Meet the candidates for DC mayor: James Butler

James Butler — a former lawyer, “proud Washingtonian” and a non-career politician — is seeking to unseat D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser in the June 21 Democratic primary.



Fellow Democrats Trayon White (who did not respond to WTOP’s requests for an interview) and Robert White, both members of the D.C. Council, are the other challengers in the primary. If he wins, he’ll face Republican Stacia R. Hall in November.

Butler spoke with WTOP’s Mike Murillo about the issues in this year’s race.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity.

James Butler is a former lawyer and former ANC commissioner for Ward 5 looking to unseat D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser in this year’s Democratic primary. He unsuccessfully challenged Bowser in the 2018 primary. (WTOP/Kristi King)

Butler’s plans to combat crime

Let me be clear with the voters and talk to the voters directly: I am not a ‘defund the police’ Democrat. I will increase the number of police officers by 700-plus police officers — well-trained, community-based police officers from our cadet program. That’s extremely important to me: that we get people home alive, that we keep them out of harm’s way of all the rising violent crime.

I won’t ignore the root cause of the problem because we have solutions on that, too. Part of the solution to keep our young people out of trouble is to take a practical approach. We will take the Marion Barry Summer Youth Program and make it a year-round program, paying kids a minimum wage.

And we won’t stop there. We will make sure our rec centers operate as world-class centers, where they’re 24-hour a day rec centers. They will act as safe passages, but they will also act as resource centers. This has worked in a number of larger cities, such as New York. And if a mom comes in, a single mom or dad, they’re in harm’s way or they need some economic infusions for diapers or what have you, we’re going to be available to do that in our rec centers. I’d rather have kids shooting basketballs than shooting bullets. That’s why I know it’s important that we have a mayor that’s a non-career politician that’s prepared to do the hard stuff instead of sitting there as a figurehead.

I also know that our police department wants a mayor that finally has their back. I had a homicide happen in my very secure. multiunit dwelling where I live, right off of H Street Northeast, literally feet from my car this past Sunday in the garage — the private garage. One of the doors was left open because of a malfunctioning part, and someone got in and apparently tried to rob someone. The details are still fluid three days later. But I saw the decedent literally laying just feet away from my car as I was about to go to the southeast part of the city. This is emblematic of what’s happening over the entire city. No one’s safe; no one is immune from violence in this city. And it just hit really close to home, literally in my home, this past weekend.

I know our police force is overworked. I know they’re understaffed. I know that they’re doing 1.1 million hours of overtime — that’s literally the equivalent we’re paying in overtime: the salaries of 500 additional police officers. That’s why I will ensure that we hire, within my first four years, 700-plus community-based police officers from our cadet program. We will double up on the gun recovery unit and create a special gun interdiction unit that will seize illegal guns from Maryland and Virginia and any other state where someone would do us harm.

We will also work with the ATF. We are a federal city; we will work with the ATF and our federal partners to ensure that ghost guns are literally a thing of the past. But I’m not going to stop there, and I want to talk very directly to you. We know that the loitering that goes on our streets, crime and other illicit activity is birthed out of that. We will review with our courts, our federal courts and D.C. Superior courts, on constitutional and restorative approaches to end the loitering on our streets and make it where no one needs to loiter on our streets. When I talk about the restorative components of that. D.C., under my mayoralty, I will promise the voters, will become one of the safest cities in America.

Plans for the D.C. police department

All options are on the table with regards to the leadership and the top brass as we know it right now, even though I do [think] the present chief is doing, at least in my opinion, a satisfactory job. But [officers] will be doing community-style policing. They will be out of their cars; they will know the neighborhoods; they will be assigned to a beat; they will ensure that they are making connections with the folks in the neighborhoods so they know and can discern when criminal activity may be afoot and can intercept it and prevent it before it occurs. It’s vital, it’s critical to a much safer city.

In addition, they will have more police officers to rely on because we will ensure that, so the response times will be quicker. There’ll be less police officers working while they’re sick or mental behavioral health issues. It will be a police department where people are glad to be there and we’re not seeing the attrition rate that we’re seeing right now. As I was pulling out of the parking lot, after the police let me through the tape this Sunday, there were several that recognized me and said, ‘Mr. Butler, we need you; we need a mayor that has our back.’ To the voters, I promise you, I will have the backs of the police department and turn this city around.

Efforts to reduce traffic fatalities

Vision Zero has been an abysmal failure all five years that it’s been in operation. All five years, it’s failed to make the grade.

First of all, I will ensure that we create reciprocity with Maryland and Virginia so these drivers that are speeding through, that are reckless, that are causing deaths, traffic fatalities — we will ensure that we have a mechanism to punish them. Now, they’re running with reckless abandon through our city because they know we have no mechanism to punish them. I will change that and work to change that from Day One.

