What better place to sit down and chat with Randy Downs than at Annie’s on 17th Street, itself an institution, a significant strip in Downs’ Dupont ANC constituency. We sat on Annie’s new outside “strEATery,” one of the many wildly popular outside patios now taking over streets across the city, COVID measures meant to support the District’s restaurant industry. And do note, you saw them on 17th Street first. And all thanks to Randy Downs, Neighborhood Commissioner and candidate for the Ward 2 seat on the District Council.
Downs believes that these strEATeries make the neighborhood more lively, as well as safer.
Traffic is slowed and calmed, there’s more space for social distancing, and more activity at night means a decrease in crime. Asked if we can keep the popular ‘strEATeries’ post pandemic, Downs replied with a confident “absolutely.” And Annie’s is what you’d expect it to be — adorned with festive paper lanterns, colorful tablecloths, and planters. It’s very them. It’s very 17th Street. And this is just one of Randy Downs’ myriad accomplishments.
From his mere four years as an ANC Commissioner, positions too often dismissed as powerless or even perfunctory, Downs’ list of achievements reads like a litany of good deeds any current D.C. Council member would kill to have on their resume. Downs helped usher the much-needed Stead Park community center renovation and expansion slated to break ground next year. The $16 million project will add a badly needed community multi-purpose meeting space to Ward 2. Look for that starting early next year.
There’s also the clever workaround to long sought for rainbow crosswalks, appearing in cities across America but blocked here by federal highway officials. Downs threaded that needle by creating the popular rainbow banners, not obstructing the walks themselves, but rather bordering them. Then there’s the rainbow and trans flag banners, also Downs’ doing, adorning the street lights up and down 17th. These two things could be dismissed as largely symbolic.
But symbols are important. Perhaps even more so to minority groups seeking visibility. Downs recognizes that. Then there’s the decades-old and foolhardy 17th Street liquor moratorium, that seemingly did very little but stymie growth in development along what is now one of the city’s most charming streets. Since then, 17th Street has seen somewhat of a renaissance, with new and inventive restaurants moving in, everything from Astoria, to Duke’s, to Mikko. They now share the blocks with mainstays such as Floriana and JR.’s. All of this bolsters 17th Street now vibrant and teeming with life on any day of the week.
There is practically no one left out of Downs’ vision. He’s actively pushing the District for dedicated and permanent community and housing space for LGBTQ seniors, a segment of our community too often overlooked. He’s worked tirelessly as an advocate for our trans community, earning a well-deserved endorsement from the unsinkable Ruby Corado and her life-saving operations at Casa Ruby.
Downs has a real plan for those in the District experiencing homelessness, advocating for a “Housing First” strategy in the city, a process that places those experiencing homelessness directly from the street to an apartment, bypassing the current delayed, cumbersome, and bureaucratic shelter/voucher process. And what District residents may not understand — is there are currently no coed shelters in the city, making those experiencing homelessness and who also are partnered reluctant to go into the shelter system alone. Downs is seeking to remedy this.
As a gay man, Downs has a unique perspective on what this city can provide, and who exactly needs these services. And frankly, It’s been too long since we’ve had queer representation on the Council. David Cantania and the late Jim Graham have been our only openly gay members in its entire history. Ward 2, arguably the gayest ward in the city, cutting through Dupont, Logan, and Georgetown, needs this representation more so than perhaps any other.
As a gay man who grew up poor, Downs is no stranger to struggle. Growing up in rural Missouri, Downs started working in the restaurant industry at the age of 13. This was not some cushy job for pocket money either, as Downs told me. But rather taken on to help support his family. All in all, it’s a background that has installed a useful empathy, in that Downs knows exactly what it takes for some District residents to make ends meet.
Downs moved to the District almost 10 years ago. And on why Washington remains so special to him, Downs told me that the city “has offered me so much,” adding that “D.C. has simply allowed me to be who I wanted to be.”
Downs, too, you should know, is no stranger to a fight. In 2013, he was diagnosed with stage 2 testicular cancer. He’s been cancer-free for six years now, “technically cured” he told me. But the experience instilled in him greater patience and determination toward life. He also got one of D.C.’s first medical marijuana cards. “Card 104,” he told me, to help with his cancer treatments. It has made him a supporter of Ballot Initiative 81, the only initiative on this year’s ballot seeking to decriminalize the possession and distribution of entheogenic plants and fungus.
The District of Columbia is the most physically fit, the most educated, and the gayest city in the country. It takes a special man to represent such a place. And many have come to recognize this. His list of his endorsements is long — including the Washington Teachers Union, Persist DC (formerly DC for Elizabeth Warren), the LGBTQ Victory Fund, and many of the restaurants in Downs’ contingency such as the Tabard Inn, Annie’s, and Agora. Downs’ main challenger is the incumbent, 28-year-old Brooke Pinto, who won the seat by just over 300 votes in a special election. And there’s a stark contrast to the Missouri-born Downs and the Connecticut-born Pinto. Downs’ campaign has been largely funded through small local donations, with Downs taking advantage of the city’s new Fair Elections Program, a funds-matching initiative meant to get big money out of politics. Pinto’s campaign has largely been funded by her family’s significant largess. There are donors for sure, many of whom are both wealthy and not residents of the District. And scanning the list of those included you’ll see the fervently anti-gay and anti-choice former Attorney General of Michigan, Trump Republican Bill Schuette. That is troubling to say the least.
There are many reasons Randy Downs is running, and many reasons why he deserves the seat. I’ve listed just a few here. But know that there’s a certain boldness to Downs. That a 34-year-old gay man from rural Missouri would somehow find his way to Washington, D.C., and then run for its Council. That’s daring. But he’s proven to be a man of quick and thoughtful action that let loose on our city, beyond his few blocks he currently oversees, will bring nothing but good things to the District.
Vote Randy Downs on Nov. 3.
Brock Thompson is a D.C.-based writer. He contributes regularly to the Blade.