I recently sat down with Lisa Hunter, candidate for Ward 6 council and asked her to introduce herself and her platform. She is challenging Charles Allen for his current seat: You will soon be hearing Charles’s answers to my five questions. Due to the length of the original conversation, only 26 minutes made it into this cut.
The transcript of our conversation is below, for those who prefer to read or who are deaf or hard of hearing. A special thank you to The Yard, 700 Pennsylvania Avenue SE, for lending me a comfortable and quiet space to record this interview.
If you would like to skip to listen to a particular segment, you can let the time stamps at the beginning of each paragraph be your guide.
Maria Helena Carey: [00:00:01] We are here at the Yard 700 Pennsylvania Avenue SE, the newest shared office space in the heart of the Hill. Today we are talking to Lisa Hunter. Lisa is running for Ward 6 councilmember. Thank you for talking to us today.
Lisa Hunter: [00:00:13] Thanks so much for having me. It’s great to be here.
Maria: [00:00:17] If you could, please introduce yourself a little more in-depth and tell us about your background.
Lisa: [00:00:22] My name is Lisa Hunter and I’m running to represent Ward 6 on the D.C. Council as you said. I basically jumped into this race for a few reasons. But in terms of my background and kind of how life led me to this moment… You know, I grew up in Los Angeles originally so I’m a transplant like many of us. And I feel so so fortunate to have landed in this community because it’s just given me everything, from a career to a family to a home. And my husband and I are just deeply grateful for everything that we’ve been able to benefit from as community members. And are, you know, excited and grateful for the opportunity to just give back and run in local politics. My background is, as I said… I grew up in Los Angeles and I grew up in a multicultural home so my mom is Mexican-American and my dad is Jewish. And from both sides of my family, you know, they instilled in me and my brother a deep deep core sense of social justice and political activism and I’ll tell you my, you know, my dad is first generation Jewish-American. We lost a lot of family in the Holocaust and so, you know, from his side it’s sort of this, you know, when you see injustice you don’t… you don’t just stay silent you do something about. And similarly on my mom’s side, I mean she grew up in… I’m not making this up: She grew up on an alley like in a shack in an alley in Tucson, Arizona, called Bean Avenue. And she was the first in her family to graduate from college much less go to law school and she did it all on grit and merit and really fought hard to build a successful career doing law for practicing law in California for the California government. And you know they raised my brother and I we had a very privileged upbringing, no question. And we were very very lucky. And that just happened by accident of birth for me, right? I was handed a lot and I’ve always felt like you know there’s no reason to ever take any of this for granted. So when I went to school and then after I graduated I ended up thinking I was going to go into immigration law. A lot of my family, especially in Arizona, you know, we have a history of… We’ve been in Arizona and been in Tucson, Arizona, since I think my mom said it was 1792. So we’ve been there before it was Mexico. Even back when it was Spain. And even still, my family members you know they face racial profiling. They face discrimination. You know, Spanish was not supposed to be spoken in schools… stuff like that. So you know fast forward I thought I was going to go into immigration law.
[00:03:21] I wanted to do whatever I could to help especially vulnerable populations like immigrants and that’s why I decided to join the Peace Corps. And they sent me to a non-Spanish speaking country in Guyana. And that was where I, you know, taught literacy to primary age students and then we also were a PEP for our country which is a country that receives lots of government aid from the United States for HIV and AIDS prevention and that sort of work. When I came back to the United States, I didn’t have a job lined up. Again, I thought I was going to be going into law school going into immigration law. But it turned out that that’s when President Obama’s ’08 campaign was taking off. So I joined the campaign and was fortunate enough to be a field organizer in St. Louis. And after he won thankfully… I’m so thankful he won. I think a lot of us are very… we’re sort of like, “those days… Remember the good ole days?” I moved to D.C. to see sort of what I could do and continue on this journey, didn’t know where it would lead me. I used to live on H and third NE and this was before all of the development sort of happened in our community. I was fortunate enough to get a job on the Hill for a couple of members from Los Angeles who are very progressive and then the Affordable Care Act passed and HHS and, specifically, the administration they were hiring folks and I was fortunate enough to get into the administration to work on ACA implementation and that’s how I met my husband who had previously worked for Ted Kennedy before the senator passed away.
