Elissa Silverman didn’t know what she wanted to do when she grew up, now she’s a force to be reckoned with
By Jeffrey Anderson | Photograph by Andy DelGiudice
If you’ve ever observed At-Large D.C. Councilmember Elissa Silverman on the dais grilling a public witness or city official, or on the campaign trail, it might surprise you to learn that for a long time, in fact well into adulthood, she didn’t really know what the hell she was doing.
This is not to say that Silverman wandered aimlessly through life or suffered for lack of opportunity. Far from it. Born in New York and raised in Baltimore, the 45-year-old registered Independent attended an Ivy League college, held prestigious internships and worked for top companies and institutes, before being elected to the Council in 2014.
But along the way, a recurring theme of her life—until she sought a future as a lawmaker and champion of progressive causes—was a lack of focus that dramatically reversed itself once she found her true calling.
“I gave up everything to do this! This is my life!” she shouted into the phone one day last year, after I wrote a story in a local rag that she felt mischaracterized her role in passing a controversial labor reform bill. That law, as fate would have it, and as she beats back a challenge by an upstart fueled by an 11th-hour push from Mayor Muriel Bowser, has become either a signature accomplishment or an albatross, depending on your point of view.
The Universal Paid Family Leave Act, which survived months of wrangling and the threat of a mayoral veto, charges employers a 0.62 percent tax to pay for a city program that allows employees in the private sector to take eight weeks paid time off when they become new parents, six weeks to care for sick relatives and two weeks of personal sick time. And though the final version was guided to passage by Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, it is Silverman who has become the face of the initiative, along with a minimum wage increase and a flexible work scheduling bill that is pending.
Consequently, she has alienated a business community that feels threatened by the pro-labor movement. And she has drawn fire from Bowser, who is beholden to that same community and is determined to replace her, after Silverman embarrassed former mayor Anthony Williams this summer by knocking out his handpicked challenger, businesswoman S. Kathryn Allen, for submitting bogus ballot-petition signatures.
Bowser’s campaign to help a political newcomer defeat an incumbent, both unprecedented and oddly personal, also has come loaded with baggage related to her supporters and peripheral controversies that have injected an ugly racial and religious element into the contest, with each side blaming the other for Trumpian tactics.
Which is the last thing Silverman wanted when she spent considerable political capital fighting for what she sees as a central responsibility of city government: To bring D.C. in line with states and countries around the world that help workers further provide for their families in times of sickness and parenthood.
Campaigning feverishly to fend off the Bowser attack, Silverman sat down recently with District Dig and talked about her path leading up to this moment. With striking candor, the occasionally brusque if not abrasive Silverman revealed how that path has shaped her ambition.
Silverman was born in New York but raised in Baltimore, right off Charles Street in the north-central part of the city. Her father, a lawyer with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, commuted to the District every day by train, and her mother, who worked in retail and for a nonprofit, relied on public transportation. Young Elissa grew up riding the city bus.
She attended Western High School, a public girls school attended by working and middle class blacks and whites as well as future politicos, academic stars and athletic standouts, where she graduated first in her class and played tennis and softball all four years.
Good grades did not go hand-in-hand with a sense of direction or purpose, or so the story goes. “I wasn’t very focused,” says Silverman, who was accomplished enough to get into Brown University, where she studied history and economics—typical majors of the future elites the Ivy League is known to produce.
Brown suited her in her formative malaise. The curriculum is flexible, and allows students to interrupt their studies to pursue other endeavors and return to complete their studies at any age, with no hassles or questions asked.
Hence, Silverman, who was paying for college with a Pell grant, student aide and part time summer jobs at Memorial Stadium and Orioles Park, became restless, or distracted, or frustrated by her own relative aimlessness, and took time off. “I just didn’t know what I was doing,” she says, with a touch of modesty.
She had worked at WBRU, then a highly regarded student radio station, so she decided to apply for a broadcast news internship in New York City with longtime PBS journalist Bill Moyers. By the time her internship ended, Silverman had become bored with editing and cutting B-roll for television. She returned to Brown to resume her studies and landed a column with the Brown Daily Herald, and graduated in 1995 with a B, B+ average—middling by Brown standards, according to Silverman. “I came back more focused, which is what I struggled with for most of college,” she says.
After graduating, Silverman landed another prestigious internship, this time in D.C. with New Republic. She notes (with bemused pride) that her time there coincided with a number of journalists who were destined for renown, such as New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait; prolific author, editor and former blogger Andrew Sullivan; and, less flattering, Stephen Glass, he of fabulist infamy. “Throughout my life I’ve had amazing exposure to a lot of smart people,” humble-brags Silverman.
