WASHINGTON, DC
October 5, 2010

STRANGER: Bryan Weaver
LOCATION: Marvin, 2007 14th Street NW, Washington, DC
THEME: Talking politics in the nation’s capital city

All politics is local, so the saying goes.

It’s an idea that Bryan Weaver appears to believe, serving for years as a neighborhood commissioner in Washington, DC. He also founded and runs a non-profit taking children from disadvantaged backgrounds to Guatemala every summer. Most recently, he unsuccessfully challenged an entrenched incumbent for a seat on the city council.

Politics is also personal for Bryan, who recently suffered a loss when one of the kids who took part in his non-profit and worked his campaign died as the result of gang violence.

Bryan and I met for dinner a few weeks after the last votes were counted in the DC primary election. Although he joked about growing an Al Gore-style post-election beard and laying around licking his wounds, he seemed invigorated and did not dwell on his defeat.

He suggested Marvin, which is just off U Street. Good choice. Named after the singer Marvin Gaye (a onetime DC resident) it’s a fancy looking place with dark wood, relatively dim lighting and a laid back atmosphere. As we took our seats, Bryan started to give me an abbreviated biography.

Bryan was born in a small town in Oregon called Enterprise and grew up in Portland. During his second year of college he moved to DC and enrolled at Howard University, a predominantly African-American college.

Why DC? “It was geographically the furthest place away from my parents and ex-girlfriend but still in the continental United States,” he said. Plus, the American capital city’s role as the center of U.S. politics fit well with Bryan’s major in political science.

Why Howard? His decision to attend the college stemmed from his time in Portland as a volunteer on a Southern Poverty Law Center case against a white supremacy group in the late 1980s. His work involved taking photographs of rallies, researching the groups, and “trying to win the confidence of skinheads in Portland.” Through that work he became friends with an African-American attorney involved in the case. “We had some candid conversations about race and class in America,” he said, and when the attorney found out Bryan was considering moving to DC he suggested Howard.

One visit to the campus was all it took to win Bryan over. “I thought it might be interesting to have a white kid from the West Coast at the foremost African-American university in the States and get an education from a different perspective,” he said.

But he met with initial veiled hostility from some students who felt that “anytime a white student came to Howard meant that an African-American wasn’t taking that place.”

The teasing was slight and indirect, like the time one student ambled by singing, “Play that funky music, white boy.” And there were odd moments in class, for example, when the freshman year writing class’ task was to write an autobiographical piece about growing up as an African-American in the 1980s. “But all in all it was a wonderful experience for me because it shaped a lot of my views on the world and the city,” Bryan said.

Crabs In The Barrel

A key insight that Bryan got from his time as Howard was a disconnect between people who attended the university and the broader African-American experience in DC. “There was a bit of an ‘us and them’ quality to it,” he said. “There was a feeling of the people in the community around Howard that they were looked down upon by students.”

There’s a saying of “crabs in the barrel” where members of the same community hurt those trying to get ahead. Bryan said that at Howard “you would almost see that crabs in a barrel effect a lot of times. There was a destructive nature in the way that some people would treat other African-Americans outside of the university. It’s unfortunate because instead of the university being a focal point of the community you saw stunted growth around Howard.”

Bryan said his time at university strengthened his commitment to social justice issues, and he stayed on the politics track after graduation by winning an internship with former Minnesota Democratic Senator Paul Wellstone. And then —

“My god, man!”

Forgive the interruption, but at this point on the interview tape playback Bryan shouted those three words as our waiter brought our starters to the table.

Bryan’s exclamation was warranted because my onion soup was, quite frankly, horrendously huge. Almost overwhelming. I say almost and not entirely as I’m quite the greedy guts and was able to finish it. For $7 you get a very generous serving of piping hot, delicious onion soup packed with fresh onions, sharp cheese and a great broth.

As you might be able to tell from the rather lame photos — alas, my ability to spend money faster than Brewster prevents me having the funds for a professional photographer — Bryan’s $9 starter of seared sea scallops with braised leeks was a much more reasonably sized dish. I didn’t try his food but judging from the cleared bowl I assume he enjoyed it.

