Dustin Canter says he doesn’t like the way Muriel Bowser has gone about the job of being mayor of Washington. He thinks she does not understand the city’s problems because she is not accessible enough.
That’s why the 32-year-old sports and fitness entrepreneur with no political experience is running against her in next year’s election.
He wants to be a “mayor for everyone” — so much so that he gives his personal phone number to everyone he meets, reciting “202-670-1615” between sips of coffee at the Busboys and Poets on 14th and V Streets. “There’s going to come a certain point where I can’t handle any more [calls], but I want people to know that phone number,” he says.
And his initials are D.C.
Canter, who is Jewish and lives in the city’s Edgewood neighborhood, says a mayor should be roaming the streets of the city instead of working in an office. “We need leaders moving forward that are accessible, not sitting behind a podium or sitting behind a desk,” he says.
Canter says that if elected, one of his first acts will be to sell the mayor’s podium and put the money into a high school service project to create a custom-made podium as an art project.
Canter, who grew up in Rockville in a family affiliated with the Reform Temple Beth Ami — he is not currently a member of a synagogue — runs an online sports and fitness company called Routeam. He volunteers at Midtown Youth Academy, a nonprofit organization that provides tutoring and boxing opportunities for underprivileged youth.
Because he is running as an independent, he won’t need to win a party nomination in the June 2018 primary, as Bowser would have to. (A Washington Post poll in June indicated Bowser was the favorite of two-thirds of D.C. voters for the upcoming election.) “What I tell people is, ‘you can count on my name being on the ballot on the day of the general election,’” Canter says.
It’s an unorthodox campaign, to say the least. He invites voters to join him at “politics and poses” yoga classes around the city, after which he answers questions about his candidacy. Canter’s Facebook page is covered with videos showing him walking around the city and talking about his campaign. In some, he’s chatting with an artist or homeless person.
Canter says he is “100 percent” confident he has a chance of winning his quixotic race, although he acknowledges that some of his friends are doubtful and think he should drop out. But Canter, who filed candidacy paperwork in January, has no time for naysayers.
“I don’t want to expend energy explaining or complaining [to the doubters],” he said. “If they can’t see it now, then they’re going to see it later on in the future.”
He insists his platform is more appealing than Bowser’s. Canter thinks the city needs to pursue policies in the interest of residents rather than corporations. This means raising the franchise tax on large corporations and reducing the rate for local businesses.
He also wants to reduce the number of agreements between the city and private real estate companies, which he calls “vultures” because they “hover over everything in Washington and then pick some area of dilapidated land where residents of that area have an average to medium income.”
“Bowser puts the billion-dollar corporations ahead of the local people too often,” he says.
He lauds Compton, Calif., Mayor Aja Brown’s conflict-mitigation approach to crime fighting as opposed to what he considers Bowser’s heavy policing approach. Additionally, Canter vows that if elected, he will pursue a youth employment program similar to the one that Mayor Marion Barry started in 1979, and include employers that could teach 21st century skills to help get kids off of the street.
“In today’s society you’ve got to have a craft that you’re honing in order to make money,” he explains. “If you know how to do video editing, you can make money off of that regardless of whether you have a high school education or a four-year college degree. And that’s a skill that’s going to be around for decades.”
Malik Williams, Bowser’s re-election campaign coordinator, declined to respond to Canter’s specific criticisms, but says the mayor is prepared for “any and all electoral challenges” in the campaign.
“We believe that there is more work to do ensuring all residents participate in the District’s prosperity,” Williams said in an email. “If we continue to make progress on that and to improve public education and public safety, the District’s best days are yet to come.”
Canter says Midtown Youth Academy is an example of the type of organization he would like to see more of because it addresses several key issues facing the city, including vocational training, economic development and criminal injustice.
As Canter walked into the academy’s dilapidated building on 14th Street, he greeted its 80-year-old founder, Eugene Hughes. Hughes smiled and said Canter has “been all over the community,” trying to help solve the city’s problems.
The academy soon will renovate its facility, and Canter says there are plans to put a digital media studio on the second floor — essential, he explained, for teaching students skills that readily translate into income.
Canter calls himself a fourth-generation Washingtonian. His great-grandparents arrived in the 1930s. And Canter moved back to the city after graduating from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a degree in accounting.
In the last 10 years, he has lived in six Washington neighborhoods. “That’s one of the beautiful things about D.C.,” he says. “You have these hyper-local neighborhoods that each have a different vibe, and a short walk or a quick bike ride from neighborhood to neighborhood gives you a different experience.
“I’m a sociable person. I like meeting new people. I don’t have any kids yet. So why not take advantage and go to different neighborhoods?”
Canter’s friend Waldon Adams, whom he met while volunteering at the nonprofit Miriam’s Kitchen, said the candidate has shown heartfelt interest by asking voters what issues are on their minds.
“I don’t get the feeling from him that he has any groups or businesses to answer to,” Adams explained. “He is a genuine person that I believe would bring about a welcome new look to our city.”
Reaching that new look will be an uphill climb. Washington has not had a mayor who was not a Democrat, or was not an African American or was not a member of the city’s political establishment since it gained home rule in 1973. Canter is none of these, but that doesn’t deter him.
Says Canter, “I don’t lose sleep over it.”