Exclusive Interview: Robert White, Top Rival to Mayor Muriel Bowser
By May 13, 2022 0 1746•
As Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) seeks to become the first woman elected to a third term in office this fall as the District’s chief executive, her top rival in the Democratic party, At-Large D.C. Council Member Robert C. White, Jr., has her looking over her shoulder.
The Georgetowner spoke with White to discuss why he’s challenging Mayor Bowser in the June 21 Democratic primary and why he believes he’s best suited for the city’s top job.
On the D.C. Council, White, age 40, serves as the Chair of the Committee on Facilities and Procurement, while also serving as the board chair of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. He holds a law degree from American University, and undergraduate degrees in philosophy and political science from St. Mary’s College of Maryland. He graduated from Archbishop Carroll High School where he played lacrosse.
After law school, White clerked in the District Court for Montgomery County, then served as the lead staffer on congressional oversight hearings related to the District for D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, serving as counsel on her staff for 8 years. In 2014, D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine then appointed White to serve as the first director of community outreach for the D.C. Office of Attorney General. In 2016, White was elected at-large to the D.C. Council, replacing Vincent Orange (D).
According to White’s D.C. Council website, he and his wife, Christy, an attorney with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, reside in Ward 4 with their two daughters, Madison, 5, Monroe, 3, and their rescue pit bull, Roscoe. White founded the Brightwood Park Citizens Association, he and Christy attend St. Martin’s Catholic Church, and he “loves to spend time with his family, reading, and riding his motorcycle.”
White’s path to politics was not an easy one, however. When he was only 8, he lost his mother to breast cancer and shortly after suffered in a car crash that fractured his skull, though he later fully recovered. He struggled in high school and was scoffed for his dreams of one day becoming a lawyer.
First in his family to receive a college degree, White’s motivation to run for mayor stems in large part from his beliefs in the importance of public education in his life and what he and Christy have experienced as parents putting their kids into the D.C. public school system.
“I’m a fifth-generation Washingtonian and am very much an outlier in my family. I come from a family of high school graduates who’ve struggled in this city and the vast majority of my family has been displaced. Now, I’m a D.C public school parent, so I know the difficulties and frustrations parents are having. And I hear my fellow parents telling me why they’re leaving the city. And most of them don’t want to leave. But they feel like they’ve got to in order to get a good education for their kids, to keep their families safe, or because they just can’t afford a place to live as their family grows.”
Strengthening the D.C. public school system is essential for the health of the city, White believes, not only to reduce crime and violence, but to sustain the city’s economic vibrancy. “Our city grew because families decided to put down roots here,” White said. “So looking at the long term trajectory of our economy, we have a smaller middle class than almost anywhere in the nation and even that middle class is shrinking and that’s a very dangerous recipe for our economy.”
We asked White about his qualifications for the job of D.C. Mayor. “I’m a lawyer,” White said. “I’ve worked for the past 15 years in government… I’ve worked in all three branches of government. I worked in both federal and local government. So, I know my way around the workings of government very well.”
But why does White feel he would do a better job than Mayor Bowser? “We need a problem solver,” he said. “Mayor Bowser has been in office for 8 years with consecutively the biggest budgets our city has ever had and has not solved problems. She spent a lot of money. But no clear goals, no clear vision…. Right now, what we need and what I bring is someone who can – on day one – start solving our problems. That’s what I’ve done my entire career. When I ran for the D.C. Council I was very clear about the issues I was going to address specifically. Education: I went on to pass the most comprehensive and expansive early childhood bill in the country. Housing: I passed a bill to hold developers accountable for the promises they make. And I’ve been leading a charge in our city to convert older office buildings into affordable housing …. Workforce: I created an incentive for employers to hire people with the highest barriers to employment…. And so my professional history is identifying problems and solving those problems.”
