Ronald Moten bounds up to the young men standing on a broken patch of concrete between some public housing and the Anacostia Freeway.
“What up, soldiers?” he says, deploying his all-purpose greeting for young black men on a warm fall afternoon.
A campaign pitch follows. Direct mail, robo-calls, television ads, yard signs — they might not get through to these dudes, but Moten, running for Ward 7’s D.C. Council seat, is making sure they listen to him. And it’s a safe bet they haven’t heard anything like this before.
“Guess what, I’m a Republican,” he said. “I’m a Civil Rights Republican. Republicans get money, right? You want money, right? You don’t want no check, do you? You want money, right? That’s what I’m trying to teach you — how to get money.”
He continues, dropping such names as Booker T. Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass — Republicans all, he tells them: “Barack is cool, but it’s bigger than Barack, see what I’m saying?”
The young men nod, they shake hands and Moten moves on, accompanied by volunteers carrying yard signs and handouts.
It’s hard enough being a Republican in the District, where three out of four voters are registered Democrats. It’s harder still in Ward 7, where a full 84 percent of voters tilt blue. And it’s especially hard in the Kenilworth Courts complex, located in a precinct that gave 1,088 of its 1,098 votes to Barack Obama in 2008. Convincing half of them to support him over Democratic incumbent Yvette M. Alexander would be a political miracle.
But these are Moten’s people, the young black men he’s been trying to reach for a decade as an activist, and now as a politician, trying to keep them off a trajectory like his own: high school dropout, up-and-coming drug dealer, convicted drug dealer, ex-offender.
That he’s now running for office — as a Republican, at that — is the product of circumstances dating back more than five years. Back then, the nonprofit youth-intervention group he co-founded, Peaceoholics, was riding high; it was the go-to group for politicians looking to quash neighborhood beefs that threatened to turn violent, or already had.
He was in particularly good stead with then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), a childhood acquaintance. Fenty’s administration funneled $14 million to Peaceoholics, not only to subdue conflicts but to counsel incarcerated youth and build housing for troubled young men.
With the money came scrutiny — including an audit ordered by Alexander, an ally of Mayor Vincent C. Gray, who defeated Fenty in 2010.
The audit found some accounting lapses, but no evidence of graft or serious misconduct. With Gray’s victory, Moten ended up on the wrong side. He is no longer officially affiliated with Peaceoholics, which has gone from about 60 staffers at its 2009 peak to fewer than a half-dozen now. Instead, Moten has endeavored to master the game that laid him low — “politricks,” he often calls it.
It’s been tough, especially as a Republican. Although observers saw the party switch as a savvy move to separate himself from a pack of Democratic challengers, Moten insists his conversion was honest, driven by abuses he saw in the local Democratic establishment.
He self-published a book, “Drinking Muddy Water,” describing the process: “The Bible says that vengeance belongs to the Lord,” he wrote. “I am not God. My job is to keep fighting the battles and to let God bring victory for the people and justice to the corrupt politicians who are enemies of the people.”
Although Alexander won the primary with only 42 percent of the vote, she can rely on her party affiliation to carry big weight with voters on Nov. 6. She has declined to debate Moten at community forums, instead limiting her direct tussles to a pair of broadcast appearances.
Asked to tout her endorsements on WPFW (89.3 FM), she mentioned only one: “I am the Ward 7 Democratic candidate. So there you go. Bam!”
And in an interview, she rejected the suggestion that the local Republican label is different from the national brand: “It’s affected us that Republicans have tried to take away reproductive rights for women. It’s affected us the way Republicans are pushing more guns in D.C. . . . They’re trying to do everything they can to take away our budget and our legislative autonomy, so it does make a difference.”
Moten has waged his campaign through methods both orthodox — like daily door-knocking, learned from Fenty — and not. He has commissioned musician friends to cut an Alexander diss track scored to an old Michael Jackson tune; made a YouTube clip featuring a photo of Alexander with disgraced former colleagues Kwame R. Brown and Harry Thomas Jr.; and pressed Alexander on populist issues such as the size of speeding-camera fines and the firing of the H.D. Woodson High football coach.
Alexander has explicitly avoided engaging with her opponent. “He’s an ambulance chaser,” she said. “Anything that’s going on, he can make an issue out of it.”
Better, she said, to keep her focus on her message (“Hard work, real results”) and her campaign plans (at least two campaign poll workers at each precinct at all times).
“Anything I do in terms of Ron Moten would be putting him on the map,” she added. “The debates are over. . . . I don’t have time to stage a show. And that’s what it is. I’m not here to entertain. ””
Moten drives through the streets of Kenilworth, past the site of a rec center razed in 2010, past the site where a cab driver was gunned down over a 75-cent dispute. He thinks about what’s next if he can’t pull off the upset. He says he made only $16,000 last year — quite a cut from the $110,000 he earned from Peaceoholics in 2009.
“Because of friends and family, that’s how I’ve made it,” he said. “It’s been rough. Some days I’ve had to wake up and eat peanuts for breakfast, but that’s the kind of commitment I have when I want to do something. I’m willing to sacrifice like that to make it.”
If the campaign doesn’t work out, he says, he’s going into business. No more peanuts for breakfast.
“I would rather work hard and get all the money I can get, and then I can serve my people without strings attached to them,” Moten said. “Those are mistakes I made, counting too much on the government to fund the program.”
But what kind of business?
“Marketing and promotion,” he said. “You know I do that well.”