Traci Hughes wants to bring government to the people
By Jeffrey Anderson | Photograph by Andy DelGiudice
Over the last decade, whether they know it or not, D.C. residents would be hard-pressed to find a more earnest and respected public servant than Traci Hughes.
So it came as somewhat of a shock when Hughes was unceremoniously excused from her position as director of the city’s Office of Open Government.
Hughes created the office and reported to the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability, which in February voted unanimously to not extend her five-year contract when it was due to expire in April.
The ouster of any government watchdog invites suspicion that they were doing too good of a job serving the public’s interest at the expense of bureaucrats and politicians who are allergic to transparency.
And so it was the case with Hughes, who sued the Mayor’s Advisory Commission on Caribbean Community Affairs for refusal to comply with the Open Meetings Act, in 2016; issued an opinion on numerous violations of the Act by the D.C. Commission on Selection and Tenure of Administrative Law Judges, in 2017; and found, earlier this year, that the public hospital board at United Medical Center held a secret vote to close its obstetrics ward.
But when one door closes, another opens, and now Hughes has set her sights on a different branch of government: She is running for the at-large seat on the D.C. Council currently occupied by Elissa Silverman.
The field is crowded, with business community recruitees Dionne Reeder, a community services veteran and cafe owner with management experience, and former D.C. Banking Commissioner S. Kathryn Allen also vying for the seat. But Hughes knows the inner workings of D.C. government from having served as a Council chief of staff, police spokesperson, and the city’s first official charged with ensuring that public business be conducted in public.
That might not be enough. Insiders and government employees may know and respect Hughes for her intelligence and integrity, but she is late to the political game and has a lot of ground to cover.
In addition, her natural constituency–good government advocates, people dedicated to inclusivity and access to government, and those concerned with fiscal stewardship–is hard to quantify. She might have great ideas, but who is interested in hearing them?
As a longtime government employee, Hughes has yet to establish a political voice or style, but she has such a diverse background that it’s tempting to view her as a quick study.
Voters citywide will soon learn more Hughes’ views on homelessness, affordability and gentrification. According to her campaign, however, she is chiefly looking to provide residents across social and economic strata with the same access to city services.
District Dig recently sat down with Hughes in a setting she knows well: Turkey Thicket Recreation Center, in Ward 5, near where she lives with her partner and her precocious 9-year-old daughter Aedyn, who begins 4th grade this year and considers herself the boss of the household.
DD: What is your campaign all about?
Hughes: Having a more open and transparent government. I spent a decade in D.C. government and it’s obvious to me that elected officials are working more for themselves than they are the average person. Our city spends about $14 billion per year, about $20,000 per resident. I guarantee you, I’m your average D.C. resident, and I don’t feel the government spends $20,000 on me.
DD: Why run for office now?
Hughes: Honestly, I had been considering it for some time but I was still working in government. The pivotal moment for me was when the [Board of Ethics and Government Accountability] made the decision not to renew my term and I thought, you know, I still have some good work to do.
DD: Tell us about yourself.
Hughes: I moved to D.C. in 1987 and have lived here permanently since in 2000. I was born and raised in Denver, Colorado, in a middle class family, steeped in religion. My grandmother was a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. My values are very much about having compassion for people. If you do good to other people, they will do good unto you. That’s the way I have lived my life. That’s the professional reputation I have developed. And people know that I am an honest person.
DD: What brought you to D.C.?
Hughes: I came to D.C. to attend Howard University. Denver is a predominantly Caucasian city, and I had never seen so many well-educated African American people. Once I started going to school, it was the [spirit of] advocacy that drew me in. Howard has a long tradition of students standing up for what’s right.
DD: What did you do after college?
Hughes: I was a journalism major and wrote for the Hilltop. I graduated in 1991 with a degree in broadcast journalism and my first job was working for CBS radio, WLITE in Rockville. I was doing traffic. I was in sales with WTOP, and worked at WCBS in New York. I put myself through law school [at Temple University] working at a CBS affiliate in Philly and at a Fox station there. I wrote for Legal Intelligencer, the oldest legal publication in the country.
DD: Why did you return to D.C.?
Hughes: I was looking to combine my legal training and journalism. I became Public Information Officer at Corporate Counsel, right before it [became] the Office of Attorney General, and the rest is history. [Hughes also served as executive director of communications for Police Chief Cathy Lanier and press secretary for Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray.] My main focus has been to make sure [these agencies] were simplified for the regular person. So I’ve wanted to help people understand the purpose of government, and do away with the perception that it’s something that happens to you, rather than with you.
DD: That sounds like a possible campaign slogan.
Hughes: It’s one that’s honest. It’s how I feel.
DD: Tell us about your time at the Office of Open Government.
