Five things you don’t know about Tommy Wells, progressive stalwart for D.C. mayor

D.C. mayoral candidate and council member Tommy Wells gives PostTV a tour of his Capitol Hill home, while answering four important questions on who he is and why he's running. (Theresa Poulson/The Washington Post)

Tommy Wells, a former social worker and child welfare advocate, is seeking to build on his reputation as an advocate for “livable, walkable communities” as he seeks to move from lawmaker to mayor. Here’s five things you might now know about the 56-year-old D.C. Council member:

1. He’s a mentor.

Wells was a close friend of legendary Capitol Hill activist Jan Eichhorn, who not only urged him to seek his first elected office, as an advisory neighborhood commissioner, but also roped Wells and his wife, Barbara, into her tutoring program for children attending Tyler Elementary School. In the mid-1990s, she connected Wells with second-grader Dominic Sanders, son of a single mother.

“I’m going find somebody for you that’s hyper enough to deal with you,” Sanders recalls Eichhorn saying. “One day, she was like, ‘I think I got a person for you.’” Sanders is now preparing to graduate this spring from Millersville University in Pennsylvania. He is pursuing a degree in social work, a path he attributes to Wells: “I saw the effect he had on me. ... That’s something I want to make my career.”

After Eichhorn died of cancer in 2009, Wells chaired the board of Friends of Tyler School, which was renamed Jan’s Tutoring House in Eichhorn’s memory.


File: Tommy Wells, Ward 6 DC councilman, left, chats with Matagi Dingle, middle, and Rose Oliphant, right, following the Capitol Quarter Neighborhood Revitalization community discussion on Saturday, February, 8, 2014 in Washington, DC. Wells is seeking election in the 2014 mayoral race. (Amanda Voisard/For the Washington Post)

2. He used to work for Vincent Gray.

Wells and fellow social worker Chainie Scott were the only city employees to testify against management in a 1991 trial of the District’s child-welfare agency on federal civil rights claims. The trial resulted in court supervision of the agency that continues to this day.

Their boss at the time was Vincent C. Gray, who had recently been installed as Human Services director by new mayor Sharon Pratt. After Wells and Scott testified, he had to tamp down speculation they had jeopardized their jobs by speaking out. “I think they were expressing their concerns and they are dedicated people,” Gray told The Washington Post.

Said Wells at the time, “We might not get promotions. . . . But we’re young.”

3. He’s not concerned about losing his council seat.

Wells said he was not planning to run for mayor before Gray became embroiled in campaign scandals. “I stayed neutral in that [2010 primary] race, but I liked Vince and I figured he’d serve two terms,” he said. “When everything unraveled. I thought, ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen to Vince, but this looks fairly damning.’”

To run for mayor, however, he would have to give up his safe seat representing Ward 6. “As soon as I thought, ‘Am I afraid of losing my seat?’ That almost mean I had to run,” Wells said. “The only way I’ve been able to enjoy being on the council is being willing to lose my seat every day. As soon as you start getting fearful about the decisions you make, trying to hedge in order to keep your seat, you start making compromises that, for me, would just make me miserable.”

4. He pledges to cut youth violence in half in two years.

Perhaps no mayoral candidate has laid out a plan as ambitious as Wells’s pledge to reduce by half the number of crimes committed by D.C. teenagers by January 2017. Part of that initiative, he said, is decriminalizing marijuana possession. But Wells said he plans to make serving youth part of the mission of every city agency through internships, apprenticeships, tutoring and other programs. He also says he will give an after-school job to every teen that wants one.

Wells says he looks, in part, to the north. “When Boston was having, like everyone else in the early ’90s, a spasm of youth murders, the city pulled together and worked to intervene with youth,” he said, noting that Boston, a city of roughly the same population as D.C., had less than half the number of murders last year.

5. He’s a Sunday sailor.

Wells has sailed boats since he was a kid, when his dad bought him an 11-foot Styrofoam sailboat that he would take out on Alabama’s Black Warrior River. “He would take to the state park and read the newspaper while I sailed into the river,” Wells said. Today, he co-owns a 19-foot Flying Scot daysailer with his friend David P. Sheldon, a lawyer on Capitol Hill. Their boat, named “Buster,” is docked at Buzzard Point.

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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