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Dismay, disinterest win D.C. mayoral primary

Record low turnout signifies voter dissatisfaction with local candidates

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disinterest, gay news, Washington Blade, primary
disinterest, gay news, Washington Blade, primary

Slightly less than 25 percent, political party-registered voters eligible to cast ballots in the city’s April 1 partisan primary election did so.

Dismay and disinterest won the day in D.C.’s primary election by a record-setting margin. Similar to the mayoral contest determining the overwhelmingly dominant Democratic Party’s nominee for mayor, it wasn’t even close.

Voters didn’t much like their choices.

Had they been sufficiently motivated to breeze through one of the 143 precinct locations, they would have discovered more poll workers than the sparse turnout of voters at most moments during the 13-hour ordeal. Despite it taking nearly five hours for the startlingly and chronically dysfunctional D.C. Board of Elections to complete its preliminary tally after the polls closed, voter dissatisfaction with their ballot box options had long been apparent.

Barely one-in-four, slightly less than 25 percent, political party-registered voters eligible to cast ballots in the city’s April 1 partisan primary election did so. In 2010, the participation rate was 37 percent, with 137,586 voting – including nearly 134,000 in the Democratic primary. According to unofficial returns, this year’s totals won’t crack six digits as far fewer than 100,000 of the 369,035 primary-eligible registrants showed up at the polls.

Never before in the city’s electoral history have so few chosen to vote in a mayoral primary. Throughout the day and across the city it was evident that voter turnout would produce a jaw-dropping paucity of votes.

It was the first time turnout has ever been lower than the prior nadir of 32 percent in 1998. Pending the final tally, it is likely that the actual raw number voting will exceed only that of 1986 – when there were one-third fewer eligible voters among a much-smaller District population.

Indications of a looming electoral debacle were evident when early voting poll numbers were announced last weekend. The two-week-long opportunity to vote in advance enticed approximately 37 percent fewer to do so than in the previous mayoral primary, despite an expanded number of voting locations and no notable differential in the number of party-aligned partisans. In 2010, more than 22,000 party-registered voters cast ballots in advance of primary election day. This year only slightly more than 14,000 were reported.

These substantial declines had been forecast by the campaign manager for incumbent Mayor Vincent Gray, who was defeated for Democratic Party re-nomination in a wide margin loss to D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser. Accuracy in that prognostication, however, was small comfort in light of the drubbing Gray experienced and his nine-month lame duck tenure ahead.

The real reason for the plummeting participation is apparent. Conjecture that a much earlier primary date – moved up sooner-than-required from the traditional September date in order to comply with federal voting rules designed to better accommodate overseas voters and deployed military personnel – was the cause of the embarrassing lack of engagement misses the mark.

Too many voters believed the incumbent had won election in 2010 by deception and cheating, the “too green” leading alternative failed to instill confidence she was either experienced enough or adequately prepared to take the helm, and the rapidly fading also-ran competitors weren’t worth the effort.

More than that, though, was a thing worse.

When both Bowser and Gray came to realize that their battle would be predominantly waged in targeted areas of the city’s eastern portion, all pretense of running genuinely citywide campaigns ceased in the final weeks. Whole swaths of the city began to feel more like observers than stakeholders.

Bowser’s theme of “All Eight Wards” and Gray’s hackneyed “One City” slogan became self-parodies. When Gray paraded around select neighborhoods with former mayor Marion Barry and countenanced the Council member’s unique brand of racially tinged commentary it was simply too much for too many, including supporters. Bowser seemed to always be nearby, as if the rest of the city mattered little. Both candidates failed to inspire or excite voters, depressing turnout and heightening disgust.

Responsibility for the desultory result lies with them. The response from the voters of the city could not have been more crystal clear.

Mark Lee is a long-time entrepreneur and community business advocate. Follow on Twitter: @MarkLeeDC. Reach him at [email protected].

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When queerness and art collide: My journey as a writer

Peter Pan, ‘Poor Things,’ and the power in pleasure

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Gay Carrie Bradshaw. Wannabe Dan Savage. Writing about barbacking like it’s some sort of mission trip. I’m not unaware of the perceptions surrounding this column, which, when directed toward me, often presents as, “How exactly did this happen?” 

That question is valid, in part because it happened so fast that I never processed the events leading up to it. It’s even more valid considering my dream was never to be a columnist at all, if one could call me that (delusional blogger, maybe?). No, instead, I wanted to write science fiction.   

That’s right — for years, I dedicated thousands of hours typing away at my laptop, making up plots, characters, settings, and sometimes laws of physics out of thin air. For most of that time, it was a hobby I kept close, telling few in my inner circle to avoid what others might think. Despite this insecurity, I managed to complete three-and-a-half full-length novels that now sit patiently as PDFs on my hard drive. 

Here you thought this column was weird. Oh, it’s just the tip of the iceberg, my friend. 

