Julianne MalveauxPolitics

Dionne Reeder: An Advocate for Access

This essay is by no means unbiased reporting. It’s a profile and reporting on a conversation I had with a woman I admire, respect and consider a friend. In the interest of full disclosure, let me note that I was one of about 20 women who were on the host committee of the event Cora Masters Barry and Marie Johns organized for Dionne Reeder on Sept. 30.

Angela Alsobrooks, candidate for Prince George’s County executive, first met Dionne Reeder at George Washington University Hospital, where Reeder was roommates with Alsobrooks’ grandmother.

The grandmother was experiencing some complications from Alzheimer’s, and the nurses were becoming impatient with her. Reeder became her advocate and her friend, getting out of her own hospital bed to hold the older woman’s hand and minister to her through what proved to be a difficult night.

Reeder met Alsobrooks the next day, right before she had surgery on her leg. And she returned on a crutch to bring flowers and to check on her roomie. Additionally, Reeder took on the older woman’s cause, writing letters of complaint about her treatment.

So years later, when Alsobrooks heard that Reeder was running for D.C. Council as an at-large member, she didn’t hesitate to offer her support.

Reeder said it was natural for her to take up the cause of her elderly roommate. She is a natural advocate who is committing to righting society’s wrongs, large and small. More importantly, though, she said she has a passion for senior citizens, partly because she was raised by “old parents” who were in their early 40s when she was born.

“I was the kid who hung out with the grownups,” she said of her childhood. “I got to know older people and am naturally concerned about their quality of life.”

“Quality of life” is a term Reeder often uses during an interview on the second floor of her Anacostia restaurant, Cheers at the Big Chair. Indeed, she says she got into the restaurant business partly because “Ward 8 is a food desert.

“There were few decent places to eat here,” she said. “With Cheers, I’m offering a service to the community, and I’m providing jobs.”

If Reeder had her way, she said, the city council “would put the interests of D.C. residents first” and pay more attention to quality of life. She has thought about ways to help senior citizens who want to stay in their homes but can’t afford to make necessary modifications and renovations.

She has floated the idea of a loan program allowing seniors to borrow at reasonable interest rates to make repairs. The city would collect on the loan when the senior either sold her home or died.

Reeder also suggested developing a program to make senior medication more affordable, which would possibly allow some seniors to have more disposable income. She hasn’t worked all the details out, but has a policy team helping her.

While she is passionate about her platform, she is most focused on finding the 51,000 votes she needs to get elected. She thinks she can find them if she can boost turnout in Wards 7 and 8 and gain more visibility in Wards 1, 2, 3 and 6.

A D.C. For All

If elected, Reeder plans to focus primarily on youth and seniors, but also on small-business development, affordable housing and “on every part of the city.” She recently opened an office on MacArthur Boulevard, and cites it as evidence that she will be an advocate for the “whole city.”

Her website (www.dionnefordc.com) touts her campaign theme, “A Council and a City that Works for All,” and says, “You cannot focus on one part of the community and exclude others.”

Reeder said her daily commute from her Ward 1 home to her business in Ward 8 reminds her of the “diversity and vitality” of the city. Her commitment to education and economic security, especially for young people, is strong, she said.

“Education was my bridge,” she said, adding that she’d like to see the trades reintroduced into public education. “Young people could graduate from high school with certificates in coding, customer service, or other skills that would pipeline them immediately into the workforce.

“I’m not talking about workforce development,” Reeder said. “I’m talking about developing workforce systems.”

She decried efforts to take arts out of the schools in favor of excessive testing because “children need to use both their left and right brains.”

Reeder reiterated that she will be but one of 13 council members and that she’ll need to work with others to see her ideas realized.

“I am a collaborator,” she said.

Reeder mentioned the woman she’s attempting to unseat, Elissa Silverman, in passing, referring to her only as “the independent incumbent.” She deftly deflected opportunities to be critical of Silverman, except to point out that Silverman sponsored legislation to weaken the Marion Barry Summer Youth Employment Program by disallowing summer youth employees to be employed in the arts or recreation. The legislation failed, but the principle of it rankled Reeder.

Reeder, who is just 10 units short of a master’s degree in divinity from Howard University, described herself as a “woman of God” and said her time at Howard is pivotal to her development as a person and as a candidate.

She quoted one of her professors, Dr. Harold Truelear, who uses the parable, “Give a man a fish, and you teach him to eat, teach him to fish and you teach him to live,” to ask the pointed question, “what if he doesn’t have access to a pond?”

Politics as Usual

The issue of access is one that motivates Reeder, more so than some of the ugly insinuations that are routine in D.C. politics, particularly rumblings that her challenging Silverman’s seat is “racist.” It’s a conversation she said she won’t indulge in.

Such talk, fueled by Silverman supporters, seems indicative of the tensions that come from the city’s demographic shift. Reeder appears determined to transcend the tensions, repeating her commitment to represent the whole city.

Many of Silverman’s supporters note that “Mayor for Life” Marion Barry endorsed her when she first ran for the council in 2014. But Barry’s widow, Cora Masters Barry, said her late husband “would be appalled at the way that Elissa Silverman has turned against the people he loved the most in D.C., the least and the left out.”

Barry cited Silverman’s role in cutting more than $30 million from the budget of the newly opened Entertainment and Sports Arena in Southeast, as well as her efforts to reduce the reach of the Marion Barry Summer Youth Program.

Reeder has trod a rocky road during her candidacy. Initially encouraged by former Mayor Anthony Williams to seek the council seat, she was abruptly dropped by Williams when he embraced the candidacy of Kathryn Allen, who many considered more malleable than Reeder.

When Allen failed to get the signatures she needed, Mayor Muriel Bowser endorsed Reeder and has been “helpful” to her. But Reeder said she is no mayoral “rubber stamp,” but someone who will come to the table “speaking with many voices.”

Her campaign lagged until Allen was disqualified from the ballot. Now she has momentum, an enthusiastic team and supporters such as Howard University trustee Marie Johns, D.C. icon Pauline Schneider, retired Pepco executive Debbi Jarvis and international activist Marcia Dyson.

Reeder said she recognizes she has an uphill climb to victory, but is “confident and optimistic” that she can win.

“I will be the only business owner on the council,” she said. “The only openly gay woman. I come to the table as an activist, an advocate, a woman of God and a collaborator. I will be an asset to the council.”

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