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In D.C.'s Ward 6, Wells's progressive agenda assailed as out of touch

By Mike DeBonis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 18, 2010; B01

In the hot Saturday noontime, Tommy Wells stands on your porch in a beat-up Nats cap, short-sleeve muslin shirt and a pair of Chuck Taylors. He has a question for you: "Anything you need from your council member?"

That's a common question around town this election season. But if you ask the council member about some typical neighborhood concerns, Wells, running for a second, four-year term representing Ward 6, might have some unorthodox answers.

If you need some help finding a parking space in the evening, for instance, expect to have a chat about your new, nonautomotive transportation options. And if you need to know why H Street NE needs a streetcar line, prepare for some arithmetic.

"A bus holds 60 people; a trolley car holds 160 people. It's just mathematics," Wells told James W. Fenwick, 83, who has lived in the 1400 block of E Street NE since 1960 and remembers the last time trolleys plied the corridor.

"Didn't like it then, but that's all the choice you had," Fenwick said. "Who's gonna ride 'em?"

But Fenwick's neighbors, Ernest Postell and James W. Bragg, helped convince him that Wells deserves his vote, reminding him, for instance, about the new senior center being built in the neighborhood.

Wells has become a local politician of a modern sort, conversant in a brand of retail politics well suited to the close-knit neighborhoods and liberal politics of Capitol Hill and its environs. His animating principle is emblazoned on yard signs and on the awards he distributes to ward denizens each year: a "livable and walkable city." He has been among the council's most outspoken supporters of high-density development, bicycle and pedestrian amenities and public transportation. But his vision, combined with fast-paced development, has opened Wells to criticism that "livable-walkable" is a vision with selective benefits.

He faces a challenge from Kelvin J. Robinson, once chief of staff to Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), who says Wells has focused on his home neighborhood of Capitol Hill to the detriment of the ward's outlying communities.

More pointedly, Robinson said Wells's advocacy of sweeping environmental and social legislation -- including his signature accomplishment, a city-mandated 5-cent tax on disposable grocery bags -- has come at the expense of bread-and-butter concerns such as reducing crime.

"The question is always asked, 'Livable and walkable' for whom?" Robinson said. "That's how it has played out."

Ward 6, the only one of the city's eight wards to touch all quadrants, is at the crossroads of a development boom.

In Southeast Washington, Nationals Park is at the center of an ambitious redevelopment plan meant to turn an industrial zone along the Anacostia River into a living and shopping destination. On the ward's eastern fringe, a massive redevelopment of the former D.C. General Hospital campus stands to recapture another portion of the Anacostia waterfront for public use. A similarly ambitious development is intended to recast the fraying Southwest Waterfront. And in Northeast, the riot-scarred H Street corridor has rebounded with astonishing vigor after decades of neglect; the street is dotted with bars, restaurants and boutiques.

Robinson resides on the eastern edge of the ward, a few blocks from RFK Stadium, where quality-of-life concerns run more toward carjackings than sidewalk cafes. There, racial and cultural tensions are "palpable," Robinson said. "The ward is in a state of flux . . . and there are pressures associated with that."

Wells, 53, strongly defends his vision, saying Robinson is overplaying tensions to score political points. "He obviously would like there to be a division," he said. "But my whole political career had been to bridge that divide."

Robinson, 49, can point to pockets of aggrieved residents who have thrown their support his way, folks upset about street crime and more-parochial concerns. Although few complain about Wells's responsiveness, many consider his focus on bags and bikes to be frivolous.

"There are a lot more serious problems that Ward 6 needs to resolve than bicycles and pedestrians," said Mary Beatty, an advisory neighborhood commissioner from Lincoln Park and a Robinson supporter.

In Southwest, Robinson has won the backing of the Southwest Action Team, a community group that organized to win funding for the Shuttle-Bug, a free neighborhood bus service.

Wells helped persuade the developers of Waterfront Station, a 2 million-square-foot project atop a Green Line Metro stop, to fund the shuttle to allay residents' safety concerns during construction. The building is now open, and the original rationale for the Shuttle-Bug is gone.

Beth Paulson, founder of the Southwest Action Team, said that residents want the shuttle to stay but that Wells has turned a "deaf ear." Robinson has committed to keeping the shuttle alive, although Wells says the project is a no-go without significant private investment.

