Ron Austin has been active in Ward 4 politics and civic engagement since he was a young teen. He was elected to the Neighborhood Planning Council (a precursor to the Advisory Neighborhood Commissions) when he was only 14 and served as the Youth Chairman. He provided a "youth perspective" to local city issues, something Ron feels is missing now in the ANC system.
Ron has spent his career in DC government, (24 years with the Recreation department), trying to help residents get the services they need, from help navigating DC agencies to getting money to help residents pay mortgages. He's invested his life's energies into serving Ward 4 and DC, and wants to take that energy to the next level by serving on the DC Council.
Retired now from DC government, Ron is still fully engaged. He serves as the Chair of the Citizen's Advisory Council for MPD's Fourth District, a position he's held for several years. He also serves as Chair of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 4B, in single member district 4B06.
Ron and I met at Ledo's Pizza on Georgia Avenue to talk about his background and experience, and why he's running for Ward 4 Councilmember.
Drew/Petworth News: You ran for Council for the first time last year in the special election. Why run again?
Ron Austin: I'm running because I think it's time we get somebody in that office that's serious about working with the people, who already knows their way around the government -- which, that's me -- will know who are the people to call for whatever comes before us, I know exactly what department needs to called without trying to figure out who to call, know where the challenges are that we need to really deal with. Most people are familiar with my work; they see the work I have done. A lot of my work has been great and successful.
One of the problems we have now we are electing people to office, like the two people that are running, they only come around during election time, and they want to be councilmember, but they don't do nothing else throughout the year. Just like the councilmember we have now who's just doing status quo -- what the other councilmember did -- which was nothing. Nothing stands out. [Ed note: Brandon Todd is the current Ward 4 councilmember, and Muriel Bowser was the previous councilmember, now Mayor.]
When I was working with Fenty's office, I led the charge and advised him the right way, that it was positive. At one time, they made all these hotspots in DC, in this Ward, Petworth, all these areas in the Ward were hot spots -- the worse spot in our area is Kennedy Street. They didn't even make that a hotspot for crime. The only time they made it a hotspot is when I put a booklet together that shows that Kennedy Street has been bad for years. That's our number one source. If we clean up Kennedy Street, we clean up a lot of drugs in this city. That's the hub.
What I did was calls for service, with the Councilmember's office [Fenty] -- wasn't something he asked me to do, I did it on my own, because my heart and my spirit was in cleaning up this Ward, trying to do the best I can. That's why you don't see my kids out there, out front like that, because I want to clean up this Ward without worrying about someone coming after my family because of the things I'm doing that's supposed to be helping making our Ward much safer.
I called the police department, got the calls for service from North Capital Street to Jefferson Street to 9th Street and Longfellow down to lower boundary. When I looked at calls for service, and there were a bunch of calls for service, and these aren't accidents, I filtered those out by crimes. I went and took pictures of all the vacant buildings and graffiti on Kennedy Street, took that to the city administrator and was able to label that a hot spot. Cleaned up all the graffiti, starting looking at all the boarded up homes and started doing things with those homes. Really they weren't boarded home, they were vacant homes that people were squatting in. And we dealt with all those issues. Even that house that Leon Andrew's office is in, people were squatting in. And that's a house that he owns.
So I looked at other things at how our councilmember and the people we're electing are making decisions, looked at Rudolph Recreation Center -- it used to be a recreation center. Used to have hundreds of kids down on that playground, and this happens when you elect people that don't know. We have people we elected to that office that are serving as councilmember that don't understand it, that don't listen to the community. And those facilities played a role after school in the community.
So you're talking about after Fenty was Councilmember, right?
You worked for Fenty when he was on the Council. What was your position then, and what did you do for him when Fenty went to the Mayor's office?
I was the Director of Constituent Services, and then I was in his cabinet; I was the Director of Clean City.
I remember a time when I was working on Recreation, I used to be the person who went around to these rec centers to deal with the problems. They brought the ball team from the University of District of Columbia to Dunbar, and they closed Dunbar to the kids in the community. A majority of those kids ended up on the streets selling drugs, getting killed.
But what doesn't make a lot of sense is these folks allowed these places to become charter schools without knowing and realizing that these places are being used after-school. If you look at these charter schools now, those gates are locked, where the kids can't participate. If you look at the east side of Georgia Avenue, the only playground we have after Emery is a big gap. And the next playground is Upshur and 8th and Taylor.
So the areas that were playgrounds became charter schools, and those playgrounds were shuttered from the community.
The playgrounds were still there, but they used to be recreation centers and schools at the same time.
So is one of the things you're looking to do when you come onto council is to try to bring more playgrounds?