[00:05:03] And from there, I ended up working in the administration both on ACA and then I realized once the House flipped how difficult it was to really get things done when oversight from the Tea Party came down on HHS. So I worked directly under Secretary Sebelius at the time and her counselors to work on, like, more than just ACA, like, other sorts of priorities. And that’s how I found health care. After leaving the administration I went into the private sector and worked for a consulting firm a small boutique consulting firm in D.C. that does a lot of enrollment modeling and data analytics and that’s where I got to see the other side of the coin of what the, you know, private versus public sector experience was like. And also, the private sector approach to healthcare and how they really looking at things when you when you look get, you know, enrollment trends or premiums or whatever. So I know a lot more about health insurance than I ever thought I would. And about a year and a half ago, I had a baby girl which was a big turning point I think for a lot of parents. You have… You have a kid and then it’s a big transition. And that was really when I started to not only pay attention but really interact with the city and interact with our different systems, whether it’s medical, whether it’s child care, or whether it’s you know, transit, all sorts of new ways. And I recognize that that’s a privilege to be able to have just, you know, gone through things here in D.C. without having to think about those other systems and the kinds of struggles that people have. Anyways, I’ve just given you a mouthful but I decided to run in this race shortly after I had J.J., my daughter, in large part because I saw a lot of prosperity happening in our community and I was on maternity leave at the time getting to see our community through a whole other lens and recognizing that, you know, the prosperity isn’t trickling down and that we’re leaving a lot of our neighbors behind. And if we want to be the progressive community that we say we are then I think it is incumbent upon us to step up, grab a clipboard, as Obama said, and try and right those sorts of injustices.
Maria: [00:07:28] My second question is, there is much enthusiasm for local public schools at the elementary school level. There is less so at the middle school level and Eastern High School student body this year is less than one third from Ward 6 as a council member and as a parent how would you address this lack of interest toward an excellent public school.
Lisa: [00:07:50] I wouldn’t say it’s a lack of interest so much as I think there is a general anxiety among parents and I will recognize that J.J. is only 18 months and so my interaction personally with having a student in DCPS hasn’t yet begun. When it comes to enthusiasm and interest, yes I think our parents are incredible when it comes to supporting our elementary schools and we’re getting there with our middle schools as well. I’m also seeing a lot more community events and so people going to different drives or different community events held at places like Payne or Watkins and it’s great.
[00:08:31] One of the things that strikes me about education and I think a lot of us, I mean, myself as a parent, I’m thinking about my daughter going into D.C. public schools very shortly before I know it and I’m very anxious about the lottery system. I’m very anxious about, you know, the quality of teachers and the high turnover that we’ve seen typically. I’m also cognizant now that I’ve dug into a lot of this and talked to many teachers and administrators and had conversations with parents that we’re not we’re actually spending less on education today than we were 10 years ago when you account for inflation. And I’m not saying that you can throw money and it’s going to resolve itself. But what I am saying is it takes more than slapping paint on the wall. We need to be diagnosing some of the problems that we’re seeing in our headlines before they become sources of public outrage. And that’s a whole other thing that I know everyday I talk to parents who are sick and tired of reading about the latest DCPS scandal. When it comes to talking about the future of our schools, you know, as as children graduate from elementary to middle school or middle school to high school, I mean, especially in my immediate neighborhood on the Hill, a lot of folks are really nervous about the quality of education. And, you know, where they’re going to send their kids when it comes to middle school and high school. And what you find is a lot of folks are sending their kids across town or sending their kids to private school. And that’s that’s great that’s there. Exactly. Or charter schools.
[00:10:06] I fully believe that parents should do whatever they think is best in whatever they think is right for their children. I would never ever dictate that for any parent or family. What I am seeing, however, is when our funding is based on a per pupil per student formula when we lose folks from the community and they’re going into other schools than we are. You know we are we are losing out on those dollars in our local schools about Eastern and or at our local middle schools. And I’d like to re-examine that formula so that it doesn’t negatively or disproportionately impact certain communities especially those for whom sending their kids across town or sending their kids to parochial school or to charter schools may not be a good option. I’d actually like to see us also revisit the lottery system. And I’ve… I’ve talked to parents who said, “Can we just move the timeline up on the lottery so that if we don’t get into our schools we haven’t missed the deadline to get into other schools that are private?”, for instance. And that’s something that I’d like to think that worth having a conversation about. But it seems to me that, you know, I think one of the other ways that we can be improving our local schools, especially our middle and high schools, are to continue to invest in the administrators and especially the teachers because when you have turnover what ends up happening is you lose the community connections that have been built.
[00:11:37] And so I know that when I talk to people especially around Eastern, you know some of the neighbors were saying that there is no longer a garden drive but sort of like a, you know, plant sale or garden sale happening. I’m like missing the words. And how that was a really great thing and how they feel a little detached now that that’s that sort of is one example of not having that kind of community engagement. And so I’d like to see more of that. And I think the way that you do that is by encouraging and supporting the teachers and administrators who are there now so that they feel invested in that we feel invested and we know who you know. We know that there’s a shared goal of improving these schools and it’s not just up to the parents to do it.
