Dionne Reeder is her own woman

By Jeffrey Anderson | Photograph by James Gordon Meek

Andre “Smokey” Lee was a solid waste inspector for the Department of Public Works when he first met native Washingtonian Dionne Reeder. He recalls her as a community-minded straight shooter who could connect with everyday people with ease.

That was 20 years ago, but by Lee’s measure, Reeder, who is running for an At-Large D.C. Council seat as an Independent, has only improved on the best qualities he observed when she was an outreach coordinator with then-Mayor Anthony Williams’ Office of Community Affairs.

In those 20 years, Reeder has acquired diverse experience as a Congressional staffer, community, youth and family outreach services provider and small business owner, according to Lee and others who have followed her progression, and observed her face personal and professional challenges.

“We got together as a team and went into the wards advising residents on what to do and what not to do in terms of sanitation habits,” Lee tells District Dig, as the final days of a hotly contested Council race wind down. “We’d go out, and you know how sometimes things don’t fit? Well, she wrote policies that could make things fit. She could listen to your story and make reason of it, and get you to buy in to the way the government has to do it.”  

Reeder was more than a good communicator, says Lee, with a hearty chuckle. “Lemme say this: Dionne could put some gloves on and get right down in it with us too.”

Lee and Reeder remain friends to this day. But to Reeder’s dismay, Lee has become emblematic of an aspect of campaigning that she did not envision when she declared her intention to run, a year ago last month. Just last week, she received a phone call from Lee, the Vice President of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees Local 2091, saying that he had been terminated from his post as political chair with AFSCME District Council 20, the largest public sector union in D.C.

Turns out Lee and other members of the local had been out campaigning for Reeder at the H Street Festival and caught the eye of someone who must have known that the District Council had not endorsed Reeder—or the incumbent, fellow Independent Elissa Silverman. Reeder had also publicly thanked Lee for his support, a gesture that would come back to bite the both of them.

“They told me they got a call from the Silverman camp,” Lee says of the District Council leadership, “and said that I couldn’t be out campaigning [for Reeder] with AFSCME [attire] on. I said as long as I’m doing it with my local, I can. No one is gonna suppress my vote or tell me who to support.”

Lee was soon ousted from his position at District Council 20, which later endorsed Reeder anyway. (District 20 is a coveted endorsement; Besides DPW, it represents workers with D.C. Public Schools, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, the Office of Child and Family Services and the D.C. Library, in addition to independent agencies such as the Public Service Commission and Howard University and several federal agencies.)

Lee’s firing weighed on Reeder’s mind as she spoke with The Dig the following day, her voice betraying weariness, not from her interaction with the public on the campaign trail, but from the acrimony and hardball tactics that have come to characterize this race.

Of late, Reeder and Silverman have been pitted against one another like two fighters in a cage match, mostly because Mayor Muriel Bowser endorsed Reeder in the 11th hour and made it known she was out to get Silverman. But the irony is that voters can choose two candidates for At-Large seats, the other held by Democratic incumbent Anita Bonds, a political fixture who has received next to no media attention, much less scrutiny.

“I’m new to this,” says Reeder, a first time candidate. “I made a comment thanking Smokey that someone caught on video, and next thing I know he’s terminated.”  

There have been other negative aspects of the campaign, Reeder says. There have been ethics complaints lodged by groups seen as proxies of Silverman, and unsubstantiated allegations and counter allegations of divisiveness and bigotry (with each side insisting the other drew first blood) that have caused her and her family pain.

A pair of campaign mailers hit the streets recently, paid for by a coalition of union-sponsored political action committees—neither of them authorized by Silverman or her campaign—one of which blared a Washington City Paper headline to a story that disparaged politically connected supporters of Reeder who have criminal convictions or ethical controversies in their past.

Another mailer depicts a sleeping child who has suffered an asthma attack, with a line that says, “DIONNE REEDER ISN’T ON OUR SIDE,” a reference to her criticism of a paid family leave bill that Silverman helped spearhead.

“I come home, I see my 5-year-old granddaughter in tears, holding on to that mailer…that crushed me,” Reeder says. “When you put a label like that on someone, you don’t just hurt them, you hurt their families. That’s hate. I don’t want to live like that.”

A lot can happen in a year in politics. Indeed, Reeder radiated positivity when I interviewed her for a profile in City Paper last October.

She grew up in Columbia Heights, raised by two hard-working parents who insisted their children work hard too. “I don’t think it’s OK to take an entitled attitude,” Reeder says. “I was the only child that got a spanking because I had the nerve to question Daddy one time.”