Yes, and more activities on these playgrounds. When I was coming up, we couldn't get into the gym until we got our homework done. We're just not doing what we used to be doing back in the day, not doing the basics anymore that keep these youngsters busy. Everything has turned too political.
What do you think is your priority if you went on the council?
You mean when I'm elected council, right? First of all, listen to what the people are saying. Organize these clergy to get involved in my community. We'll organize civic associations and ANCs. We need to bridge that gap and unify our community. The clergy will work with us to bring down this crime.
I have connections with people that we going to call all these guys out here who call themselves gangbangers, we're going to bring them to a big room and have a meeting with them. Role leaders will need to take of the hardcore cases. The role leaders we have now aren't doing what they use to do. They use to call truce, get all these gangbangers together, sit down, have a conversation and see what it is that we can do to help you stop you from hurting each other and bringing crime to our community.
What do you think is the cause of crime?
That's what we want them to tell us; I don't want to think that. That's the problem, everything thinks they know what the cause is, and they don't. We got to talk to these folks. I talk to them now on the street. The gangs have turned into a different thing now. They're using this crime as a way to make money. I tried to tell Adrian [Fenty], when he kept pushing the "Peaceoholics" -- when they first met those guys they were driving around in a company truck, sweat pants -- after they gave them money, they all bought Suburbans, they were wearing suits everyday and carrying briefcases around with nothing in them. And they felt important. They found a new way to hustle, that's all they did. [Ed note: Here’s some backstory on the Peaceoholics from the Washington Post.]
Adrian stopped listening when he became Mayor; he listened when he was Councilmember. But the way I was trying to get Adrian to use the Peaceoholics and those other "peace groups," our message was from the role leaders. These groups, like the Peaceholics, like Cease Fire, Don't Smoke the Brothers, they got old beefs that are still out there. They can't go in certain parts of the area, because it's going to be trouble. That's why we need to work with the role leaders and put the money into them. We were spread too thin and not going to the right stuff.
Most of the people we're electing don't know the streets. I mean I've never been the bad guy -- ever since I was 14 years old, I was the person that people came to get when we had problems out here on the streets. I was the only one who could go to some of the areas. I want to bring some of that back and stop electing these folks who think they know, but they don't know.
Do you think the role of a Councilmember is to focus on the Ward itself and constituent services, being an advocate for constituents, or is it being a legislator and leading the lawmaking from the Council and focusing back on the Ward?
In DC, it's a combination of the two. In Maryland and other places, they don't do the kind of stuff we do here in the city. When I was down there in Constituent Services, we paid people's rent, utility bills, gave them medicine. Some folks we gave them hardship money. Come Christmas time we gave away a lot of toys.
I kept a list of people who called the office and needed help. If you needed a name, give me ten people who needs some help, I had a running list and see who was abusing and who seriously needed the help. The councilmember in DC does it all. The first place most people go in DC is to the Council.
You're on an Advisory Neighborhood Commission right now, correct?
Yes, I'm the Chair of 4B, SMD 4B06. We're very successful; we've started committees with our ANC. We got people to chair those committees -- we did interviews, people competed for those jobs, and it's been very successful. We've been getting a lot of feedback from the community, like the way we handled the dog park. On my leadership, we handled the [Takoma] dog park situation and keep the community together, keep racism out of it. We have to learn to work together, and live together. Otherwise you're gonna just be a problem. The recreation put it back on us, and what we did was put it back on recreation and get a legal opinion that says recreation can't do that to us. Our feeling was the park was big enough that everyone should be able to enjoy that park.
What makes you a better candidate than your three other competitors?
Great question. I'm out here all the time and I know what the issues are in our Ward. I know almost every block and alley in this Ward and dealt with most of the people. I'm always out here working in this community. These folks only come out during election time. Brandon only started working for Muriel because he needed a job. This is my passion, I like working with people. It's not hard, because I enjoy what I'm doing. If you listen to Gurley talk, you really don't understand what he's talking about, or what he's addressing, because he goes off on tangents. And when you listen to Leon, his stuff is theories. He thinks it works like that; it doesn't. It's not that easy. You have to know how to get it done. You have to have relationships with people. They don't have that.
It's your experience and your connections and knowledge with what people need at the community level that makes you the strongest candidate?
It's how I treat people. I treat people like how I want to be treated. I care about people. I have kids, I don't want my kids to have a difficult time. I want it to be good for whoever comes behind me. I don't want to be a Councilmember just because I want walk to around in a suit, I would be a Councilmember for free! I'm not going to take a $125,000 salary; we're going to split that evenly between my staff. Everyone is going to make the same money, because everyone has the same responsibility -- providing service to our community.
