a busy one.
  • Electoral changes will be on the agenda. The council held a hearing this term on a controversial bill to implement ranked-choice voting in local elections. Members have also introduced bills to extend the vote to 16- and 17-year-olds and to noncitizens – both of which some neighboring Maryland suburbs have already passed – but have not had the votes for any of those measures in the current or prior councils . A bill that would allow residents to vote using their smartphones is on the table, too.
  • Bills to lessen DC’s system of strong mayoral control of the public school system haven’t advanced recently. But mayoral control became a major point of discussion in the primary campaign. Frumin, a longtime education activist skeptical of charter schools, and Parker, the president of DC’s currently weak school board, could both be influential on this contentious issue.
  • The following notable bills have all been introduced this council period but have not been acted on yet: Reparations for descendants of enslaved people; government construction of “social housing,” a housing model used in some European cities; a ban on sales of new fur clothing; mandatory insurance coverage for fertility treatments; a requirement that insurers cover abortions at no cost to the patient. If these bills don’t move forward this year, new council members who take office in January may get their chance to vote on them.

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