An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Oates Street in the District's Trinidad neighborhood as Oak Street. This version has been corrected.
D.C. PRIMARIES: WARD 5
Harry Thomas Jr.'s challengers say deep roots aren't enough in D.C. Council's Ward 5 race
Wednesday, August 11, 2010
This is part of a series of articles on the D.C. Council primary elections Sept. 14. Stories in the series will appear on Wednesdays through August.
Ask residents of the District's Northeast neighborhoods about city government, and many are quick to say that they feel neglected, that Ward 5 has too often been a dumping ground for stinky trash transfer stations and unseemly X-rated clubs.
The ward is blessed with leafy streets, well-kept bungalows and venerable Catholic institutions, but many of its neighborhoods have been largely untouched by the sort of development that has brought sit-down restaurants and full-service grocery stores to other parts of the city. Residents often complain that they are neither poor enough nor rich enough to rate with the District's policymakers and power brokers.
But it would be hard to argue that Ward 5's incumbent representative on the D.C. Council, Harry Thomas Jr., does not have a deep appreciation for the community. He grew up there, playing baseball on Dwight Mosley field in Woodridge, visiting his grandmother on Oates Street in Trinidad and campaigning for his father, who represented the ward on the council for a dozen years.
Despite the family history, Thomas is contending with three challengers for the Democratic nomination. They say the first-term council member has not done enough to bring resources and attention to a part of the city that has the third-highest jobless rate and the third-highest HIV/AIDS rate and is poised for the kind of expansive development that could transform neighborhoods from Brookland to Bloomingdale.
His opponents in the Sept. 14 primary -- Delano Hunter, a community organizer; Kenyan McDuffie, a former government lawyer; and Tracey Turner, an information technology consultant -- said that Thomas has been unresponsive to those who are not politically connected and that his clashes with the administration of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) have been primarily about scoring political points.
Thomas, 49, who led a nonprofit group dedicated to after-school programs before winning election to the council in 2006, said that he welcomes the competition and that he had raised $160,000 as of June. Thomas points to his aggressive oversight of the controversial parks and recreation contracts the Fenty administration awarded to businesses with ties to the mayor; his unsuccessful fight against the privatization of city day-care services; and his use of technology to tap into community concerns.
"He has the pulse," said Anthony J. Hood, president of the Woodridge Civic Association and chairman of the D.C. Zoning Commission, who has participated in town hall meetings at which the Thomas campaign used electronic keypads to measure audience opinion. "He's taking the concerns of the citizens to heart."
When Thomas joined Fenty to cut the ribbon on a new recreation center in Trinidad last week, the stylistic contrast between the two was stark. Fenty emphasized the physical improvements; Thomas talked about the people and the past as much as the future. Thomas spoke passionately about Joseph H. Cole, who was one of the first African American leaders of the city's recreation program and for whom the center is named, and he engaged with Cole's 97-year-old widow, Laura, who joined officials on the podium.
"As we build and connect our communities and make them better, we can't forget the history of the people who made them great," Thomas said.
In touch with the times
To his supporters, Thomas is highly accessible and responsive. He stays in touch by iPad from the council dais, as well as through Facebook and the cellphone number he lists on his business card.
When seniors were left without electricity after a powerful storm last month, he negotiated $39-a-night hotel rooms. He "tore down doors" to make sure the city's Water and Sewer Authority was responsive to flood victims in Bloomingdale, said John Frye, a former advisory neighborhood commissioner and labor leader who retired from the water agency in March.