Barras: Public service is no game for A.J. Cooper

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Local,DC,Jonetta Rose Barras

A.J. Cooper was angry when he left the meeting -- the one where a senior manager in the District's Summer Youth Employment Program declared conducting an anonymous survey among participants as part of an anti-teen pregnancy strategy would make the department "look bad."

"On the way to work the next day, where I usually made a left, I made a right to the [Board of Elections] and picked up petitions," Cooper recently told me.

Thus began his quest to become an at-large D.C. councilman. One of several challengers -- independents David Grosso and Leon Swain; Republican Mary Brooks Beatty; and Statehood Green Party Ann Wilcox -- he's hoping to unseat either incumbent independent Michael A. Brown or Democrat Vincent B. Orange Sr. in the Nov. 6 general election.

The two top vote-getters will be declared winners. The city's constitution mandates one of those must be from the nonmajority party. That directive doesn't prohibit voters from selecting both candidates from outside the dominant political party.

"It's going to take heart and guts to stand against what's going on in this city," said Cooper, an independent.

When he picked up his petitions, he didn't realize Brown would be on the ballot. The incumbent had been helpful in getting a council resolution pledging to cut the teen pregnancy rate by half by 2015, saving the city an estimated $500 million annually. But Cooper said he soon realized legislators were all talk. Still, as a courtesy, he made his political intentions known to Brown.

"He told me I should pull out and wait," Cooper said. "He said he could introduce me to the money people and teach me how the game is played."

Public service is no game to Cooper.

Oddly, some groups -- the Georgetown Business Association, for example -- have failed to invite him to candidates' forums, citing the size of his campaign coffer. But when allowed in the room, Cooper has demonstrated a deep understanding of the issues.

Consider his focus on teen pregnancy: "[It] affects the city in ways a lot of people don't understand," said Cooper, adding 76 percent of the children served by the Child and Family Services Agency were born to parents who started families as teens. It adversely impacts academic achievement and fuels juvenile delinquency and incarceration rates. The city spends pittance on prevention. "It shows the lack of vision in the D.C. government."

Cooper also has championed term limits and campaign finance reform. He has advocated affordable housing and more jobs for District residents, arguing the solution is green energy -- solar and wind. "We have a problem with energy and a problem with employment. Those two problems could solve each other.

"We could bring careers, instead of Band-Aid government jobs," Cooper said. "My generation of millennials is chomping at the bit and saying, 'Let us get a shot at fixing things. We can actually fix them.' "

Residents eager to enhance the quality of elected officials in the District may want to give Cooper serious consideration.

Jonetta Rose Barras can be reached at jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com.

Jonetta Rose Barras' column appears on Tuesday and Friday. She can be reached at jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com.

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