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Tommy Wells picks up police, fire union endorsements

The union nods could give Wells, who is underfunded relative to his foes, a late-breaking boost. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

D.C. Council member Tommy Wells picked up a pair of coveted mayoral endorsements from the city’s public safety workers in recent days, giving him his first major union nods in the campaign’s closing weeks.

On Monday morning, the Local 36 of the International Association of Fire Fighters endorsed Wells (D-Ward 6), calling him “the candidate that best understands the day-to-day public safety needs of our city.” Last week, the Fraternal Order of Police unit representing Metropolitan Police Department officers, detectives and sergeants announced its backing for Wells, saying he “has not shied away from tackling systemic problems with the District’s public safety agencies.”

Besides being a boost for Wells, the nods will come as a setback for fellow council member and mayoral candidate Jack Evans, who has run on a public-safety-heavy platform and has enjoyed both unions’ support in his previous council elections. Both the police and fire unions endorsed incumbent Vincent C. Gray four years ago, but ongoing contract disputes and management conflicts — particularly in the Fire and Emergency Medical Services department — made the lack of a reelection endorsement wholly unsurprising.

Gray has picked up the support of several other unions representing city employees. Most recently, on Monday, Gray picked up the support of Teamsters locals representing workers at the city’s public schools.

Fire union president Ed Smith said Gray has “been a great disappointment to us on public safety issues,” starting with what Smith calls a broken promise to give firefighters a “seat at the table” in the selection of a new chief. That chief, Kenneth B. Ellerbe, has clashed mightily with the union over proposed changes to the department’s shift schedule, as well as the department’s management generally.

Wells has called for Ellerbe’s resignation and has been critical of department management for months.

Smith said Wells has distinguished himself during his year chairing the council’s Public Safety and Judiciary committee. “He’s taken the time to really delve into the issues of the department,” he said. “He separates the rhetoric and the facts. We’re in desperate need of leadership … and we feel Tommy’s taken the time and attention to really address those issues.”

Outgoing police union leader Kristopher Baumann also, notably, cited Wells’s work on FEMS oversight even before mentioning his work on police issues. “We haven’t seen that type of proactive oversight in more than a decade,” he said, adding that Wells’s vigorous positions on campaign finance reform also “really struck a chord” with the executive committee that made the endorsement decision.

Baumann said the union was able to look past Wells’s advocacy for marijuana decriminalization and eventual legalization — issues the police union have spoken out against. “That’s one of the things we’ve learned from other jurisdictions: If police draw a line in the sand and say, ‘We’re not going to have anything to do with decriminalization or legalization’ … you get left behind in the conversation,” he said. “We’re in an environment where the council members and public is in a position where they’re going to move forward. … At the end of the day, we work for the public.”

Having the unions’ support could be particularly valuable for Wells, who has sworn off corporate contributions and is underfunded relative to his leading competitors going into the final two weeks. Baumann said the police union is ready to send direct mail and air at least one cable TV ad, much of it raising critical questions about Gray’s tenure as mayor. Smith said the fire union’s activities are yet to be finalized but may be coordinated with the police officers as a “public safety coalition.”

“We’re trying to sort out the details of what our support will be and where it’s needed,” Smith said.

Mike DeBonis covers Congress and national politics for The Washington Post. He previously covered D.C. politics and government from 2007 to 2015.



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