Some political candidates develop their homespun appeal by turning a folksy phrase or hosting a big cookout. D.C. Council member Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7) brings her knitting.
She walked into a community room full of seniors at the sprawling Mayfair Mansions housing complex, carrying a plastic bag full of yarn, needles and a half-completed top.
“I thought they were knitting today!” she exclaimed. But a big potluck buffet was spread out for the noontime crowd, in celebration of some recent birthdays.
The two dozen or so in attendance were delighted to see Alexander and a half-dozen staff members, who handed out free T-shirts and other campaign goodies.
“This is the foundation of our community, our seniors,” Alexander said as she worked the room of loyal voters.
They might also represent the foundation of Alexander’s reelection hopes as she seeks a second full term representing Ward 7, in the city’s easternmost area.
Her easy rapport with the ward’s senior population and good relations with Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D), both Ward 7 residents themselves, has not been enough to fend off several strong challenges.
Several Democratic candidates — William Bennett II, a minister who has led congregations in the ward for nearly two decades; Tom Brown, a former teacher who runs a job-training nonprofit group; and Kevin B. Chavous, the son of a former Ward 7 council member — have attracted significant support.
The Democratic winner of the April 3 primary will face the victor of a rare Republican contest between Ronald Moten and Don Folden Sr.
Each challenger has sought to portray Alexander, 50, as ineffectual, lagging her council colleagues in passing major legislation and securing development and city resources for the ward.
“We’ve gone too long in the ward hanging on the coattails of hoping and wishing Kwame and Vince would look out for us,” said Sylvia Brown, a Deanwood advisory neighborhood commissioner who is supporting Brown. “She’s got to have her own voice, and right now she doesn’t have it.”
But each has had difficulty generating consensus support among those who have grown disaffected by Alexander, a former city insurance regulator who won a 2007 special election to the council.
“The neighbors are not necessarily satisfied” with their options, said Ike Fulwood, a Hillcrest resident and former D.C. police chief who is not officially supporting any candidate.
Some early support went to Chavous — the son of Kevin P. Chavous, who represented the ward from 1993 to 2007. Buoyed by the name recognition, the younger Chavous, 27, has run an energetic, shoe-leather campaign focused on education and constituent services and driven by an ambitious door-knocking and sign-planting effort.
But his electoral hopes were set back by his November arrest on charges of soliciting a prostitute near Union Station. He has denied the charges but has declined to otherwise discuss the circumstances of the arrest, citing an agreement with authorities that would result in the charges being dropped a few weeks after the election. His fundraising has slowed considerably.
Brown, 45, is promoting himself as the best candidate to create jobs and economic development, touting his experience teaching entrepreneurship in high schools and running the corporate-funded, nonprofit Training Grounds. This week, Brown won the endorsement of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, which praised his “focus and vision on workforce development.”
Bennett, 56, is backed by several District clergy members, including prominent pastor Willie F. Wilson of Union Temple Baptist Church in Anacostia, and is running on a jobs-focused platform. He has gathered supporters to protest an automated speeding camera on Branch Avenue SE, which he decries as an “underhanded tax,” much to the consternation of Hillcrest activists who had asked the city for years to do something about speeding on that stretch.
Also on the ballot is Dorothy Douglas, 63, the ward’s State Board of Education member and a frequent candidate for higher office. She is promising to focus on education and jobs and to speak up “for the shy-at-heart while representing all residents,” according to campaign literature.
Several candidates have had to deal with carpetbagging charges. Brown lived and voted in Ward 8 for years before changing his registration in October to a home he has owned in River Terrace. Chavous briefly changed his voter registration to a Ward 6 address last year but within months changed it back to the Hillcrest home owned by his mother. And Bennett moved to his church parsonage last year after living in Silver Spring for a decade; he last voted in the city in 2000.
Alexander is touting concrete accomplishments, as in several reconstructed or renovated libraries, a new Deanwood Recreation Center and a new H.D. Woodson High School. An overhaul of Pennsylvania Avenue SE was completed this week, and an overhaul of Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue NE is underway.
But her opponents grumble that Alexander is taking credit for projects started years ago and pushed by other officials, including Gray and Kwame Brown. (Alexander’s chief of staff, J.R. Meyers, blames “ ‘Ward 7-ism’ — nobody gets credit for nothing,” he said.)
Her foes also point to a lack of signature legislation pushed by Alexander, a charge she happens to embrace. “Overall, I answer the needs of my constituents. And right now, legislation, unless it helps to further advance Ward 7, is not one of the priorities,” she said.
Other complaints surround the recent ward redistricting process, in which some residents say Alexander didn’t do enough to expand the ward west of the Anacostia River. And many say she has not fought to extract neighborhood benefits from Wal-Mart, which has plans for a store on East Capitol Street NE.
Alexander has been represented in recent campaign finance proceedings by attorney David W. Wilmot, who is also a registered lobbyist for the Arkansas mega-retailer, and her most recent campaign finance report lists 12 donations, all for the maximum $500, from companies listing the same address as the Baltimore headquarters of the A&R Cos., which is developing the Wal-Mart. The donations represented one-third of Alexander’s $17,675 haul for the period.
There is evidence, however, that some Alexander doubters have quieted their grumbling. Former council member H.R. Crawford was among those agitating for her ouster last year. He was quoted in the Washington Times saying Ward 7 had become “the joke of the city.” But he donated $500 to Alexander last month and was scheduled to hold a fundraiser for her Wednesday night.
“My feeling is perhaps it’s better we stick with what we know,” he said. “Hopefully, as a result of all that’s taken place that she will perform. . . . We’ve had a good, solid conversation with the council member, and, hopefully, she will live up to our expectations.”