Tommy Wells’s life after running afoul of powerful colleagues
By Vanessa Williams,
Dorcas Dessaso sat stirring an oversize cup of coffee one recent morning as she waited for D.C. Council member Tommy Wells to arrive for his “office hour” at Sova on H Street NE.
She didn’t have a complaint or a request, which is the purpose of these informal gatherings that Wells holds every other month so that his constituents don’t have to trek down to the Wilson Building to see him. Dessaso, a retiree, stopped by the coffee-and-wine bar to say hello just because she likes her Ward 6 council member.
Wells, 54, could use the love on this particular steamy, hot morning. It was a little more than a week after the Democrat lost a bruising game of political musical chairs, and the chatter about him had gone from sympathetic to snide.
By a 12 to 1 vote, Wells was ousted from his chairmanship of the Committee on Public Works and Transportation and, along with it, the opportunity to represent the city on the powerful Metro board. His was the single no vote.
The loss of the chairmanship was a big one for Wells, whose supporters cast him as the victim of a vindictive Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D). Brown, they say, orchestrated his ouster because Wells had issued a report critical of Brown for ordering two luxury SUVs at taxpayer expense. His colleagues, who supported Brown’s proposal to reconfigure several committees just before the council went on summer recess, say privately that no one stood up for Wells because he’s just not very well-liked in the council chambers.
No, this is not the playground, but it is politics, and how one plays the game matters. Being the odd man out in any legislative body can be a liability when it comes time to count votes. Or, it could be an asset at this particular moment in D.C. politics, when the mayor’s office and at least three council members are being investigated for possible wrongdoing.
Though he remains on the transportation committee and now oversees the Office of Planning, Wells, who was reelected to his second four-year term last fall, will not say whether his falling out of favor with the council leadership will help his political stature.
“The way the reorganization happened speaks for itself,” he said in a recent interview. He thinks he can still be an effective advocate for his constituents and continue to push his vision of a “livable, walkable city” from his new assignment as head of the Committee on Libraries and Recreation. And most voters couldn’t care less about which committees their council members chair, so long as they are attentive and responsive to constituents’ needs. Political watchers say his political future depends on how, or even whether, Wells uses the incident to his advantage.
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Wells, 54, arrived in the District in 1983 from the University of Minnesota. He’d just earned his master’s degree in social work and didn’t want to go back to Homewood, Ala., a small town just south of Birmingham where he grew up. One of his favorite professors suggested Washington.
“I sold my car for a train ticket,” Wells said. “When I stepped outside of Union Station, the pace of my heart quickened and it hasn’t stopped since. I’m just in love with the city.”
He made his home on Capitol Hill, where he lives with his wife, Barbara, a writer, who is active in the local arts scene. His first job in town had nothing to do with government: He sold gadgets in a kitchen specialty store. But two years later he would put his master’s degree to use as a social worker for the city. Frustrated by large caseloads and dysfunctional management, Wells helped organize social workers to take their complaints public, resulting in the 1989 lawsuit LaShawn v. Barry, which led to the city’s child welfare system being placed under court supervision.
“Of course, I was scared,” Wells recalls about the decision to take on his employer. “But it’s not in my DNA to not do what’s right.
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Wells is popular in his ward, which is anchored on Capitol Hill and includes a swath of Southwest Washington. Since joining the council in 2007, he has styled himself as the guru of the District’s “new urbanist” movement, emphasizing investment in amenities to make city living more attractive. His biggest legislative achievement was the city’s 5-cent shopping bag tax, which he co-sponsored. Wells, who frequently bikes to work, is a champion of activists who promote walking, biking and other green-living issues. But he frustrates his colleagues as being an unreliable ally, more than once changing his mind after they thought they’d secured his support.
During budget hearings in the spring, Wells upset some members by pushing an amendment that made permanent a tax on municipal bonds that was initially adopted as a temporary levy. He also angered some colleagues with his vigorous opposition to a draft redistricting plan that would have moved some Capitol Hill neighborhoods to Ward 7.
But it was his report, as chairman of the Public Works and Transportation Committee, which found that Brown had acted “inappropriately” for ordering a Lincoln Navigator and then rejecting the vehicle when it didn’t meet his specifications, sending officials scurrying to procure another vehicle, that apparently did Wells in.
Brown is indignant at the allegation that he changed Wells’s committee assignment to punish him. Rather, he says, a reorganization became necessary because council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) gave up his chairmanship of the Committee on Economic Development after he was sued by the city for allegedly diverting $300,000 in public money from youth programs, using some of the funds to pay for luxury cars and golfing trips.
“I purposely left Tommy Wells on the transportation committee because I know how important it is to him,” Brown said. He also insists, “Tommy Wells and I are friends.”
For real? “Of course,” Wells said. Then he added: “I can’t get bogged down worrying about who’s my friend and who’s not. I try to treat everyone as a friend, and it’s important that there be civility on the council. . . . It’s about governing the city in a way that works for everybody. Whether we’re friends or not is just not an issue.”
Wells, who had worked to help get Brown elected council chairman, suspects that he was punished for his report on the SUVs, but what was he supposed to do?
“The issue fell squarely in my committee. It’s not an issue I chose, the issue chose me,” he said. “I didn’t want anyone to think I was showing favoritism. I had to exercise my responsibility of oversight without prejudice.”
Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) said that in his 20 years on the council, he’s never seen such a drastic reshuffling of committee chairs. He thinks that, despite the chairman’s protests to the contrary, Brown did it because he was “mad at Tommy.” Evans said he voted for the reorganization in deference to Brown.
Phil Mendelson (D), an at-large council member for 13 years, said he wasn’t out to get Wells, either. Like Evans, he said he voted for the changes because it was Brown’s prerogative to assign committees, even though Mendelson said he and “most of the members were uncomfortable.”
“I did know that Tommy Wells was unhappy with the reorganization. I took no pleasure voting for a proposal that did not have unanimous consent,” Mendelson said.
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The question for Wells now is whether he will be able to capitalize on his role of going it alone on the council — or whether his power will simply be diminished. Wells is said to be interested in running for mayor in the future, but he would not confirm it when asked recently.
Chuck Thies, a political consultant who has worked on several council campaigns, said Wells’s star was on the rise in January, after he was overwhelmingly reelected and had just been awarded the transportation committee and tapped to represent the District on the Metro board.
Losing those plums has “in some respect reduced his power, but the person who reduced his power is not very popular and himself embroiled in a number of controversies,” Thies said. “It’s not a bad thing politically to be punished by someone who is unpopular.”
But Thies thinks Wells “didn’t play the hand he was dealt very well at the outset.” Rather than the diginified protest that Wells lodged before the vote, Thies said, he should have seized the floor and let loose an indignant stemwinder, denouncing Brown for punishing him. He said that Wells was wise last week to join those council members calling for Thomas to resign and that he should claim the ethics mantle. “Wells will determine if he can play the role of martyr and turn that into a power move,” Thies said.
For now, Wells will only say that the ethical scandals hovering over the council have strained relationships among the members. “I think it’s worse now than it’s been in my five years on the council. My colleagues have talked very badly about each other. They have said awful things about each other to me. . . . I think the council is in disarray.”
Since the vote, he said, some council members have quietly reached out to him.
“Other council members have now said they would have acted differently, but looking backwards, I don’t think, is helpful.”