If there’s still any question of At-Large D.C. Council member Elissa Silverman’s commitment to representing all District residents — particularly lifelong Black Washingtonians who feel left out of the city’s economic boom — she attempted to lay those concerns to rest at the very start of her second term.
Moments after taking her oath during the swearing-in ceremony for newly elected officials on Jan. 2, Silverman (I) appealed to her council colleagues and criticized political opponents who questioned her deference to those experiencing displacement and other woes.
“There are many longtime D.C. residents who have seen their city change and grow in their backyard without them,” Silverman told the hundreds in attendance during the ceremony at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Northwest.
In Silverman’s speech, she hinted at a focus on workforce development, implementation of Paid Family Leave legislation, employment at the impending East End Hospital, and student loan refinancing in the New Year — issues that have been of concern to Black Washingtonians.
“For far too many, this is a city of dreams deferred,” she said. “We need to be focused on closing these gaps, but these gaps have been exploited to pit groups of residents against each other. This approach does nothing to empower those who need us the most. We need to work together to see strength in our diversity.”
Nearly two months earlier, Silverman, a former reporter and policy analyst hailing from Baltimore, successfully defended her seat against third-generation Washingtonian and local business owner Dionne Reeder, accumulating 27 percent of the vote compared to Reeder’s 15 percent.
The political contest revealed deep racial and economic schisms endemic of the once-Chocolate City now in the throes of significant demographic changes to its historic neighborhoods and local government. In the end, Silverman’s reputation as a progressive-minded maverick helped her weather the storm against her Black LGBT opponent, who received backing from D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) in the final weeks of her campaign.
Bowser’s support for Reeder wasn’t without reason. During the the most recent council session, Bowser and Silverman clashed over the ultimately successful Paid Family Leave legislation introduced by Silverman, which Bowser contended would burden business owners and deter investment in the District.
Since taking office in 2015, Silverman has been deeply involved in similar battles against corporate interests, refusing to take corporate campaign contributions and railing against multimillion-dollar development projects, including underground parking at Union Market in Northeast. In October, she and four other D.C. Council members voted against legislation to repeal Initiative 77, a voter-approved ballot measure to raise the tipped worker minimum wage to that of full-time District employees.
“I like Council member Silverman’s grass-roots concerns about disenfranchised,” said Glenda Richmond, a D.C. resident, veterans advocate and ardent Silverman supporter.
Though Richmond criticized what she called the council’s lack of dialogue about retired servicemen and women, she commended Silverman for holding up her end of the bargain in a fight she said ultimately lies in the hands of the oppressed.
Throughout much of last year, Silverman’s stance on other issues and what has been described as aloofness about D.C.’s racial politics perturbed some of her African-American constituents, including a contingent that rallied behind Reeder during last year’s election.
Previous efforts to cut funding for the Marion S. Barry Summer Youth Program and cap spending on the Entertainment & Sports Arena on St. Elizabeths East Campus called into question Silverman’s commitment to east-of-the-River communities.
Richmond said, however, that Silverman, more so than other council members, has remained consistent in her advocacy for those without resources.
“Hearing her at the Council meetings, Council member Silverman seemed to be very sincere and by herself on the issues we need to hold our city council people accountable on,” said Richmond, founder and executive director of the District Veteran Brain Trust. “That’s what she’s doing. Disenfranchised people need to organize. A lot of them aren’t involved in the political system, so the politicians are doing what we allow them to do.”
More than a month after winning her re-election bid, Silverman carried on her rebellious streak, fighting for unionized workers at United Medical Center (UMC) in Southeast whose future employment status at the East End Hospital, scheduled to open on St. Elizabeths East Campus in Southeast in late 2021, had long been in question.
The version of the East End Health Equity Amendment Act passed by the council on Dec. 18 includes an amendment proposed by Silverman that requires East End hospital administrators to hire the majority of UMC employees, provide explanations to those denied jobs, and establish a neutrality agreement for those who want to organize at the East End Hospital.
To the chagrin of medical staff and union advocates, the final product greatly differed from a previous amendment also introduced by Silverman, which had guaranteed stronger protections for unionized UMC employees.
In early December, the passage of Silverman’s first amendment, along with one introduced by fellow Council member Trayon White (D-Ward 8) to provide residency opportunities for Howard University medical students at the East End Hospital, nearly brought the deal to a standstill. Ultimately, a series of phone calls and private meetings in the following weeks ensured the passage of the East End Health Equity Amendment Act at the very end of the council period.
“As a union, we’re greatly appreciative of the work Council member Silverman did to put [the legislation] forward, but it was a concession, in a sense,” Yahnae Barner, vice president for the D.C.-area chapter of 1199 SEIU, said during a celebratory luncheon at Silverman’s council office Tuesday afternoon.
However, not all was lost, the union leader said.
“Council member Silverman did all that she could do in her power to educate other council members,” Barner said. “Overall, she understands that health care is a big issue. She’s always been receptive and able to go across the aisle to speak to other council members.”