Since her swearing-in ceremony late last month, new D.C. lawmaker Brooke Pinto has jumped into important legislative meetings about the District government’s spending plan for next year. She now represents Ward 2 in the seat that 29-year councilmember Jack Evans held until last January, when he resigned in scandal. As a relative unknown in local politics, Pinto surprised many by winning both the crowded June 2 Democratic primary (in which Evans also ran) and the June 16 special election to serve out the rest of Evans’ term. The latter contest allowed her to become the D.C. Council’s youngest member, at 28.
In largely blue D.C., Democratic nominees such as Pinto typically go on to win the subsequent general elections. Still, in the aftermath of her unexpected victory, two independent challengers have emerged to vie for the Ward 2 seat: nonprofit staffer (and DJ) Martín Miguel Fernandez, a first-time candidate, and, just this week, Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Randy Downs.
Downs, who picked up petitions for ballot access Wednesday from D.C.’s elections board, says he’s running because he lacks confidence in Pinto’s ability to represent Ward 2 residents. He believes the COVID-19 crisis and the movement for racial justice demand “a leader with bold vision [and] strong community connections.”
“I’ve lived here, I’ve worked here, I’ve voted here,” he tells DCist in an interview. “I have a record of accomplishments, so I really believe that can come in handy for delivering for the residents of Ward 2.”
If elected, Downs, who is 33 and gay, would be the only openly LGBTQ member of the council. He says he has a diverse constituency as an ANC commissioner whose district includes parts of Dupont Circle, Logan Circle, and downtown.
Downs has worked for the Sierra Club, the Oakland, Calif.-based environmental organization, for the last eight years. He moved to D.C. from rural Missouri in 2011, having first visited the city on a trip with the Sierra Student Coalition a few years before.
Recently, he switched his party affiliation to independent from Democratic to be able to seek the Ward 2 seat in the general election this November. In the primary, he supported his fellow Ward 2 ANC Commissioner Patrick Kennedy, who lost to Pinto by less than 3.5% in an eight-way race.
To qualify for the November ballot, Downs must collect 150 signatures from registered Ward 2 voters by Aug. 5. His campaign says he qualified for D.C.’s public elections financing program, which matches small-dollar donations with taxpayer money, late Wednesday, the first day of his bid, by receiving $8,600 in contributions from 200 donors.
On Election Day, Pinto is likely to benefit from the fact that she will appear on the ballot as the Democratic nominee. And should both Downs and Fernandez, the other independent candidate in the race currently, make the ballot, they could split the non-Pinto vote. Republican Katherine Venice and Statehood Green Party member Peter Bolton are their parties’ nominees for the Nov. 3 election.
Downs says his quick qualification for public elections financing shows that he has momentum, and adds that his campaign raised more than $10,000 within 24 hours of launching. “I think it’s clear that I have the support of the community—they know me, they trust me,” he says. “So I’m going to be leaning on that heavily to win this race.”
Downs also notes that Pinto faces a formal campaign-finance complaint from June over alleged undisclosed expenses related to a pricey Logan Circle house, and that she gave shifting answers when asked about police stop-and-frisk during the primary race.
She told DCist last month that she was “confident” her campaign would soon be able to put the complaint to rest, and has said she’s “unequivocally against” stop-and-frisk, a practice that has consistently been criticized for disproportionately affecting people of color, including in the District. (Downs says the practice is racist and everyone should oppose it in D.C.)
Pinto is raising money under the District’s less-restrictive, traditional campaign-finance rules, and raked in more than $143,000—some of it loaned from herself—leading up to the primary. Her campaign had nearly $33,000 in cash on hand as of June 10, more than a week after Primary Day. Like Downs, Fernandez also plans to raise money using public financing.
Downs says his platform is focused on mitigating the coronavirus crisis, whether by boosting the city’s testing and contact-tracing capacities or offering financial assistance for immigrants and small businesses. He’s passionate about LGBTQ, transportation, and environmental issues as well.
The D.C. Board of Elections has said it will mail ballots to all registered voters for November and expand in-person voting sites, after voters experienced various problems in the pandemic-beset primary. Downs says he’s pleased about these moves and will campaign wearing a mask and carrying hand sanitizer, in accordance with public health guidelines.
“I’m glad that a few months out, we know actually how we’re going to hold the election,” says Downs. “Voting is a basic, fundamental core of our democracy, and when folks have to struggle to be able to vote, it really weakens our institutions.”
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