Metro Weekly

Election 2022: Queering the ANCs

LGBTQ candidates talk about running for Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner, the most thankless elected position in D.C.

Photo: Vchalup / Dreamstime

“My husband and I moved into the Riggs Park neighborhood over three years ago,” says Duvalier Malone, a 36-year-old gay man running for the single-member district 5A01 seat on Advisory Neighborhood Commission 5A. “We’ve been in the District of Columbia for nine years. I’m originally from Fayette, Mississippi, where I was very active and involved in local issues. So when I moved here, I found a sense of community, but I noticed a stunning lack of engagement in political activities.

“So many people in the District of Columbia are not native Washingtonians, they are transplants. And so they’re not really engaged on the local issues affecting our community. Even in the recent race for the Ward 5 Council seat, there were only about 18,000 people who voted in that election,” Malone adds. “So after noticing that level of disengagement, I wanted to put my name in the hat for the ANC commission, so that I can bring awareness to all of the different infrastructure activities that are going on across the District of Columbia, and especially in my neighborhood.”

For newcomers to the District and long-term residents alike, the term “Advisory Neighborhood Commission” may not be a familiar one. A local branch of government in the District, the commissions cover certain neighborhoods, with each single member on a commission representing about 2,000 residents within the larger ANC.

Commissioners are elected to unpaid two-year terms in even-numbered years, serving as another link between the city’s residents and its government. Following the most recent round of redistricting, there are 46 commissions throughout the city, with 345 commissioner slots in total. At least 47 out LGBTQ individuals are running for seats in each of the city’s eight wards.

The main job of an Advisory Neighborhood Commission is to advise the District government and federal agencies on issues that impact their neighborhoods. Although government agencies are not required to follow ANCs’ recommendations, they are required to give their advice “great weight,” and must notify ANCs of any action that will significantly affect their neighborhood 30 days in advance. Typically, the issues that ANCs deal with include, but are not limited to, zoning, streets, recreation, social services, sanitation, planning, and public safety.

For Malone, the issues impacting his neighborhood include the complications of aging in place, and the ability of older residents to access amenities like grocery stores and pharmacies, as well as the high tax burden they face that has forced many to leave the District, all of which stem from issues concerning development and housing supply.

“So many of the residents who are native Washingtonians are saying their voices are not heard when it comes to their needs. They don’t feel they have a voice on the city Council anymore,” says Malone. “For example, I was talking to an elderly gentleman who said that even if we get a grocery store across from us, he’s afraid he won’t be able to afford the groceries there.”

Ra Amin, the current commissioner for 5B04, representing Brookland, recently spoke at a candidate training, hosted by the LGBTQ Victory Fund, called “Queering DC’s ANCs,” which was designed to encourage and advise LGBTQ people on running for commissioner.

“Representation is power,” Amin told Metro Weekly. “The LGBT community needs to have a voice and to be seen in order to let the broader community know that we’re out there and we have very unique interests and concerns. But we also share a lot of the same concerns for our city and our neighborhoods that they do.”

Noting that the ANCs are the first level of government that many District residents find accessible, Amin says that each ward and commission will have its own specific issues to deal with, but in general, ANCs can have a direct impact on constituents’ daily lives.

“These people have been elected to represent you,” Amin says. “Therefore, your tax money supports the operation of the ANC and any decision that the ANC renders could affect your life and your property for the next ten or 20 years. It depends on the neighborhood but the kind of issues we address are overseeing liquor licensing space permits for restaurants, what type of development gets placed in your neighborhood, traffic safety, and we even weigh in on things like the [District] budget. But if you’re not involved with your ANC, you don’t always know the decisions that are being made for you.”

Amin says any candidate seeking a seat needs to be committed and dedicated to carrying out their duties.

“I personally say that it helps if you love your neighborhood and you love the District of Columbia,” he says. “Those things can really motivate you at those times where you feel challenged and less motivated. Also, my advice is to take really good care of yourself personally, in terms of both your mental health and your physical health, because this is a volunteer position and the burnout rate and the turnover rate is very, very high.

“If you have the need to be liked or to be popular, get rid of it now because that’s not your job. You’re there to represent the people in the district who have voted for you. You’re not there to push your own agenda. You’re there to listen to and engage the public and put forth the agenda that works best not only for your district, but for the entire District of Columbia.”