While we worked on our starters, Bryan continued the story of his post-graduation endeavors. He got his internship with Wellstone by cold-calling the senator’s office. He chose the senator because he had “progressive ideas that I agreed with.” One of the reasons he liked working for Wellstone was that the senator “was a driving force doing good for people, social justice for at-risk communities, seniors, veterans, the mentally and physically disabled. He was more interested in what good are we doing, rather than how do we get on television,” Bryan said.

It’s clear from the way Bryan talks about Wellstone that he’s still fond of his former boss, who died in a plane crash in 2002. And his work for the senator appears to have had a large influence on Bryan’s ultimate pursuit of a career in politics. “He had a certain following of people who were wonkish, passionate about the issues. He was very genuine, and he felt that if he was no longer seen as being of the people of Minnesota then he’d have gone beyond his usefulness. That really resonated with me, that form of politics,” Bryan said.

When the internship was over Bryan went to work for the Democratic National Committee (DNC) the main campaign and fund-raising organization of the Democratic Party. “I was immediately surrounded by every other form of politician that was not like Wellstone and it made me miss that office.”

Maria can still drive me batshit crazy

But the DNC brought some good news. It’s where Bryan met his wife Maria Cardona. “We were so different. She was a high-haired Latina with gaudy jewelry and blonde highlights and I was this long-haired guy from the West Coast dressed mostly in black t-shirt.”

Maria apparently tried to get Bryan to go on a date, asking him to go watch the movie “The Last of the Mohicans.” But he rebuffed the advance on the grounds that “it sounded like a horrible movie. But I was off to a bar with friends and I invited her. She said no, she really wanted to see the movie.” And so their initial date never happened. But they stayed in touch, became friends and eventually got married. They’re both intensely political to the point where “she can drive me batshit crazy” in arguments about things like the death penalty, but she’s a “phenomenal partner,” Bryan said. They have two children, 5-year old Sebastian and 3-year old MayaLuna.

After his stint at the DNC, Bryan — by then in his mid-20s — worked for several political campaigns in different congressional races and then moved to North Carolina for a job doing communications for The Body Shop. He was highly impressed by the company’s founder, Anita Roddick, and her work on social issues such as HIV prevention and voter registration drives. Roddick’s desire to use her position of power to push such issues “was something that became embedded into me,” Bryan said.

“It was the greatest job ever” but it was based in Wake Forest, North Carolina, “which is inconveniently located from any pocket of civilization for someone in his 20s,” Bryan said.

So it was that he moved back to DC and worked on various different projects, including the Greek Olympic bid in the early 1990s, before starting his own non-profit for kids in 1996 called Hoops Sagrado. I’ll take the lazy approach and copy the description of the organization from Bryan’s campaign website: “Hoops Sagrado takes at-risk youth from Washington D.C. to the highlands of Guatemala every summer for a 5-week program of basketball (training, clinics and tournaments), cultural exchange, leadership development and mentoring, Spanish immersion, English tutoring and community-building activities.”

Bryan said, “Kids I knew from my community were often on the border of making good or bad decisions, so I started this to have them volunteer for a summer. It’s a huge passion for me because for a lot of those kids it’s a transformational moment. It lets the kids get to know themselves a lot better and to grow more confident.” Hoops Sagrado started with a handful of kids but after winning a grant from Ben & Jerry’s is up to about 25-30 children.

The work with kids through the non-profit led to Bryan running to be a member of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) for Ward One, the part of the city he lives in that covers the Adams Morgan, Mount Pleasant and Columbia Heights neighborhoods. ANCs develop policies on local issues such as liquor licenses, zoning, economic development, and police protection.

As a result of learning more about the lives of the children involved with Hoops Sagrado, “I felt like a lot of youth issues were not being addressed. Juvenile justice, parks and recreation, schools and jobs are immensely interconnected but somehow in the public policy debates they’re not.” Bryan felt that as an ANC commissioner he might have a better chance to influence those policies.

“Look at how many young African-American or Latino kids under the age of 25 are in a void and have no prospects to go to college. It’s an overwhelming percentage. We shouldn’t be surprised that those kids turn to crime.” Youth crime is a major issue in the District of Columbia but the existing justice system and its support services “don’t pass the laugh test,” Bryan said.