So how exactly does one go from science fiction to sex column? Buckle up for the unfiltered, unadulterated, and likely unrequested story of how that abrupt shift came to be. It all took place during a cold week last February, when three events aligned like planets to pave the way. 

First came some disappointing news. After being in talks with a literary agency for an entire year about one of my novels, the opportunity slipped through my fingers and crashed to the ground like the glassware drunk customers seem to love dropping, which, in both instances, leaves me sweeping the mess away. I should have expected this, for breaking into publishing is no small feat, particularly given my experience, or lack thereof. I have no MFA. No publishing credits. No formal creative writing training of any kind. I’m completely self-taught, relying on books and YouTube to learn both craft and industry. Given this, recognition from an agency as someone worth considering should feel like an accomplishment on its own. 

Still, the news was devastating, especially after abandoning my old career to pursue writing. I’ll never forget when Dusty, one of the bar owners, found me in the kitchen to ask if I was OK. I held back tears as I nodded back yes, but the voices in my head scolded me on how pathetic I probably appeared to the world. Sounds harsh, but let’s be honest: You’re only praised when your art makes it big, but when it doesn’t, you’re just another weirdo. More on that later.  

Fortunately, I had a bar shift to take my mind off the matter, which led to the second event. A few regulars sat at the bar and, as usual, gave me a friendly hello. On this wintry day business was slow, enabling me to chat more than usual. Naturally they inquired about my life outside the bar, which I’ll admit put me on edge. I mean, what do I say? Something told me, “I’m a twice-fired loser who thought he could write but just learned he can’t,” would bring down the mood a bit. 

Instead, I kept it vague with, “I like to write,” before turning the question back on them. As it just so happened, one of those regulars was Brian Pitts, co-owner of the Blade. 

“Maybe you could write for us,” he suggested. When I asked what they were looking for, he shrugged and suggested show reviews. I smiled, told him I’d get back to him next week, then walked away dismissing the idea. I mean, show reviews? Was I even qualified? I wasn’t sure I could write a story, let alone critique one. 

Then again, what more could I lose? Figuring a review was at least worth a try, I stumbled into the third event following my shift that Super Bowl Sunday. Instead of the Big Game, I hiked to Atlantic Plumbing to catch “Poor Things,” starring Emma Stone. I vaguely knew the premise but not much else, other than buzz around Stone’s performance. 

For those who haven’t seen it, “Poor Things” is a Victorian-era, somewhat-steampunk fantasy about a mad scientist who brings a deceased, pregnant woman back to life by replacing her brain with her infant’s. It’s a bonkers plot in which Stone’s character, Bella, becomes a woman reset—quite literally in this case—but as her young mind develops in her adult body, she experiences life uninhibited. Then come the most shocking sequences of all: Bella having sex, and lots of it. At one point she even becomes a prostitute, using the gig to explore her sexuality while building in free time to pursue other interests. 

I watched mesmerized, both appalled and intrigued, equally awed and revolted, while I couldn’t help but wonder: Is that me up on that screen?

I haven’t been shy about my own sexual journey, which I had assumed began and ended with my coming out. But damn was I wrong, and “Poor Things” showed me why. Notably, Bella’s sexual liberation shares a likeness to the queer experience. “Polite Society will destroy you,” one character tells her, which holds true for all queer journeys. Yet once we break free from these social chains, we often enter a reset—an infantile stage, if you will—to relive our robbed youth through fresh eyes. 

Unfortunately, not all queers leave this phase, instead remaining caught in an eternal adolescence often referred to as Peter Pan syndrome. Bella only escapes it through critical self-examination, understanding better what she truly wanted from life. Here “Poor Things” depicts sexual liberation as more than a moment; rather, it’s a process where rebirth is just the beginning. How far Bella’s liberation went relied entirely on her willingness to explore herself. Consequently, her liberation didn’t end with sex but rather her self-actualization, so by the final throes of the film sex is rarely mentioned. Herein lies the Power in Pleasure — the unabashed pursuit of all things you enjoy to become your happiest, most well rounded, most fully realized self.  

Later that night, instead of writing a review, I sat there reeling from the similarities between Bella’s life and my own. Bella taking on frowned-upon work in pursuit of herself mirrored my becoming a barback to pursue writing. And the sex? My God, I was amid a slut phase already, though I wanted to believe I was more than that. But wanting and believing are different things, aren’t they? I realized then I was holding myself back. My Peter Pan must grow up. 

As for my art, I bought into this silly notion that I’d open up as a writer if I ever made it big, as if that would shield me from rejection. Not so coincidentally, my mindset was similar before coming out as gay: I thought, let me hold off until I’m successful, then show the world successful people can be gay. Both experiences felt too similar to ignore, until I finally saw the profound connection between art and queerness. 