She soon began freelancing for Washington City Paper in 1996, but was passed over for a full-time position, so she returned to Providence, where she wrote for the Providence Phoenix, another alt-weekly.
In 1998, City Paper editor David Carr called and offered her a job, and once again, Silverman found herself in the company of future luminaries such as CNN’s Jake Tapper and best-selling author and Atlantic correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Silverman recalls taking the bus to cover her first story, a school board race in Ward 8. “I had a rough time,” she says. “I was not one of the superstars, which has always sort of been my story. I had the raw talent and skills, but I needed to sharpen them.”
Yet a sense of direction was sinking in, and a natural feel for people and politics was rising to the surface. She became City Paper’s “Loose Lips” columnist. “The first year was hard, I didn’t know what I was doing, but the best time I had in journalism was those three years as Loose Lips,” she says. “It was an important job at the time.” (Disclosure: I wrote as Loose Lips in 2017, and can attest to the visceral connection some readers have to the legacy—occasionally expressed in unpleasant terms.)
A subject of stress for Silverman, she says, was learning to overcome obstacles and adversity while doing a job she did not think she was particularly good at. She competed on a high profile story regarding Tony Williams’ failure to collect enough petition signatures to qualify for the ballot in his mayoral reelection campaign, and though she got beat on the story by the Washington Post’s Tom Sherwood, she says she soon hit her stride. Trial by fire.
She credits a different City Paper editor, Erik Wemple, now a media critic for the Post, with teaching her a fundamental approach to working at an alt-weekly: “He told me, ‘You’re job is not to compete with the Post, it’s to step back, connect the dots, and tell people what is going on,’” she says. “We also used humor a lot.” (The Dig, for the record, takes pleasure in beating the Post.)
With the benefit of hindsight, Silverman now says her biggest mistake in journalism was leaving City Paper in 2005 to take a job at the Post, which was reeling from buyouts and laboring under print journalism’s move to a digital platform. “I shouldn’t have left City Paper,” she says, pointing to a painful breakup with a man whom she had thought she would marry someday. “I let my personal life bleed into my professional.” (She also recalls then-Councilmember Marion Barry pulling her aside and telling her it was a mistake to go the Post. “You’re too anti-establishment,” she says he told her.)
Barry was right, Silverman says. Her career at the Post did not go well. For starters, she didn’t know how to write daily news copy. She hated working the business beat in the Fairfax County bureau. She covered crime on the night shift but hated that too—the violence and the blood. “I can’t even watch ‘The Wire.’”
Silverman had advocates inside the paper but she didn’t know how to use them, she says. “I didn’t know how to accept anyone’s help. I was in a self-destructive mode.”
Four years later, still at the Post, miserable and depressed, Silverman looked for yet another life change.
D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute is not the kind of think tank anyone can just wander into. The progressive policy group headed by Ed Lazere, who ran unsuccessfully for Council Chairman earlier this year, looks for people with graduate degrees and data skills, neither of which Silverman possessed when she joined the institute in 2009.
She had been going to the University of Maryland part-time in search of a degree in urban planning, however, and by then she had “accidentally” stumbled into a job at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “I was able to convince Ed to hire me for a job that I wasn’t qualified for,” she says.
Silverman found the work at the policy institute rewarding. “It ended up being a great thing for me at the time,” she says, crediting Lazere as a mentor who was interested in developing people to be “thoughtful, caring and humane.”
She started to see herself as a “late-bloomer,” as she developed data skills and learned the ropes as an activist and organizer. She also was able to parlay her journalism experience into effective communications strategies to mitigate a tendency at DCFPI to get bogged down with esoteric policy verbiage. A distillation of skills she would come to rely on was taking place. “That intersection between people, policy and politics, that’s my sweet spot.”
In an interview with The Dig, Lazere says he knew he had found someone with energy and passion for moving the city forward in a more equitable fashion; a striver who could be “super tenacious.”
“If there was a specific issue we were looking at, she’d get on her bike and go out to get the first hand point of view of a reporter,” Lazere says of his protege. “She was able to go from covering policy to engaging in the process of influencing budget and policy decisions,” he says, citing her work on raising the minimum wage and heading off a tax break for the company that manages Union Station.
Meanwhile, Silverman sought out others who were interested in building affordable housing, improving workforce development and cleaning up D.C.’s pay-to-play politics. She took a break from DCFPI in 2013 to make an unsuccessful run for At-Large Council on a platform of banning corporate contributions to political campaigns, and succeeded in her second run the following year (without accepting corporate cash).
“The bottom line is that money shapes policy and special interests and special interests shape politics,” says Silverman, who had come to recognize a “cognitive dissonance” between political fixtures at the Wilson Building and the people they were elected to serve.