"I got them something great, and I appreciate that they don't want to lose it," Wells said.

High-profile incumbent

What has emboldened Robinson and other critics is Wells's high profile in citywide affairs.

The disposable-bag tax, which went into effect Jan. 1, is Wells's defining legislative accomplishment. His council colleagues credit him with selling the bill as an environmental measure that could help clean up the Anacostia, and selling it in the face of an expensive lobbying push from bag manufacturers.

Less successful has been his "backyard chicken" bill, which would allow residents to raise poultry in the city.

Since his election, Wells, a former social worker and advocate for children, has led the council's Human Services Committee. With oversight of city services for the poor, disabled and homeless, the job is considered difficult and thankless by many council members. But the post has thrust Wells into the center of high-profile city issues. The case of Banita Jacks, who murdered her four children, led to close scrutiny of the city's child-welfare agency in early 2008. Wells said he regrets not doing more to prevent a mass exodus of social workers, which helped lead to a massive casework backlog after the Jacks case came to light.

Wells has also been at the center of a citywide debate over how the city handles troubled juveniles. He has generally been a stalwart defender of rehabilitation-oriented initiatives, even as a chorus calling for more restrictive measures has grown. Robinson is among those who say Wells has been too willing to release violent youths into neighborhoods.

On the other hand, Wells has been at odds of late with child-advocacy activists who oppose proposals to share more information about youths who commit violent crimes.

Wells has also distinguished himself through political neutrality. He has taken pains to remain unaligned in the council's growing battles with Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D). But his independence from the mayor was on display this month after Fenty requested that the council approve a seven-day extension to the city's summer jobs program for youth, a politically popular program but one racked by overspending and management concerns. Wells accused Fenty of raiding federal funds promised to house homeless families, saying that an administration official had been "disingenuous and came very close to misleading the council."

Florida transplant

Robinson is relatively new to neighborhood politicking, but he's spent much of his career in politics. The Fort Lauderdale native served in several high-ranking positions in the Florida state government before he arrived in the District in 2001 to take over as Williams's chief of staff. He entered a mayoral office in some turmoil; his predecessor had resigned amid allegations of fundraising improprieties.

Robinson's outsider status and imperious style led to clashes with some longtime Williams deputies, former co-workers said. "I'm not sure what he did," said Max J. Brown, a former Williams aide who is supporting Wells. "I don't think there are any singular accomplishments he can point to aside from taking the largest corner office and making it his own."

But Tony Bullock, who spent time as Williams's spokesman, said Robinson brought order to a turbulent administration. "Kelvin held down the fort during some pretty tough times," Bullock said. "He had a series of challenges, and he didn't shrink away from a challenge."

Among those challenges was Williams's 2002 reelection campaign, which imploded after watchdogs found scores of fraudulent signatures on ballot petitions, forcing Williams to run as a write-in candidate. Bullock described Robinson as "frustrated" at how the campaign collapsed. "Kelvin was on the sidelines, watching and going, 'Yikes,' " he said.

But there was some question about whether Robinson had remained on the sidelines.

He left city service in 2004, days before investigators alleged that he had asked District employees to volunteer to work on the 2002 campaign, a violation of the Hatch Act (which governs D.C. as well as federal employees) that could have resulted in his firing. Robinson denies the allegations and says he had already planned to leave the job. The case was settled in 2005, with Robinson accepting a two-year prohibition on working in city government.

Robinson started a career as a business consultant and became active in the D.C. Chamber of Commerce. In early 2009, he won a seat as an advisory neighborhood commissioner, and he became chairman a year later.

He canvassed the Capitol Park condominiums in Southwest on a recent Saturday, making his pitch to residents who've lived in the area for decades. "We've had a different kind of focus here. It's been bag tax and bike lanes and that sort of thing," he told one person.

Some found something to like in Robinson's message, including John Burton, 75, who has lived in Capitol Park for more than 30 years and wants the Shuttle-Bug restored. "When you're old and you're handicapped, you stay in your house all day," he said. "It allows me to get freedom and independence."

But others saw no good reason to switch. "He ought to be called Saint Tommy Wells," Carol Cowgill, 64, a Southwest resident since 1976, said of the incumbent. Wells, she said, has been responsive to neighborhood concerns, and although she didn't mind Robinson's pitch, she saw no reason to change her vote.

"Maybe he could run for something else," she said.

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