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Imperfect recall: How a city council fight is roiling Congress

By Justin Papp, CQ-Roll Call
Published: March 30, 2024, 6:00am

WASHINGTON — Several hours had passed on a recent Saturday before a Charles Allen supporter walked by a table of Ward 6 residents hoping to recall the D.C. councilmember and called them “stupid racists.”

It had been an otherwise quiet morning at Eastern Market. One woman muttered, “Go home,” while another stopped and politely said, “I don’t agree.”

But the group, whose members want to oust Allen over policies they say fueled the city’s rising crime, collected more than 80 signatures that day from a range of Capitol Hill denizens, including an independent who tends to vote for Democrats, a Republican National Committee staffer and plenty of true-blue liberals, some of whom had voted for Allen in the past.

“We’re making good trouble,” one of the organizers, Mary Masters, joked when a curious onlooker asked what they were doing.

“Good” in this case is a subjective term, and many in the neighborhood think the effort to boot Allen, who’s been on the D.C. Council since 2015, is just plain trouble.

“I’ve seen pictures of these gatherings and the rooms look overwhelmingly white, which obviously is not representative of D.C.’s demographics,” said Tré Easton, a senior Senate Democratic aide who donated to one of two campaigns opposing recall.

“I would never dismiss people concerned with carjackings or gun violence out of hand,” Easton said. “But I think this is probably the most vibes-based waste of time that D.C. has seen in a while. You cannot lay the complicated issues around public safety, around crime, at the feet of one particular member of the council.”

Like many things in the nation’s capital, this local fight is not entirely local. It has drawn national attention as it divides a very politically connected and largely Democratic ward. And it has fed partisan narratives in Congress, as Republicans describe a nightmarish city run by soft-on-crime liberals.

“I’ll be damned if I’m going to risk my life coming up here to serve the people of North Carolina and serve the country and get shot doing it,” GOP Rep. Greg Murphy said at a House hearing last week, adding he worried about his wife’s safety when she was walking their dog. “We’re allowing a city council to let havoc be wreaked in this town because they don’t like law enforcement.

“It’s time for the adults to come back in the room. … It’s interesting. D.C. wants statehood, and this is the type of legislative body that they demonstrate themselves to be,” he said.

Councilmembers in D.C. are used to some level of scrutiny, thanks to a home rule system that allows Congress to overturn pending local laws. In a Friday interview, Allen said the recall campaign is a “cynical ploy” and another example of outside interests trying to exert their political will over the city.

“If you just simply go look at who’s funding this, you’ve got a lot of Trump donors that are behind this. You see a lot of folks that are trying to push a national agenda,” Allen said.

Reporters have pored over the donors listed in a Jan. 31 financial report filed by the recall committee. Washington City Paper’s Alex Koma, for one, said he was able to tie a significant share of the roughly 400 names to Republican politics, either through their employment history or previous campaign donations.

Some of those are current congressional staffers. A Roll Call analysis of the donor list found about two dozen who currently work for Republican lawmakers. At least a couple of others work for House Democrats.

The recall’s organizers bristle at the suggestion that they’re stooges for Republican operatives, or that their movement is powered by carpetbagging politicos with little connection to Ward 6. Many of them have lived in the neighborhood for years and are proud Democrats. They’ve fundraised for liberal candidates and staffed Democratic campaigns. One served as a superdelegate for Obama.

Another proud Democrat is Mitchell Rivard, a supporter of the recall movement who works on the Hill as Michigan Rep. Dan Kildee’s chief of staff. He feels voters in his party shouldn’t have to choose between supporting police accountability or living in a safe community.

“Opponents of the recall effort are attempting to simplify this issue into neat Twitter posts that suggest you cannot be for both of those things,” Rivard said.

‘Move to Virginia’

For publicly taking that position, Rivard has seen some backlash. “^republican,” one user posted on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. “Youre [sic] kinda like if greg from succession was actively evil,” another wrote.

