D.C. politics are heating up with the weather.
Memorial Day is still a recent memory and November’s chilly days seem far off, but the District has moved full-speed into the months-long task of choosing a new mayor.
As a formidable presence in the city, GW is settling back to see how the campaign will play out.
The University is not the only one – the District anxiously awaits the mayor who will return the city to home rule.
But in Foggy Bottom, a different kind of anticipation accompanies the search for a new mayor. In the city’s top spot, the new mayor will address issues affecting the University both as an institution and as the home of 18,000 students with myriad concerns and problems.
“GW is always looking to play a positive role in the city,” said senior Adam Siple, who is coordinating an effort to register students to vote. “There is a real partnership between the University and D.C.”
In their attempts to be involved in District life, GW students volunteer in city schools, give tours of historic Foggy Bottom and clean up city streets. Students rent apartments in District buildings, buy merchandise at local stores and work for city businesses. And often, students become permanent residents.
“When students graduate, they stay in the city,” said GW Assistant Vice President Bernard Demczuk, the University’s point-man on District relations and formerly the city’s chief lobbyist. “They contribute their talents, their kindness to D.C.”
So the mayor who governs the District for the next four years will have an important role in ensuring GW students – and their University – continue to be satisfied members of the community.
“We are on the verge of a renaissance in D.C. – the stars are aligned over this city,” Demczuk said.
Demczuk said the city hit “rock bottom” four or five years ago – its financial situation and reputation were precarious. But he said things have improved in recent years and he predicts D.C. will continue to see sky-rocketing growth under its new mayor.
Regardless of who moves into the mayor’s office, this is a city whose time has come, Demczuk said. Ultimately, the rebirth that he says is on the horizon will benefit the University by improving the quality of life and boosting the economy.
Vying for the office so far, are five Democrats who will face off for their party’s nod in the Sept. 15 primary. Three city council members have announced their candidacies: Harold Brazil (at large), Kevin Chavous (Ward 7) and Jack Evans (Ward 2), who represents Foggy Bottom and Georgetown.
Anthony Williams, D.C.’s chief financial officer, also has thrown his hat into the ring, as has restaurateur Jeffrey Gildenhorn, who owns a chain of diners in the District and Maryland.
No Republicans officially have entered the race, but D.C. council member Carol Schwartz (at large) is rumored to be a possible candidate.
So far, the campaign has centered around several themes – improving the city’s schools, addressing crime and public safety and correcting the ills of the city’s management. All the candidates have stressed the need to bring the District back to home rule, a task the mayor elected in November will shoulder.
For several years, D.C. city management has been overseen by a presidentially-appointed and congressionally-approved financial control board, headed Andrew Brimmer.
“The word that always comes up about this city is `dysfunctional,’ ” Siple said. “How are these people going to make this city what it needs to be?”
“We need to prove that we have a city that can run itself,” said Student Association Executive Vice President Jesse Strauss, who is working with Siple on the voter registration initiative. “There’s such a pool of talent in this city – we need someone who can utilize that talent.”
For GW students, however, the broader themes of the campaign resonate less than the manner in which the new mayor will handle the issues that touch their lives every day – Strauss and Siple name D.C.’s zoning regulations, restrictions on street parking and refusal to issue student Metro passes as examples.
Community members, like those who serve on local Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, vote frequently and lobby the city for what they want, Demczuk said. Often, neighborhood residents come down opposite of students on student issues, a fact that puts city leaders in a tough spot, he said.
It is those kinds of town-gown tensions that the candidates will need to address, Demczuk said.
“Whoever is elected will have a balancing act between the interests of the University and its students and the other members of the community,” Demczuk said. “Each candidate will have to develop a clear, articulate platform that supports not only the students, but the University itself. The new mayor must take leadership to bring the sides together.”
Each candidate will have to “come to campus and be seen” if he or she hopes to secure the support of GW students, Demczuk said.
Demczuk and Siple are making tentative plans to host a candidates’ forum in September, a chance for the hopefuls to discuss student issues and court the student vote.But the number of students who are registered to vote in D.C. is still small – Siple estimates the number at a couple of hundred – so convincing the candidates that they must woo students could be a challenge.
Holding city leaders accountable is difficult in an unorganized student population that does not vote, and Demczuk says remedying that is the first step to successful citizenship.
“Students have to register to vote where they live, they have to organize, run for local office, create University and city spirit,” he said.
Siple agrees, which is why he’s spearheading the effort to get students out to vote in the fall election.
So far his initiative, GW Votes, is still in the planning stages, but he and Strauss and the dozen or so other students who are involved already have blueprints for their program.
They plan to register students to vote at Colonial Inaugurations this summer and at Welcome Week events in August. They are planning an all-night event for September called “GW 500” that they hope will get 500 students registered in a single evening.
Siple said he hopes to get 1,000 students registered by Oct. 1 – two weeks before the Oct. 15 deadline to register for the November election.
A team effort
Strauss said students have to get involved in other ways as well, volunteering for campaigns and otherwise getting involved in the city.
“Students have schedules that give them the time to volunteer, and they are energetic and enthusiastic,” he said.
For now, D.C – the University included – is still gearing up for a summer’s worth of campaigning and wondering what the new mayor will do for the District.
At GW, students and administrators alike look ahead to working with the new mayor in the many capacities in which the city and the school cooperate.
The year-old Center for Excellence in Municipal Management, a business school program that gives high-level city government executives advanced leadership and management training, works closely with D.C.’s top officials. The center’s director, public administration Professor Ronald Sanders, said that teamwork will continue regardless of who is elected.
“The Center will support whichever candidate wins,” Sanders said. “We will work with that candidate to continue our efforts with the city.”
Demczuk said the University must remain neutral throughout the race, and as GW’s liaison with the city, he cannot pick favorites either. But he said the University is watching the race closely.
“The University is pleased with the crop of candidates,” he said. “We are all very excited about the future of the city – it’s a city whose time has come.”