Tommy Wells discusses his mayoral run


D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), by virtue of strong support in his home ward and the city’s changing demographics, is the most viable mayoral candidate in two decades. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

D.C. Council member Tommy Wells on Saturday became the second candidate to officially enter the 2014 mayoral race. Ahead of his formal announcement, Wells (D-Ward 6) sat with me and my colleague Tim Craig for a lengthy interview on why he’s running and his vision for the city. The following transcript has been edited for length, and some parts have been condensed and reordered for clarity.

The other declared candidate, Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), sat for a similar interview in March.

Why are you running, and why are you running now?

I’m running to restore integrity to our elected government. The city’s made a lot of progress, but the one thing that will kill off progress in any jurisdiction is corruption in government. And so I’m running now because I believe there’s a crisis of ethics in our elected government, and that really is one of the main reasons I decided to run now.

You said there’s corruption in government. We know there was corruption in the mayor’s past campaign. His argument is that he is running the city well, that the city is doing well, the agencies are running well. Where is the corruption in government?

I think that he was elected with a corrupt campaign. I think that there’s the question of the legitimacy of his election. I’ve just gone across the city, and there is a major issue that there’s a question of legitimacy of running a separate illegal campaign awash in unaccountable dollars. I think that to say that there is a separation between your government and how you get elected is something that I think that anybody would love to be able to do, but the fact is that the mayor was elected with an illegal campaign and the citizens will have to deal with that until it’s finally sorted out. I think that our city has been embarrassed many times, and we’re tired of being embarrassed.

Let’s say he stands up and says, “Yes, I trusted people I shouldn’t have trusted. I made mistakes, and I freely admit to them, but right now we are in a great spot, we’ve got great momentum, we’ve made plans, we’re making progress, don’t screw it up.”

In the terms of corruption and scandal that embarrasses this city one more time, it’s not over. We’re going to see a number of indictments, at least, as this unravels. I believe it’s more than just Jeffrey Thompson. I think we all do. But even if it’s just Jeffrey Thompson, he funded an illegal campaign in order for the mayor to be able to be mayor, so it think there’s a question of fairness and level playing field on how he became mayor to begin with. Now, going forward, without saying anything about Vince Gray, the fact is that the citizens want an honest government. We’ve seen in the past two elections that that matters. So I do think that integrity in government, whether anybody wants to say that’s fair or unfair, it’s real in the voters’ minds. And I don’t think you can change that by wishing that away.

The second thing is that I have a very clear vision for this city that includes a track record of having accomplished what I’m looking to do. I believe that a majority of the citizens want that vision, and I would lay that out. A livable walkable city means safe neighborhoods, and Ward 6 has had the largest drop in violent crime of any ward in the city over the past six years since I’ve been elected, except for maybe Ward 3. You want to be able to walk to your neighborhood elementary school. There’s a reason why no Ward 6 elementary schools were closed. We’re in the process of adding three new ones, and there’s waiting lists at all of them. We can do that citywide, we can do that in Ward 7, Ward 8, Ward 5, and I believe I can do that. The other thing about why I am running is we need the next generation of great public transit. In order to have economic opportunity, you have a job, you have to be able to safely and reliably get to that job. That’s why I moved the Circulator over to 7 and 8. That’s why I believe the streetcar should run east before it runs west. It doesn’t make much difference if you get a job if you can’t get to it.

A lot of this stuff you’re talking about Mayor Gray’s doing now. He talks about the streetcar every chance he gets.

The first thing is, Vince Gray has not decided he’s going to run for re-election. But in the hypothetical that he does, so much of government has slowed down. I think that Vince Gray’s vision and plans are good, and I’ve said it before. I support the direction that Vince Gray has pointed us in. But the execution is becoming abysmal. The Office of Contracting and Procurement is broken. That’s what I’ve seen in the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. The Department of Transportation has not been creative. DDOT has been slow and uninspired. There’s been not only molasses poured over the gears of government, but some of these agencies have gone back toward it’s more important to not get into trouble than take risks. I believe that we need government leaders that are risk-takers.

Who is being a risk-taker currently?

