Photos: Elise Vu/DC Spotlight Newspaper
April 1, 2013
“We told folks during the campaign that we were going to come down here, roll up our sleeves, and get to work, and over the last seven months, we’ve done exactly that.” — D.C. Councilman Kenyan McDuffie
WASHINGTON — The District of Columbia left little doubt about the direction it hopes to go in when the city elected two native-born Washingtonians — but political newcomers — to the D.C. Council in 2012, amidst an increased focus on integrity and ethics in office. This past May, Kenyan McDuffie won a special election for the Ward 5 council seat, replacing Harry Thomas Jr., who resigned from the position after pleading guilty to embezzling more than $350,000 from the city. In November, David Grosso defeated prominent incumbent Michael Brown for the second at-large seat reserved for non-Democrats on the council, after Brown lost the post largely due to criticism he received for mismanaging his campaign and person finances.
Now, both Grosso and McDuffie — who share similar backgrounds and personal journeys — intend to create a more transparent government and aim to rebuild Washington’s political landscape in order to move the city forward.
“The city really stepped up to the plate and accepted [we were]the right change for the time and that they wanted council members that were responsive to the public and trying to do their best to engage the public and that’s the biggest thing,” said Grosso, who was sworn into office on January 2nd after defeating Brown by more than 18,000 votes, according to the Board of Elections and Ethics. Grosso became the first challenger to defeat a D.C. Council incumbent in the general election in nearly 15 years.
McDuffie acknowledges the change that Ward 5 – and Washington D.C. – hopes to achieve by electing him. The councilman received 44.50 percent of the Ward 5 votes in the May 15 special election, easily crushing second-place finisher Delano Hunter, who finished with 20 percent. “[The results] speak to the new energy on the council,” said McDuffie, who ran for office with a promise to restore honesty to the seat. “It speaks to a focus on integrity, ethics and really, accountability.”
McDuffie, who graduated from the University of Maryland School of Law, and Grosso, a member of the D.C. Bar, referenced their legal background as foundation for their ascension to the D.C. Council. However, shared experiences on the D.C. Council and in the office of Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, the long-time representative for Washington D.C. in the House of Representatives, provided each man with invaluable knowledge which proved instrumental to their success.
“That early experience with Congresswoman Norton is really what armed me with that passion for public service and really made me want to get involved with electoral politics,” said McDuffie, who worked on her staff from 2002 to 2003. “And so, seeing her work as hard as she worked to really represent the interest of the District of Columbia residents on Capitol Hill made me look internally at my own community and how I could really help to change things and have a positive impact on my neighborhood…I assisted (Norton’s) staff with the organization of legislative activities and so it was really a great learning experience,” McDuffie added. “Not only did I learn the interworks of the federal government, I also learned how to work with the District of Columbia government.”
Grosso, who served as legislative director to Norton from 2006-2007, attributed his time with the congresswoman as a major reason for the success of his election. “The congresswoman taught me a lot about what it means to have the right strategy going into every single issue,” said Grosso. “And it’s really important that you think it through all the way. When you’re going, you may have to take baby steps – you know A, B, C, D – and then get to where you need to get to. She’s the master at that.”
“She’s very, very good at knowing what her ultimate goal is, but working the issue all the way to that goal,” Grosso said. “Sometimes, it takes years to get to her ultimate goal, but she is just extremely talented at that kind of strategic thinking. I spent many, many, many hours with her one-on-one in her office, late at night, going through issues, understanding how to get from point A to point B. It was extremely valuable.”
Norton was present for Grosso’s triumph on November 6th, when it was announced he had defeated Brown for the at-large seat. “She was very excited,” Grosso said. “She came to my victory party. We spoke there and she was very impressed, very proud I was able to pull it off, because it wasn’t an easy thing.”
Grosso took two staff members from his time in Norton’s office with him to the D.C. Council: his current chief of staff, Aaron Pritchard and Dionne Calhoun, his communications director. “It’s been pretty hectic setting up the office (and) making sure staff is comfortable,” Grosso said. “I have a staff that has never been here and I’m trying to get them up to speed.”
McDuffie, likewise, spent no time after winning the seat before he turned his attention to the difficulties facing Ward 5 and the District of Columbia. He currently serves on the Economic Development Committee and is the chair of government operations.
“We’ve been focused on issues related to ethics and campaign finance reform,” said McDuffie, who holds the seat until 2014. “We tell folks on the campaign, we’re gonna come out here, roll up our sleeves and get to work, and over the last seven months, we’ve done exactly that. We’ve been deeply engaged in the community, making sure we stay connected to our youth, stay connected with our senior citizens and really increase ordinary citizen access to their government.”
“It’s been really great,” he added. “It’s been an experience…I think we’ve been working extremely hard to represent Ward 5…grapple with issues that affect not only Ward 5, but the entire city. We look at things like economic development to make sure that we were trying to revitalize neglected homes and neglected businesses and dormant business corridors to not only stimulate business, but also create jobs.”
Grosso brings a comparable resolve to the D.C. Council. In addition to looking at the present state of the city, he has a guarded eye on the long-term future of Washington.
“For me, it’s a comprehensive understanding of the city we’re trying to get, and once we have that, we can start to develop what we’re going to do to get to that point,” Grosso said. “In all the hearings so far (and) in every meeting so far, that’s kind of been my philosophy…teaching people how to think about who I am and what I’m looking for. And I’m looking for that kind of longer-term picture.”
The two have also spent time together, working on initiatives that best serve the District, based on previous problems in the city. “Dave and I just co-introduced a bill that will mandate campaign finance training for candidates for political office, as well as for treasurers of political campaigns,” McDuffie noted, pointing to the setting in which both men were elected. “You see early collaboration with us. That is something that the voters are taking an interest in when they consider who they want to support for the council. Perhaps it has something to do with the environment in which we were elected. A lot of the focus lately has been around issues around integrity and ethics, and I think both of us have that similar background –a legal background…”
Despite taking similar paths to the D.C. Council, Grosso admits that he and McDuffie have rarely spoken about their shared background – or the fact that they both received mentoring and instruction from Norton. “We never talked about it,” Grosso said. “…it must be cool for her to have us both in office.”