By Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 11, 2010; B01
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.
To his rivals and critics, Thomas has not done enough as chairman of the council's Parks and Recreation Committee to improve the ward's facilities and green spaces. An analysis by the Brookland Heartbeat, a neighborhood newsletter, found that in the first two years of Thomas's tenure, no major renovations had been performed at any of the ward's three libraries. The findings were confirmed by capital budget data that library officials provided to The Washington Post.
Other city figures show that spending on recreation centers in Ward 5 ranked fifth among the eight wards, at $13 million, since Fenty took office. Ward 4, which ranked fourth, received $21 million.
Thomas accused the newsletter of "an unbalanced and biased reporting style." In an "open letter," he threatened the real estate company that is the publication's leading advertiser, saying, "Long and Foster will be held accountable for its role in underwriting the Brookland Heartbeat, as well as the businesses that support the publication."
When asked about the episode, Thomas said his comments were not meant to "take away free journalism but to have responsible journalism."
About spending on recreation centers and libraries, Thomas said, "You can shape the numbers any way you want." He said that the data on recreation centers, for instance, did not include the millions spent to build the Cole center and that the newsletter's analysis did not include library maintenance not funded through the capital budget.
Although Ward 5 received more school construction funds than any other ward in fiscal 2008 and 2009, what many residents remember is the city's decision to close six schools in the ward as part of a consolidation plan.
To McDuffie, 34, a former Justice Department lawyer and a former aide to Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), Thomas is "just reacting instead of being proactive." McDuffie, who is raising a family in the house where he grew up in the Stronghold neighborhood, said he has a broader vision for expanding employment opportunities and tackling HIV/AIDS. His campaign has collected $47,000, according to the June campaign finance filing.Feeling left out
As other parts of the city have been transformed by development in recent years, some Ward 5 residents were particularly stung by the contrast when the Safeway store on Rhode Island Avenue shut in March after 25 years. Two months later, the Social Safeway in Georgetown reopened with a gala that included brie from Paris and a Belvedere vodka fountain.
But over the next five years, only wards 6 and 8 are expected to experience more development than Ward 5, according to the city's Office of Planning. The city is negotiating with Costco, the wholesale grocer, to open a store in the Fort Lincoln development; Wal-Mart is weighing a location at New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road; and a mixed-use project is underway at the Rhode Island Avenue Metro station.
To Hunter, 26, a Spingarn High School graduate who returned to the District two years ago after a community-relations stint with Nike in Oregon, Ward 5 is clamoring for more than big-box stores.
"We don't necessarily want Ward 5 to look like 14th Street in Columbia Heights," said Hunter, who has used YouTube videos and eye-catching campaign signs to elevate his profile. "But right now we don't have anything. It's hard to get basic services."
Hunter has raised $32,000, including a donation from the National Organization for Marriage, which opposes same-sex marriage. Ward 5 was divided over the council's same-sex marriage initiative, and Thomas has said his vote in favor of the legislation was one of his toughest.
For Turner, 35, the decision to run came after his home near Trinity College was burglarized. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier, who lives nearby in Fort Lincoln, was more responsive than Thomas to the concerns of his neighbors, he said.
"We put you in office, and all I ask is that you respond when I need you," said Turner, who has lent his campaign $40,000 to show that his is a serious campaign.
Thomas's rivals said they are also troubled by an Office of Campaign Finance report that admonished the council member for allowing an aide to work on the Ward 5 Business Council, a nonprofit group that Thomas created, while she was being paid as a full-time council employee.
The campaign finance agency found that Thomas had violated regulations that prohibit employees from using government resources for activities other than official business. But the report found no evidence to substantiate a more serious allegation involving a developer's financial support for the business council.
Thomas said that he considers the decision a vindication and that he cleared the formation of the organization with the council's attorney.
In his 12 years on the council, a tenure that ended in 1998, Thomas's father, who died in 1999, was known for robust constituent services that included handing out toys and food. Supporters say the younger Thomas has updated the process. His use of technology has turned town hall discussions into focus groups, and it's hard to miss the caravan of vehicles and volunteers that accompanies Thomas to neighborhood cleanups and block parties during campaign weekends, including a sport-utility vehicle that blares a go-go remix of the 1920s song "I'm Just Wild About Harry."
Thomas isn't coy about his ambitions. If council member Kwame R. Brown (D) is successful in his bid to succeed Vincent C. Gray as council chairman, and a special election is held for Brown's at-large seat, Thomas said, "I will consider that a very real opportunity."
But for now, he said, "I'm running to finish what I've started."
Staff writer Nikita Stewart contributed to this report.