Does Tommy Wells have what it takes to be D.C. mayor?
By Colbert I. King,
“D.C. Mayor Tommy Wells.” Does that make you cheer, cringe or yawn?
If you live in the District, start making up your mind about this because, ready or not, here he comes. Wells (D-Ward 6) has told me that he is “likely” to run for mayor next year.
The councilman expects to take his first step Monday, filing papers to create an exploratory committee and then holding an evening “listening session” in Ward 8.
All this, of course, is to occur more than a year before the next Democratic mayoral primary, in April 2014.
I caught up with Wells this week and pumped him for a few answers.
What makes Tommy run?
Wells said he plans to enter the race because the city “is in crisis, and there is a lack of confidence and integrity in our government.” The ongoing federal investigation into political corruption, Wells said, has damaged Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D).
The mayor has a long way to go to restore trust and confidence, Wells said. Unless U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen Jr. gives Gray a “clean bill of health,” Wells declared, “there is little chance of Gray returning to the position of strength that he had when he entered office.”
“We will make a [final] decision this spring,” Wells said, “but it is likely that I will run.”
Why does he think he can win?
Wells cited his base of support, saying that Ward 6, which he won with 85 percent of the vote in 2010, has the largest number of the city’s registered voters. When he served on the D.C. school board from 2000 to 2006, he added, he represented Wards 5 and 6.
The Board of Elections’ registration summary shows that as of December, Ward 6 led the District with nearly 74,000 registered voters, followed by 66,000 in Ward 5.
Wells regards himself as a “progressive” and a “reformer” in the mold of former mayors Sharon Pratt Kelly and Anthony Williams.
He cites his positions on campaign finance and ethics reform as the kinds of views attractive to voters demanding integrity in city government. And when he was chairman of the D.C. Council’s Committee on Human Services, he said, he established a record of “getting things done” by reforming child welfare, housing for the homeless and juvenile justice programs.
But can he lead?
“As you know,” Wells said, “I don’t hold many of my [D.C. Council] colleagues in high esteem.”
And vice versa, I might add.
Wells could not identify a single member of the council who supports his run for mayor. I wondered how he expects to get anything done if he has to contend with those detractors on the council. Wells’s inclination toward sanctimony does appear to put off his colleagues.
Wells countered that Adrian Fenty had few friends on the council when he served as Ward 4’s representative, yet shortly after becoming mayor he rammed through the council a proposal to take over the school system. Policy, Wells suggested, trumps friendship.
How do you get there from here? Moving from ward representative to citywide officeholder isn’t easy, as Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) has discovered.
And to what extent does race matter?
This much is known: In 40 years of self-rule, the District has never elected a white mayor.
Times change, however. So do the numbers.
The District of Columbia known as “Chocolate City,” for its African American majority, has come and gone.
Our nation’s capital in the 1940s and early ’50s was a majority-white city. Today, the District is looking more like the city I knew as a child, with more whites (and Hispanics) and fewer African Americans. How or whether this will translate at the polls is unclear. African Americans still remain the District’s largest bloc of voters.
Wells has given this some thought. He told Roll Call in July that he had put up a trial balloon and “the thing that has been surprising is the number of African Americans supporting me . . . . I have found nothing discouraging me from running.”
When I asked Wells to name some of his African American supporters, he declined to identify any on the record but said he has held discussions with a number of prominent African Americans in the city.
So what about a Wells candidacy?
I was critical of his oversight of the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS) when he served as chairman of the human services committee. The New Beginnings detention facility in Laurel was poorly planned, badly administered and a financial nightmare — on Wells’s watch. He didn’t lead. He followed misguided direction of then-DYRS director Vincent Schiraldi.
Does Wells have the strength, toughness and vision to lead a city as diverse and sometimes contentious as the District?
That remains to be demonstrated, and may hold down the cheering . . . at least for now.
Read more from Colbert King’s archive.