Others seize on the fact that he lives in Ward 2, although he feels like his more than 10 years working in Ward 6 as a congressional aide entitles him to an opinion. Rivard said several of his close friends have been the victims of violent crime, a theme other staffers echoed.

Bob Holste, chief of staff for California Republican Rep. Kevin Kiley, said a friend was assaulted in Penn Quarter. Holste, who has lived in the city off and on since 1978, also had his bike stolen from his home in Southwest.

“I know that’s not a human rights abuse, but it hadn’t happened in a long time,” said Holste. “And we’re all feeling the effects. I got a note from my insurance company that my premiums went up 80 percent. Why does that happen? I said to my agent, ‘Is there anything I could do about it?’ She just laughed at me and said, ‘Move to Virginia.’”

Noah Yantis, executive director of the Congressional Western Caucus, woke up several weeks ago in his Navy Yard home to alarms going off. A few blocks away there was an active shooter, and a police officer was hit.

“I have had friends that have asked me to walk home from work, or go out and run errands with them in the evening, because they don’t feel safe,” said Yantis, who stands a hulking 6 feet, 6 inches tall.

“You can’t go to Bullfeathers or Hawk ‘n’ Dove or Tune Inn without hearing staff talk about how bad it’s gotten,” he said, naming popular bars near the Capitol campus. “My true fear is one of my staffers walks home after late votes and is assaulted.”

Those donors to the recall campaign, as well as two other Republican staffers who requested anonymity because they aren’t authorized to speak to the press, all pointed to a change in the city that started during the COVID-19 pandemic.

While crime rose temporarily in many cities, most have since seen it level off or drop. President Joe Biden, for instance, issued a statement last week celebrating a record decrease in murders in 2023, according to FBI data.

But things in the District have been different. And Ward 6 has not been immune, even though it’s anchored by the relatively affluent neighborhood of Capitol Hill, where row homes can sell for millions. Metropolitan Police Department union head Greggory Pemberton testified last week that homicides in the ward increased 188 percent, robberies were up 66 percent, sex assaults rose 42 percent and carjackings jumped 57 percent in 2023.

Citywide, carjackings roughly doubled, MPD data shows. The city’s 274 homicides last year were the most since 1997 and the fifth-highest per capita among major American cities, according to a Washington Post analysis. And all of this happened as the city’s police force hit a half-century low, fueling the idea that fewer police has led to more crime.

“Every week that I get on a plane and I fly to D.C., my husband wonders if something is going to happen to me while I am here working,” Oklahoma Republican Rep. Stephanie Bice said at the hearing.

Lawmakers and staff are on edge after a series of high-profile incidents in and around the ward. In October, Texas Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar and a staffer for Alabama Republican Sen. Katie Britt were carjacked on separate occasions. In February 2023, Minnesota Democratic Rep. Angie Craig was attacked in the elevator of her H Street apartment building. And an aide to Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul was stabbed repeatedly, also on H Street.

Opponents of the recall campaign point to an encouraging drop in violent crime early in 2024. They say yanking a council member from office would cost taxpayers money and leave the ward without representation until the seat can be filled. While a similar effort has popped up in Ward 1, they reject the notion that removing any one person, whether Allen or Brianne Nadeau, will result in meaningful change.

Living in D.C. means dealing with a mix of federal and local bureaucracy, like a uniquely fragmented criminal justice system. Adults who commit felonies are prosecuted by a presidentially appointed U.S. attorney, and that office pressed charges on just 33 percent of arrests in 2022 and 44 percent in 2023. Allen notes that the city’s crime lab lost its accreditation in 2021 and didn’t regain it until the end of last year.

“When you talk to our prosecutors, they point to that directly and say the inability to get fingerprints, DNA, ballistics evidence had massive consequences on their ability to use the courts and get convictions,” Allen said.

The normies won

Rich Masters, one of the recall campaign’s organizers and Mary’s husband, said he isn’t out to paint D.C. as a dystopian hellhole. He doesn’t think Allen is solely responsible for the rise in crime, and like many of his co-organizers, he voted for Allen in the past.