I think the police chief has stayed on the cutting edge pretty well in the use of technology for the city. Let’s see about the Department of the Environment. We had a great director, now there’s a new guy. Let me say that Vince Gray’s vision or where he comes down on things is many times the same place I would come down. But the execution, it’s just an old bureaucracy again. I do know that Muriel Bowser seems to have disagreed with Vince Gray quite a bit. I’m not as in disagreement with him. I think one of the areas where I think he’s made substantial process that I’m proud of, is his Department of Employment Services. We can do more, but he’s finally connected a workforce intermediary with where the jobs are. I give him credit for helping to lower the jobless rate in the city. Now the economy helped as well, but Vince needs credit. He’s focused on that since the beginning, and I think he’s made a difference.

You and Muriel have the same critique there, which is you don’t see a sense of urgency. The way you put it is “molasses over the gears of government.” She says too many task forces, too many plans, not enough action.

I’m not running against Vince Gray. I’m running on a vision for the city, I don’t know how much my current opponents have given you a vision. I’ll give you another example. I believe that we can cut crimes committed by teenagers in half in 24 months. And I think that if we’re able to do that, that will be a game-changer for young people in this city and a game-changer for the people who won’t be victimized by crime. It’s not just truancy. It’s not just schools. If you arrange this city and organize this city around it, we’re going to cut crimes committed by teenagers by half.

How transferable is the Ward 6 experience over the last six years to the rest of the city? In Ward 6, you have gotten the benefit of every positive trend in this city — in terms of private investment, population growth and so forth.

Let me say, we have more public housing units in Ward 6 than any other ward in the city. Our schools are more economically integrated than any ward in the city. So it’s easy to say that there’s latte-sipping, evening-wine-drinking folks, that it’s now for them. We still have more public housing than any other ward in the city. We’ve dropped crime more than any other ward in the city, at least violent crime, with the same amount of public housing. That’s the first thing. The second thing is, H Street, when I was first elected, H Street was characterized by chaos and disorder. It was a great one-stop for vice. But I said I would support any effort that would get rid of that. So I held a hearing, and one of the things I learned is that you have to use aggressive DCRA enforcement and you have to take the equity out of vacant buildings. So I brought in DCRA. We souped up the vacant property tax. Then Joe Englert and others had a clear vision saying, I’ve got a track record of putting retail in, and I supported him. The ANC came in and said, we want a ban of single sales of containers of beer. So with all those things together along with the Great Streets project that was decided under Anthony Williams, while the street was torn up, we added 70 new businesses and now 800 new jobs. What you’ve seen is a dramatic transformation of H Street that can happen in Anacostia, Georgia Avenue, certainly Benning Road. That’s a small scale development that affects people’s lives very dramatically.

You said at one of your meet-and-greets you can do for wards 7 and 8 what you did for Ward 6. Did you consider people in wards 7 and 8 aren’t comfortable with that?

I’m not going to be so patronizing to go into ward 7 and 8 and say, “We’re going to do something different. You’re not going to get economic development. You’re not going to get great walkable elementary schools.” I think wards 7 and 8 would support economic integration. I don’t think anyone’s against economic integration. That’s why participatory planning is so important. It’s not me saying you must have this. But I say in Anacostia, what would you support, what would you want?

This is a fine segue into the topic that everyone is going to be talking about which is the color of your skin.

First off, I would not be in elected office right now but for black votes. Ward 6 has always been about half-black and half-white. Each time I’ve run against African American candidates that are good. Curtis Etherly worked for Carol Schwartz, he was from Coca-Cola Bottling, he was a sharp guy, and I won. The second time I ran against Kelvin Robinson. He was endorsed by Anthony Williams, and I won every single precinct, 75 percent of the vote, in a ward that’s half-and-half with a lot of public housing. I’m confident people give me a fair shake because they have before. And so when I went on my listening tour, that’s exactly what I found. When I went to wards 7 and 8, nobody brought up the color of my skin. When I go to other wards they do, because they’re anxious about that. At Big Chair Coffee in Ward 8, they said, we want what they have up on H Street. Why can’t we have that here? But we want it in our own way here in Anacostia. Everybody wants safe neighborhoods. Everybody wants to be able to walk to a great neighborhood school. Everybody wants to be able to walk to fresh food. Those things that I am promoting, it’s not a black or white thing. Who says, “No, don’t give me a decent grocery store in my neighborhood?” Everybody wants the same things. If I were going be flip, I would say you’re asking me, does anybody think that Iowa would launch the first black president? It’s within the context of the times, and I think most people would have been doubtful about that.