So you're going to take your salary and decrease it, so you can increase the salary of your staff?
Yes, as long as the law allows me to do that. If they don't, then I'll hire more people in my office so I can make sure we provide service.
Share with me a bit more about your early work with DC.
What made my job so easy with the District government was that I started at 14 on the Neighborhood Planning Council, which existed before the ANCs. I was the Youth Chairman. The Council had a youth chairman and an adult chairman, which was the best way to bring youngsters along with the adults and taught you leadership. My mentor at the time was Leroy "Turk" Gilmore, and he came to me and got me started as Youth Chairman. You had to be elected for that. The Neighborhood Planning Councils covered a larger area. When the ANCs came, it took out the youth component. When we went to meetings, it was the adults and the youth together. It taught me how to be political.
Do you support the Mayor's plan to close DC General and open up the individual temporary housing?
I support it to that point, but not to rent it from these folks that have been part of her war chest.
You think the city should own the property?
They don't have to pay for it or own the property. They have enough property they can rehab. When I was Clean City coordinator, I ran across a lot of property that was blighted, and when I did the research I found it was the city that owned them. So I rolled up some stuff and said Adrian, we need to put a placard on these vacant properties that says who owns it so people know who to call when they need to clean them up.
What do you think about the temporary housing facility going into 5501 5th Street?
We're taking a step back to the days when Barry was in office. When Barry was in office we used places like the motels -- they were friends of Barry's. And those hotels needed money, so that's why they used the motels. When they started renting for the homeless, they started paying twice what a normal customer would -- and they couldn’t keep up the maintenance then. The people got rich and went on their way. That's what's happening here, now.
Do you think there's an undercurrent, overt or not, of something inappropriate with the process?
It's got to be inappropriate anytime you donate so a person's war-chest, you donate to both our current councilmember's and our Mayor's war-chest. They asked him [Todd] the other day if he supports the shelter, and he said he did. I don't support it because a prior mayor moved them out of the motels to DC Village, then Adrian moved them to DC General. And the only reason we're talking about it now is a little girl went missing. I don't think they did a good job determining what was going on. If I was councilmember, we'd have had a different investigation to find that guy. [Ed note: Here's a background on the disappearance of Relisha Rudd from DC General.]
Let's move to talking about development in the Ward, and its affect upon the community.
I think what's going on in the area is good, it's cleaning up the area. It's something I've wanted to do for a long time. I'm the one who started the development on Kennedy Street, my civic association South Manor Civic Association (in Manor Park). I was trying to figure out how we can clean Kennedy Street and get all these drugs and stuff off Kennedy. One of the buildings on Kennedy Street was the Kennedy Theater, so what I did was research to find out who owned that place. I found it was a lady named Ms. Brown. I called her up and asked "Ms. Brown, do you have any plans for this building?" She said that she didn't, didn't know what she was going to do about it. I asked her about having the city buy the building, and she agreed. I went back to Adrian and said instead of building on Emery playground, let's put it on Kennedy Street as an anchor for that block. And it cleaned up that section. It became the wellness center.
As the area improves, do you think the city is doing enough to ensure affordable housing exists? Is it the role of the councilmember to protect people from economic discordance, or is it the role of city agencies?
I think it's the role of both. I don't think the city is really doing anything. You can tell by how many tickets they issue here now. When people get behind in their taxes, they shouldn't be losing their home until they're behind a certain value of their houses, until they've exhausted every option they have. They should be able to sell it or they lose it. But the city isn't doing enough. If they were, they'd be taking care of most of these projects. They'd have a better maintenance plan, and a better plan to educate people how to take care of their own families. They could use non-profits or churches that have programs to help people.
People have to really want to do it, too. It ain't all on the city, people got to change their attitude. The people who want to get over all the time, I'm not sure what we can do about that.
You think the city has to do a better job of oversight and guidance / advocacy?
Yes, I do.
I appreciate your time today. Is there anything else that you want to discuss?
I don't know anything that our councilmember did while he was working for Muriel as director of constituent services. When I was in that job, people said, "we delivered the best constituent services" -- and that was me, I was on the streets everyday.
I want to emphasize that we need to elect people that know how the city works, know where the problems are and understand what they're really getting into. We need people really committed to serve people. I am committed to serve people.
I appreciate the time that Ron Austin spent speaking with me and answering questions. Be sure to check out the full responses to the prepared questions Petworth News submitted to the campaign. If you have questions for the candidate, feel free to post them below or contact the campaign directly. As a reminder, Petworth News is not endorsing a candidate, only offering interviews and overviews of their campaign positions.