“Art was the precursor to fully allow me to embrace my queerness,” Scott would later tell me, who I’ve mentioned in the past is both my coworker and a performance artist. Scott was a theater kid in high school, which led them into a proud “Band of Misfits” that wore difference as a badge of honor. “I was able to find my queerness through art, through performance, and through training to become an actor.” 

My journey was the opposite: I came out as gay well before as a writer, which Scott assured me is normal. “We’re often told don’t express yourself, conform, conform, conform, and artists do the opposite of that,” said Scott. “Being an artist is hard. It’s a queering of what societal expectations are, particularly here in the District where there is so much ladder climbing professionally, socially, politically. The title of artist sort of queers the idea of what it means to be in Washington, D.C.” 

Scott was right. D.C., in comparison to other cities, feels uniquely difficult to pursue art. Even when we’re out — perhaps especially when we’re out — we D.C. gays tend to overcompensate for our perceived deficiency by ensuring everything else is in order, projecting a brighter image of what a good citizen ought to be, serving an ideal of a new normal, and leaping from one box only to scurry into another, albeit gayer, one. 

Yet was fitting into any box what I truly wanted? If polite society says yes, then fuck polite society. 

So, in a case of art imitating life imitating art likely imitating someone else’s life, I sat down and told my story, wrestling doubts of my craft, fighting my fears of what others might think, at times typing through my tears, all for the sake of my authenticity, since my repressing it was no longer an option. This is what it takes to bear your truth to the world. It’s what it takes to be an artist. No surprise, it’s also what it takes to come out queer, and to become the bravest version of yourself imaginable. 

I sent what I wrote to the Blade as soon as I finished, and the rest is history. And there you have it: the story about the review that never happened but became so much more, brought to you by my dramatic flair and ADHD. 

Though I must admit, gay Carrie Bradshaw has a nicer ring to it.

Jake Stewart is a D.C.-based writer and barback.

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Supreme Court must be enlarged and Congress needs term limits

Younger generations deserve a say in their future

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Justices of the United States Supreme Court (Photo public domain)

I will surely be challenged for these views, not the least being called ageist. But as someone older myself, I am comfortable with that. It is not that I think older people are not fully capable of functioning at a very high level; they are. I just believe we must let the next generations, who will be living much longer with the results of what government does, have more of a role in determining what that is. 

Based on what we have seen of this Supreme Court, its willingness to overturn decades of precedent, the time has come to expand the court for a rational balance. In addition, we should set 24-year term limits for justices, or retirement at 80, whichever comes first. Changing the number of people on the court is not a new idea. The number of persons on the Supreme Court has been changed six times since our country was founded. The U.S. Constitution is silent about how many justices should sit on the Supreme Court.  

“After the Civil War and Lincoln’s assassination, Congress clashed with Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, who was rapidly undoing the “Radical Republicans” plan for Reconstruction. To limit Johnson’s power, Congress passed legislation in 1866 that cut the number of Supreme Court justices back to seven, all but assuring that Johnson wouldn’t have the opportunity to fill a vacant seat. The last time Congress changed the number of Supreme Court justices was in 1869, again to meet a political end. Ulysses S. Grant was elected president in 1868 with the backing of congressional Republicans who hated Johnson. As a gift to Grant, Congress increased the number of justices from seven back to nine, and Grant gamely used those picks.” On today’s Supreme Court Clarence Thomas has now served 32 years, and Roberts and Alito, 19 years each. Then there was Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She was 87, and had served 27 years, when she died, clinging to her seat when it was known how ill she was.

It is only recently I have come to this conclusion regarding the Supreme Court, and on term and age limits for the Congress. We are seeing too many older men, and women, cling to power. They may still have the mental acuity to perform their jobs, but entire generations aren’t serving because they refuse to leave. There is incredible power in incumbency, and we are seeing it abused. We are asking young people to vote for candidates old enough to be their grandparents, or great-grandparents. Some say they should revolt and change that. But the fact is, so much money is now in the game, the unlimited amount people can spend on their own campaigns, and collect from others, makes that nearly impossible. It’s rare to be able to fight incumbency and wealth. Yes, it can happen, as in the case of Maryland Congressman David Trone (D-Md.), who is 68, and tried to buy a United States Senate seat in Maryland with $60 million of his own money. He lost his primary to Angela Alsobrooks, who is 53, whose campaign had less than a tenth of that. But she was a known entity, and elected official, in her own right. 

Today, in the 100-member United States Senate, there is one senator over 90, four over 80, and another 10 over 70. I propose we set a limit of four terms, or 24 years, and mandatory retirement at 80. In the House of Representatives, which now has 11 members over 80, and 62 over 70, I would recommend a 12-term limit, or 24 years, and mandatory retirement at 80.