That’s all well and good, but how do you deal with the sense that undoubtedly emerge that by electing a white mayor, something will be lost in this city, that it will be a bridge too far for a changing city? There may be whisper campaign that, here’s this white guy who grew up in Alabama. Sure, he’s been here for a while, but this is our city, and we can’t lose what we have.

I know that D.C. has a history of legitimacy politics. Who legitimately should be our leader? Who legitimately should be a decisionmaker? I know D.C. legitimacy politics is a vein that we have. There’s not much I can do about that. I’m someone who came here and worked as a social worker, that worked on issues of HIV and AIDS, that helped transform the child welfare system, that has worked on issues that impact generally the least of us. I didn’t make my money as an attorney — I am an attorney, but I didn’t make my money as an attorney or in real estate, in any of those things. I ran the Consortium for Child Welfare. And that helped make it better for foster parents, for adoptive parents. People know I have a history of putting myself on the line for what I think is right. When I was a child protection social worker, I sued the city with the ACLU. My boss was Marion Barry, and that was not a great career move, and I testified against them in the federal district court. I did it when I took on Kwame Brown on the SUV and lost my committee over it. But I didn’t pull punches. I did what was right.

I spent every day that I thought about running for mayor, I spent every day thinking about if I’m elected, I have to form a government that everybody in this city sees their interest is being represented. There’s going to be people that will not vote for me because of my race. If I become mayor, I have to be able to be sure they’re represented the minute I become mayor. I think about this every day. It’s my job to make sure people feel included and have a voice. My government will have to reflect the interest of every Washingtonian. And that’s the best I can say about that. I’m not going to win 100 percent of the vote, but I’m going to represent 100 percent of the people.

What do you consider your most significant accomplishments as a legislator? You’ve described your role in shaping development in your ward and encouraging “livable walkable” neighborhoods. You were the driving force behind the five-cent bag tax. What else?

I think taking the Human Services Committee — during the Banita Jacks case, the Renee Bowman case and then the agency going into full crisis, and to help shepherd them from the council side out of that crisis — required an extraordinary amount of skill. Now it’s an agency that is giving money back out of the budget because they’re accomplishing their goals with fewer children. There’s transit equity. Against my own interest, I moved a Circulator line out of Ward 6. No other council member would have done it or allowed me to do it from their ward. It was an underperforming line, and I moved it over to the two wards east of the river that did not have a Circulator.

On your leadership of the Human Services committee, you are open to some attacks. As Post columnist Colbert King has written about extensively, the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services under your watch went through a tough period. Kids getting killed. Kids killing other kids. What did you do to address that?

There was a very clear plan of how to work smart, rather than work dumb and with retribution. And I withstood a very powerful columnist writing against me on every weekend, and I stayed the course. I supported reform, and look where we are today. Only 600 kids are committed wards in the District. We have the lowest recidivism since it’s been ever counted. And there’s been no murders by kids in DYRS, and no kids in DYRS that are committed have been murdered this year. That’s a grisly circumstance but I held the course. I did not change. And I stood up to withering attacks by the powerful Washington Post and did not back down and now we have the results of a DYRS system that can show you much better results than they did before I got there.

Second, your opponents could argue you stood by while Harry Thomas stole money from the Children and Youth Investment Trust Corp. and didn’t do enough to keep that from happening.

I put more protection controls into CYITC than had ever been there before. And, the second thing is, you’re right. When I was looking at oversight of who got contracts and grants — even though I kept asking at oversight hearing, have you been getting undue influence by any council member — it still, even with those questions, did not cross my mind that one of my colleagues would have a criminal enterprise going on the day he was elected. I was definitely blindsided by the fact that one of my colleagues was an out-and-out criminal stealing money. The only solace I have is that he was caught and convicted partially based on the controls I put in there. They had to commit fraud in order to comply and get the dollars they got. I’m not sure what different I could have done, because to catch someone, to prevent someone from being a criminal is very difficult. Frankly, if someone’s going to stick up a bank, we generally end up catching them before preventing it. I will continue to be surprised, I hope, when people I know and care about are criminals.

What about this reputation you have on this council that you don’t play well with others? That you don’t have a lot of natural allies or friends?

