Originally published in Washington City Paper with Mitch Ryals on June 11.
Brooke Pinto had no business winning the Ward 2 Democratic primary race.
The 28-year-old Greenwich, Conn., native has only lived in D.C. for six years. She’s never voted here and only registered to vote in D.C. in 2019. Her campaign signs said she was running for “city council,” a semantic mistake typically met with jeers from entrenched local politicos.
She has little, albeit relevant, professional work experience. After law school, Pinto joined the Office of the Attorney General through a fellowship program, working in the tax and finance division. She later transferred to work on policy matters directly under AG Karl Racine, who enthusiastically supported her campaign.
Pinto jumped into a field of seven opponents, three of whom—Patrick Kennedy, John Fanning, and Kishan Putta—are advisory neighborhood commissioners with deep community connections. Another, Jordan Grossman, had support of local progressive groups and many labor unions. And then there was ex-Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, who came into the race with a longer record, more name recognition, and more ethics violations than any other candidate.
And yet, on June 4, two days after Election Day, Pinto declared victory with a lead of fewer than 300 votes. On June 6, after Pinto’s lead grew, Kennedy, her closest opponent, conceded.
The Board of Elections will hold a special election June 16 to fill the seat for the remainder of the year. Pinto is expected to win, as most other campaigns have suspended their operations.
Pinto will become the youngest D.C. councilmember in history and join a body that just traded two moderate, male members—Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd, 37, and Evans, 66—for two younger female members in Pinto and the Democratic nominee for the Ward 4 Council seat, Janeese Lewis George, 32. (George and Pinto still have to win the general election in November, but in heavily Democratic D.C., they’re expected to coast to victory.)
“She literally ran a perfect race,” Racine says. “Anything short of perfection there, she loses.”
So how did she do it? And what does Pinto’s victory mean for the future of the D.C. Council?
On a good day, Pinto says she made 500 calls to Ward 2 voters. That’s in addition to the calls a small army of about 70 volunteers made—among them, her mother, Dale Pinto, who phoned D.C. voters from her home in Connecticut.
“Our philosophy was ‘yes to everything,’” Pinto says. Yes to requests to meet individually, yes to invitations for meet-and-greets, yes to writing out policy positions in emails.
Early poll numbers had Pinto at just 2 or 3 percent, but the tides appeared to shift when the Washington Post editorial board announced its unexpected endorsement of her campaign.
“The Post [editorial board] has been so discredited that everyone wrote it off as an important validator,” says At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman, who endorsed Grossman. “But clearly, in Ward 2 it still is.”
Pinto’s phone call strategy and select prominent endorsements were amplified by her fundraising haul.
On the campaign trail, Pinto emphasized her opposition to “outside interest group[s]” that try to buy elections, and praised the city for having “progressive campaign finance limits and a public financing system to empower voters, not dollars.” Yet she was the only candidate in Ward 2 to decline participating in said public financing program, a decision that allowed her to personally contribute $45,000 to her campaign.
When asked how a 28-year-old with two years of work experience, earning public servant salaries that ranged from $56,000 to $101,000, was able to do that, she told City Paper she used “savings” from a personal brokerage account and some money she inherited from her grandmother’s passing.
Pinto comes from a wealthy family. Her father, James J. Pinto, has spent decades in private equity, and currently leads the firm MVC Capital, Inc. In 2015, while Brooke was attending Georgetown Law School, James and Dale Pinto endowed the school with an annual fellowship in their name for alumni.
Pinto says though her parents kindly maxed out their donations to her campaign, they did not contribute beyond that. Over the last decade, though, James Pinto has donated $12,800 to Rep. Joe Kennedy of Massachusetts, and $7,800 to Sen. Richard Blumenthal. Both men endorsed Pinto, and on the campaign trail she emphasized that she’s “the only candidate in this race to be endorsed by sitting Senators & a Congressman.”
Early on in the campaign, it looked like Pinto’s parents were set to help their daughter establish a campaign headquarters, too. While Pinto lives on Q Street NW near Logan Circle, and put that address on her campaign lawn signs, her parents started renting a house down the street shortly after Pinto announced her bid.
That property, at 1300 Q Street NW, hit the market in late January, and on February 18, a new LLC entitled “1300 Q Street NW LLC” formed. The house was sold to this LLC on February 27, and less than a week later, Pinto listed it as her campaign’s address on her AFL-CIO questionnaire. She tells City Paper she was “intending to initiate a sub-lease,” but changed her plans when the pandemic worsened and her campaign went remote. Her mother returned to D.C last week to stay in the house she’s still renting, and put up large balloons outside that stated “Brooke4Ward2.”
Pinto tells City Paper she does not have any information on the LLC, and says her parents “of course put yard signs up” because they stay when they visit. Dale and James Pinto did not respond to requests for comment.
Pinto’s stance against outside money also rubbed up against the realities of her fundraising haul. She had the lowest percentage of D.C. donors and the most money coming from out of state among Ward 2 candidates. Pinto also had the second fewest donations coming from Ward 2. While she says she “understands the desire for people to go down the road” of looking at her own contributions, Pinto stresses that her campaign, which raised about $136,000, was outspent. “It’s just not true that we bought this race,” she said. “Other candidates had much more money.”
With Evans officially off the Council and Todd likely to be gone by the end of the year, Chairman Phil Mendelson will lose two significant supporters of his moderate priorities. While George, a Democratic Socialist, will ostensibly fit in alongside Silverman and the Council’s progressive wing, it’s less clear who Pinto will end up aligning and voting with.
Racine describes her as a cross between Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen and At-Large Councilmember Robert White. According to the attorney general, Pinto has Allen’s organization and thoughtfulness and, like White, is progressive in areas around social and racial justice, with special attention to criminal justice reform, but can be “more center in areas around business.”
“My guess is that she’ll have a positive working relationship as well with the mayor,” he adds.
Silverman largely agrees. She spoke with Pinto by phone Sunday evening to offer congratulations.
She says she expects Pinto to generally support her priorities for working families, and is holding her breath when it comes to economic issues.
“Where the real rubber hits the road is on the economic issues,” Silverman says. “You can’t do restorative justice without progressive economic policy. ”
Meanwhile, Mendelson says he’s not concerned about losing control of a Council that appears to be drifting further to his left. By the time he talked with LL Monday afternoon, the chairman hadn’t spoken to Pinto, but said he intended to call.
Asked what Pinto’s victory says about potential changes in Ward 2, the chairman notes that “the ward is not as far to the left as some said it would be, but more importantly, the bigger message is the ward resoundingly rejected ethical lapses, to put it politely.”
The full effect of the 2020 election cycle on the Council will become clear after the general election in November. Ultra-progressive policy wonk Ed Lazere, who Mendelson thumped in 2018, is one of more than a dozen declared candidates running for At-Large Councilmember David Grosso’s seat.
LL will note that Racine is likely counting himself among the winners in the primary election. Both of his endorsed candidates, Pinto and George, will likely join former Racine staffers Robert White and Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White on the Council dais in 2021.
For now, Pinto says she wants to restore faith in the ward. “I take very seriously the responsibility … that everything be … 100 percent above board and followed through on,” she tells LL.
Still, she’s off to a so-so start with some aspects of her campaign finance reports. Stickers she used to feature her Post endorsement were not included on her May 26 filings, and she tells City Paper “we are working with our compliance officer to determine why” that was.
“Please always feel free to ask if you have questions,” she adds. “I am confident that every question has an answer.”