The second part of that is, I will ensure that we have protected bike lanes throughout the entire city. There must be protected bike lanes all throughout the entire city, because we know that this will save lives. In addition to that, elevated pedestrian walks will be something that’s critical to the saving of lives. Pedestrian bump outs and islands where, if you’re midway through the street, and you need a safe place to stay, a pedestrian island will allow you to do that. We will listen to the ANC and determine where traffic calming measures generally are needed. We are going to have a much closer ear than this current administration. You can’t tell me there’s a close ear when you’re failing to make the grade every single year.

In addition to that, we will ensure that some of our traffic duties around schools are delegated to DDOT so that they can help MPD enforce traffic laws around schools. You’re not going to see cars flying up and down the streets killing our children. No more. We need a leader. We need someone that’s not just talking about it, but willing to do the hard stuff in democracy. Proactive leaders, not reactive. We’ve seen so much reactive leadership from this current administration that as soon as something happens, a child dies or two or three kids are dead in a week, and then we begin to bring out data to have them do what they’re supposed to do. Good leaders are proactive leaders. We need a good leader in the city. This is the nation’s capital of the wealthiest country on the planet. And our leadership should be exactly that way.

Where Butler stands on speed cameras.

I am pro speed cameras; we’re going to keep them. And we will not allow predatory speed cameras to exist in our city, the type that you would refer to as a speed trap, where you’re going downhill, or where the speed limit changes from 35 to 45 and the speed camera’s set right after that — that’s predatory. That’s not intended to keep people safe, and it won’t. What it does is, it hits marginalized communities already in a bad place. We will eliminate those. But we know that if we have speed cameras, I do believe they work to slow traffic down, even if it’s for a little bit, but we can use them in key areas to ensure that people are not dying due to traffic fatalities. I’ve seen way too many deaths in this city, way too many ghost bikes. I’m going to change that.

Butler on economic recovery from the pandemic

I really believe we’re on the better side of things and there’s a little hope on the horizon. I’m hoping we’ll be completely back to normal, but we know COVID really decimated portions of our economy, in particular small businesses. And what I am looking to do is, one, to ensure that those small businesses are that are in corridors like downtown, that we can work with them to advertise where deliveries can take place so that they can keep still keep their business robust. We know that downtown business has lessened because less people are working downtown. So part of that is where we can partner with these businesses and provide city contracts where if it’s a food business, they can deliver it to the city, but also partnering with not only our local grants, CBEs, but making sure that we partner with the SBA to find out where moneys are to help the small businesses that are in our cities, or those that left our city because they couldn’t survive COVID that might want to come back. We’re going to do a full audit of that, and hopefully bring them back into areas that are where they can thrive.

In addition to restaurants that operate in areas that have been heavily hit, such as downtown, we’re going to ensure that they have adequate space, expanded space, outdoors. We’re going to ensure that we work with them to have the adequate ventilation, whether that be outdoor heating or outdoor cooling and tents, so they’ll be able to apply for grants.

In addition, we will look into rezoning portions of downtown, so that people that can live there, and who want to live there, can be able to live there in an affordable way. We know we’ve got a glut of non-affordable housing. So now we can start focusing on downtown as providing some affordable housing as well. And I am confident under my leadership, we will emerge from COVID healthy, well and economically vibrant.

Affordable housing in D.C.

I’m the only candidate with a real plan to combat this housing crisis. And I’ll tell you what, my other opponents — Muriel (Bowser) being there for eight years, two council members, six years respectively — if they had a plan, the voters would know about it already. They’re trying to rebrand themselves and repackage themselves for the mayor’s office.

Here’s my plan. The only way we’re going to bring deeply affordable housing, especially when it comes to inclusionary zoning, is by changing the way we calculate AMI (area median income). Presently, we rely on HUD’s formula to calculate AMI or MFI (median family income), they’re used interchangeably of course.

It’s a regional formula, so it takes into account some of the counties that D.C. is surrounded by. The problem with that is, those are some of the richest counties in America, so it artificially inflates what’s affordable in D.C. Nothing in the law right now compels us to use HUD’s formula. From Day One, I will work with HUD and the D.C. Council to change that formula, abort it and adopt our own localized formula to bring deeply affordable housing.

The second part of my plan is this: We in particular have relied too heavily on private developers for the bulk of our affordable housing. We need to get away from that, and from Day One, I will do that, and here’s how: I will go into the city’s own housing stock and build it out. We have our own houses, multiunit dwellings, but we’ve chosen in some senses to give those buildings to private developers for $1. And they make these hefty profits off of it. We need to look after our own folks right here in D.C. And I will be your mayor, not just in words. I will look after the marginalized populations and the people that need it most by building off the city’s housing stock and bring in deeply affordable housing for people to live in. That’s what real leaders do; they do the hard stuff.

I will ensure that rent control is applicable to every dwelling place. We have it, but it only applies to places built up to 1976. That’s highly problematic, because a lot of the desirable places have been built in the last 42 years. So we will ensure that rent control literally applies to every dwelling place in D.C., not just those ones that were built up until 1976. That’s poor leadership. That’s just bad governing. And I’m going to change that from Day One.