Given that the position of Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner is a volunteer position, and the copious amounts of work that are often placed on commissioners’ shoulders, why, some might ask, would anyone volunteer for such a position? The answer, it turns out, varies depending on where you live in the District.

In some cases, people are motivated to step up when others don’t. Charles Panfil, a 22-year-old resident of the city’s Mount Vernon Triangle neighborhood, didn’t initially announce his candidacy for the ANC 6E02 seat, believing that someone else would run. But after the deadline for making the ballot had passed, Panfil learned that no one was running in his single-member district, leaving him and his neighbors with no representation. So he’s now running as a write-in candidate.

“The way I see this, serving on the ANC is a form of community service,” says Panfil. “I want to make sure that my neighbors’ input is taken into account for some of these city projects around the Mount Vernon Triangle area.”

Because the biggest and most populated apartment buildings in his single-member district are controlled access and prohibit soliciting, Panfil has had to rely on social media, direct mail postcards, and traditional fliers and posters in an attempt to increase his name recognition. He’s even stood on the sidewalk outside the apartment buildings, hoping to engage with passerby and inform them of his candidacy and the major issues impacting the neighborhood.

“We’re situated between New York Avenue and Massachusetts Avenue NW,” he says. “Public safety, including biking and pedestrian safety, is a really important issue. This area has been really lucky to become the home to a lot of really great restaurants and businesses in the city. I love living in a community where there’s so much to do, just a 10-minute walk from my apartment, and I think it’s important to make sure our community continues to welcome those restaurants and small businesses.”

Andrew McCarthy-Clark, a 33-year-old married gay resident of Navy Yard, launched his campaign for ANC 8F03 after enlisting in the Metropolitan Police Department’s Community Engagement Academy, an eight-week program designed to teach residents about the internal workings of the police department and the public safety challenges that officers face. He says the experience “opened my eyes” about how government services integrate with the neighborhoods they serve, and led him to consider serving as that “boots on the ground” point of contact for his neighbors on other issues.

Additionally, under the new redistricting plan passed by the Council, Navy Yard — which has experienced a population boom over the past decade — has been moved from Ward 6 to Ward 8, and what was once a geographically large single-member district is now divided into five parts, effectively allowing the neighborhood’s residents to create their own commission out of whole cloth. The new commission 8F will also be tasked with forming a new working relationship with Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White, its new representative in city government.

“The opportunity to build a new commission, and to make sure that it reflects all of our residents, is exciting,” McCarthy-Clark says. “Navy Yard tends to be a little transient. So whether you’re here for six months or six years, it’s important that you feel protected, you feel reflected in your governance. And we have lots of retail space that’s open. I think there’s a lot of opportunity for good leadership in the ANC to make sure that those spaces are resident-focused, that they do have things that residents want in terms of services, and that the housing in those areas is diverse and affordable.”

Vincent Slatt, a 43-year-old gay man running for the ANC 2B03 seat, covering the northern end of 17th Street NW and the Dupont Circle neighborhood, was prompted to run after seven of the nine commissioners representing the neighborhood decided not to seek re-election. Slatt, who previously mounted an unsuccessful bid for commissioner in 2018, but is now running unopposed, says the loss of institutional knowledge could create some problems for Dupont residents who want to ensure that the government is responsive to their needs.

“I love my neighborhood. I’ve lived in it for 17, 18 years now, and I’ve seen a lot of changes. So I’m really interested in being part of those changes and helping the neighborhood go forward for the years to come,” he says. “While it is difficult to imagine doing the volume of necessary work in my free time, I’m interested in doing it because I do believe in local government and I believe in our system and I want to be a part of that. I think that decisions are made by those who show up. And this is my effort to show up.”

Slatt notes that commissioners often feel as if they are going at it alone. He says that the Office of Advisory Neighborhood Commissions has been criticized by past commissioners for failing to provide institutional and administrative support to people in these volunteer positions.

Kent Boese, an outgoing ANC commissioner for 1A08 who was recently confirmed as the executive director the Office of Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, is sympathetic to those who get elected and find themselves facing daunting challenges, especially those who are newly elected and unfamiliar with how an ANC is supposed to function.

“My vision for the office of OANC is that as much as possible, we should be the back office operations that support all the ANCs,” says Boese. “I’ve observed over the last 12 years that we’ve seen a lot more administrative work creep into the commissions’ purview without the human resources at the back end to support them.