A knack for leadership and a call to community service came naturally to Reeder, who graduated from Roosevelt High School and served as president of the student government at West Virginia State University. After she graduated, she worked as a legislative assistant for the House Committee on Natural Resources and did community outreach work with her church.

Reeder developed a successful college prep program while with the D.C. Community Prevention Partnership, she says, and was recruited by Tony Williams—then the city’s Chief Financial Officer—to address youth violence. Williams later hired her as his neighborhood services coordinator in Ward 8.

At the Far Southeast Family Strengthening Collaborative, she managed day-to-day activities and multi-million dollar investments. (Reeder also is part owner of a cafe, Cheers at the Big Chair in Anacostia, her small business bona fides being no small part of her campaign platform.)  

Janice Ferebee, an accomplished author, speaker, and global female empowerment expert worked with Reeder at the Collaborative, and saw in her a person who listened more than she talked, and who exhibited the two qualities she values most in a person: humanity and integrity.

“Dionne has a unique perspective as a woman, a community servant and a business woman,” says Ferebee, creator of Got It Goin’ On, a personal development curriculum and empowerment program for young women. “She knows a lot about those who have not, and about those who have. Politicians like Dionne, she is not going to look like all of her constituents. But her humanity is going to transcend race and color. She is uniquely qualified to bring the city together.”

Ferebee, who is running for a seat on a Ward 2 Advisory Neighborhood Commission, sees other aspects of Reeder’s character that she admires: “She’s non-judgmental but she keeps people, especially youth, accountable. There’s no nonsense with her, but she conveys that with compassion.”

That message of compassion, tempered by a lack of experience in politics, and soured by the negativity of this particular political campaign, comes from experience at the local, federal, non-profit and private business level, to which Reeder says, simply: “I’ve touched people.”   

She recalls being on a field trip one time to the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services on H Street in Northwest, and a young man came into the building, angry about something that had happened outside. “That day, his trigger went off,” she says, with a flick of her wrist. “I saw that same young man later over on MLK [Martin Luther King Jr.] Avenue and said, ‘You feeling better today?’ I told him, ‘You can’t go through life that way. You gotta have some self control.’ Everytime I see him I give him a hug.”  

Hardball politics aside, Reeder, who is 47, says she is grounded by a joyful life with her wife, daughter by marriage and her young granddaughter, who calls her “Mick,” short for “Mickey,” short for “Mickey Mouse.” They live in Ward 5, where she owns a home. She drives a Mini Cooper and rides a tandem bike with her wife. She refers to them all as “queens in the castle.”

And though the sudden acceleration of her rise as an aspiring candidate has exacted a toll, she describes her experience as “wonderful,” during an interview at a restaurant near the Navy Yard last month, where she sported a pink sweater, gingham shirt and Dionne4Dc pin.

Reeder launched her campaign last October to little fanfare but with strong grassroots support and a decent sized budget consisting of small donations and money that she loaned herself. By summer she was running out of money and being considered an also-ran, if she was being considered at all. Meanwhile, Williams and pro-business elites recruited S. Kathryn Allen, who comes from a real estate and finance background, to unseat Silverman.

That all changed when Silverman knocked Allen out of the race for submitting falsified ballot petition signatures. Suddenly, Bowser, her minions, and her money, were all-in with Reeder.

When she decided to run, over a year ago, Reeder says, “I went to [the business community], I went to every industry, every faith institution, all the activists, and asked them to support me. Quite frankly, [the business community] hasn’t been out there to support me until recently. But in order to have success in the city, you have to have support in all sectors of the city. And that means a thriving business community, particularly the small business community. I’m not running for no other reason than to have cross-sector impact with people who I can reach, in a human place. I’m talking about youth who have lost hope, who I want to have meaningful feelings about the city, and yes, small businesses, which are the soul of a community.”

Reeder, in short, took the Mayor’s help and all that came with it, without hesitation or apology. “Why wouldn’t I?” she says. “Why wouldn’t I welcome the Mayor’s support?”

The monolithic political narrative in D.C. is that the city is leaving its longtime residents behind, if not pushing them out altogether. Bowser has closed D.C. General, an atrocious excuse for a homeless shelter, and built some smaller ones to house that population, and she touts progressive affordable housing formulas, but none of her best efforts have kept pace with gentrification.

Reeder, who grew up in a household blessed with strong values and sensitivity “to the struggles of people of color,” wants her campaign to represent more than the pro-developer veneer associated with the Mayor. “It’s brought empathy, and humbleness,” she says of her first year in politics.

