Living in Washington DC, one has the unique pleasure of meeting dignitaries, celebrities, politicians, and other high profile individuals on a daily basis.  You may eat breakfast next to a US Senator, get your haircut next to an ambassador, or catch an actor grabbing a drink at one of the many local watering holes.  

I met At-Large Councilmember Robert C. White, Jr. at church.  He was visiting Covenant Baptist UCC while making his first bid for a seat on the DC City Council, a practice not uncommon for those running for office.  What was unique, is that he stayed the entire service and waited patiently afterwards to answer any questions the parishioners may have had for him.  This was unique. Usually a politician will stay long enough to maybe say a few words, shake a few hands, and leave before services have ended, in hopes of reaching another congregation on the same day.  Not Robert White, he decided to take a different approach, which is something that has caused him to stand out among many people in local office today.  

Mr. White spoke with me over the phone for a few moments to answer a few questions regarding his upcoming one year anniversary on the DC City Council.  

What do you most remember from your election night?

“Most remember?  I remember driving to the venue where we were having our watch party and seeing the numbers rolling in and just getting very anxious, just wanting to be in a stationary place to watch the numbers unfold.  Twitter had indicated the early vote numbers, and I was driving to the venue.  For somebody who did not understand my strategy, the early vote numbers did not look right ‘cause they had me behind, but I knew the amount of resources that my opponent had put into early voting, and the amount of resources I had put in, and I saw the numbers come in, and I felt like, we got this!  Then I got really, really excited."

What was your biggest reason for running for public office?

“It sounds maybe a little odd, but I was sitting at my desk one day up on Capitol Hill when I worked for Congresswoman Norton, reading kind of the same old things about disparities in DC, wealth disparities, and it really struck me particularly that day because I had been working on so many economic development projects in DC and I thought, hmmmm, my family is not doing very well, even though I keep reading about how well the city is doing, even though I’m working on these major projects, my family is not doing very well and it just didn’t seem fair to me.  And I said, you know what, I can do more on the local level.  That day, I pulled out a copy of the DC Code to find the section that explained the qualifications for running for office.”

What is the difference from looking at DC from a federal approach (a staffer in Congresswoman Norton’s Office) to now a local level (a Councilmember in the Wilson Building).

“It’s so different because the average thing that you work on on capitol hill even if you work for the member from DC, the average thing is never going to become reality, it’s never going to really see the light of day.  You do so much work, so much fighting, sometimes just to prevent things from happening or to make things happen, and if those things happen, generally they can take years to materialize.   But on the local level almost everything that I touch affects the day to day lives of myself, my neighbors, real people in DC and frankly I can look at almost everything that I do on a daily basis from a personal lense, about how it would affect me, about how it would affect my dad; how my family has been affected by certain things…”  

What’s the difference between what you thought you could get done before you were elected, compared to what you actually can get done now that you are elected?

“My perception because I had done legislative work and because I worked in politics, I knew a lot of what to expect, and it helped me tremendously.  I think the biggest wake-up call, really because I didn’t expect it, the number of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” votes you have to take, decisions you have to make, and I’ll give you a real time example.  This Tuesday, we’re going to have to take a vote on whether or not we reject the contract for the company that’s operating United Medical Center.  By all accounts when you read the newspaper, there are some very tragic things happening at that hospital that clearly indicate there a long way to go.  But, I also recognize that that hospital has been incredibly under resourced.  And, that’s probably not going to change until the city built a new hospital, and if I vote to reject the contract, then I’m voting to likely, most likely, close the only hospital east of the river.  Again so, both sides of that vote are bad, and I’m going to have to make a decision about which side is less bad and there are a lot of those positions to get local governance.”     

You became a father soon after you became elected.  How did having a child change your perspective about how you make these decisions and how you take them home with you?

“I’ve always appreciate the importance of children, the priority of having children, the difficulty of raising children, but I think knowing that in the abstract is very different dealing with the anxiety of how much daycare costs, which my daughter is going to go to.  And, the way that I view my daughter, I know that every parent does or should view their children the same, and I’ve got to make sure every child has the opportunities that I’ve fought that my daughter have.  It’s made things so much more real.”  

If you could talk to Robert the day he filed the paperwork to run for office the first time vs what you know now, what would you tell him?

“I would say, you don’t know anything! (laughs) and you know it’s going to be hard when you don’t know what hard is yet.  You know even less on the front end than you already did”

What decision have you made in the Wilson Building where having a child weighed in and made a huge difference on what you your vote was?

“Paid Family Leave changed probably, maybe not that the way that I voted, but the veracity of my vote, the realness of that issue.”  

This article is entitled “Father - At - Large” so how does your father inspire the way that you approach situations in the Wilson Building?

“We’re just leaving a reception and my Dad came with me, and so my daughter is trying to get into my bedroom right now, and my Dad is in my living room because he came out to support the event I asked him to come to.  The most incredible thing about my dad is that he actually shows up!  He always shows up.  I try to do that as a father and I try to do that as a councilmember.  I learned that from my Dad how much it means just to show up.”