Political Profile: Ward 1 Candidate Jeff Smith
During the last few months I’ve seen more and more signs supporting Ward 1 Council candidate Jeff Smith spring up in Park View. This year, their presence in area front yards seems to have indicated the onset of spring – and the political season – much like the tulips and daffodils. Yard placards are not the only visible indication that Smith has tossed his hat in the ring, you can also find him at Metro stations serving Ward 1 on any given night as commuters rush home from work and he has attended many intimate Meet and Greet meetings sprinkled throughout the Ward. While time will tell if this strategy allows him to prevail in his race against such a formidable opponent as Councilmember Jim Graham, it is clear that Smith understands the playing field and is in this race to win it, not merely place.
I was fortunate enough to catch up with Smith at the U Street Café on the week of April 12th. Over the course of an hour and a half we were able to discuss some of his priorities, the needs of the community, and a few of the challenges he’s facing.
While his Web site lists his stance on a litany of issues, it quickly became clear that two of Smith’s priorities were public education and the revitalization of Georgia Avenue. It is no mistake that these issues would be key to Smith. Having been elected to the DC School Board, and then taking on the role of Executive Director of DC Voice in 2007 which is involved in building a collaborative approach to school reform underscores his commitment to public education. Also, with Smith and his family living just off of Georgia Avenue, it would be shocking if this were not an important issue for him. I decided that I wanted to focus on these two issues more so than others since both are critical to Park View.
Support for the development and wellbeing of Georgia Avenue, asserts Smith, has had a lot of shortcoming over the years. While it’s true that the thoroughfare has received more attention in the last year, it is still woefully short of the commitment it deserves. With the numerous plans that have been developed over the years to return the Avenue to its former vibrancy, he contends that the only explanation for its continual stagnation is an ignorance and negligence from the City that has permitted it to languish. Georgia Avenue has little economic viability and has not seen the same commitment from the District to beautify the area or provide small business grants that have been available for other parts of the City.
In asking Smith what could be done to draw the City’s attention to Georgia Avenue, he replies that the community needs to be organized and vocal in reacting to what is proposed for the strip. He points out that the recently formed Georgia Avenue Community Development Task Force is a good start, but furthers that there needs to be a series of town hall meeting s between the community and the DC Government.
Moving to the issue of schools, I was keenly interested in what Smith’s opinion would be on the Bruce-Monroe vs. Park View Elementary issue. Currently, the former school boundaries for both Bruce-Monroe and Park View have been combined and the students are using the Park View facility while awaiting a new school to be built on the Bruce-Monroe site. In pressing Smith on whether a new school should be built or if modernizing the existing school might be the better option, Smith replied that the Park View site could have been the better option if two events had not happened. Firstly, DC made a promise to the parents of Bruce-Monroe students that they would get a new school. Smith feels strongly that if the City makes a promise they need to stand behind that commitment. Secondly, the students were allowed to move into Park View prior to its much-needed modernization. In Smith’s opinion, the school’s modernization needed to be completed prior to moving the school. He contends that the use of the building will prevent it from being modernized without being disruptive to the student body. When all is said and done, says Smith, the City passed up an opportunity to use Park View as a long-term solution by the very way the issue was handled.
In the end, though, Smith asserts that the end result needs to be a quality facility, and not just for elementary education. The area also needs a quality public middle school option. Most importantly, says Smith, the City needs to stop looking at education as if it were in a silo, but rather needs to take a larger view. In the case of the recent school closure process, DCPS engaged only the parents of students that were attending the schools. He states that the process did not engage the broader community – and by taking this narrow view did not take a comprehensive approach to planning and denied a voice to parents of future students or simply community members who have a vested stake in local school matters whether they have children or not. Also, by not taking a macro view on schools and facilities, this denies the various DC agencies to be considered as one system where efficiencies of scale or complimentary programs would be seen as assets. An example of this would be schools (DCPS) that are near recreation facilities (DPR), where the same children are frequently the users of both. This would be an example of where both facilities could be developed as a single plan rather than individually without considering the strengths and weaknesses of the other.
Knowing that Smith lives in the Park View/Pleasant Plains area of Ward 1, I wanted to know his thoughts on demographic change in the neighborhood. Though gentrification has been slower in Park View than other parts of Ward 1, it is a very visible reality and change is not always easy. Has Smith noticed any friction? Sure, says Smith. Some newer residents don’t appreciate loud music played publically, and neighbors that have lived in the community for 20 or 30 years fear that they could be pushed out. Acknowledging that some of this friction is cultural, I asked Smith if he could think of how newer and long-term residents could become better neighbors to each other. His answer: A vibrant main street.
Tying back in to the theme where we began, Smith uses Mt. Pleasant Street as an example of what a better Georgia Avenue could offer our neighborhood. While the Mt. Pleasant corridor has diminished a little recently due to a lack of support for small business, its function as a neighborhood’s main street has helped the area build a sense of community. It’s vital for neighbors to interact with each other while in the community. A vibrant main street does this. It builds the neighborhood and helps bridge cultural differences.
Lastly, I asked Smith what he felt was his biggest challenge in his race for DC Council. Without hesitation he identified his ability to match the quarter million dollars that his opponent will raise from local developers for Ward 1 as his greatest challenge. Acknowledging that this is an imposing feat to overcome, Smith believes he can succeed with a fresh approach, intelligent debate, and a lot of hard work.
With this we ended our conversation. But for those wanting to know more about this candidate, you may see him campaigning in someone’s living room or going door to door on weeknights and weekends. There’s also a good chance you’ll run into him at a Metro station as you return home from work some evening.