They came not to praise Harry Thomas Jr., but to replace him.
Dozens of activists, officials and community leaders packed into the basement of Israel Baptist Church on Monday night to start figuring out what will come next for Ward 5, left without D.C. Council representation after Thomas resigned Thursday night, hours before he pleaded guilty to federal felony charges.
“We are here tonight,” said the event’s host, council member Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large), “because Ward 5 does not have a council member.”
With that, ward leaders including current and former council members, civic association presidents, advisory neighborhood commissioners and education activists took turns rallying the crowd with words of unity and reassurance that the ward’s neighborhoods, located mostly in the Northeast quadrant west of the Anacostia River, would not be adversely affected by Thomas’s departure.
There was virtually no specific mention of Thomas actions — who pleaded guilty to stealing more than $350,000 in city funds for youth programs — but much talk of praying for the deposed Democrat and his prominent family and keeping the focus on what lies ahead.
“We should let the court system do the judging. It’s up to us to do the praying,” said Delano Hunter, a community organizer in the ward.
The two-hour meeting was also a first opportunity for prospective candidates to replace Thomas to survey the competition. The city’s Board of Elections and Ethics is likely to schedule a special election for May 15, said board spokeswoman Alysoun McLaughlin. The process of circulating nominating petitions could begin as soon as next week.
Although there was some politicking — Orange invited a pollster to address the crowd — there was little overt campaigning.
Several speakers called on the remaining D.C. Council members to pay special attention to pet Ward 5 issues, including the location of medical marijuana facilities and efforts to bring a stand-alone middle school back to the ward.
Besides Orange, who served as Ward 5’s member from 1999 to 2007 and said last week he would “fill the leadership void” in the ward, two other at-large members, Michael A. Brown (I) and Phil Mendelson (D), appeared to assure attendees that their service needs would be addressed in the interim.
But plenty emphasized the need to elect a well-qualified candidate to replace Thomas, who served just over five years.
“A meeting is fine. A pep rally’s fine. But what are we going to do after the fact?” said Anthony Hood, a Woodridge activist and chairman of the D.C. Zoning Commission.
Already, at least three candidates have declared they intend to run for the seat, including Hunter, who came in second to Thomas in the 2010 Democratic primary. Stronghold lawyer Kenyan McDuffie, Carver-Langston activist Kathy Henderson and Bloomingdale advisory neighborhood commissioner John Salatti also have told The Washington Post they intend to run.
Several other told The Post they are considering mounting runs, including local Democratic Party Chairman Anita Bonds, State Board of Education member Mark Jones, council staffer Drew Hubbard, accountant Timothy Day and lawyer Ron Magnus.
A surfeit of candidates would not be unusual for an open seat in the ward; 11 Democratic hopefuls, including Thomas, sought the ward’s council seat in the 2006 primary, after Orange vacated it for an unsuccessful mayoral run.
Orange has suggested using a poll to determine the most viable candidates, though it’s unclear who might finance it and whether it would persuade any wannabes to stay out of the race. “People are going to run regardless,” said Frank Wilds, a Riggs Park businessman and longtime political player who finished second to Thomas in the 2006 Democratic primary. He is also considering a run.
John Ray, a longtime ward resident who served as an at-large council member from 1979 to 1997, also said a crowded field is hard to avoid.
“You have a lot of people who have very strong views about being underserved and not being served,” he said. “They want to grab the bull by the horns, get in there and do it themselves.”
Ray said a winning candidate could receive as few as 1,800 votes in what’s expected to be a low-turnout affair. The special election, he noted, is likely to come not long after the April 3 primary. A female candidate, he noted, might have a “distinct advantage” given the male-dominated field.
Vaughn Bennett, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Brookland, said whoever gets elected, he or she needs to be “held to a better set of standards by the community.”
“People have gotten used to getting less than they should” from their public officials, Bennett added. But he’s confident better candidates will be in the offing come May.
“I see a lot of hope,” he said.