But the pro-recall set can rattle off a list of grievances. They are unhappy with the direction he took as chair of the council’s public safety committee from 2017 to 2022, saying he “bragged about reducing the number of police officers on the beat.” Allen has defended his budget proposals and support for violence interruption programs. “We are reducing the size of our police force in a responsible way and shifting funds into other important priorities to make us all safer,” he wrote in a 2020 social media thread.

Recall proponents also accuse him of trying to “open the jail doors and let out violent criminals.” Allen led the revision of a 1985 law aimed at rehabilitating youth that The Washington Post found had led to “ violent offenders back on D.C. streets.” Allen sought to strengthen that law by limiting eligibility, but the revision also raised the age of people who could participate in the program to 24. He championed a similar age expansion to a “second-look” resentencing law, angering critics who feel the city is showing too much leniency to adult offenders.

And along with the rest of the council, Allen supported an overhaul of the city’s criminal code that would have reduced maximum penalties for crimes like carjacking, among other things.

In a striking rebuke, Congress overturned that criminal code rewrite last year, using its power to review D.C.’s laws before they take effect. Thirty-one House Democrats, along with 33 Senate Democrats and independents, joined their Republican colleagues in blocking the local law, and Biden signed the disapproval resolution last March.

In Rich Masters’ view, policies like those are a relic of the calls for change that swept through the party after a white police officer murdered George Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis in 2020. He believes Democrats went too far.

“The genesis of this whole movement is a group of Democrats who were fed up at having our party labeled extremists,” said Masters, who worked as an aide to Louisiana Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu in the late 1990s and early 2000s and said he marched for police accountability in the wake of Floyd’s killing. “We think Democrats can get back to a much more kind of mainstream, traditional Democratic role.”

But Easton, like Allen, feels the mainstream versus extremist framing is a false narrative. As crime continues to preoccupy voters in some urban areas, Democratic politicians — including in D.C., New Yorkand California — have already shifted the way they talk about crime.

“People roundly dismissed ‘defund the police.’ You don’t hear even a lot of the progressive folks talking like that anymore,” Easton said. “The normie elements of the Democrats, with respect to criminal justice reform, won the argument — which makes efforts like this, around recalling a person who I would consider a fairly mainstream liberal Democrat, even emptier.”

Allen encounter

Thursday was a brisk night in the District, but not brisk enough for the recall campaign to cancel its petition signing “pop-up” on the corner of Eighth Street and North Carolina Avenue Southeast. The location was strategic. About a block away the same night, a private fundraiser for Allen was planned.

A little before 7 p.m., Allen came walking down Eighth toward the petitioners. He clocked them, hedged like he might cross the street, and then proceeded toward the group, who were gathered in the small front yard of a row house.

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“Hello, how are you guys doing tonight?” Allen said, smiling as he walked by.

Sidewalk encounter aside, the recall group already felt it had gotten Allen’s attention. Earlier this month, he voted with most members of the council in favor of legislation that would implement harsher penalties for a variety of crimes. That’s a sign to some that he’s waking up to the current political realities.

Allen scoffed at the notion, pointing out the council started working on the bill last June.

But the run-in on Eighth Street was a cause for celebration for the petitioners, who face tough odds in their quest. No recall has succeeded at the city council level in 50 years of D.C. home rule. According to campaign treasurer April Brown, they’ve now raised more than $111,000, and Rich Masters said they’ve collected more than 1,300 signatures. But they’ve got a long way to go to get the 6,000-plus they need by mid-August to trigger a recall election.

As they gather those signatures just blocks from the Capitol, in a ward packed with political professionals and lobbyists, national attention might come with the territory. But it’s a D.C. story either way.

“This is not about Charles Allen. This is not about one person, to me,” Rivard said. “This is about sending a message to our local leaders, who I think all have some culpability in where we are.”

This report is part of an occasional series that touches on the safety of congressional staffers and threats to congressional offices.