The Business Candidates

Notoriously, the race for at-large city council member in DC is 24 candidates deep. The seat is open because of the retirement of David Grosso, an incumbent I’ve respected since 2015 for his work on juvenile justice reform. Two business-friendly candidates running for the seat are worth analyzing.

An established former at-large member, Vincent Orange, is in the mix after losing his seat in 2016 and then stepping away from the Council before his term ended, to lead the DC Chamber of Commerce. That resignation process was telling: he resisted calls to leave the seat, which would have prevented any conflicts of interest. The Chamber is, after all, the primary advocacy and lobbying heavyweight representing the big tent of the business community, and thus a major lobbying force jockeying for influence in the Council. In resisting the calls to resign and avoid overlapping job obligations, he tried to justify his situation by comparing it with (or more generously, “comparing it against”) the tragically low standard set by Jack Evans’ conduct at that time. Evan’s, then Ward 2’s councilmember, is since ousted. He is both a snollygoster and a two-time Wikipedia vandal.

What could be more of a conflict-of-interest red flag than Orange’s past intention to simultaneously steer the council and lobby it on behalf of the broad business community? What Marcus Goodwin might do as a developer-turned-Councilmenber: actively engaging in business activity that has a narrower, more concentrated policy interest than the Chamber’s — a special interest premised on excluding large swaths of DC’s residents and homeowners from the Council’s priorities. Goodwin, who is a real-estate developer and second-time candidate for at-large Councilmember, could be a new guard in the Democratic establishment of DC: his Neighborhood Development Company can immediately point to its Benning Market development, at 3451 Benning Road NE for progressive credibility. That “food hall” concept would supposedly provide a venue in Ward 7 for a community market and black-owned businesses, at least for now. This dream has yet to come to fruition; its key tenant has an out-of-date website (from December 2019, as of October 2020), suggesting little forward momentum several years from its founding, and a year since NDC’s crowdsourced quarter-million dollar funding round. Other NDC projects are more run-of-the-mill: a lot of gentrifying projects and a sideshow of affordable housing, which can be targeted toward people with fairly high incomes because of DC’s high median income, which is used for defining affordable housing eligibility.

Do we overlook our concerns about Goodwin’s development-industry policy interests because his company sponsored one as-yet-unfulfilled project that it asserts will elevate community interests in Ward 7? Can we even trust that his company, the landlords, will keep black-owned businesses at center-stage in the property’s future, if Ward 7 continues to gentrify? Or will its joint food hall–grocery store design be home to the next Whole Foods by decade’s end?

Development ties imply several priorities that are out of step with many DC residents’ own. Developers want the opportunity to raise rents for businesses and homes. This is fastest aided by deprioritizing low-income residents’ needs and pushing out low-income residents from their current neighborhoods. Developers take this approach to create large swaths of the city that are highly appealing to high-income residents. (High-income residents in turn can sign high-end, high-profit leases and can purchase bottomless volumes of high-profit items from nearby businesses, increasing the businesses’ rent potential.)

Many pressing policy areas — like criminal justice, tenants’ rights, education, and behavioral health — are instrumental to push out or keep out lower income residents (including those trying to make an honest living) just as the city reshapes itself to appeal to prospective tenants in the upper classes. Appealing to higher-income residents can involve policies that improve services and rights for all — but this is slower. If Goodwin takes the at-large seat, what broad approach he will take to reshape DC via policy makes all the difference. At best, he would expand the pie and shepherd corporate interests to generate opportunities for the lower-income DC residents. Or he could shepherd lower-income DC residents out of town to generate opportunities for corporate interests. DC’s progress in offering economic opportunity and household stability to all residents is threatened if we replace the inclusivity-oriented ethic of David Grosso with someone who will not be a fierce negotiator on behalf of the district when facing business interests who want a place in our city’s economic activity.

Those concerns about how his development background would shape his political priorities should be weighted heavily because he is so young, and his career so promising: voters mistaking his intentions in this election could accidentally invite development-friendly policy angles — and perhaps related graft — for the next decades. He is 30, and last year was elected president of DC’s club for young Democrats.

Goodwin’s statement in the Post focused on his experience: that “the work that I’ve done in commercial development gives me the knowledge and savvy to know how public-private partnerships should be structured and how to preserve housing for residents that is truly affordable.” This is a fair point, for those looking for a community-oriented business voice. Goodwin is a DC high school graduate, with a pedigree from St. Albans, UPenn, and Harvard. He is deep into the financial and government-facing part of NDC’s work. He previously worked at Four Points and JBG Smith, according to his NDC profile.

On one hand, his election would reshape which groups of DC residents he will champion, with concerning likelihood that the poor would lose. On the other hand, his election would welcome new frontiers for graft and cronyism. His Neighborhood Development Company would be intensely embedded in DC or whatever firm he goes in later decades with his coupled political power and development skills. If Goodwin takes political office, development companies offering a better vision for DC land use might get cut out of a fair process — or might avoid competing with his firms altogether in key areas, to avoid his disfavor.

For that reason, keeping Goodwin on the bench seems a good idea, at least until he reveals more about his priorities and shows real commitment to equity, or until he commits to disentangling from his own industry to take on the $130,000/year salaried work of DC Councilmember. If he’s committed to equitable development for the right reasons, he will have much to do in the next decade anyway in our city. If he’s committed to bringing his business experience to negotiate and legislate on behalf of DC’s citizenry, I hope he would return to take a third shot at a Council seat in future elections.

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