Maria: [00:12:26] It has been a very intense primary campaign here and it seems that you have focused your efforts on what you have referred to before as “incumbent bias.” And I wanted to elaborate more on incumbent bias and on what you have focused your campaign a little bit more on ad hominem attacks and a little more on your opponent and his shortcomings than your very valid policy points. So I would like to hear your thoughts on that.
Lisa: [00:12:57] Yeah. So I appreciate the question and I will say when it comes to incumbent bias I think every challenger faces that to a degree. And you know I am sensitive to the idea that these are just attacks on my opponent because I’ve gone through painstaking details to make sure that everything I’ve put out is sourced and factual. And I think for some folks that are especially you know I know you’re friends of Mr. Allen.
[00:13:25] I know that he’s got a lot of folks on the Hill who are really in his corner and for whom he’s done good work. And that’s you know you know that’s not lost on me. But what I think I’m seeing is a lot of pushback from some of those supporters and that’s fine. You know I can handle it. That tells me that when I am putting something out whether factual or controversial I’ll say you know I am for lack of a better term the messenger and I understand that you know folks can not just attack the messenger but you know but for the fact that it’s really hard to hear the message. And so I’ve tried to do everything I can to make sure that everything I put out there is factual and record based because this is not about who’s nice and who’s you know whose heart is in the right place. I firmly believe that everybody that’s running for public office especially in our community. We all have the same goals. Nobody wants to see people hungry. Nobody wants to see people struggling to find housing. We have a different approach to it. And for me as someone who you know has been sort of what’s the word labeled a disruptor I think that’s absolutely appropriate because what I’ve done is sort of tried to bring sunlight to some of the incumbent bias that I’ve been seeing but also just the structural you know voices that have I think clouded out other voices.
[00:15:09] So I’ll give you an example and I’ve talked about this before but my interactions with the Ward 6 Democrats has been less than inclusive and I think it’s because we’ve had a Ward 6 Democratic group that is representative of one faction of the entire ward and our ward is vast. I mean, we cover everything from Shaw on to the Wharf and Hill East, right? And it just it strikes me that people when I talk to them across the ward you know a lot of folks know who my opponent is and that’s great. But there are also people for whom they’re waiting on public housing lists for like eight to 10 years who have never even seen him. And that to me it means that we are not doing a good enough job. So what I’ve done in this campaign has tried to highlight for everyone that we have a more diverse constituency and that folks have been sort of boxed out at the expense of others and that I believe that we’re a better community than that. And so like I said this is nothing. There’s no personal attack on Mr. Allen and I didn’t think I would encounter this in my campaign journey thus far. But I have also found that relationships and allegiances are very strong. And that’s fine. But again I think there has been a lack of willingness to entertain an alternative position simply because I think I’m making people think in a way that they haven’t before. And an example of this is I think a lot of us on the Hill especially will I guess relate to having like these MLK signs out in our yards which is perfectly great. I think it’s a great thing about our neighborhood. The thing that I am questioning is is it enough to put a yard sign out.
[00:17:03] And you know when I say that I’m running as the progressive I’m running to the left of Mr. Allen. It’s I think a little uncomfortable for some of his supporters who think of themselves as progressive. And think of him as progressives and I’m challenging that. And so that’s obviously going to make people uncomfortable and that’s ok. I actually think that’s a good thing for us to reassess and examine and recalibrate what does it really mean to be progressive. And I think that that’s actually a part of public service in some weird way this is how change happens.
Maria: [00:17:35] Just to follow up before I open it up to you. Are you worried about alienating potential voters with your approach or is that something you have or have not encountered. You mentioned that you have been surprised at how strong some of the allegiances are. Do you feel that this is something that is potentially tainted a voter base or has it opened up new voter bases.
Lisa: [00:17:58] Yeah. So I think it’s actually opened up new voters. I think people have been talking to me about my approach as being pretty you know I’ve been pretty confrontational but that’s been very much to draw the contrast between myself and my opponent. I don’t want to earn votes simply because I’m a I’m a woman or because I’m a mom. I want to earn votes based on merit but also based on philosophy. How we would legislate. Right. There’s a difference there. I it’s funny because I think I think my opponent and his camp are sort of relying on the same people to come out and vote. And they are opportunistically you know hopeful that others will come and join them this time around and that’s fine. I think that’s the strategy that that has worked for them. But on my end I’m building a whole new board game. I’m building a whole new base. I am engaging voters through new voter registration or have now voter registrations over. And I’ve been really really proud of the coalition that I’ve built because it’s been organic and it’s been based on philosophy and values and principles. So I don’t think I’ve alienated anybody that wasn’t going to vote for me if that makes sense. I think that he’s been pretty I think Mr. Allen’s benefited from a pretty loyal group of fiercly you know pro-Allen voters and that that works for him. For me it’s been you know in two parts I mean my approach is confrontational sure but it’s also been a reflection of I think me trying to give a voice to people that I’ve encountered throughout this race and throughout my time living in this community. And so some people might say I’m hyperbolic some people might say that I’m I don’t know fill in the blank. But the truth is that I am I’m a mouthpiece for a larger audience that has not had an opportunity to really challenge the status quo or had the resources or the platform to do so. And I don’t think that comes easily to folks who are establishment or entrenched in local DC politics. I think it took an outsider to come in and shine this sort of light out.
