The DC Council has lately gotten a reputation as a relatively safe, generally competent body, where the greatest risk is that a hearing might drone on too long.
It wasn’t always so. From the early days of home rule, the council was better known for activism than for fiscal rectitude. There was Hilda Mason, an at-large member who championed a 1982 initiative to make DC one of the first cities to ban nuclear weapons. In 1989, council chair David Clarke hitched himself to a carriage laden with 375 pounds of carrots to protest the abuse of carriage horses.
Between stunts, the same council passed strong rent control and the most stringent handgun ban in the nation at the time, and it charged the District with providing emergency shelter to anyone who needed it.
Now that outspoken, activist style of politics is set to make a comeback. On Election Day, DC voters sent three left-leaning council rookies—Charles Allen of Capitol Hill’s Ward 6; Brianne Nadeau, representing rapidly gentrifying Shaw and Columbia Heights in Ward 1; and at-large member Elissa Silverman—to join sitting populists David Grosso and Kenyan McDuffie and the reliably liberal chairman, Phil Mendelson. The newcomers promise to make the council the boldest and most progressive the city has seen in a generation.
Allen cautions that he and his freshly elected colleagues aren’t the idealists of old. “We are much more pragmatic,” he says. Like their forebears, the new crop is expected to pursue achievable goals: more mass transit to reduce traffic and more affordable housing as part of a resolution to the resurgent homeless question.
But they’ll also consider measures that Mason and Clarke could only have imagined. Silverman, late of the left-leaning DC Fiscal Policy Institute, has pushed for outlawing corporate campaign contributions; Allen and Nadeau say they’ll entertain at-large member Grosso’s proposal to disarm DC’s police—a notion that would be dead on arrival in the current council. “Some might call me a radical for suggesting this,” Grosso says, “but I just want to change the conversation.”
The Republicans who mind the city from Capitol Hill may see to it that such ideas amount to mere talk. But with an untested incoming mayor in Muriel Bowser, who one council member says “is going to have a hard time lining up the seven votes she needs,” the progressive bloc is likely to be not just the loudest voice but the one everyone has to listen to.
This article appears in the December 2014 issue of Washingtonian.