October 25, 2018 at 3:14 am EST | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
Lesbian candidate at center of hotly contested Council race
Dionne Reeder, gay news, Washington Blade

Dionne Reeder (Photo via Reeder Campaign Twitter)

Lesbian businesswoman Dionne Reeder’s campaign for an at-large seat on the D.C. Council as an independent candidate received yet another boost last Saturday when the Washington Post endorsed her over her main rival, incumbent Council member Elissa Silverman, also an independent.

In a development that surprised some political observers, the Post in its endorsement message urged city residents to vote just for Reeder and not for one of the other candidates running for the two at-large Council seats up for election this year. Among the others running is incumbent Democrat Anita Bonds, whose tenure on the Council the Post described as “lackluster.”

Although the Post didn’t say so directly, political observers say it was urging voters to engage in “bullet voting,” an election tactic used to increase the chances of a candidate winning in a race in which several candidates compete for two or more seats for public office.

The Post endorsement came one month after D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser endorsed Reeder, prompting the mayor’s political supporters and campaign contributors to also line up behind Reeder. Their support helped Reeder’s campaign raise more than $100,000 since the Bowser endorsement, placing Reeder ahead of Silverman in money raised.

Reeder, 46, a political newcomer with far less name recognition than Silverman and Bonds, was expected to emerge as a candidate with a shot at winning the at-large seat held by Silverman, according to political observers. With a D.C. electorate consisting overwhelmingly of registered Democrats, Bonds is considered the strong favorite to win re-election.

Under the city’s election law, a Democrat is only eligible to hold one of the two at-large Council seats on the ballot this year.

Meanwhile, despite what many political observers view as a growing citywide momentum for Reeder, some LGBT activists say they do not see a groundswell of support for Reeder among LGBT activists. According to several LGBT activists, Silverman is their preferred candidate because they view her as being more progressive than Reeder on non-LGBT issues they consider important.

Among those backing Silverman is longtime lesbian Democratic activist Barbara Helmick of Ward 1 and Capitol Hill gay activist Bob Dardano, a member of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance.

Helmick and Dardano point out that Silverman and Bonds have a longstanding record of strong support on LGBT issues. Helmick said the two would be just as supportive on LGBT issues as Reeder.

Earl Fowlkes, president of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, the city’s largest local LGBT political organization, said the interest among D.C.’s LGBT residents in electing an LGBT person to the City Council may be less than what it was in past years. One reason for that, according to Fowlkes and other activists is that the entire 13-member Council and nearly all candidates running for the Council in recent years have been supportive and in most cases strongly supportive on LGBT issues and strong allies of the LGBT community.

“We’re at a point beyond just LGBT equality,” said Fowlkes. “We’re about the bread and butter issues – economic development, housing, health care,” he said. “Those are the issues a lot of LGBT people are looking through — that lens as opposed to the historical lens of electing the first lesbian and the first African-American lesbian on the City Council.”

Fowlkes was referring to the fact that Reeder, if elected, would become the first lesbian and the first LGBT person of color to serve on the D.C. Council. Two white gay men, Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) and David Catania (I-At-Large), served on the Council in past years.

The Stein Club has endorsed Bonds and all the other incumbent Democrats running for re-election to their Council seats this year. Fowlkes said the club’s rules would have allowed it to endorse an independent such as Reeder but none of its members came forward to request that the club do so.

Reeder and her supporters have disputed the notion that Silverman is more progressive than Reeder or that Reeder, who owns a restaurant in the city’s Anacostia neighborhood, is “beholden” to business interests above the needs of working people, as claimed by Silverman supporters.

“Actually I think it’s great to be a progressive and I am progressive, but I’m practical,” Reeder told the Washington Blade at an Oct. 20 reception her campaign held for supporters and potential supporters at a private home.

“And when we’re being progressive we have to think about everything that’s involved,” Reeder said. “And we can’t just look at our own agenda. We have to be inclusive of the whole city. And I want the LGBT community to look to me as an example of that, of how we have to be inclusive,” she said. “And when you’re inclusive you get more support and you’re able to collaborate and get more work done for the city.”

Reeder was referring to her and Bowser’s assertion that Silverman’s progressive agenda is too far to the left and has pushed for “national” policies that are not the best for D.C., such as the controversial family leave bill that Silverman helped push through the Council.

On the campaign trail Bowser and Reeder point out that the family leave measure imposed a tax on businesses that has had a detrimental impact on small businesses that employ large numbers of D.C. residents. They also point out that the “Silverman initiated” family leave bill provides D.C. taxpayer funded leave to all people who work in the city, including Maryland and Virginia residents.

Silverman strongly disputes claims that the legislation has hurt businesses. She and her Council colleagues who voted to pass the legislation argue that paid leave to tend to family matters such as caring for a parent or child is needed in a city where the cost of living is exceedingly high.

“The economic needs for many people in the District of Columbia, including our LGBT community, particularly our transgender community, are part of the economic struggles that many of us face,” Helmick told the Blade. “In the circumstances that we’re in at this moment in time I think that’s the driving issue for me – a better economy that works for everybody,” she said. “And that’s Elissa Silverman all the way.”

At the Oct. 20 meet and greet for Reeder, Bowser, who attended the event, told the Blade that many voters are just now beginning to learn about Reeder’s experience in city government and a private sector nonprofit organization in which supporters say she contributed to the economic advancement of many city residents.

“I think people in all eight wards are getting to know Dionne,” Bowser said. “I think she’s a missing voice on the Council. That’s why she has my support,” said the mayor. “She represents communities from across the city. She is a small business owner. She went to and graduated from D.C. public schools. She has a real agenda for housing and seniors and a vibrant business community that I think we can all benefit from,” Bowser said.

Reeder told the more than 50 people that turned out for the Oct. 20 event at the Northwest home of Bob Goodrich, that the driving force behind her campaign for public office is her wife and partner of 19 years, Stephanie Bussey. She said she and her wife were the proud parents of their daughter and granddaughter.

Silverman and Reeder are considered the two leading candidates among five candidates running for the so-called “non-Democratic” at-large Council seat. The others running are independent Rustin Lewis, Statehood-Green Party candidate David Schwartzman, and Republican Ralph Chittams Sr.

In its candidate ratings on LGBT issues the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance gave Bonds its highest rating of +10. GLAA assigned ratings of +7.7 to Silverman and Schwartzman; +7 to Reeder; +4 to Lewis; and -1 to Chittams. A full breakdown of the ratings for the candidates and their responses to a GLAA candidate questionnaire can be accessed at glaa.org.

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

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