For example, he said there are roughly 2,000 children under the age of 18 in the juvenile justice system but only one 60-bed facility that provides services like job training, counseling and social workers for those children. The rest are put in group homes with “none of the wraparound services, and the cost of that is really high” because more often than not the children from the group homes will go on to re-offend, escalating their crimes all the way up to murder, Bryan said.

“These kids have committed significant juvenile crime and now as adults they’re committing murders,” he said, describing the lack of adequate support services as a “training system” for serious crime. “For a long time, we’ve punted any responsibility.”

I’m going to make the King of Ward One debate me

But there’s only so much an ANC commissioner can do to influence city council policies, so Bryan decided to run for the Ward One seat on the DC City Council, currently held by incumbent Jim Graham. In addition to concerns about youth crime, another reason Bryan decided to run was frustration with what he saw as Graham’s “lack of foresight” promoting new building developments in Ward One with little thought of smart growth.

“There had grown to be a huge schism between me and Jim Graham. If the most important thing is who responds to constituent e-mails or who can get a sidewalk replaced, then Jim Graham’s a really good councilman. But his oversight of juvenile justice, of public transit, of drinking water, it was all terrible,” Bryan said. Plus, Graham had never faced a strong challenger. “People always viewed him as the King of Ward One, and I thought, ‘You know what, I’m going to make him debate.’”

His tentative suggestion to run against Graham got a warm reception from wife Maria, and that’s when he started assembling his campaign team from fellow ANC commissioners who shared his frustration with Graham and young people in the community. The “Weaver Ward One” campaign faced big problems from the start, including a lack of name recognition compared to Graham and a campaign fund that was dwarfed by the corporate donations flowing to the incumbent.

To try and resolve the name recognition problem, the campaign “made a commitment to do as much grassroots knocking on doors as possible.” Mass mailings were sent out to apartment buildings, while the candidate tried to meet as many potential voters in person as he could. “I think I’m at my best having a doorway debate,” he said.

Accepting that the campaign would never rake in the cash that Graham had to spend, Bryan’s team also turned its attention to new media — using Twitter and other sites to spread the word. They produced a YouTube video featuring Bryan talking direct to camera about his neighborhood. The entertaining ad gained traction online and provided the campaign with some free publicity. Bryan said that it was in part based on similar campaign ads run by Wellstone, who wanted to introduce himself directly to voters.

“You’re going to stay on the sidelines? That irks me”

There were downsides to the campaign. “I have two or three good friendships that ended up on the rocks, these were friends who were really supportive of me running but then felt bullied into supporting Jim Graham. It’s tough when someone has been at your house with your kids and then their name is on a Graham leaflet soliciting donations. It was frustrating.”

Same goes for people who were going to campaign for Bryan but wouldn’t for fear of reprisals from the incumbent. “I put my name out there but you can’t even say you’re going to stay on the sidelines because you’re afraid of the retribution? That irks me,” he said.

In the closing days of the campaign there were also several anonymous robocalls smearing Graham as “immoral” and saying he paid for a staffer’s girlfriend to have an abortion. Bryan still doesn’t know who was behind the calls and said he has no idea what point the calls were trying to make, given the city’s liberal bent. “Which voters in the most liberal part of the city are going to be persuaded by a phone call like that?” he asked.

There was much Bryan liked about campaigning. “I thought the debates went really well,” he said. He also got a great response from people on the street about the YouTube campaign ads. Unfortunately, many of the people who saw them said they would vote for him if they could, but they did not live in Ward One. Not much use in his fight against Graham.

The DC primary took place on a sunny Tuesday in mid-September. But before Bryan could tell me about that, we were interrupted by the arrival of our main courses.

Bryan opted for the $24 braised Berkshire pork shank with white bean stew. He generously cut me a portion to try. It was delicious — tender pork with a tasty rich stew.

I went for the $16 country fried chicken and waffles with collard greens and gravy. It was definitely filling but the gravy was a tad too sugary and the collard greens were sadly rather bland. The batter on the chicken wasn’t up to much either, but at least the meat was juicy and well cooked. Alas. Should have gone for the pork shank. But we all make choices.

Here I could go for an awkward transition paragraph about how the voters of DC also made their choice in the September election, but I’ll pretend I’m better than that. Instead, I’ll just say that Graham won reelection with almost 57 percent of the vote, compared to 21 percent for Bryan and 21 percent for another candidate, Jeff Smith, the Executive Director of DC VOICE, an independent education civil rights group.

