Ed Meinert attends Advisory Neighborhood Commission meetings, and doesn’t like what he sees.
“They’re pretty haphazard – there’s all this bickering,” he said. “They’re pretty disorganized, I think I can make the board more efficient.”
GW juniors Alan Elias, Steven Mandelbaum and Meinert are out to fix an organization they say is “broken”; they’re running for spots on Foggy Bottom’s ANC, the most local outpost of District of Columbia government.
The three students say their candidacies stem from a desire to become more involved in the community, to take their activism beyond campus to the surrounding neighborhood.
“I don’t like the two separate communities that have evolved in Foggy Bottom – the students versus the permanent residents,” Elias said. “I’ve witnessed a lot of this `us vs. them’ mentality and I don’t like it.”
So, he’s decided to change the attitude and he thinks a win in November is just the beginning.
ANCs have been around since the 1970s, when they emerged in D.C. as part of the growing trend toward community-based decision making in the nation’s cities. The handbook distributed to ANC commissioners boasts that few cities have neighborhood governing bodies similar to the District’s 37 ANCs.
The commissions serve only an advisory capacity – they have no legislative authority, but exist to advise the city’s councilmembers on issues from taxes to parking to zoning to garbage collection. ANCs are D.C. government on a micro level and are charged with taking residents’ complaints, concerns and queries to the elected officials who make policy.
But Elias said he worries the ANC representing Ward 2A – which encompasses GW and the surrounding Foggy Bottom neighborhood – is not living up to its task.
“They have seven-hour meetings, nothing gets done. It’s a hindering of democracy,” he said. “An organization is the product of the people who run it. Steven and Ed and I are going to make the ANC work the best it can work.”
“They’re against change, against innovation,” Mandelbaum said. “The few times they actually get everyone together, they don’t do anything. In the last couple of years, I’ve watched the community kill things that would be good for students.”
The three candidates are not running against each other, so if they all snag a spot, the six-member ANC could be 50 percent students. And if 1995 GW graduate Richard Sheehey, another ANC candidate, wins as well, GW-affiliated commissioners could become the majority.
It isn’t the first time students have sought spots on the ANC. Two years ago, GW student Sarah Goodyear ran a write-in campaign for a 2A seat, but lost 185-120 to incumbent Dorothy Miller. That year, Georgetown University students James Fogarty and Rebecca Sinderbrand ran for seats on the Ward 2E board and both became commissioners.
Meinert is running against Miller to represent single-member district 2A05, the area that includes Thurston Hall and Columbia Plaza, where he is a resident.
Elias, a New Hall resident, is running unopposed so far for the 2A04 seat, representing Madison and New halls and area apartment buildings including Potomac Plaza Terraces.
Mandelbaum’s district, 2A06, encompasses the most GW residential buildings – his own building, Kennedy Onassis Hall, and Munson, Fulbright and Strong halls. The Dakota, Potomac Park apartments and the Monroe House also fall in his district. He’s running against incumbent Sara Maddux and Gregory Scoma, a security and safety specialist for the University Police Department and a Foggy Bottom resident.
Maddux said variety on the ballot is “the essence of a good democracy.”
“It comes down to the question `what are the qualities of a good candidate?’ ” Maddux said. “They need to have commitment and experience – those are the issues people have to look at.”
None of the student candidates is new to government and activism: Meinert is director of the Student Association’s Tuition Action Commission. Mandelbaum was last year’s SA vice president for financial affairs. Elias is legislative director for the SA Senate.
But city government is a long way from the SA. And Meinert said he looks forward to the chances he’ll have to improve a system he said is riddled with problems.
“This is a great city, but the government just doesn’t operate the way it should,” Meinert said.
In Foggy Bottom, little separates GW’s campus from the tree-lined residential streets and brick townhouses comprising the area’s historic district. Elias said that’s exactly why he wants a voice in neighborhood affairs.
“When you go to school here, you are not just a GW student, you are a member of the Foggy Bottom community,” Elias said. “Students should be more involved in this community.”
And while the three students said they undoubtedly represent a pro-GW viewpoint, they want to push more than just student interests.
Instead, they say they want to address the issues facing all the area’s residents, permanent and not-so-permanent. Those issues are the same ones facing neighborhoods from coast to coast – road repairs, crime, proposed buildings.
And in Foggy Bottom, other issues need attention as well – the construction of the new Ritz-Carlton complex on M Street, plans for the new GW Hospital on Washington Circle and the recent closing of one of the area’s few grocery stores on L Street.
Mandelbaum said the ANC spends too long addressing the issues. He said the commission needs to get together, examine the issues and make decisions, quickly and efficiently.
“There are a lot of issues to look at, but that doesn’t mean we have to look at them for years and years,” he said.
The trio has a long road ahead of it. Rustling up support from students who don’t follow D.C. politics closely could be a tough task.
Registering students to vote in the District is the first order of business. Elias, Meinert and Mandelbaum said they will work with GW Votes – an initiative spearheaded by senior Adam Siple – to register students.
“I’m going to tell students, `You’re a Foggy Bottom resident, you’ve got to participate in District government,’ ” Meinert said.
Students often fail to recognize the effect city government can have on their lives, Elias said.
“When GW wants to build a new building or renovate a building to make it a better place for me to study, that affects me,” he said.
Now that classes have started, the student candidates are making their campaign game plans. Elias said he will send out mailings and put up posters touting his ANC run and is making plans to speak at local candidates’ forums.
“I want to reach out to everyone, students and permanent residents alike,” Elias said.
Meinert has a similar plan. Right now, he said his No. 1 priority is getting his name on the ballot. To run for the ANC, a candidate must be a registered D.C. voter and a resident of the single-member district he or she is running to represent. He or she must present a petition with the signatures of 25 registered D.C. voters to get on the ballot.
Once he convinces students to register, Meinert said, his next goal is to get them out to vote Nov. 3.
But Meinert, Elias and Mandelbaum aren’t aiming only for student support. They want to persuade the area’s older, more permanent residents to back them as well.
Mandelbaum said he’ll do some outreach in the apartment buildings in his district to try to drum up support.
“I can see a lot of community members being concerned about having students on the board – we’re students, after all, and we don’t have a lot of expertise in things like zoning or taxes,” Meinert said.
That’s not stopping them, however. They said they’ll research the issues they will face as ANC commissioners until they know them inside and out.
“You’ve got to always go in with an educated answer,” Elias said.
And he thinks that’s what he can provide.
Correction, Aug. 31 issue
The article “A Running Start” on p. 1 of the Aug. 27 issue of The GW Hatchet should have identified Susie Baranano, a GW graduate, as a candidate for the ANC 2A01 seat, opposing Richard Sheehey.