I’m not a backroom dealmaker, but I do believe that I lead with a vision and with basic principles. And I’ve seen plenty of instances where people join me. Now when I’ve had conflicts with my colleagues, what you’ve seen is I’ve gone to the people of the District to rally them. The best example is when I got the budget that completely eviscerated the streetcar system. If I were a normal council member, I would have started to cut a deal to keep things going. Instead, I immediately went to social media, and I helped rally the city and that deal was undone by lunchtime, and we had full funding for continuing the streetcar system by the end of the day. I bruised some egos, some people felt like it was a power play, but I went to the residents of the District to reverse that course rather than try to cut deals with my colleagues by threatening them or giving things away.

What commitments are you making in terms of running this campaign that are different from the typical D.C. campaign?

Number one, I am my own campaign fundraising chair right now, and I will be for quite a while. You will not see me name some big name that has access to a bunch of money as my campaign finance chair. You’ll see “Tommy Wells, campaign finance chair.” I will not take corporate contributions. There will be the person’s name of who gave me every check I received. You’ll be able to say where did this come from, LLC Number 3-4-5? Nope. It’s either a check or it’s online. You’ll be able to see who gave me money.

Including employer info?

Yes, of course. Absolutely.

Not going to see “information requested” like some many candidates list on their reports?

Oh, I hope not. There’s a reason I don’t have Jeffrey Thompson money. There are reasons I don’t have a lot of funny money. That’s because the previous chair of my campaigns, Ken Jarboe, is incredibly careful, and so I asked him to be the treasurer of my campaign. Because he’s helped keep, I believe, my contributions that are something I generally can be proud of. I will always get a contribution or something that I’m like, “Hmmm, why did we do that? I’m not sure.” But I believe every dollar you raise is a risk, every dollar you spend is a risk. So I’m not into raising $20 million dollars. I don’t know why they raise that much money when they don’t have an opponent. It just seems like risky proposition. In this exploratory time, I’ve had to figure out can I raise money. I raised at least $150,000, even saying it’s exploratory. That gives me confidence that I will be able to raise the kind of money I need. I also know the kind of campaign I’m running will be a very volunteer, grassroots, movement-type campaign. I’m not going to be hiring a lot of folks to come here and work as paid hands. I’m going to be very volunteer-dependent. Part of the exploratory wasn’t just seeing what people wanted. It was, could I raise money? I now believe I can raise money.

So how much you need?

I believe I can run a campaign for $1.5 million.

How do you scale up your support citywide? Do you have the mettle and commitment to go citywide?

Come on, I’m the only one that’s giving up their seat to run. No other named candidate or potential candidate on the council is giving up their seat to run. I’m all in. This is either up or out.

Do you believe the electorate has changed enough that you can win only with white votes?

There’s a complexity to that question. I believe I can generate the votes based on people wanting to have a government that’s not influenced by money and a vision that supports the lifestyle that doesn’t matter where you live in D.C. I believe I can win on that. I’m putting together a strategy that will win regardless of who is in this race. I know the others will say they did the same thing, but I don’t know that they did. I’m going to assume that everybody is in the race, and that’s why I’ve got to campaign in every corner of the city, because I know I will get African American votes. I know I will.

Wrap up by drawing the distinction between you, and your only declared opposition at this point. Muriel Bowser tells me she’s the candidate of ethics. She’s the candidate of integrity. She too is concerned about there not being a sense of urgency in government.

You know, Muriel Bowser voted against people having to identify who owned LLCs in campaign finance. She voted against almost all meaningful campaign finance reform. She appears to be with the folks, who are now supporting her election, who would be the most to benefit from not having campaign finance reform. That’s why I voted against a very weak ethics bill.

Wasn’t she constrained by the fact she’s dealing with 12 other council members and she did the best she could to get something through the council at the time? Doesn’t she get credit for passing something?

Should she get credit for voting against transparency and disclosure in campaign finance laws? Even if you are going to lose on it, why would you vote against disclosure unless it is of your own benefit? And so I think that she failed on campaign finance reform, and that’s where the problems are. And that’s one of her main problems. The rest of her, I’ve not heard of any specific vision that she has for the city. I don’t know if energy and urgency is a vision for where you want the city to go. I think we all love the city equally, and that I will give you a very clear vision, and I’ll be able to show you how I accomplished it before. I have not heard that from her.

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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Mike DeBonis | May 17, 2013