Home News In Powerful D.C. Ward, Democrats Move to Oust Councilman Over Crime Surge

In Powerful D.C. Ward, Democrats Move to Oust Councilman Over Crime Surge

In Powerful D.C. Ward, Democrats Move to Oust Councilman Over Crime Surge


Before a standing-room-only crowd in an office building in Southeast Washington on a recent night, Tonya Fulkerson, a veteran Democratic fund-raiser, described the shootout that broke out last year in broad daylight on her street blocks from the U.S. Capitol.

“People were ducking behind cars to not get hit by bullets,” she said.

These days, Ms. Fulkerson told the crowd, she walks around her neighborhood with more vigilance, and no longer waits in the car if her husband stops at the local corner store, for fear of getting carjacked or robbed.

And she has taken up a new side hustle, using skills and connections developed over decades in national politics, helping steer a campaign to oust her councilman, Charles Allen, a Democrat who has staunchly backed progressive criminal justice overhauls and whom she holds responsible for the crime plaguing her neighborhood and others throughout the city.

Flanking her at the meeting, alongside signs saying “Recall Charles Allen,” were other prominent Democratic political operatives who call Capitol Hill home and who have joined the push, bringing with them résumés that include stints on multiple congressional and presidential campaigns.

Moses Mercado, the recall’s field organizer, was a superdelegate for Barack Obama who has lived in the city for 31 years. Rich Masters, a 28-year Capitol Hill resident who was an aide to former Senator Mary Landrieu, Democrat of Louisiana, is running communications. Ms. Fulkerson’s clients have included Senator Chuck Schumer, the New York Democrat and majority leader, and the Senate Majority PAC, the party’s main fund-raising arm for Senate campaigns.

So far, she said, the recall effort has raised more than $100,000, and volunteers have deployed around Mr. Allen’s Ward 6 in hopes of collecting the 6,144 signatures needed — 10 percent of the population — before its mid-August deadline. If achieved, a recall election would take place on Oct. 9.

Most organizers of the effort are lifelong Democrats who voted for Mr. Allen in the past, helping propel him to overwhelming victories in 2014, 2018, and 2022. Their campaign to oust him is a striking example — in one of the most powerful precincts in the country — of how a response to a surge in crime has cut across political and ideological lines.

In an interview, Mr. Allen defended his record and said the effort to remove him was only playing into the hands of Republicans around the country, including former President Donald J. Trump, who have tried to leverage Washington’s crime problem as a “political bludgeon” to be used against liberal cities and Democrats.

He conceded that residents had “very legitimate fears and concerns about public safety” that he shared as a husband and father, but said the blame he has received has been misplaced.

There has not been a successful recall in Washington since the district was granted home rule in the 1970s. The move against Mr. Allen and another recall effort that sprung up last month against Councilwoman Brianne K. Nadeau in Ward 1 reflect the depth of residents’ anger about violent crime in their streets.

As a member of the D.C. Council’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, Mr. Allen was instrumental in cutting $15 million from the police budget in 2020 — money that he said would be reinvested into community programs across the district — and wrote an overhaul of the city’s criminal code that reduced mandatory minimum sentences for some violent offenses, which was ultimately blocked by Congress and repudiated by President Biden last year.

“It’s not personal with him at all,” Mr. Masters said. “I think he looked and saw a bumper sticker that said ‘Defund the Police,’ and he decided he was going to turn that into policy.”

The recall efforts come as residents across the city have expressed fear and frustration about violent crime, which rose by 39 percent last year, according to the Metropolitan Police Department, though it is down 11 percent to date this year from the same period in 2023. Homicides spiked 35 percent in 2023 compared to the year prior, according to the data, while robberies rose by 67 percent. Washington had 958 carjackings or attempted carjackings last year and, separately, averaged nearly 19 motor vehicle thefts a day over the same period, an 82 percent jump from the previous year.

In his statement last March explaining his decision not to veto Republican-written legislation blocking the overhauled criminal code, Mr. Biden said he declined to do so in part because the local law reduced or eliminated mandatory minimum sentences for some violent crimes like carjacking. (It also increased penalties for a variety of crimes including armed robbery, sexual assault and attempted murder.)

Ward 6, which is relatively affluent and safe compared to much of the city, is an unlikely ground zero for the fight. But it has also experienced its share of crime. Last year, Representative Angie Craig, Democrat of Minnesota, was assaulted in her apartment building, fighting off her attacker by throwing her hot coffee on him. Her Democratic colleague, Representative Henry Cuellar of Texas, was carjacked at gunpoint in October. And an aide to Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, was left critically injured last March after getting stabbed in broad daylight by a man released from prison the day before.

Residents on Capitol Hill, where one-bedroom apartments often rent for well over $2,000, have witnessed jarring violent crimes, including a shooting captured by a doorbell camera last month.

Mr. Allen was assaulted and pistol-whipped a few years ago, he said, by two people who shot a gun right next to his head, neither of whom was ever caught.

“I’ve got a scar down the back of my head that I carry with me,” he said, adding of the perpetrators: “There was no accountability there.”

None of the violence, Mr. Allen said, was grounds for throwing him out.

The councilman noted that the city had been in a recession when he pushed for the police budget to be cut, and that Washington is far from the only city facing officer shortages. He pointed to his work expanding the police cadet pipeline and establishing a $25,000 signing bonus for new recruits.

Mr. Allen said reducing crime was the council’s highest priority but argued that merely implementing tougher sentences, as recall backers have demanded, was shortsighted. Working with “at-risk” communities to give young people opportunities, he said, was needed to pull them away from a life of crime.

“Otherwise, you’re just waiting until crime happens, then reacting to it,” he said.

Opponents of the recall have been quick to label its organizers as carpetbaggers, citing January’s campaign finance report that showed a slew of Republican donors who reside outside Ward 6 contributing.

Elizabeth Engel, the president of the Ward 6 Democrats, called the effort “a waste of energy, a waste of attention and a waste of taxpayer money” that was merely scapegoating Mr. Allen.

“Crime is an issue in D.C.,” Ms. Engel said. “But addressing it is complex, and certainly Charles is not personally responsible for any of this.”

Proponents, however, argue that Mr. Allen has exacerbated a bad situation, in the process “helping make this argument for Trump,” that crime in liberal cities is out of control, Mr. Masters said.

For April Brown, a real estate agent, a third-generation Washingtonian and the treasurer of the recall effort, the bid to remove Mr. Allen is an opportunity for those long ignored to be heard.

Ms. Brown, who is Black, said her own experience with crime in Washington — her mother was carjacked by four teenagers, none of whom was ever caught, and she witnessed an attempted carjacking down her street — has spurred her to speak out.

“Sometimes I feel like we’re silenced,” she said. “Unfortunately, I feel that’s what a lot of politicians do. They want to speak for the Black community, not with the Black community.”

Mark Ugoretz, a retired lobbying executive who moved to Washington in 1968 during riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and is backing the recall of Mr. Allen, said the brazenness of crime in the city had resonated with residents across political and economic lines.

“This is the first time we’ve had crime where some kid can stick a Glock at your face and steal your car,” he said.


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