“Most people, I believe, step up to run to be an ANC commissioner because they love their community. They want to serve, they want to do outreach and services. But more and more, they’re spending their time doing administrative work, whether it’s with the banking and the treasurer’s report, or making sure they’re in compliance with open meetings requests and things like that. It’s important work that needs to get done, but we should be centralizing that as much as possible and providing staffing in my office to make sure that it’s getting done correctly, and not overburdening elected officials who aren’t paid.”

Boese says he would like to create a continuing education program for all commissioners, not just first-termers, that could provide primers or orientation on issues involving the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration and liquor licensing, on historic preservation issues, on zoning updates, and other problems that commissioners will be faced with during their time in office. He would also like to centralize technological support for the ANCs as much as possible.

“In the last couple of years, many agencies include Zoom as a platform,” he says. “I think it would be a really good idea, if we’re able to do it, to buy a master Zoom account with a number of seats that support all of the agencies. That way, we could have institutional knowledge in how to run it. We could have guidance on how to use it. We could only buy as much as the city needs and have an economy of scale and spend our money wisely. And we could even hopefully provide the staff to run the meeting while the ANC is doing their work, versus having a commissioner run it while also wanting to participate in a meeting.”

The best qualities an ANC commissioner can have, says Boese, are sound judgment, an ability to listen with an open mind, and a willingness to explain decisions they’ve made and why they believe those are in the best interests of the community.

“I’ve never seen any constituents whom I’ve disagreed with over the years, on some point of policy, get contentious when you have a very straightforward conversation and an openness and willingness to just talk about how you got to the decision you made,” he says. “Even when you don’t agree with their point of view, at least try to understand where they’re coming from, because that’s going to help you make the best decision for the community, which is the primary job.”

Hayden Gise, a 22-year-old transgender lesbian, who is running unopposed for the open 3C01 seat in Woodley Park, will be the city’s only out trans elected official at the start of her term next year. She was encouraged to run for ANC by some of the other commissioners.

“I don’t think I’m a special person or anything like that,” she says. “I’m literally just some girl. I had every intention of running to bring forth an agenda, of supporting increased urban density and pedestrian-focused policies, really just putting forth a people-centered agenda.”

Gise says her work door-knocking for various candidates or campaigns for the Metro DC DSA helped give her the confidence and experience of engaging neighbors — whose signatures she had to obtain in order to appear on the ballot.

“I knocked on every single-family home in my district and spoke to people, and introduced myself to them and talked to them about what I’m about. I wanted to ask every single person I got a chance to speak to: what has your experience been in the neighborhood? What things do you like about living here? What are your complaints? And I had some really great conversations.”

Gise is also fully aware of the power that ANC commissioners can exert, for good or for ill.

“In your capacity as a commissioner, you can be someone who exists to be a roadblock, or you can also be someone who helps guide committee members through a process,” she says. “When someone who lives in the community interacts with the ANC, and they’re trying to do something to their home or their restaurant or business or building, if you take a position where you want to stop these things, you can make life really difficult for folks. So something that existed in my ANC was there were folks who tried to stop food pantries and stop folks from accessing resources. But we’ve also seen a really strong, positive coalition come together, folks from across Woodley and Cleveland Park who are very community-minded, and who are very much growth- and progress-minded, working together on a shared vision.

“I think our community is the kind of place that you’d want to build if it didn’t already exist,” says Gise. “We have so many different transit options and restaurants, and it’s just a friendly place to live. It’s so green and lush. And this is a community that I’m really proud to live in, and I’ve never really felt that way before living here. I want to serve in this way because I love my neighborhood and I really would like to see someone with politics and a vision of this neighborhood that is aligned with me and what I believe in.”

Despite the fact that she will become only the second trans person ever elected to an ANC, and the only one as of 2023, Gise says her transgender identity is only one facet of her identity.

“I have no illusions about speaking on behalf of the entire trans community in D.C. That is just not something I’m capable of doing,” she says. “No one can speak on behalf of an entire group. The way that I see myself is if I’m given a megaphone, I can put it to someone’s face and uplift their voice.

“I’m someone who professionally works in organized labor and I truly believe in a progressive vision for the future. And so if there is to be some kind of voice that is looked to, I’m glad it’s someone who has a vision of standing in solidarity as a member of the working class. That’s what I offer.”

To learn more about Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, or to find your single-member district commissioner, visit www.anc.dc.gov.

 

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