Darrel Thompson is eager to show off his hometown roots.
That’s the hospital where he was born, he noted on a recent drive through the Shaw neighborhood. There’s the grocery store where he ran through the aisles until his mom hollered at him to stop. And that’s where his grandmother used to live, where you could always smell the mouthwatering aromas of the nearby Wonder Bread Factory.
“I’m no newcomer to this city,” Thompson later concluded over a catfish lunch at the United House of Prayer for All.
Thompson, who used to work for Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid, has good reason to highlight his decades-old ties to the District as he vies for the Ward 6 D.C. Council seat in the April 1 Democratic primary. His opponent, Charles Allen, was the chief of staff to current Ward 6 council member Tommy Wells, and his experience with local issues and voters give him an incumbent’s advantage.
“I don’t need to wait to until Jan. 2 of 2015 — when I get sworn in — to get to work for Ward 6,” Allen said in an interview. “I’m already doing it as a candidate.”
Allen and Thompson both talk up improving the physical condition of schools — particularly the middle schools — and providing more affordable housing for young families and older residents.
But with few sharp differences on Ward 6’s top issues, the candidates’ résumés have loomed large — especially the references section. Thompson has received Reid’s blessing, with the Nevada Democrat declaring in a statement in December that his “loss is the District’s gain.” Wells, who is giving up his seat to run for mayor, is backing Allen. He praised him in an interview as an “excellent manager” who has deftly navigated the city’s advocacy groups to deliver legislative results.
Thompson has built a well-funded campaign and resembles anything but the scrappy underdog he sometimes presents. He has raised more than $196,000 — besting Allen’s tally by more than $50,000 — by tapping an impressive donor network built in part from his work in Reid’s office and in part from his work on President Obama’s 2004 Senate race.
Bold-faced names have also lent their time, with Reid hosting a fundraiser and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) — who has a residence on Capitol Hill — recording a robo-call, according to his campaign.
Allen’s supporters say that Thompson’s national exposure is impressive but doesn’t trump his own extensive knowledge of Ward 6 constituents and the specific issues they face.
“He can step into this role without much start-up time needed,” said Monica Warren-Jones, who represents Ward 6 on the D.C. State Board of Education. “He’s ready to go.”
Yet Thompson and his backers label Allen the “anointed candidate,” a handpicked successor and someone who embodies the District’s clubby politics.
“I’m just not jazzed about an ongoing dynasty,” said Leo Pinson, a volunteer D.C. police officer who has lived in Ward 6 since 1997. “I can wrap my arms around getting some new blood.”
Thompson’s voice boomed as he greeted commuters Thursday morning outside the Eastern Market Metro station. He highfived young children and shouting out sports teams as he spotted their logos on commuters’ clothing.
“They’re asking for four more years for the job they should’ve done in eight,” Thompson told one commuter, hitting on the “missed opportunities” theme that makes up his central criticism of Allen.
Allen’s main offensive has been to question Thompson’s local involvement and to suggest that even while living in the District, his attention has been elsewhere. Voting records show that Thompson has not participated in several key D.C. elections. Thompson has vowed not to skip any more.
To drive home the contrast, Allen’s campaign noted that for the five-week reporting period ending March 10, 85 percent of his donors came from Ward 6 — and 97 percent from the District overall.
At the same time, more than 40 percent of Thompson’s donors listed mailing addresses outside the District. Thompson retorted that Allen did not expect an opponent who could match him dollar-for-dollar — and then some.
“This wasn’t supposed to be a competitive race,” Thompson said. “It was a foregone conclusion that he was going to be the next council member.”
It’s exactly the theme Allen sought to play down Wednesday evening at his 100th meet-and-greet since announcing his candidacy in October.
“It drives me nuts when I have people who keep patting me on the back and say, ‘You got this. You got this,’ ” Allen told about a dozen people in a supporter’s living room. “No, you never take it for granted.”