She arrived on the Council in 2014 with a freshman class heralded as a vanguard of progressivism, a collective image that is now debatable, and has emerged as a lonely “No” vote on certain fiscal matters. (Such was the case when she voted against a $60 million tax abatement for the Advisory Board Company, a $4.4 million change order for the already over-budget Duke Ellington School Modernization Project, and a $36 million allocation under the Tax Increment Financing Act for additional parking at Union Market.)
In pursuing her agenda, Silverman has found herself at the crossroads where D.C.’s affluence and gentrification meets entrenched poverty and the inequity that plagues (mostly black) residents on everything from housing and jobs to access to healthcare, food and quality education.
“The anxiety is real,” she says of the black community’s sense of being left behind as D.C. becomes a haven for corporate investment and D.C.-flag-waving millennial migrants. “The city is different now. We’ve changed demographically. There are forces greater than us.”
Silverman says that D.C.’s brand of urbanism has complicated the successful growth strategy implemented by Tony Williams, who identified DINKs—double-income couples with no kids—as the key to economic revitalization. “Now people want to stay and raise families,” she says. “But we can’t do a family strategy without good schools. We should not be a city where people are deprived of the same opportunities that others have because of where they live or their economic status.”
Silverman’s progressive zeal and ability to muscle legislation through the Council has put a bullseye on her back. Bowser and her developer friends have seen enough. “We need to shift priorities,” Silverman says. “We don’t need to keep subsidizing development where it’s already looking to go. We don’t need to pit Ward 3 against Ward 8. It’s not ‘us versus them.’ We have to shift to a family strategy on labor and education. You can’t go to work if you don’t have a good place to send your child to school.”
There’s another aspect that has put Silverman in the Mayor’s crosshairs: Having found her true calling, her relentlessness can come at the risk of seeming headstrong and impatient, a characterization she does not deny.
Silverman pushes back on similar criticism that she is inflexible, however. She says she did not get credit for advocating a less aggressive burden on small businesses during the minimum wage for tipped workers battle. “I want to fight battles we can win,” she says, “and if we can’t win then I want to figure out how to mitigate the situation.” To that end, she sees herself as a coalition builder both inside and outside the Wilson Building, which further alienates the Mayor, who has accused her of being in the throes of national political movements.
Her supporters see her as a loyal and determined ally who does not cave to outside influences.
“Elissa is in many ways the ‘un-politician,’” says Keshini Ladduwahetty, who chairs D.C. For Democracy, a group of community leaders and citizens who advocate for a fair budget, affordable housing, paid family leave and campaign finance reform. “Politicians are known for being glib and smooth, and promising a lot more than they deliver. Elissa usually delivers more than she promises. While that can cause some folks heartburn, her supporters find her uniquely sincere and genuine. [We] trust her to vote in the interest of the bottom 90% on the income-scale and we never worry about her vote being swayed by corporate lobbyists, big campaign donors or even the Council Chair. That is a type of trust that is a rare commodity in the political world.”
Silverman’s determination and demeanor have inspired outrage, however. And Bowser’s last ditch support of her challenger, first time candidate, Ward 1 resident, community outreach specialist and Ward 8 business owner Dionne Reeder has made it a race to watch.
Personality-wise, Silverman’s critics see her as condescending and arrogant—characterizations that might go unmentioned for a male politician. But it was an unfortunate series of episodes earlier this year that had nothing to do with her (at first) that subjected her to the harsh glare of public controversy.
In March, Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White had set off a firestorm with a conspiratorial diatribe that cast an anti-Semitic pall over the District and made news around the world. The backlash was swift and loud, and Silverman, who is Jewish, but who shares similar values and goals with White, found herself defending her community, standing up against bigotry and trying to bring White, who was contrite both publicly and privately, together with the Jewish community to calm the storm.
White, however, became further embroiled when he wandered off during an invited tour of the Holocaust Museum in mid-April—a faux pas that the local media descended upon. (He did not respond to a request for comment.) The following day, he came under fire for donating $500 to a convention where Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan made disparaging remarks about Jews, which caused White to become defiant in a Facebook monologue that fanned the flames.
Matters grew worse a week later when a group of African American leaders gathered outside the Wilson Building and a member of the Nation of Islam delivered an anti-Semitic rant through a bullhorn, referring to Silverman as a “fake Jew” and Jews in general as “termites.” Holding the bullhorn was none other than Bowser pal and then-commissioner on the D.C. Housing Authority board, Joshua Lopez.