Maria: [00:20:22] So right now I would like to give you about five minutes to do any closing remarks. Maybe talk about anything you felt you didn’t talk about and tell people why they should vote for Lisa Hunter.
Lisa: [00:20:34] I will say I am a mom, a progressive, I am a woman of color. I am also looking around our community. And you know every time one of these luxury apartment buildings goes up nothing gets more affordable. And I think I’m tapped into all you know a general dissatisfaction and a feeling of being fed up with just talking points. What I have done in my career is built experience through public service both on the ground doing grassroots work and the Peace Corps but also having served in the House of Representatives and also in at HHS so I’ve done substantive policy work. I’ve done the grassroots thing and I’ve also maintained a strong strong moral compass when it comes to social injustices and making sure that people aren’t left behind. That’s what’s guided me through this whole thing and I’m extremely proud of our team and our supporters and volunteers who have been pounding the pavement to better the community and make sure that folks are aware of the true struggles that I think a lot of us are experiencing. I talked to a lot of folks you know my husband and I we live here on Capitol Hill. We were very very fortunate to buy a home in 2013. We never thought we could live on the Hill because it was so astronomically expensive. We scrimped and saved and we bought the crummiest house on our block. And also the tiniest just to be able to live in this community because it is so special and we’re grateful for it and we’re making ends meet but we’re not making ends meet by a lot.
[00:22:20] And if that’s the case for us that’s the case for tens of thousands of us. Especially when you think about things like childcare and the taxes we continue to pay on tampons and diapers. These are like thousands of dollars that can be going into rent can be going into savings can be going into food. And that’s the sort of stuff that I would like to champion. I’m I think all along with a lot of folks would agree that we need to stop spending money on you know corporate subsidies for major projects. We need to reassess and take in where we have our most vulnerable and how to get everybody on the glide path to success whether it’s through workforce programs or through improving our education system. You know one of the troubling things that I saw this week was a story I think was in the City Paper array on charter schools and contracts going to one consulting firm that doesn’t really prove bear out in positive outcomes long term. Now these are the sorts of things that I’d like to be able to diagnose identify and go go after so that we’re making sure that we’re spending our tax dollars wisely and that where those tax dollars go are worth it and reflective of our progressive values. It’s really that simple and if elected. What I’d like to focus on is not just you know big picture policy issues like like affordable housing like education or like maternal health and and those issues but also constituent services.
[00:23:59] So what I understood what I’ve seen in my personal experience with our ward is we’ve got a an incredibly diverse demographic mix of folks and this includes people who have been here you know for the last five years. People who are sort of transients coming in and coming out for work. People who’ve been here for decades and Ward 6 is interesting because we’re like a little slice of the larger trends that you see throughout the city and what has occurred to me is we can be making our local government work better for people. And one of the ways to do that is to actually be present as a ward council member. I think that’s your number one job is to advocate on behalf of everybody in the community and make sure that you’re accessible to everyone. And I don’t think you know merely hosting office hours at coffee shops is going to do it. What I would like to do as council member is actually host office hours. Yes coffee shops that’s fine but also host office hours in the evenings on the weekends. Make sure I host them at schools at libraries at churches but most importantly host office towers at the agencies themselves because I think we all know that when a council member walks into an agency nothing’s going to make people respond more quickly to constituent issues than having somebody right there looking them in the eye and making sure that they’re accountable for that service. So that’s…
Maria: [00:25:32] And so why is that… why vote for you in a nutshell?
Lisa: [00:25:37] Yeah, in a nutshell. And I also firmly believe I’m just going to state it as as a mom to my daughter, she deserves to grow up seeing people like her in office. And we’ve got four women on the council out of 13: that’s not good enough. I know we’ve done better in the past and if elected, I will also say I’ll be I would be the first Latino ever elected to the council in a city where one in five households is speaking a language other than English at home. I think it’s even more important for us to be electing people who bring those perspectives and those experiences and that diversity to our our legislative body. So I hope folks give me a fair shake and I hope that they consider me and I hope to be the next councilmember for Ward 6. So thank you very much for the opportunity.