“I called Jim the next day to congratulate him and got his voicemail, so I left a message. He texted me back,” Bryan said.

There was a slight post-election funk. “It took a couple of days of licking my wounds,” he said. After getting over the defeat, he realized the upshot of the campaign. From speaking with many voters he’s come to believe “there’s a generational shift happening in the city and for the first time in a long time you have families willing to stick it out and stay in the city. There is a lot of work to do and a long way to go, but now people seem ready to fight it out. And I think that is something special, because for a long time it hasn’t been that way.”

Bryan’s optimism extends to the recent Democratic primary election of Vince Gray to be the next mayor of DC, a triumph that pretty much guarantees he’ll win the November mayoral election given the city’s large Democratic base. Gray defeated outgoing Mayor Adrian Fenty, and Bryan said that race tended to overshadow the Weaver-Graham fight.

Voting for mayor was “rough,” Bryan said, because he campaigned for Fenty in 2006. But various missteps by the mayor — including contracts for friends and a lack of transparency — made Bryan consider a vote for Gray. Still, he remained somewhat loyal to Fenty and approved of his “gutsy” choice of Cathy Lanier to be Chief of Police; Michelle Rhee as Chancellor of the public schools system, and Gabe Klein to head the city’s Department of Transportation.

Bryan’s wife Maria liked Gray and his goal of “One City” and an open government. But he said, “Nearer the election the transparency stuff weighed on me more, and my wife started thinking more about schools, so we might just have switched at the last second.”

Our dinner took place just over a week before Rhee announced her resignation — a move that Bryan predicted as we finished up our main courses. He thinks Rhee will now head to Newark, New Jersey, to try and reform the schools system in that city. As for Lanier, Bryan thinks it’s a “slam dunk” that Gray will keep her on even though the rank-and-file police staff aren’t her biggest fans. He’s also hopeful that Klein will stay on to oversee transport and continue to promote new ideas like bike-sharing programs.

What about Bryan’s political ambitions? He’s on the ANC until January, when he’s “self-term limited” and will step down. “I had really long dark hair and weighed about 30 pounds less when I joined the ANC. Now I find myself pulling my gray hair out.”

Still, he’s happy to see young people interested in taking part in the ANCs. Recently he sent out a questionnaire to potential ANC candidates, asking for their position on key issues and to learn more about them.

Given Bryan’s desire to improve the city, will he run for council again? “Who knows? Maybe in a couple of years. It’s hard putting yourself out there. But people in DC still view the cards stacked against them, and that the city government doesn’t represent them,” he said.

Perhaps the best thing that happened to me was losing

For now, Bryan plans to work with members of the DC Council on issues that are important to him, including efforts by Councilmember David Catania to implement universal mental health screening for at-risk kids, and a “good governance” focus by Councilmember Tommy Wells. “I told a colleague recently that perhaps the best thing that happened to me was running in the election and losing. People that as an ANC commissioner it was hard to get a phone call returned are now stopping me in the street and talking to me about issues.”

Those issues, particularly youth crime, are personal for Bryan. A few weeks ago he was having lunch on U Street with a friend when they heard a commotion. They left their meal to find the source — the aftermath of a shootout between rival DC gangs. 21-year-old Jamal Coates had been sitting in a parked car when he was killed by a bullet.

“It was heartbreaking, because Jamal was someone I knew really well,” Bryan said as his eyes moistened. Jamal had tried to take his life in a direction away from the city’s gang life, Bryan said. He volunteered for the Weaver campaign. The previous summer he traveled to Guatemala with Hoops Sagrado. “It’s incredibly frustrating because Jamal had been making a series of really great decisions over the last year.”

Bryan’s frustration spreads further because he feels that a lot of DC’s problems with youth violence are cyclical, with each generation of kids looking up to the local gang members, particularly when those youngsters don’t have strong parental oversight. “The ones where the parents are absent those are the ones I find the most heartbreaking. There’s only so much that tutors and teachers and after-school programs can do if you’re fighting against the home.”

Jamal’s story is one reason why, regardless of whether he’s an ANC commissioner, council candidate or in some other role, Bryan wants to keep working to improve the city because, “The stakes are too high to sit on the sidelines.”

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