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Tommy Wells said to be ready to form committee for D.C. mayoral run

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D.C. Council member Tommy Wells is expected to wade into the 2014 mayoral race as early as next month, when he will announce an exploratory committee, according to several people familiar with his plans.

Forming the committee would allow the Ward 6 Democrat to raise money and hire staff for a mayoral campaign. Wells, who is in his second council term, first signaled interest in the race last summer, when the federal investigation into Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s 2010 campaign intensified.

In recent weeks, Wells has met with potential donors, business leaders and activists, testing out a message of a more responsive government as well as safer and more livable neighborhoods, according to people with knowledge of his plans who spoke anonymously in order to provide details about them. A more formal “listening tour” is expected to follow the committee’s launch, they said.

On Monday, Wells met with about 20 real estate developers and lawyers to discuss the pace of development in the growing area of NoMa (north of Massachusetts Avenue). Wells did not mention a possible mayoral bid, but several attendees said he delivered a message for a citywide audience.

“It was clear council member Wells has a vision for the city and he believes very strongly in his vision,” said Darian A. LeBlanc of Cassidy Turley, one of those at the gathering. “From time to time, he will gather stakeholders and community leaders to share his vision for the city and for ways to make Washington an even greater place than it already is.”

Several attendees, including LeBlanc, said they have not settled on a candidate. But the meeting highlighted Wells’s attempt to leverage support from within his ward for what could be a challenging contest.

In an interview, Wells declined to talk about a timetable for a potential candidacy but said “it’s not a secret” he would like the job.

“I have met with a lot of folks who have been urging me to run, and we continue to do that,” said Wells, a former social worker. “At some point, I will make my plans more concrete. I know a lot of folks are concerned about the future of our city government.”

The crop of mayoral aspirants may grow over the next few months. Council members Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) and Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) are also considering runs.

In an interview Tuesday, Gray said he was not worried about potential challengers in next year’s election. “We’ll make our decision at the appropriate time,” he said. “Whoever is out there is out there, and then we will make our decision when I’m ready.”

Gray, himself, was a late entry into the mayor’s contest in 2010, when he beat the incumbent, Adrian M. Fenty (D). Several controversies — including allegations that Gray’s campaign paid a minor mayoral candidate to attack Fenty on the campaign trail — and the federal investigation have led some to speculate about the mayor’s political future.

Over the past year, Wells has been more limited than some potential rivals for a mayoral bid because he had not been up for reelection to his council seat.

Under District campaign laws, council members can’t keep campaign accounts open after their elections, and there are restrictions on how they can raise and spend money for constituent services funds.

Bowser raised and spent nearly $350,000 on her reelection bid, even though she faced limited opposition in the Democratic primary and ran unopposed in the general election. Last year, her election spending spread beyond Ward 4 and included purchasing ads on the sides of Metrobuses.

Bowser declined to comment Tuesday on a Wells candidacy.

As Wells considers a run, he is relying on advice from a small group of informal advisers, including political consultant Ronald Williams and several friends from Wells’s time working for former senator Walter Mondale’s 1984 presidential campaign.

Tom Lindenfeld, a Democratic consultant with ties to Bowser, said it is not unusual for a candidate to enter the race more than a year before the primary. Lindenfeld noted that Fenty, as well as three others, had exploratory committees more than 18 months before the 2006 Democratic primary to replace Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), who had decided not to seek a third term.

But Lindenfeld, a former top adviser to Fenty, said candidates are more cautious about next year’s race because of the uncertainty about the ongoing federal probe of Gray’s campaign.

“What happens with the U.S. attorney means a lot and sort of hangs over everything,” Lindenfeld said. “Until they know what happens with that, it is kind of hard to jump on in.”

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