Silverman says she wished she had been there to help White navigate the Holocaust Museum, and her other conciliatory efforts were undermined when a rabbi from The National Synagogue of Northwest D.C. barged into a Council breakfast and demanded that members censure White and call for Lopez to resign from the housing authority board. Lopez later resigned from the board, but by then, seemingly irreparable damage to the racial, cultural and religious landscape had been done.
Activists in Ward 8 and political mainstays from Wards 1 and 5, including Harry Thomas Jr., the former Ward 5 member who was convicted in 2012 of stealing federal funds intended for youth services, have now joined forces with Lopez in support of Reeder, who until Bowser came on board was running out of cash and posing no threat to Silverman. That has changed, as the business community has filled Reeder’s coffers and raised her profile. Allegations and counter allegations of bigotry and dirty campaign tricks have consumed the political debate.
Showing up with a gas can, City Paper published an article that lumped together Reeder campaigners who have criminal convictions and ethical controversies in their past under a headline that read “Scandal-tainted Politicos,” and referred to some of them as “ex-cons.” (City Paper editors later scrubbed the latter expression from its website without explanation.)
Silverman, as if by mere consequence, now finds herself in the midst of a whirlwind of dramas she had no role in causing, which has heightened criticism not just of her stance on issues but of her attitude towards her critics, and what some see as deference by reporters covering the race.
Activist, entrepreneur and youth outreach specialist Ron Moten, who served time decades ago for drug trafficking and was hounded in more recent years by allegations of misuse of government funds that he settled with no finding of personal gain or wrongdoing, is leading the charge, holding a demonstration in front of City Paper and producing an anti-Silverman rap song and video.
Moten and other Reeder supporters are outraged that a Silverman ally who pleaded guilty to wire fraud in a racketeering case involving a U.S. Congressman was quoted originally in the same City Paper story without mention of his past crime. (Editors again revised the story online without explanation.)
And they are upset that Silverman did not join her fellow candidates at a public forum who repudiated the paper for the story’s offensive language. (Silverman said at the forum City Paper should have used the words “returning citizen.”)
For Moten, the story should never have run in the first place. He says Silverman has supported and been supported by a returned citizen who served time for murder, but without suffering similar slurs. Her statement at an AARP forum that campaigns should be judged by the people involved offends him, and others.
Here, Silverman gives no quarter, particularly where theft of public funds are concerned: “Crimes by public servants are a breach of public trust,” she says in response to questions from The Dig. “Harry Thomas Jr. put his hand on a bible and vowed to uphold the law. He has served his time and has every right to rebuild his life and be welcomed back to the community. But given he used public dollars meant for children for his private benefit, I don’t think he should go back to the public arena.”
In terms of policy, Ward 8 community members say Silverman has been overly aggressive in advocating for caps on public spending at the 4,200-seat Entertainment and Sports Arena in historic Congress Heights. Caps, they say, that could be imposed more equitably on costlier projects in city wards west of the Anacostia River.
Silverman responds that she has supported spending caps at Audi Field and Nats Park, and that such spending is a waste of public funds that could benefit communities through school modernization and other programs.
Still, Silverman’s critics do not like the way she conveys her positions. Moten sees a double standard where blacks and whites are concerned. “If she doesn’t like you she can be rude to your face in ways that if it were someone who looks like me they’d be vilified,” Moten says. “But she has her friends in the media and they give her a pass.”
(Note: The Post editorial board has endorsed Reeder, and labeled Silverman as “caustic.”)
D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine has endorsed Silverman and he disagrees with the negative characterization of her that has surfaced. “The [Post] narrative claims that Elissa is ‘caustic,’” Racine says in a text message. “I have not seen a whiff of that in my personal dealings, though Elissa is not a back slapper.”
Racine praises Silverman for her sense of humor and “intellectual curiosity,” and says he found her “generous and welcoming” when he and Trayon White accepted an invitation to share Passover Seder with her at the Historic 6th and I St Synagogue.
More to the point, Racine says she is acutely aware of D.C.’s inequities, and “has been a strong partner in bringing resources to our most vulnerable communities.”
Silverman’s awareness of D.C.’s gaping social and economic divide can hardly be questioned. And perhaps in her own self-described, haphazard way, she’s been destined her whole adult life for this time and place.
Maybe that explains her intensity, her sometimes abrasive urgency, which compels her to fight for the little guy, but at times lands her in the eye of storm. “I don’t mind conflict when I think it’s worthwhile,” she says. “I can take it.”
*Corrections: This story erroneously stated that Silverman worked alongside Katherine Boo at City Paper. Silverman joined the paper after Boo, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and staff writer at the New Yorker, had moved on. In addition, The Post was experiencing buyouts when Silverman joined the paper, in 2005, but not layoffs. The Dig regrets the errors.