When it comes to criticizing the mayor’s performance, White’s priorities tend to line up against Mayor Bowser’s soft spots in recent polling: violent crime, affordable housing, loss of population, and substandard public education results. “Mayor Bowser has fallen very short, she has not focused on policies and not focused on people. We hear a lot of slogans, a lot of hashtags, but when the rubber meets the road we’re moving in the wrong direction. Our city has gotten less safe with increasing homicides in the last 5 years. The mayor still has no public safety plan. We continue to be in desperate need of affordable housing. The mayor is not bringing new ideas and is not utilizing the funding appropriately. For the first time in a decade in the past two years we have decreasing enrollment in our public schools. That is a dangerous trend. In addition to that, D.C. is losing more population than any state and we have higher unemployment…. So we’re moving in the wrong direction.”
“People are leaving because the city is unsafe. Parents, like myself, of young children, are leaving in droves because our public schools are not where we need them to be despite spending $2 billion a year on education and people can’t find housing they can afford. So we know the reasons people are leaving and these are the exact issues Mayor Bowser has proven she cannot effectively address,” White said. “The mayor has really fallen down on being able to keep educators. We lose 20% of our D.C. Public School teachers every single year. That creates an unstable school system…. Parents are particularly frustrated with a mayor who does not listen.”
On employment, White has proposed an ambitious “Jobs Guarantee for D.C.” program to bring full employment to the District by expanding government positions. Modeled after former Mayor Marion Barry’s Summer Youth Leadership jobs program and reminiscent of Green New Deal initiatives championed by Democratic progressives, White’s job initiative was recently criticized by The Washington Post in an April 27 editorial, calling it “fanciful.”
White rejects the Post’s criticism, however. Why should it be “fanciful,” he asks, to place job applicants in city government positions – a proven success – as well as to incentivize nonprofit organizations to hire applicants, as his program calls for? And if people can be put to work to address climate change issues, wouldn’t that be a practical solution?
“When I was in 10th grade I was failing out of school,” White said. “And I decided I was going to become a lawyer. And it was a ‘fanciful’ idea. But I developed a plan and I executed the plan. When I decided to run for office I had no political capital, nobody in my family could open doors, but I believed we needed a voice for people like my family. And a lot of people said was a ‘fanciful’ idea. But I developed a plan and I executed the plan because I’m a problem solver. So when I’m looking at my city right now there are some key elements. One, crime is out of control and what we’re doing isn’t working. Two, we have higher unemployment than any other state. Three, all governments are going to have to address how we handle the climate crisis in the coming years. And four, people want to work in this city. When I’m talking to people in the homeless encampments, when I’m talking to returning citizens [after incarceration], when I’m talking to folks hanging out on the streets, they consistently tell me they want to be working. We have to have a mayor who has a vision to pull these pieces together. So, is this an easy thing to do? It is not. But is it possible? Absolutely.”
For White, the idea of being labeled as “far-left” or “socialist” because of his policies is also misguided. “It’s just wrong-headed. I mean, I’m not sure how getting people to work is a ‘leftist’ idea. You know, it’s a plan that reduces crime, reduces unemployment, improves housing stability and addresses our climate crisis so this is forward-thinking. The mayor is entirely reactive and I think people in every part of the city realize that we need a forward-thinking mayor… If you look at my legislative record, look at the bills I write, my bills are market-based. I develop market-based solutions to things. They’re not like pie-in-the-sky [ideas]…. I didn’t write a bill that said “we’re going to require businesses to hire these folks.” I wrote a bill that said we’re going to incentivize it.”
As the June 21 Democratic primary approaches, differences between the policy positions and records of White and Bowser are likely to be magnified. While Mayor Bowser would like to increase the number of police officers on the Metropolitan Police Department up to 4000, White would like to audit the department to determine if that’s necessary and to increase other types of violence mitigation programs. While Mayor Bowser has moved to clear out homeless encampments and place unhoused residents in public housing, White criticizes her approach of clearing out encampments aggressively before housing can be secured.
How is White’s campaign addressing issues of concern to Georgetowners. “We are all faced with rising violent crime which has an impact on our safety,” White said. “It has an economic impact on our businesses. The more crime we have the fewer jobs we have. I have a public safety plan. The mayor, despite years of rising violent crime, still has no plan whatsoever. I also know how to solve the homelessness problem. The mayor clearly has not been able to solve this.”
The D.C. mayoral election will be held on November 8, 2022.