After a crowded primary, D.C. Council member Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2) should be facing only token opposition in the general election, given that Democrats outnumber other voters in her part of the city by a margin of 2-to-1.
But many longtime activists in the ward are dissatisfied with Pinto, a 28-year-old political newcomer. Some are looking to the November election as a do-over.
Prominent groups including the Washington Teachers Union and Greater Greater Washington have joined Patrick Kennedy, the second-place finisher in the primary, to endorse independent candidate Randy Downs, a 34-year-old Sierra Club employee and Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner.
Downs, who is openly gay, also has strong support from the city’s politically active LGBTQ community at a time when there are no openly gay members of the council.
Left-leaning activist Martín Miguel Fernandez and Statehood Green party candidate Peter Bolton are running for the seat as well. They and Downs say that Pinto, who joined the council in June after winning a special election to finish the term of disgraced ex-member Jack Evans (D), is not qualified to remain in office.
“From everything I heard, folks are not happy, and they are having buyer’s remorse with Brooke. And so I’m glad we are able to give them a choice,” said Downs, who argues that he is more in touch with the needs of the ward than Pinto, a Connecticut native who attended Georgetown Law School and worked for Attorney General Karl Racine (D) but never cast a vote in the District before running for office.
Pinto says she is already proving herself, trying to address the requests of residents struggling during the pandemic: “I’m so honored I earned the support of D.C. residents and will work every day to make sure to make them proud.” Since taking office, she has established herself as relatively conservative on fiscal issues, with a focus on business and criminal justice policy. In her first consequential vote, she opposed raising income taxes on the wealthiest D.C. residents.
She won the special election just two weeks after the eight-person primary, in which she received just over 3,000 votes — putting her 379 votes ahead of Kennedy, an ANC representative who endorsed Downs Tuesday.
“Brooke Pinto won with 28 percent of the vote, which means that 72 percent of people who voted in that primary didn’t support her,” said Eve Zhurbinskiy, a former ANC member in the Foggy Bottom area. She and other neighborhood activists have been frustrated that Pinto hasn’t fully embraced the idea of a bus lane on 7th Street NW or a bike lane on 17th Street NW, or called for the reinstatement of popular School Without Walls principal Richard Trogisch who was recently removed.
Others have criticized her for self-funding her campaign and combed critically through her list of donors, including former Republican Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, who Downs flagged for past opposition to abortion and gay rights.
“I just don’t see all that much support for her among people who are very engaged and active,” Zhurbinsky said. “But the people who are very engaged and active aren’t the majority of voters.”
In the history of the D.C. Council, no non-Democrat has won a ward seat. And with record turnout expected because of the polarizing presidential contest, it is likely that many voters will be far more focused on their White House choice than ward politics.
But Morgan Finkelstein, who worked as an adviser during the primary for third-place finisher Jordan Grossman, said the robust number of independents running for two council at-large seats this year could potentially benefit an independent in the Ward 2 race.
In a year when in-person campaigning is limited by the coronavirus pandemic, Pinto, Downs and Fernandez have spent time talking to voters at farmers markets and have rallied supporters to paper the ward with campaign signs. Fernandez asked the Office of Campaign Finance to host a debate between the candidates. But the agency declined, saying city law only requires debates for publicly financed candidates for citywide office, not ward races.
In an interview, Pinto pledged to accept public campaign financing in the future, which would render some of the complaints about her family and out-of-state money moot. She said she did not know why Schuette contributed to her campaign, but also pointed out that she was not criticizing Downs’s contributors for their views. “They are trying to throw everything they can at the wall, and it’s disingenuous,” she said.
Pinto’s boosters say voters should give her a chance to establish herself after stepping into the seat Evans held for three decades. John Guggenmos, a Logan Circle neighborhood commissioner and gay bar owner who endorsed Pinto, praised her support for restaurants and bars in the ward that want to operate “streateries” through the end of next year because of the coronavirus pandemic and receive waivers from insurance requirements.
“A lot of people are gunning for her, and a lot of people would love to see her fail,” Guggenmos said. “But she’s working very hard. She’s available, smart, responsive, and you can have a substantive discussion with her and you feel like you really know where she stands.”
Austin Naughton, chair of the Ward 2 Democrats, said he barely knew Pinto when she entered the primary race — but has been impressed since her victory. “She wasn’t involved locally like the other candidates were. What I have since observed is that Brooke has been very engaging,” he said. “In the nicest way possible, she’s willing to discuss when people raise questions.”
Even Kennedy, who went on a six-week road trip to national parks after he lost his primary bid, did not want to criticize Pinto. “I don’t think it’s particularly fairly to judge her for an early performance when there’s really an adjustment period,” he said.
He said he endorsed Downs because they share an urbanist vision for the District, and Downs has been knee-deep in planning for projects such as the 17th Street bike lane, which activists feel Pinto has blocked. Pinto said she is not trying to stymie bus and bike lane projects, but to ensure community members are aware of upcoming changes and can share their feedback.
Downs criticized Pinto’s calls for increased U.S. Park Police presence in the ward and said he would probably have voted to raise the income-tax rate for individuals making more than $250,000, which Pinto opposed. “She’s not seasoned,” he said. ” She doesn’t know the issues in D.C., and that’s really concerning.”
Neither Bolton nor Fernandez have as broad a supporter base as Downs. Bolton said he was running “on an unashamedly radical eco-socialist platform that offers an alternative to the Democratic Party status quo.” Fernandez also presents a leftist agenda. A musician and recently unemployed nonprofit worker, he supports canceling rent for businesses shuttered by the pandemic, legislating predictable schedules for low-wage workers and giving larger stimulus checks to undocumented immigrants and sex workers who don’t qualify for unemployment.
“People say ‘a progressive can’t win in Ward 2.’ We don’t actually know that. Jack Evans had his finger on the scale for 30 years,” Fernandez said. “We’ve had one primary to determine whether Ward 2 is progressive or not. That doesn’t really seem like a reliable judgment to me, one extraordinarily crowded primary.”
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