Joan Thomas has been an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Petworth ever since the ANCs were established 14 years ago. She is now the powerful chairman of ANC 4D, representing a community of more than 25,000 people.
And this year, a neighbor is running against her.
"The nerve of him," huffed Emma Perkins, 85, a staunch Thomas supporter.
In an interview at her home, Thomas, 64, dismissed her opponent, saying she didn't even know his name. "He's some young man in the neighborhood, she said.
That "young man" is William "Butch" Burns, 47, a contract compliance specialist with the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development.
Burns ran against Thomas two years ago and lost by more than 100 votes. This year he said he is determined to win. He has stapled a campaign poster to every telephone and utility pole in the single-member district bounded by Georgia Avenue, Upshur, Buchanan and Fifth streets NW.
The campaigns of Thomas and Burns boil down to a race for the neighborhood's 800 registered voters, according to voting records. But it is indicative of many other ANC races in the city, where opponents for these nonpartisan, volunteer posts often clash with the same intensity and paranoia as contenders in close, partisan mayoral and council races.
Every evening and weekend Burns stalks the neighborhood, checking his posters to make sure no one has torn them down, "saturating" residents with his campaign literature and "beating my name into their memory."
Last Saturday, as he strolled through the neighborhood, Thomas stood in her front yard and watched him.
"When I was putting up my posters on the telephone poles, she stood out there the whole day watching me," Burns murmured.
He says Thomas, a retired social worker and great-grandmother, is an "ineffective" commissioner who is doing a poor job of informing residents about services available to them.
"My scene is city services," said Burns, who has worked as a housing inspector and said he knows how government works. "I want to do more for the neighborhood than what's being done."
ANC Commissioner Lorenzo Allen, a Burns supporter, said Thomas has become arrogant and now runs the ANC "like a dictator."
"She's the kind of person who is right on everything," he complained.
Thomas said she is relying on word of mouth and to let people know she is running for her eighth term. In addition, she said, several children and friends are passing out her campaign literature, which bears her slogan, "Let the Service That I Render Speak for Me."
She and another commissioner hold an annual community festival, and every year she distributes 100 trays of flowering plants to residents as part of her neighborhood beautification program, she said.
She also takes care of the elderly residents, takes them shopping and to the hospital, she said. She even took two elderly neighbors into her own home to take care of them while they recovered from illnesses, she added.
"Miss Thomas will come day or night, whenever I call, take me to the hospital, wait for me in he car and bring me back home. She's wonderful," said Blanche Porter, 76. Porter said Thomas's "main following" are the neighborhood's elderly.
Thomas said she is not worried about Burns. "I've been a commissioner for 15 years. I'm just drifting along," she said, adding, "I would be glad to yield the seat to somebody who has their community interest in their heart and has paid their dues."
But Burns, she said, has not paid his dues. He doesn't belong to any organizations and hasn't even won any community awards, she said. "No one knows who he is."
Thomas, on the other hand, is treasurer of Ward 4 Democrats and a member of seven other organizations. And Sunday, the Northwest Boundary Civic Association awarded her a plaque for "outstanding service."
Burns said it makes sense that the civic association gave Thomas a plaque. The ANC recently gave the civic association a $500 grant so it could buy the plaques, he said.