Last month, D.C. residents elected MAPP’s own Elissa Silverman, a graduate student in the Urban Studies and Planning Program, to the At-Large Seat of the Washington, D.C. City Council. After narrowly losing a seat in her first council campaign in 2013, Elissa won her second election handily, capturing 12% of the vote in an unusually large pool of 15 candidates. Once more, she did so without any corporate campaign contributions, a feat not often seen in a city like Washington.
A former political reporter and analyst for the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, Elissa’s path to both politics and planning was born from a desire for something better for D.C. residents. Below Elissa talks politics (naturally), her early interest in urban issues and what’s next:
As a former political reporter, you witnessed the good, the bad and the ugly side of politics. What made you want to jump to the other side of the fence? I first ran for office because I just got fed up with the corruption and lack of honesty in District politics. I felt it was a distraction and had detrimental effects on us as a city. This dishonesty, I believe, broke the public trust; people felt the government didn’t work for them. We have income inequality gaps; we have an achievement gap between black and white students that we haven’t been able to close. How are we going to develop the city in a way where there is opportunity for all? These are big challenges that require a lot of attention and if you’re focused on who the district attorney is going to indict next, you can’t concentrate on the important stuff.
You received degrees in economics and history from Brown. After an academic hiatus, you’re now midway through your Master of Urban Studies and Planning. What brought you back to school to pursue Urban Planning? I grew up in Baltimore and attended public schools at a time when a lot of folks were fleeing the city for private or suburban options; there just weren’t a lot of middle class families staying in the city school district. Race and class and public education, these were all things that shaped my interest in urban issues, because I lived it. After moving to D.C., I spent 10 years as a journalist, covering politics for the Washington City Paper and then The Washington Post. I was at the Post during a pretty bad time, when a lot of reporters were being forced to take buy-outs – it was miserable and I remembered thinking that there were other things I could do. So, I left the Post and applied to the Urban Studies program. Shortly after, I got a job at the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, where I met other people who were interested in the issues that I was interested in. It was helpful in that it helped me nurture a keen interest in urban policy and planning.
Of all the issues you'll face in office, if you could pick one, where do you hope to make an impact during your time on the D.C. City Council? Reducing poverty is my top priority; with that, we’ll be able to close our achievement gap and gain affordable housing. It’s the biggest obstacle in our city. Eliminating poverty is difficult, because there’s not one magic bullet. But, I think it’s the thing that stands in the way of us being a great city.
What, personally, do you hope to bring to the job? I think I have a skill set that’s good for being in public office. I’ve got some great analytical skills that I took from my time at Maryland. And, while I think that’s important, I also just like people. What I’ve come to realize more and more is that politicians who really enjoyed people—being with people, hearing their stories, trying to help them—were very successful at what they did. I enjoy being able to connect people with things that will improve their lives. I think that politicians who enjoy being with people is a very distinctive trait and it makes the job very satisfying.
Aside from the obvious, what’s next? I have 18 graduate credits and hope to complete my masters- maybe not this year, but as soon as I get my feet back on the ground. In the future, my office will also be looking for looking for interns!
To learn more about Elissa, you can visit her website here.