That empathy translates all across the city, says Reeder. “There’s young men on Reno Road [in Upper Northwest] that can’t get into college, that can’t afford to move out of their parents’ house,” she says, stressing the need for workforce development in the building trades and the tech sector. “When I grew up, we had options. I got to go to college. My sister was fortunate enough to get a government job out of college. My other sister was able to start her own catering business. That’s what I want to see, a pipeline to employment, from Tenleytown, to Columbia Heights, to Ivy City and to Congress Heights. I know I had it.” (Reeder studied architecture and has a preliminary draftsman certificate.)  

As co-owner of Cheers at the Big Chair on MLK Avenue, across the street from—what else?—the “Big Chair,” Reeder has seen plenty of the opposite occur. A neighboring businessman was gunned down this year in a shooting at a social gathering where he had tried to break up someone else’s beef.

She knows and feels the fallout from such tragedies. “We don’t deal with issues that undermine our balance, such as PTSD, or moms on crack, or anger that turns to frustration and into hate. We don’t deal with that.”

At one end of the age demographic, she says she would like to see property taxes frozen for seniors. “We don’t think about that. They are pillars in our community and it gives them longevity.” At the other end,  she wants newcomers to respect D.C. values of family and community engagement that she grew up with.

“You’ve been here five years but you still vote in Ohio?” she says with a raised eyebrow. “I’m welcoming, but I’m old school.” (On a recent visit to Union Market, The Dig informally polled 47 patrons sitting on the patio eating their lunches. Just five were registered to vote in the District, and only one could name an At-Large candidate.)

Reeder’s supporters believe she has been marginalized by the news media as a pawn of Bowser—a would-be Yes-Woman in the service of a gentrified future. Pro-Silverman union literature has suggested as much. (The same coalition of labor groups that produced the mailer featuring the asthmatic child sent out another one that reads: “DIONNE REEDER WOULD WORK FOR DEVELOPERS—NOT US.”)

Yet it also would be hard to deny that her message has not been well-honed and, until recently, destined for obscurity. A recent stumble involved her inviting reporters to a meet-and-greet, where she was asked for an alternative to the paid family leave bill that Silverman championed (while at times deflecting responsibility for its passage). Reeder’s response was poorly formulated, and the Washington Post pounced with a news  story that cast her as a candidate unprepared for the policy rigors of public office. (The Post editorial board nevertheless has endorsed Reeder, who says she supports the concept of paid family leave, but not the way it is funded, particularly as a tax on small businesses.)

The City Paper story that took aim at her supporters cut her more deeply, she says, if only for what it implied about her friends and what it suggested about an ideal she embraces: Redemption.

The story referred to some of her supporters as “ex-cons,” and here is where a clear contrast between Reeder and Silverman exists. One of those “ex-cons” is former D.C. Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr., who comes from a legacy political family, and who served time in prison for theft of public funds. (Thomas has served as a paid consultant to Reeder, according to reports filed with  the Office of Campaign Finance.)

Whereas Silverman in an email to The Dig said Thomas  should not be able to return to to public life, Reeder draws no such distinction between a returning citizen who has committed an ordinary crime and one who has committed a white-collar crime in violation of the public trust.

“I believe that if you served your time and have made a commitment to do better, you should be allowed to work toward reformation,” Reeder says, without qualification.

It’s a distinction that matters, Thomas says. “What makes Dionne special is that she’s lived a life that directly touches people at the high and low end of society. Life humbles you, and while some are not humbled by the experiences of others, she has not lost her perspective.”

In practical terms, Thomas says, “Dionne represents the best of what a candidate should be. She checks all the boxes: family, service to community, experience with government, and experience in business. Once you work in a business, that’s a real life proposition.”

A well-connected local businessman who chooses to remain nameless, and who endorses no particular candidate, says, “We could use an elected official on that Council who has run a business, who has had to hustle to make payroll. That’s why we fought for Home Rule. That’s the autonomy we fought for.”

***

It’s getting towards rush hour one day last week and Reeder is speaking to about four dozen members of Teamsters Local 639. Smokey Lee is there, harboring no hard feelings about his separation from his position with AFSCME District Council 20.  

“You got two votes next Tuesday and I’m just asking for one,” Reeder says, her voice rising. “I’m smart and I was raised to think strategically. I was a lifelong Democrat but these days I don’t much like what Democrats or Republicans do. I’m an independent thinker, and if you vote for me, I want you to do it based on my character. I ain’t perfect, I don’t have all the answers, but I’m gonna do right by you.”

She takes a couple questions, then asks one of her own: “Anyone here that wasn’t voting for me thinking you will now?” A dozen hands shoot up, for no one other than Reeder.   

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