Council candidates try to reassure Ward 5 voters

April 29, 2012

For the first time since 1986, a Harry Thomas is not running to be the D.C. Council member from Ward 5.

But Harry Thomas Jr., who resigned as the ward’s council member in January after admitting to the theft of city funds, is figuring big in the pending race for his replacement.

Thomas, 51, is set to be sentenced Thursday for two federal felonies. Two days later, early voting will start in the May 15 special election to replace him, and candidates are hoping the surge of public interest will draw attention to what is widely expected to be a low turnout race.

Shelly Gardner, 55, a lawyer and first-time candidate, is among the 11 candidates trying to position themselves as the best option for a ward looking to move past the now-tarnished political dynasty established by Thomas’s father.

“I’m going to take advantage of it,” Gardner said. “It’s not personal to him. It’s to distinguish me from the rest of the guys.”

Candidates are hearing often of Thomas’s woes as they knock on residents’ doors and stump for votes at community meetings.

“People are still talking about how hurt they are that Tommy let them down,” said Ron L. Magnus, a Brookland lawyer who is making his second run for the Ward 5 seat. “We’re months after [Thomas’s plea] but people are still depressed, they’re still upset, they’re still frustrated.”

Magnus recalls one resident who recently asked him three questions: Do you plan to steal? Have you ever stolen before? Do you own an SUV? (Thomas used a portion of the more than $350,000 he stole to buy an Audi Q8.)

“I told her absolutely no to each and every question,” Magnus said.

Thomas’s sentencing overlays a race that otherwise displays the hallmarks of a typical Ward 5 contest. There are allegations of dirty tricks and bare-knuckle politics. There’s a focus on issues that range from the universal (jobs, education) to the parochial (medical marijuana, development). And there’s a crowded field, with nine Democrats, a Republican and an independent remaining in the winner-takes-all contest.

To distinguish themselves, some candidates are highlighting their fundraising, their performance in previous elections and their grass-roots support.

By those measures, Democrats Delano Hunter, Kenyan McDuffie and Frank Wilds have a leg up on the competition. Hunter and McDuffie, respectively, finished second and third to Thomas in the 2010 primary race; Wilds came in second to Thomas in a 2006 run.

According to the most recent campaign finance reports, filed last month, McDuffie led the field with about $47,000 raised. Hunter and Wilds have raised about $35,000, although Wilds’s haul includes a $10,000 personal loan. Drew Hubbard, a former D.C. Council aide and first-time candidate, has raised about $26,000.

All have used their funds to plaster the ward with signs, festooning yards and street medians and telephone poles.

The sole Republican in the race, Timothy Day, has raised about $6,000, but he has enjoyed notoriety from his role in the Thomas investigation and prosecution.

It was Day and the D.C. Republican Committee who first raised questions about Thomas’s nonprofit fundraising — questions that helped lead the D.C. attorney general’s office to launch the investigation that revealed Thomas’s embezzlement.

But Day has to overcome the handicap of being a Republican in a ward where most of its 60,000 registered voters — 81 percent — are Democrats. Only wards 7 and 8, east of the Anacostia River, have higher percentages of Democratic voters.

Day, 40, an accountant who lives in Brookland, is promoting his commitment to fiscal responsibility and government oversight, and he is hoping that voters look past partisan labels. “I believe people are ready for someone like that regardless of party lines,” Day said.

Also running are Democrats Kathy Henderson, Ruth E. Marshall, Rae Zapata and independent John C. Cheeks.

Early voting centers will open Saturday at Turkey Thicket Recreation Center and at the One Judiciary Square building downtown. With some exceptions, voting will continue through Election Day on May 15.

About 8,400 people voted in April’s citywide primary election, a turnout of about 14 percent. For the special election, most candidates are expecting even fewer voters.

“If you can get 2,500 people, you can win this election,” said McDuffie, a former Justice Department attorney who worked as an aide to Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) before seeking office.

According to an analysis of April returns, neighborhoods in the northern and eastern reaches of the ward — communities such as Riggs Park, Michigan Park and Woodridge — remain the heaviest-voting areas. Candidates are trying to woo loyal “supervoters” there while also trying to appeal to new residents in neighborhoods to the south and west.

Hunter, 28, said he is trying to appeal across neighborhoods by selling himself as a fresh face that can shake up a stodgy political scene.

“This city isn’t very welcoming, I think, to folks who want to be involved,” Hunter said. “Folks see you as a threat. . . . They tend to sit on these positions for years and years on end.”

Hunter has faced tough questions from fellow candidates about his previous opposition to same-sex marriage and accepting donations from the owners of a controversial strip club off Bladensburg Road NE. But he said he’s built a “congregation” of grass-roots followers even if he is not a favorite in the “choir” of some neighborhood activists.

Like other candidates, Hunter has spent much of his time going door to door listening to residents’ concerns and complaints. They often reference Thomas, if not directly, he said: “It’s gone from shock to embarrassment to anger.”

McDuffie, 36, said residents want to talk about other issues, too, but not at first.

“The first thing people are saying is, we don’t want to see what happened before,” he said. “People really want to know we’re not going to steal money. People want to know we’re going to represent their interests.”

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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