While there are no specific Jewish issues in the race to become the District of Columbia’s next mayor, community and religious groups are taking an active role in the citywide elections. And with incumbent Mayor Vincent Gray facing accusations of campaign finance irregularities stemming from his 2010 campaign, the slew of councilmembers and activists vying to replace him are scrounging for every available vote and contribution.
“Jews care deeply” about social and ethical issues, said Jacob Feinspan, executive director of Jews United For Justice, who spoke to the Washington Jewish Week on behalf of JUFJ’s campaign fund. While they may not be large in number or contribute a great deal financially, they do vote, he said. “Their biggest contribution is their interest.”
About 4.7 percent of the District’s population, roughly 28,000 people according to the 2010 U.S. Census, are Jewish. The primary is April 1, but early voting began Monday.
In various meetings in which District elections have been discussed, Feinspan described the two biggest concerns as whether or not a candidate can be trusted and what to do about those District residents who have been left behind. Protecting the most vulnerable is an important task for D.C.’s mayor and council, he said.
Feinspan’s group endorsed candidates in many District races but not for mayor as a consensus for one candidate could not be reached, he said. They were seeking a candidate with a strong track record on social and economic issues, good ethics and one who was electable. While Gray and Councilmember Muriel Bowser of Ward 4 were considered the top two candidates, neither had strong enough records on the issues important to JUFJ for them to receive an endorsement.
JUFJ was impressed with mayoral candidates Tommy Wells, councilman of Ward 6, and Vincent Orange, an at-large councilman, for their efforts to raise the minimum wage and their positions on campaign finance issues.
The group also praised Andy Shallal, owner of Busboys and Poets, for his efforts to raise the minimum wage in D.C. and obtain sick pay for restaurant employees, said Feinspan. Shallal, who is from Iraq and describes himself as of Arab descent, was the main speaker for JUFJ’s 2013 Labor Seder. One of the many offerings at his restaurants is the Middle East Café, a program that holds events “designed to bring together Arabs, Jews, and those interested in working toward a resolution to the conflict in the Middle East,” according to the website for Busboys and Poets.
Although Mideast peace negotiations aren’t something the mayor of D.C. typically gets involved in, Shallal included a blog on his campaign website about the Middle East, saying he supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“I strongly believe we need to end the occupation,” writes Shallal, noting that he favors efforts “to change our government’s position away from support for occupation and towards a foreign policy in the Middle East based on human rights, international law and equality for all.”
The JCRC, which does not endorse candidates, believes that ethics, continuing education reform and housing issues are some of the biggest concerns on the minds of Jewish voters.
Debbie Linick, the JCRC’s director for D.C. and Northern Virginia, recalled that the first time Gray ran, her organization was instrumental in reinvigorating the interfaith council.
While neutral in the current campaign, Linick mentioned various strengths of some of the candidates, noting that Tommy Wells has chosen not to accept PAC money, and Bowser is strong on constituent service. She praised Gray for “over the years, reaching out to us” and for caring about economic development.
Linick pointed to Councilman Jack Evans of Ward 2, who is the chamber’s longest-serving member and chair of its finance committee. “He really has his finger” on the city, she said.
“I think each of them have strengths they can point to,” she said.
So voters can get to know the candidates, the JCRC is sponsoring a mayoral debate March 27 at Sixth and I Historic Synagogue with moderator Will Sommer, a writer at Washington City Paper.
Also running for mayor is Jack Evans, councilman from Ward 2; David Catania, an at-large councilman who is running as an independent; Reta Jo Lewis, an attorney who was a special assistant to President Bill Clinton; Frank Sewell, who has unsuccessfully run twice before; Carlos Allen, who allegedly crashed a White House party in 2010; Octavia Wells, Michael Green and the lone Republican, James Caviness.
In D.C.’s Ward 1, a long-term incumbent is facing serious opposition from political novice Brianne Nadeau, who was endorsed by JUFJ and has been benefitting from its campaigning on her behalf.
Democratic Councilman Jim Graham was first elected in 1998 and is currently in his fourth term as councilman for the ward, which encompasses such diverse areas as U Street, Adams Morgan, Mount Pleasant, Columbia Heights and Howard University. He is chair of the council’s Committee on Human Services and previously was chair of the Committee on Public Works.
Before becoming a councilman, Graham worked at the Whitman-Walker Clinic.
Nadeau is on leave from her job as vice president at Rabinowitz Communications. She got her first taste for the political life as a member of Neighborhood Watch back in 2005, where she walked around the area and talked with residents. The following year, Nadeau, 33, joined the Advisory Neighborhood Commission.
If elected, Nadeau said she would work to help young families to be able to afford living in the District and trust the school system.
She also wants residents who raised their families in D.C. to stay in their homes.
She pointed to Graham’s ethical problems while in office, including being reprimanded by the D.C. ethics board for committing “one or more violations of the District of Columbia Code of Conduct.” In February of last year, The Washington Post called for Graham’s resignation.