Priorities for federal infrastructure funding

We’re going to make sure that bridges aren’t collapsing. We’re going to make sure we keep people out of harm’s way. We’re going to make sure that our Metro is operating at full capacity, on time, and in a very safe way. We’re going to ensure the DCRA is functioning like it should and buildings aren’t collapsing.

I had the horrible experience of having run just past a building on Florida Avenue Northeast; you may recall it was gutted out and it collapsed because it wasn’t up to code. You may recall the building in Northwest that was a new construction that collapsed because it wasn’t in compliance. These are the things that we need to focus on to make sure that infrastructure is in place and I will begin doing it from Day One.

But we have a mayor right now that has shown that she’s OK with the willy-nilly infrastructure, that things have been happening that shouldn’t be happening in the nation’s capital. And we’ve got two council members that are equally responsible for things not working right in their wards, or if they’re at-large, the entire city. We need a full reset and I promise you, I will work to do that on Day One and ensure that all of those moneys are allocated to protect you the people.

Working with the D.C. Council

We need to clean house and do a full reset in this government for it to really work. You’ve got a combined total of 30-plus years of this bickering back and forth, or us trying the old experiment of taking a council member and putting them in the mayor’s office, or repeatedly hiring a mayor for an additional four years that hasn’t worked, and it’s not going to work and has failed us. We need a full reset to really turn this thing around. And I can assure you: I haven’t kissed any rings. I don’t have any old bosses to have a vendetta against the mayor or vice versa. I come to you, literally, to represent the people. I am not beholden to anyone in the city, whether it’s the green camp or the purple camp. I’m not beholden to anyone.

And I really, really know that I can get along. I’ve fostered some good relationships already with members of the council, and I’m looking forward to being able to continue to do that to make sure this agenda moves. But I can guarantee you if you bring someone in there that already has vendettas with certain people, whether it be the Ward 7 council member, or the attorney general, or my old boss, your boss, you’re gonna get the same bickering; you’re gonna have the same strained relationships. More of the same will only yield you more of the same.

On being disbarred in 2009

When I was 26 years old, I started a national law firm with 25 members in the firm, and I want the voters to know — you’re hearing directly from me right now — it was a national firm, where I helped a lot of people … often times in different states, on various days of the week. And at 25 members of the firm — not many guys in their 20s ever get to do that. And I’m a minority — I’m a Black man; not many Black men will ever have that opportunity. But I helped a lot of people.

At the same time, I’m also very, very much aware in my youth that I failed to manage that firm properly for a small demographic of my clients. Those demographics were primarily in Jessup Correctional Institution, in Maryland. There was about 60 inmates that we and I, that I — because this is about me, I failed, because the buck stops with me, and as your mayor, the buck will always stop with me — that I failed to represent adequately. They retained the firm, and they didn’t get their cases handled in a timely manner.

There was nothing criminal about what I did. No charges — no charges ever. In fact, the bar counsel wanted to give me just the one year of suspension, then the board denied that, and I did I think the right thing; I voluntarily surrendered my license after that.

But that didn’t stop me. I licked my wounds for a while and I stayed in the area, I continued to be very active in the community, helping and giving what I could back with my time. I’m proud to say I volunteer with every major organization. I have been an ANC representative; I volunteer with my church; I’ve run a couple of successful businesses since that time. So, you know, everyone has a task.

But I also want to ask, when you’re operating at that high level, which very few young people ever have that ability to do that — I shouldn’t say ability, but the chance to do that — and I’m grateful for the people we help, and I’m sorry about the people that I hurt, but I want to ask: I was 27 when I started that; I’ll be 47 this year. Are you the same person that you were in your 20s in your 40s?

And I’ve given you kind of an abbreviated version of that. But I’m prepared. I’ve learned from that incident, that oversight really matters: oversight, oversight, oversight. So in a way, it’s been a blessing to teach me that it’s a strong component of governing anything, and that has made me even better prepared to lead the city.

What sets Butler apart

One, intellect and being able to govern with my heart. I believe you need to be equally intelligent as you are compassionate to run this city, because we’ve got a lot of issues that require a level of compassion, including whether you bulldoze tent encampments, and so on.

And so I’ve got that, but in addition, I am the only one in this race that has robust ideas to turn this city around that I’m not just talking about. If the others had a real solution, honestly, you shouldn’t have to ask yourself what their plans are. After six years on council for the two council members, respectively, you should already know their plans. After eight years as the mayor, you should already know her plans.

But yet they use flowery language like, ‘Oh, this city has failed us.’ No, it’s they that have failed you. I’d love the chance to turn this thing around. It will be the greatest honor of my life to be the District’s next mayor. And I’m counting on all of you for your votes on June 21. You can learn more at Butler4DC.com. We’re counting on you to turn the city around.

Will Vitka

William Vitka is a Digital Editor and reporter for WTOP.com. He's been in the news industry for over a decade. Before joining WTOP, he worked for CBS News, Stuff Magazine, The New York Post and wrote a variety of books—about a dozen of them, with more to come.

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