I have had conversations with many young people, and listened to their frustrations with their ability to move forward in politics. Many see the world differently than I do, and my belief is they are entitled to be making the decisions that will impact their lives, and not have the older generations continue to do so. I think being in office for 24 years is enough time to make a difference, and to accomplish what you wanted to do when you ran for office. And if you couldn’t do it, it is time to allow the next generations to try. 

The desire to cling to power is natural. For many, the fear of retirement, and not knowing what they will do with their lives, is scary. I think one must plan for that, even politicians. They need to accept they can make a difference, even if not in office, if they really want to.

Peter Rosenstein is a longtime LGBTQ rights and Democratic Party activist. He writes regularly for the Blade.

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Bed-wetting Dems jumping the gun on Biden

The debate was terrible but it doesn’t mean Trump is inevitable

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President Joe Biden (Screen capture via CNN)

President Biden’s disastrous debate performance last week predictably brought the usual bed-wetting and panicking among Beltway Democrats.  

Yes, the debate was bad and only reinforced many Americans’ concerns about Biden’s mental fitness and ability to do the rigorous job of president into his mid-80s. It’s clear that Biden’s supporters and staff were keeping him away from press conferences and interviews due to their private concerns about his ability to perform. That was a grave mistake. The American public deserves regular access to their president. More press conferences, interviews, and even, perhaps, a competitive primary would have given voters more chances to see Biden up close without the aid of edits or Teleprompters. As the New York Times noted, by this point in his presidency, Barack Obama had given 570 news conferences, Donald Trump had given 468, while Biden gave just 164.

But let’s take a beat and remember a few key factors.

Donald Trump delivered a disastrous debate performance, too, and is nearly as old as Biden. Trump has offered up a bewildering flurry of mental slips, verbal gaffes, and outright nonsense that should alarm everyone. 

When CNN’s Dana Bash asked Trump during the debate if he would do anything to address the climate crisis, his reply included this gem: “We had H2O” during his presidency. Huh? If Biden had said that, Fox News would run it on the hour for a week.

Frankly, I don’t care if Biden made a poo-poo in his pants during the debate. The alternative is a twice-impeached wannabe autocrat who is awaiting sentencing on 34 felony counts. Trump’s Project 2025, which he predictably and falsely denies knowing anything about, would be a war on women, the LGBTQ community, immigrants, and pretty much anyone who isn’t a white, cis, heterosexual, Christian male. His election would spell the end of our democracy as we know it with Trump and his allies vowing to expel career civil servants by the tens of thousands and replacing them with MAGA loyalists. Trump would round up, imprison, and deport hundreds of thousands of immigrants. Yes, the return of kids in cages. How quickly we forget. He would likely get two more Supreme Court picks following the expected retirements of Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas, giving Trump a 5-4 MAGA majority, a truly terrifying prospect.

You can just imagine the Trump toadies who would be members of his Cabinet; think Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon, who just reported to prison for contempt of Congress. 

Before you count Biden out, remember that he has surprised us before. His campaign was all but dead until Rep. Jim Clyburn endorsed him in the 2020 race, propelling him to the Democratic nomination over two-dozen opponents. He went on to defeat an incumbent president, never an easy feat, and send Trump packing. 

He skillfully navigated the Jan. 6 crisis. He has since delivered stellar off-the-cuff performances during State of the Union addresses. He expanded NATO and has led the fight against Putin, something that Trump would surely abandon. 

Biden spearheaded, passed, and signed landmark legislation on infrastructure, marriage equality, and gun reform. He championed the American Rescue Plan to finally end the pandemic after more than 1.1 million American deaths under Trump. He signed the CHIPS Act, which has triggered nearly $300 billion in manufacturing investments by American companies. He promised to sign the bipartisan immigration bill authored by right-wing Republican Sen. James Lankford that was derailed only because Trump instructed the sycophantic Mike Johnson to kill it. Biden rejoined the Paris Climate Accords, issued executive orders on abortion, and pardoned all federal offenses for simple marijuana possession. The list goes on. These are not minor achievements, especially given our divided government and divided electorate. Many of these accomplishments came despite predictions that Biden would be a weak president incapable of overcoming division to get anything substantive done. 

By any measure he has been a great president who inherited a disastrous economy, record deficits, and COVID. 

Given this outstanding record, it’s disappointing that gay Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) joined a handful of House Democrats in calling on Biden to withdraw. That was premature. Biden deserves a chance to reset and address the questions about his mental acuity. And if polls are to be believed, all of the battleground states remain within the margin of error so it doesn’t appear the debate proved as disastrous as many first assumed.

If Biden decides to drop out, it should be his decision and it’s unlikely that those few House Democrats will have any influence over it. If he doesn’t drop out, we must all double down to ensure he wins and that the Democrats hold the Senate and retake the House. The country, and our LGBTQ community, can’t afford another Trump term. 

Kevin Naff is editor of the Blade. Reach him at [email protected].

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