Even in the fight for her political life, D.C. Council member Yvette M. Alexander is relentlessly cheery.
“Yay!” the Ward 7 Democrat shouted, leading seven volunteers in raucous applause recently after a driver approaching an early-voting site said he had already cast his ballot but declined to say how he voted. Upbeat hip-hop played by another volunteer blared through the library parking lot.
But her sunny disposition fades as Alexander talks about her challenger and onetime mentor: former mayor Vincent C. Gray (D).
His endorsement in 2006 vaulted the former District employee and Democratic Party activist to the council. Now, Gray, 73, is coming back for his old seat and showing up at her campaign stops, arguing that Alexander has failed to lift the long-struggling communities east of the Anacostia River.
“I ought to punch you in the face,” Alexander quipped — with one of her standard belly laughs — to a Gray campaign aide before embracing him with a hug.
Alexander was one of Gray’s closest allies in the D.C. government, standing by him when allegations of secret funding and a “shadow campaign” during his first mayoral run dashed his 2014 reelection bid. She switched her allegiance to the newly elected Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and hasn’t spoken to Gray since — and was blindsided when he decided to mount his political comeback by trying to unseat her.
“I looked at him as an elder statesman,” said Alexander, 54. “To think that he never even discussed what his intentions were and still today has not talked to me, I just think that shows a lack of character.”
Tuesday’s Democratic primary comes after a year of bad news for her constituents. Walmart canceled plans for stores in Skyland Town Center and Capitol Gateway at the edges of the ward, frustrating residents who have few shopping options. Homicides have increased threefold from last year, with 24 killed so far in 2016 — nearly half the total casualties citywide.
Alexander said she is using her platform as a member of the council to urge residents not to fear retaliation for helping police solve crimes. Both candidates have been showing up at crime scenes.
“We have great stories to tell in Ward 7, but when you have a young man gunned down on East Capitol, everyone seems to forget the great stories,” Alexander said.
Community leaders and former backers dissatisfied with Alexander’s performance have unsuccessfully tried to unseat her before. Her last serious opponent lost after he was arrested in a prostitution sting.
With Gray mounting a tough challenge, Alexander is forced to defend her record after nearly a decade in office.
“No one’s actually seen her vision,” said Gary Butler, an Advisory Neighborhood Commission member who is considering joining the race as an independent. “We see these shiny new things all across the city — a stadium here, streetcar there. They are spending money all over the place, but we’ve been the same.”
Alexander insists that her ward has grown. She points to new government facilities — a police station, the Ridge Road Recreation Center and a Department of Motor Vehicles office. She says she’s still trying to lure retailers — including T.J. Maxx and Kohl’s — to private development under construction, including at the sites where Walmart pulled out.
Rochelle Gray, a neighborhood activist in Eastland Gardens who is not related to the former mayor, said the fact that neighborhoods east of the Anacostia continue to struggle while the rest of the city is flourishing is a challenge beyond the grasp of a single politician.
“A lot of residents see the problem as not being one city, so I don’t think they solely blame Alexander, because she’s one council person,” said Rochelle Gray. “People want change. They do not really care so much whether it comes from Alexander or Gray.”
Alexander understands voters’ frustrations and restlessness, but she says returning Gray to office is not the solution— especially if he’s using the seat as a steppingstone to try to reclaim the mayor’s office in 2018.
“Change does not mean changing the person,” said Alexander. “If a new person comes into office at this point, we would have no seniority. You can gain experience and you can gain relationships, but we don’t have time to do this when we are in the midst of, basically, a renaissance.”
Alexander touts her perch as head of the powerful Health and Human Services Committee. But in an interview, she struggled to recall legislative accomplishments and called a staffer to refresh her on details. She eventually named efforts to assist homeowners facing foreclosure, help residents buy produce at farmers markets and coordinate mental and physical health care.
She came under fire this year when DC Trust, a nonprofit organization that distributes tax dollars to after-school programs and
anti-violence efforts for youths, went bankrupt amid exorbitant spending. Alexander’s committee was supposed to provide oversight of the nonprofit group, and she had ties to some of the grant recipients.
Alexander said funding problems did surface during her oversight hearings but that her previous involvement with some of the grant recipients did not compromise the organization.
With $50,000 on hand as of March, Alexander had the smallest campaign war chest of any council member in a contested race this primary season. Her campaign office is carved from a Shell gas station convenience store. She has sent mailers and made robo-calls touting her record and emailed voters reminding them of the federal investigation into the illegal financing of Gray’s first mayoral campaign, a probe that ended in guilty pleas from six of his friends and associates but without a conviction of the former mayor.
On a recent Saturday, she marched in a “Stop the Violence” rally that ended in a River Terrace park, where she pledged no more deaths.
Later, she swung by a lightly attended Community Day at Parkside — one of the toniest parts of the ward — where condominiums are being built. Bowser also stopped by and briefly praised Alexander for her role in helping to shut down the D.C. General homeless megashelter, but the mayor has spent more time campaigning for council allies LaRuby May (D-Ward 8) and Brandon Todd (D-Ward 4) in their primary races.
Lisa Harris, 54, was polite when Alexander came by her table at the community event. But she later ran over to Gray to take a photo.
“We need something new. He shows his face, and he tries to help us,” said Harris, an X-ray technician who added that she soured on Alexander after struggling to get help with electric bills and a turkey on Thanksgiving. “You call her office, you can’t get no justice.”
Alexander says that some residents come to her office with problems that her staff is unable — not unwilling — to address. She said she makes herself available through social media and by giving out her personal cellphone number.
That’s why Mayfair resident Jacquie Peterson says she supports Alexander.
“She’s just a straight-up person who gives you every way to connect to her,” said Peterson, who calls Gray a “tainted” candidate even though he was not charged with a crime.
“It’s still a cloud hanging over his head,” said the child-care worker, 54. “Give it up. Work with her, not against her.”