Has Kenyan McDuffie brought fractious Ward 5 together at last?


D.C. Council member Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5) addresses the crowd at his Jan. 25 campaign kickoff event. (Mike DeBonis/The Washington Post)

At one point during remarks at his re-election campaign kickoff Saturday afternoon, D.C. Council member Kenyan McDuffie told the crowd that “one of the special things about Ward 5 is that when the campaigning is all said and done, we all pull together.”

With apologies to PolitiFact, that claim would rate “mostly false.”

Politics in Ward 5 — encompassing most of Northeast quadrant west of the Anacostia River — is notoriously fractious, with a stable of community activists, advisory neighborhood commissioners and other wannabes ready to mount a D.C. Council campaign on a moment’s notice. Consider the field of 10 Democrats in 1994, or the 11 who vied for an open seat in the 2006 Democratic primary, or the 12 who contested the 2012 special election where McDuffie triumphed.

Still, McDuffie earned the right to brag a little bit while standing underneath a mini disco ball at the Eclipse nightclub on Bladensburg Road: The 38-year-old Democrat drew only three primary opponents, light by Ward 5 standards, and several of his 2012 foes were standing in the crowd and applauding politely if not outright cheering him on. That’s not to mention his impressive record for a council rookie, passing a campaign finance reform bill and earning the chairman pro tempore designation while keeping a close eye on tricky constituent service matters.

Democrats Frank Wilds and Ron L. Magnus and Republican Tim Day were all present, who together captured 25 percent of the special-election vote — finishing third, fifth and fourth respectively behind McDuffie’s 43 percent plurality.

“I support him 100 percent,” Wilds said. “He’s done an outstanding job.”

“Out of the candidates that are running, he is by far the best option and most committed,” said Day. “There’s a lot of people who don’t like Kenyan, but they’re the same people that don’t like anybody.”

Moreover, among McDuffie’s introducers Saturday was Romaine Thomas, matriarch of Ward 5′s most famous political clan — the wife of one former ward council member, the deceased Harry Thomas Sr., and the son mother of another, the incarcerated Harry Thomas Jr.

“I thank God for life, and I thank God for health, and I thank the Lord for carrying me through many, many terrible types of situations, but I’m here today for Kenyan,” she said Saturday.

To that old-school imprimatur, McDuffie has added the support of many white, progressive, newer residents who have transformed the ward’s southern neighborhoods in recent years, as well as strong support from both public- and private-sector labor unions. It’s as close to a united political front that Ward 5 has seen in years — and, if McDuffie can hold together his coalition, it could represent a formidable base in citywide elections to come.

First, though, he must dispatch his primary opponents: Carolyn C. Steptoe, a Brookland advisory neighborhood commissioner; Jacqueline Manning, a Arboretum advisory neighborhood commissioner; and Kathy Henderson, a stalwart neighborhood activist from Carver-Langston who received 2.5 percent of the vote in the 2012 special election.

In his remarks Saturday, McDuffie played up his record as a uniter to the crowd of about a hundred: “I’ve tried to represent myself in a way that everybody in this ward knows I’m fighting for them,” he said. “When I said inclusiveness I meant it.”

A full four-year term, however, stands to be a much tougher test.

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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