Campaigning in Ward 7, Sunny Side Up

Candidate Victor Vandell dines with campaign chairman Jeri Washington, right, and others at Denny's, the only full-service restaurant in Ward 7 and a stomping ground for many of the 17 candidates vying to fill the unexpired term of D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray in the May 1 special election.
Candidate Victor Vandell dines with campaign chairman Jeri Washington, right, and others at Denny's, the only full-service restaurant in Ward 7 and a stomping ground for many of the 17 candidates vying to fill the unexpired term of D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray in the May 1 special election. (Photos By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 13, 2007

More than 70,000 people live in the District's Ward 7 .

There's one sit-down restaurant: Denny's.

Not that there's anything wrong with the 24-hour diner, which serves up crispy bacon and juicy sausages in its Grand Slam breakfasts and keeps the refills coming in bottomless cups of coffee.

But the distinction of this Denny's as the only place where patrons can be served and leave a tip makes it a blessing -- yet an accidental icon of what's wrong with Ward 7, residents say. Why, after seven years, they wonder, hasn't Denny's been joined by other restaurants, not to mention pharmacies and grocery stores?

So the lonely restaurant on Benning Road NE has become a key campaign issue for the 17 candidates vying to fill the unexpired term of D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray in the May 1 special election. Not only that, but it has also become a second campaign headquarters for many of them.

Nearly every candidate has eaten there, and a half-dozen are fixtures, owner Raphael Ehilen said. They arrive at breakfast, lunch and dinner and move from table to table to talk about development, crime and constituent services, interrupting customers as they scarf down their food.

A dozen or so campaign signs line the front lawn among the wilted daffodils.

"I only have one rule: No signs inside the restaurant," Ehilen said. "They want to put their signs inside."

Candidate Yvette M. Alexander, 45, was glad-handing there one recent morning. She pledged to teach residents how to connect with agencies to get their potholes fixed and trash picked up, and she vowed to help boost the image of the ward, which is east of the Anacostia River.

"I didn't know you were the Yvette Alexander," said Frances Purcell, approaching Alexander's table after finishing breakfast. Purcell said she remembered meeting Alexander, a former insurance regulator, when she worked in health insurance. Now she's retired.

Alexander didn't miss a beat.

"Let me get your information. Will you put a sign in your yard?" she asked Purcell.

"I already have a sign in my yard," Purcell said.

"Whose sign do you have?" Alexander asked.

"Victor Vandell." One of Alexander's strongest rivals, a 41-year-old analytical chemist.

Purcell said she did not know Vandell, but he had knocked on her door and succeeded in getting her and her neighbors recycling bins from the city -- a feat that boosted Vandell's reputation as a Johnny-on-the-spot do-gooder.

"My husband said, 'Put his sign up,' " Purcell said. "But I didn't know you were running."

On another day, candidate Julie E. Rones, a 50-year-old lawyer, went from table to table, but with less luck. The restaurant isn't far from Prince George's County, and Marylanders like to eat biscuits and gravy, too. "I'm from Maryland," she heard quite a few times.

She finally ran into a Ward 7 resident, a man wearing a baseball cap. "Are you a believer?" he asked her.

He urged her to pray. Right then and there, they bowed their heads while he said a prayer.

"Well, they certainly want the votes of the people in the restaurant," waitress Kelly Latimer said. She hadn't decided whom she'd vote for.

Ehilen said he isn't sure why Denny's is still the only sit-down eatery in Ward 7. The ward is predominantly black but economically diverse, with upper- and middle-class neighborhoods such as Hillcrest and low-income housing such as Lincoln Heights. The restaurant does a lively business and is often full at mealtimes. Ehilen wonders whether crime is a factor.

"You have to ask them," he said, nodding toward the whistle-stop dining room. "The politicians."

Candidate Roscoe Grant Jr.'s theory is that the city has to find a way to make Ward 7 attractive to developers, to market it better. It does not have the development magnets of, say, Ward 1, with Howard University and the U Street corridor. But Ward 7 has people, he said, people who want to eat and shop and who have the money to do it. He pointed to the Safeway that came to Good Hope Road SE. "They didn't put it there out of love. They put it there because the residents could support it," he said.

At a candidates forum this week, Grant, 54, who owns a consulting business, announced to 200 residents that he is in discussions with a major chain to open a restaurant in the ward. "I can't tell you who it is," he crowed, but "we need 9,000 square feet!" Most of the candidates at the forum called on residents to mobilize and to demand more attention from the city.

Candidate Cleve Mesidor says Ward 7 needs to grow its own businesses by getting the city to give out more small-business loans.

"We have people who go to restaurants every day, but those dollars are circulated outside the ward," she said. More businesses would generate more jobs, she said. The Denny's employs 72 people, 60 of them District residents.

Ehilen said he opened the Denny's after residents told him they didn't want a fast-food chain. During his search for the perfect business, he said, he realized that Denny's, which had just settled two racial discrimination suits, was looking to repair its image. He credits Greg Rhett, another candidate, with helping him open the franchise. Rhett convinced banks that Ehilen was a good investment, he said, and got city agencies to give him permits. Rhett's one of his regulars now. It's no secret who'll get Ehilen's vote.

Rhett, 48, a former public health analyst, said that as a council member, he will do that for a variety of business. As it is, he said, the ward is inundated with churches and liquor stores.

"We can either get saved or get drunk," he said, taking a bite of his club sandwich with fries.

Gray, who stepped down in January, says development has been slow but is on the way. Apartment buildings and condos have been built, and others are planned. But some residents worry whether the new housing will be able to accommodate them along with the newcomers who are crossing the Anacostia River in search of affordable housing.

That is a big worry for Denny's customer Keon Coleman, a senior at Howard University who grew up in Ward 7's Eastgate Gardens, public housing that was torn down to make way for a mixed-income community opening this year.

"What's going on right now is that a lot of black people are moving out of the community," the Howard football player said as he waited for his lunch to arrive. "They can't afford it." He wasn't sure who'd get his vote.

Candidate Emily Y. Washington, an educator, would probably agree with him. She says lower-income residents have been pushed out of the development discussion.

"They either have someone speaking for them or are in the margins," she said, sipping a cup of herbal tea at the restaurant one afternoon this week. If elected, she said, she will make sure they are at the table.

Washington, 63, wasn't campaigning much, although she had dozens of leaflets in her car. It was between the lunch and dinner rushes, and there were only a few customers. Instead, she raved about the carrot cake and complained, like other residents, about Denny's solitary existence.

"I still can't go down Benning Road and buy some organic mushrooms," she said.

There are twice as many grocery stores as there are sit-down restaurants in Ward 7. There are two.

All three are campaign stomping grounds, but Denny's remains No. 1. This is not the restaurant's first brush with elections, however. Based on his experience last year, Ehilen had a tip for the candidates about the value of politicking at his eatery.

"Mayor [Adrian M.] Fenty was in here early, from the beginning," he said. And Fenty trounced former council Chairman Linda W. Cropp in the Democratic primary.

In a heavily Democratic city such as the District, winning the primary is equivalent to winning the whole enchilada. Or Grand Slam.

"Linda Cropp came in here . . . at the end," Ehilen said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company