White House domestic policy director Cecilia Muñoz jokes that she isn’t tempted to check her BlackBerry on her morning drive down 16th Street for this simple reason: She worries about taking out the president’s chief of staff or his labor secretary as they bike in from the same little corner of Maryland.
“I passed Denis one morning riding into work and I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I don’t want to be the person who wipes out Denis McDonough or Tom Perez, ” Muñoz said. “I think about this every day, actually.”
Call them the Takoma Park
posse; small in number, huge in influence. Three of Obama’s top advisers — McDonough, Muñoz and Perez — are longtime members of the community, one of the most liberal and politically active in the nation, and maybe one of the best illustrations of the administration’s ideological moorings.
Nicknamed the “People’s Republic of Takoma, ” the Maryland city has, by local statute, declared itself a nuclear-free zone. Some residents raise pigs and chickens in their back yards — even as others see a moral conundrum in slaughtering them. Noncitizens can vote in local elections if they have a green card.
If Glover Park represented the Clinton administration’s studied New Democrat cool and McLean, Va., symbolized the George W. Bush administration’s comfort with wealth and power, Takoma Park embodies the current White House’s ethos of political activism and social inclusivity. A community organizer would live here. It is enough to make right-wing conspiracy theorists cringe.
“Takoma Park reflects the America that I would like to see everywhere. There’s a lot of diversity, broadly defined, ” Perez said in a phone interview, adding of his neighbors, “They believe we all succeed when we all succeed, but only when we all succeed.”
The city prides itself on being a bastion of multiculturalism and economic diversity; there are significant Latino and Ethiopian populations, along with rent control and a history of being a welcoming home for same-sex couples. The mayor is gay, the city has a corn silo to provide alternative heating fuel and the Takoma Wellness Center — just across the D.C.-Maryland line — is the District’s only medical marijuana dispensary north of downtown.
Going into next week’s midterm elections, it is clear that many Democrats think President Obama has not lived up to the expectations they had when he took office nearly six years ago. But when it comes to some of the men and women surrounding the president, many of them share the deeply progressive outlook — and ambitions — of their party’s base.
Raskin is married to Sarah Bloom Raskin, the Treasury deputy secretary. Other administration officials who come from Takoma Park include Roy Austin, who directs urban affairs for the White House Domestic Policy Council, and Jesse Lee, the White House director of progressive media.
Perhaps even more telling, the president’s former campaign manager and deputy chief of staff Jim Messina lived there from 2005 to 2010. By contrast, under Bill Clinton, just two top aides hailed from the neighborhood: then-EPA Administrator Carol Browner and deputy press secretary Barry Toiv.
Many D.C. area neighborhoods claim their share of the power players and the policy wonks that define official Washington; federal employees and Hill staff members are everywhere. But few communities have a political identity as strong as Takoma Park’s. While Obama has not said where he will live after he leaves the White House, he has chosen in the past to reside in similar neighborhoods in other major cities, including Chicago’s Hyde Park and Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
The elevation of this community of fewer than 18, 000 residents to the highest echelons of government speaks to the influence of progressives in the administration — a bent that will become more pronounced during Obama’s final two years in office, even if Republicans make major gains in next week’s elections. But it also underscores how, for all of its radical leanings, the city has moved closer to the mainstream than one might think. Its residents are no longer fighting the power; they are the power.
A decade ago, Takoma Park’s downtown economic anchors included a yoga studio, a pet food store that sponsored animal rescues and a music store. Those businesses have survived, but that strip now has two coffee shops, three restaurants that serve alcohol and a hardware store. Where Murphy’s Auto Parts once stood is now the upscale restaurant Republic, which offers not just a duck confit Cubano sandwich but a “Fascist Killer” specialty cocktail that features Old Scout bourbon, Amaro Averna, basil and lemon peel.
Noted crime writer George Pelecanos wrote in an e-mail that the city had changed so much during the time he lived there, from 1984 to 1991, saying, “I moved over to Silver Spring Avenue because at the
time  it still retained the working class, drink-a-beer-while-you-work-on-your-car flavor of the area I grew up in.”
Some of the “fringe” ideas Takoma Park residents have championed for years are broadly held now, such as support for same-sex marriage and legalizing marijuana. “The rest of the country is moving in our direction in terms of cultural values, if not in political values, ” said Bill Samuel, government affairs director of the AFL-CIO, who has lived in Takoma Park since 1981.
For decades, the community — which was founded as an affordable commuter town in the late 1800s and boasted a Socialist mayor in the early 1980s — was a mecca for artists, hippies and motorcycle riders. Montgomery County imposed restrictions on co-housing in 1987, setting in motion a shift from group houses to single-family dwellings.
“It’s my impression now, 27 years out, that it may have been a significant shift for the town from a town that folk revival of that era to a little bit more of a family-friendly environment, ” said Dan Metcalf, a Realtor with the Finn Family Group of Long & Foster and a born-and-bred Takoma Park resident.
Still, it is a city that takes politics seriously. In a year in which many Democrats are unenthusiastic about voting, the lawns there are crammed full of campaign signs. Many residents are still upset that only 16 percent of the city’s registered voters — where Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 6 to 1 — cast ballots in the state’s June primary.
Although plenty of residents work on issues ranging from reproductive rights to immigration and the environment, labor may have the strongest hold on Takoma Park. Union stalwarts include Fred Feinstein, who served as general counsel for the National Labor Relations Board under Clinton; the AFL-CIO’s Samuel and its policy director,