The District of Columbia Council’s latest legislative session got underway Jan. 2 but the ceremonial flourish of council members being sworn in was greeted by the voices of elected community leaders imploring the first majority female council in two decades to focus on key priorities.
D.C. Council members Robert White (D-At Large), Christina Henderson (I-At Large), Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2), Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4), Vincent Gray (D-Ward 7) and Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) took the oath of office in front of the John A. Wilson Building in Northwest.
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) presided over the ceremony while D.C. Attorney Karl Racine (D) administered the oaths to Robert White, Pinto and Trayon White and D.C. Superior Court Chief Judge Anita Josey-Herring swore-in Henderson, George and Gray.
During his remarks, Trayon White talked about his accomplishments in Ward 8 since becoming a council member in 2017. He spoke about his shepherding of Dream Grants for businesses specifically east of the Anacostia River, the new St. Elizabeths East Hospital, dealing with the homicide crisis and new amenities such as a library branch, recreation centers and grocery stores.
However, Mustafa Abdul-Salaam, the advisory neighborhood commissioner for district 8C05, reacted to the remarks with what he thinks is the need to unite the ward.
“We need Trayon White to provide leadership and a common vision for the ward,” Abdul-Salaam said. “Ward 8 has been fragmented for some time and if we are united, we can maximize resources for the benefit of ward residents. In order to deal with the pandemic and gentrification, we need a community-based plan. If we don’t have a plan, we have no negotiating leverage with developers and the city government.”
In addition, Salaam said Trayon White should work to strengthen his relationship with the ward’s commissioners.
“He needs to close that gap,” he said. “It would seem that each commissioner in this ward has an agenda and it should not be like that. We all need to work together for the good of the ward.”
Some of Salaam’s counterparts elsewhere in the city voiced the need in Ward 4 for both unity and inclusion. George, in her speech, talked about how she plans on being the council member for every Ward 4 resident.
Stacey Lincoln, who serves as the commissioner for 4A02, encourages George’s inclusivity and said her predecessor, Brandon Todd, didn’t practice that.
“Brandon Todd has his group of people that he talked to in the ward,” Lincoln said. “He really didn’t reach out to anyone else. If George reaches out to everyone, she could make a difference.”
Commissioner La Roya A. Huff of 4B09 served on Todd’s staff. She agreed with Lincoln that George should focus on outreach but said a special group of ward residents need attention.
“We have a lot of senior citizens in our ward,” Huff said. “About 18,000 of the ward’s 84,000 residents are seniors, the second-largest bloc in the city other than Ward 5. Council member George should make sure she reaches them. Some seniors don’t have access to technology like Zoom, but they can work with paper. She needs to reach all populations so that we can all move forward.”
Gray talked about how Ward 7 has progressed since his re-election to the council in 2016. He noted success toward building the St. Elizabeths hospital and the development of a health care system in Wards 7 and 8.
Patricia Malloy, the 7C06 commissioner in the Lincoln Heights and Richardson Dwellings area of Ward 7, said Gray should pay more attention to the economic development projects in the ward. She specifically pointed out the lack of funding for the Strand Theater restoration project for which funding was snatched away recently and sent to an out-of-town project.
Malloy said Gray needs to find some way to restore funding to the Strand Theater and spearhead the building of the Deanwood Town Center which has been in the planning stages for years.
“We have been waiting for the development of the Strand Theater,” Malloy said, speaking of the first movie venue for Blacks east of the Anacostia which opened in 1928 but has been shuttered for decades. “Last month, the D.C. Housing Authority sent $6 million that was meant for the Strand to build a community hospital in Los Angeles. Vincent Gray needs to find money to put back into the project. We also need for the Deanwood Town Center, which is across the street from the Strand, to get started. We want him to become more focused on the development of these projects.”
Former D.C. Citizens Federation President W. Earl Williams, a resident of the Hillcrest neighborhood of Ward 7, said the council members should address urgent issues adversely affecting residents of color.
“I think the D.C. Council should reject the comprehensive plan,” Williams said, speaking of D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser administration’s amendments to the District’s long-term growth proposal. “The mayor’s changes don’t benefit the people, especially those who are working-class and low-income.”
Williams mentioned the coronavirus’s devastating effect in the District, saying the council must assist economically ailing residents.
“People who are dealing with a possible eviction and joblessness should be the council’s priority,” he said. “I know the eviction rate will be very high for people of color when the mayor lifts the public health emergency when COVID-19 comes under control. We need to protect people who don’t have a high income in this city.”