Yvette Alexander, Tommy Wells among those exploring at-large D.C. Council bids


Alexander said she’s looking to focus more on citywide concerns than workaday constituent service requests. (Photo courtesy of D.C. Council)]

Updated 4:45 p.m. to include Khalid Pitts

The passing of last week’s primary elections and the apparent determination of David A. Catania to give up the D.C. Council seat he has held for 17 years has led a spate of current and former Democrats to openly ponder independent runs for his at-large seat — including two sitting ward council members.

Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7) and Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) both said Tuesday they are considering changing their party registrations, making them eligible for the non-majority-party seat Catania has held since 1997. They join two former council candidates, Elissa Silverman and the Rev. Graylan S. Hagler, who have already changed their status from Democrats to independents in anticipation of potential runs for the seat.

Wells, coming off a third place finish in the Democratic mayoral primary, said Tuesday he planned to take the next 30 days to “do nothing except figure out the next chapter of my life, and nothing is foreclosed.” The two-term council member said he was exhausted coming off a year-and-a-half of planning and executing his mayoral run and said it would be “extremely difficult” to launch a new campaign. But said he would give an at-large run a serious look, and said he had no compunction about changing parties: “I’m pretty disappointed in the local party,” he said, citing its failure to take stands on the election of an attorney general and campaign finance reform measures. “I’m not a party apparatchik.”

Wells said he would announce his decision by late May, no more than 45 days hence.

Alexander first publicly disclosed her intentions in a tweet to Wells Tuesday evening, after Washington City Paper had first reported on Wells’s intentions. In an interview, the seven-year Ward 7 representative said she, too, was giving serious consideration to a citywide run in order to focus more on broader concerns rather than workaday constituent requests. “The at-large [members] can focus more on their committees rather than constituents,” she said. “I really want to focus on a lot of health initiatives. I would really like to focus on that. … Ward 7 is mainly a lot of constituent concerns, and a lot of development concerns, and we’ve done a lot.”

A former chairwoman of the Ward 7 Democrats, Alexander said she, too, has no compunction about changing her party affiliation. “My views haven’t changed,” she said. “I agree with a lot of issues that aren’t necessarily Democratic or Republican. My views are just moving the city forward.” Asked how her Democratic constituents, who gave her only a 42 percent plurality in the 2012 primary, would handle a change of party, she said, “I think they know Yvette Alexander, and I’ve been pretty consistent for the last seven years. I think they know that’s not going to change.”

Alexander said she would come to a decision by June.

Silverman finished a strong second in last year’s special election for an at-large seat, coming within 2,800 votes of beating Anita D. Bonds, who won the Democratic nomination for a full term last week. Because of concerns about her personal finances, she said last year, she could not quit her job as an analyst at the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute to mount another Democratic run in this year’s primary, given the extended campaign period. But now, with the general election less than seven months off, she has left DCFPI and changed her party status to seriously explore an independent run, highlighting similar issues of campaign finance reform, electoral reform and agency accountability — along with, she said, a stronger focus on housing affordability and education issues.

Another encouraging sign for Silverman was the success two fellow self-identified progressives found in last week’s Democratic primary. The victories of Brianne Nadeau in Ward 1 and Charles Allen in Ward 6, she said, “certainly indicates that voters are interested in candidates who are pushing for reform and are pushing for innovative ideas and to really problem-solve and hold city agencies accountable.” But Wells’s potential run presents a complication, as their voter bases overlap considerably. “I hope we will not be running against each other,” said Silverman, who said she was “left with the impression” after a primary-night conversation with Wells that he would not be running. Had she thought otherwise, she said, she would not have publicized her explorations without talking in more depth with Wells.

Like the others, Silverman said she has little compunction about giving up her Democratic registration. “It was not a difficult decision,” she said, given the Democratic establishment’s lack of support for her previous run, coupled with her advocacy for nonpartisan local elections. She said she expects to come to a final decision within three weeks.

Hagler was in the public eye for much of 2013 as a leading proponent of the Large Retailer Accountability Act, the ultimately unsuccessful council bill that would have imposed a super-minimum wage on some large national retail chains operating in the city. Hagler said last week he had been thinking about a citywide run for some time, but the primary results spurred him to action. “We must end this whole pay-to-play culture, and people need to have as much voice as lobbyists have when it comes to the Wilson Building and when it comes to city politics,” he said. “Right now, I feel like our entire city is at stake in terms of being overrun by unbridled development.”

The coalition from the LRAA fight, which included fellow clergy, labor unions and other liberal activists could provide a base of support to Hagler, the pastor of Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ since 1992. Hagler finished sixth in the 2007 special election for Ward 4 council member, the race won by Muriel E. Bowser, the new Democratic mayoral nominee. Hagler, too, felt no hesitation in switching his party registration, saying he registered as a Democrat mainly to vote in the typically decisive party primaries. “To say I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, that would be incorrect,” he said.

Hagler said “my intention now is to go forward,” but said he hasn’t filed candidacy papers yet and could still change his mind.

Should they choose to run, those candidates would join fellow independent candidates Robert White, a former aide to Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who declared his intention to run in the fall, and Khalid Pitts, an activist and restaurateur who entered the race last month, as well as Republican nominee Marc Morgan, Statehood Green nomineee Eugene Puryear and Libertarian nominee Frederick Steiner. An activist and restaurateur, Khalid Pitts, has also said he is exploring a independent run.

Also appearing alongside the other candidates on the pick-two ballot line is incumbent Bonds, but her election is considered fait accompli: The Democratic at-large nominee has always easily outpolled rivals in District general elections, making the real November competition among the non-Democrats only.

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 · April 9