Hughes: I created the agency from scratch. The mandate was clear: We were supposed to write advisory opinions for compliance with FOIA, and enforce compliance with the Open Meetings Act by boards and commissions.
DD: That must have given you a lot of freedom.
Hughes: Many people didn’t know the law existed, and that includes people working in government. I envisioned and created the entire office, from the complaints process to best practices recommendations. It’s all based on government transparency principles. I was in that office by myself for 2 ½ years, but now there are three people, including the director.
DD: What are you most proud of?
Hughes: I routinely received requests from jurisdictions around the world, asking to come in and speak to me about the office and its initiatives. I’m very proud of the fact that it is an international standard bearer for what cities can accomplish if they have a dedicated and independent [agency]. I’m still very proud of the work despite the way I was forced to leave. The office is in a good place right now.
DD: How do you feel about your departure?
Hughes: It’s no secret that if I had had my preference then I would have stayed. But I also recognize that everything works for the greater good. Everything happens for a reason and I’m not unhappy or disgruntled at all. I know that I did my best.
DD: So back to your campaign message.
Hughes: I’m a mom, and we need to have more choices for better performing schools. I send my kid to a charter school because the school in my zip code is low performing. And we have a per-pupil funding formula that is not benefiting low performing schools. Parents who have to send their kids to these schools are not in a position to scream the loudest or attract the most attention. If people understood that $171 million was spent to renovate Duke Ellington [School of the Arts]…that money could have been allocated to other schools, to have more books, better facilities and guess what, a better chance of being a high performing school.
DD: What are you views on fiscal policy?
Hughes: The city is flush with money right now. There has to be enough to go around. And even the Council will admit that they’ve got to make funding choices for [D.C. Public Schools] without knowing fully how that money is being spent and where it is going.
DD: How can we change that?
Hughes: There’s a wealth of technology available. It’s out there for very little cost, and we could put it in place next week if we wanted to. It will easily allow the District to display, for anyone who wants to view it, down to the pencil where the dollars are going.
DD: Can tracking costs lead to greater citizen satisfaction with government?
Hughes: We want to allow people to have immediate access to government services when and where they need them. That’s where the money conversation starts. But it’s really about how are you going to make my life better? What are you offering me right now that allows me to access the services I need? Then I can track money if it’s something I care about. But it’s really about making government accessible for everyone. That’s a citywide message, whether you do business here, live here or work here.
DD: You mentioned technology.
Hughes: This is all about technology. Residents should be able to collaborate and communicate with their government. For too long it’s been a one-way conversation. I guarantee that government is not knocking on doors saying “How can we make your life better?” It’s someone sitting high up, making mandates for people below. There needs to be one central location where every resident can go, so they can click a button and tell the city what they need: Unemployment services, health benefits, city services, social services, economic aid for families.
DD: That sounds like a heavy lift.
Hughes: It sounds complicated but it’s not. It involves drafting legislation that requires all these service-oriented agencies to provide data into one central location that tells people what services they provide. We know that 80 percent of African Americans are accessing the Internet on their phones. We’ve got the Office of the Chief Technology Officer that has its own version of a data portal but we should make it mandatory. Right now it’s relegated to a policy, and policies live and die with administrations.
DD: What would Mayor Muriel Bowser say about that?
Hughes: She would refer to the blueprint I created as director of the OOG, requiring agencies to place their data into a centralized portal.
DD: What about government ethics?
Hughes: It’s clear government doesn’t want to hold itself accountable. So why would our Council want legislation that would cause them to walk a narrow line. More needs to be done. People have become accustomed to behavior that appears unethical. They say, “Oh, that’s just our government again.” And I want to elevate that bar.
DD: Will you accept corporate contributions?
Hughes: I don’t have any moral opposition to it. What’s important is that they buy into my message and support it.
DD: You’re running citywide. What’s your ward strategy?
Hughes: My message is one that transcends the wards. Everybody wants a more accessible and transparent government. Who’s going to say they don’t want that?
DD: How do you distinguish yourself from your opponent(s):
Hughes: I’m the only candidate in this race, including the incumbent, who can say that I‘ve put it all on the line for District residents. So much so that I risked my livelihood for doing the right thing for D.C. residents.
DD: What are your hobbies?
Hughes: My hobbies are my daughter. She keeps me on my toes. [Laughs]. We’re usually here at the park. This where people can find me. I spend a lot of my private time working for Beacon House, an organization that helps underprivileged kids in the Edgewood community. I’m chairman of the board there.
DD: What kind of music to do you listen to?
Hughes: I listen to–which might be a surprise to some people–I listen to Tupac when I’m exercising. I am a Drake fan. And I like Yo-Yo-Ma.
DD: So an appreciation for the classics.
Hughes: Classic rap too. [Laughs].