By Martin Austermuhle, DCist.com (link)
On the evening in early January that the D.C. Democratic State Committee gathered in a crowded conference room to select an At-Large councilmember to hold the seat until the April 26 Special Election, Ward 4 resident Josh Lopez arrived as the contested balloting was wrapping up. It didn't really matter, though -- Lopez wasn't seeking the appointment.
But the way he slipped in without attracting much attention belied the fact that the 27-year-old had already finished gathering the 3,000 signatures needed to get on the ballot, putting him weeks ahead of the many competitors he's facing in the April contest. Lopez filed his signatures with the Board of Elections and Ethics on January 11; no one has yet followed suit. Being that far ahead is just part of the challenges he faces in winning the seat, though.
"It's the only way I can win," Lopez told DCist last week, describing a punishing full-time campaign schedule that includes gathering more signatures, introducing himself to would-be voters, attending community and ANC meetings and raising money."There are 85 days left. It's a relatively short amount of time to get my name out there, to get my message out there."
Of course, Lopez's name and message aren't terribly alien to anyone who followed the bruising 2010 mayoral campaign. After Mayor Adrian Fenty lost the Democratic primary, Lopez, who had worked on Fenty's 2006 campaign and in his Ward 4 council office before that, led an insurgent and unauthorized write-in campaign that netted Fenty almost 28,000 votes -- or 23 percent of all votes cast. (He also landed the committee behind the write-in effort an $18,500 fine for improperly reusing Fenty campaign signs, and got a quick job in the lame-duck administration.)
The write-in campaign may have failed, but Lopez was convinced to carry on in Fenty's footsteps -- and use many of Fenty's signature campaigning strategies along the way. He's also trotting out many of the themes that appealed to Fenty voters, including accountability, education reform and constituent services.
"I just want to be the guy who keeps the government honest and accountable. I think it's dangerous to have a city council that's simply going to rubber stamp everything [Gray] wants to do and not even question it, question what's going on. I think I'd be the perfect guy for that," said Lopez. "Obviously I didn't support the new mayor, but I'm willing to work with him while at the same time keeping him honest and remind him of all the promises that he made to residents all over the city."
So far, Lopez has been doing just that. Of the four press releases put out by his campaign so far, three have directly targeted Mayor Vince Gray. One called on Gray to make Interim Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson's post permanent, another criticized Gray for indicating that tuition at the University of the District of Columbia might be increased (Lopez is a UDC alumni), and a third railed on Gray for not more aggressively defending the city's interests in his meeting with Speaker of the House John Boehner.
Lopez even went after his own potential future colleagues and paycheck by advocating that councilmembers -- who were recently found to have the second-highest pay of their counterparts across the country -- take a 15 percent paycut and drop any second jobs they may have.
Lopez also wants to see education reform continue, and cites parental involvement as a personal passion.
"I was happy with the progress that we've made," says Lopez of the city's long-troubled schools. "I went to schools here, and I know firsthand how bad they are. I think Kaya Henderson is a great person. I called on the mayor and the city council to make her permanent so she can have the power to keep instituting the reforms that are needed for the school system."
"I'm passionate about parental involvement," Lopez continued. "There are a lot of parents that are illiterate in this city, so the city should do more to educate them and empower them to take ownership over their child's education. What that would do is end up helping the teachers out. The teachers' biggest issue is that they think the IMPACT evaluation system is unfair, that it unfairly targets teachers that teach in areas where there's a lot of poverty. But if you empower those parents and you give them the tools with which they take ownership of their kids' education, be involved more and even continue education when they're outside of the classroom, I think that would balance it out a lot more."
And proving that he learned a little something from working with Fenty when the Ward 4 councilmember was known for being available to handle just about any resident query, Lopez points to effective constituent services as a main priority, should he be be elected.
"Generally, At-Large councilmembers tend to shy away from that kind of stuff; they put it back to the ward councilmembers. I want to be a champion of it. I'll open up a constituent office in Ward 8; if I have enough money I'll open one up in [Ward 1] and be a strong advocate for folks. If there's ever any issue with the government, my office and my team would be one where you can go and get things done and at least have someone listen to you and follow-up on issues. I've been there; I know how important it is to follow-up on small neighborhood issues before they blow up."
Of course, trying to be a younger version of Fenty won't be enough to win him a seat on the Council. Biddle, who raked in more than twice the campaign contributions of any his challengers -- he claimed $53,000, while Jacque Patterson got $20,000 and Lopez $8,500 -- speaks about Fenty's education reforms with more depth and experience than Lopez does. Patrick Mara, the only Republican contender thus far, is likely to claim the mantle of fiscal responsibility and accountability, while Bryan Weaver has captured the imagination of many of the city's social media types.
Additionally, Lopez's passion for the race cuts both ways. During last year's mayoral campaign, he was so opposed to Gray that it remains to be seen if he can truly work with him should he win the April election. (The committee that he created for the Fenty write-in was called "Save DC Now," giving a hint as to what Lopez would think about a Gray mayoralty.) He also recently played fast-and-loose with the facts, arguing that Gray's campaign was largely funded by local teachers' unions -- which isn't really true. No one will quickly forget when Lopez interrupted a Gray campaign press conference in late August with a bullhorn, either.
All told, these are exactly the types of challenges -- both political and personal -- that Lopez knows he can only overcome by outworking everyone else. And as he did on that cold night in January, he continues to do just that.
In the lead-up to the April 26 special election, we're aiming to profile all of the candidates that get on the ballot. Read our interview with Sekou Bibble, and stay tuned next week for Jacque Patterson and Patrick Mara.