In Marion Barry’s neighborhood east of the Anacostia River, the contest to replace the District’s most famous politician is still ongoing, 18 months after his death.
The June 14 Democratic contest for Barry’s old D.C. Council seat is a rematch between two candidates who embody the dual roles that Barry served as comforter and agitator for the Ward 8 constituents he called “the last, the lost and the least.”
And it is also in some ways a referendum on the city’s current mayor, Muriel E. Bowser (D).
LaRuby May, the incumbent who narrowly won a special election to fill in for Barry after he died in office in 2014, has emerged as a caretaker of the ward’s mostly low-income residents. She has delivered care baskets to the homeless, taken seniors to lunch on Mother’s Day, organized free workshops for ex-convicts to help them expunge their criminal records, and started a lifeguard academy for children. May, 40, has also leveraged her close relationship with Bowser to secure a new Washington Wizards practice arena and the promise of jobs for ward residents.
Trayon White, a Barry protege and former school board member, came within 100 votes of winning the seat in the special election with a scrappy campaign and little money. In the rematch, he remains outmatched financially but has doubled down on a role as prime agitator on behalf of Ward 8. He has showed up at scenes of homicides, demonstrations about public housing and protests over Bowser’s crime policies to question whether the mayor and her allies are helping the city’s poorest residents.
White has won the endorsement of Barry’s son and former rival for the seat, Marion Christopher Barry, and earned a devoted following from the ward’s many unemployed teens and 20-somethings.
“I’m the people’s champ,” says White, 33, who years ago legally changed his middle name to “Ward Eight.” “I’m unbought and unbossed, and that’s what Ward 8 needs, an independent voice.”
Early voting begins Tuesday. The winner of the Democratic primary will take the seat; there are no Republican candidates.
Although there has been no independent polling, some observers see White as having several advantages in the race.
May squeaked to victory in April 2015 with the smallest of margins, taking 26.7 percent of the vote to White’s 25.7 percent in a field of 13 candidates.
Since then, Barry and five other former candidates have endorsed White. Some voters who sided with the third-place finisher, Sheila Bunn, a former top aide to Vincent C. Gray (D) when Gray was mayor — remain skeptical of Bowser’s administration and might more naturally align with White.
Gray defeated Bowser in Ward 8 by a margin of 26 percentage points in the 2014 Democratic mayoral primary, although Bowser, the primary’s overall victor, handily won the ward in the general election against David Catania, who ran as an independent.
White has focused his toughest campaign rhetoric on intractable problems such as housing prices and jobs for low-skill workers that Bowser has acknowledged will take years to improve.
He and his supporters are also motivated by a belief that they were slighted in a count of provisional ballots that decided the race a year ago.
“It’s not just me, the community feels that,” White says, wearing one of his campaign’s neon-green T-shirts as he set out for an evening of door-knocking in Congress Heights surrounded by a group playing hip-hop from a car stereo. “First they say we were up, and then when they finish the counting, somehow LaRuby wins.”
White has targeted May’s close connection to Bowser and her deep-pocketed donors with some success. He trounced May in a straw poll two weeks ago, drawing a crowd of more than 150 on a Saturday afternoon. May skipped that event, citing a prior obligation.
“I think it says a great deal about what she thinks about you, and I think it says a great deal about what she thinks about this job,” White said to applause. “You cannot just buy this seat. You have to work for it.”
May served as a key Ward 8 organizer for Bowser during her successful 2014 mayoral run. Last year, Bowser returned the favor, attending fundraisers for May and campaigning on Election Day in the ward. Developers, health-care companies and others from across the region who had contributed to Bowser’s campaign also donated to May’s, giving her a $278,000 to $25,000 advantage over White.
This year, Bowser attended a fundraiser for May and, as last year, contributions to May have poured in from across the city and from as far away as New York, North Carolina, and Texas.
Since winning office, May has gained a reputation for workdays that stretch to 16 hours and beyond. She has introduced legislation to limit penalties for youthful offenders, to help ex-convicts get jobs and to prevent new development from displacing poor residents — a hot topic for her, White and lesser-known candidates in the race: Maurice Dickens, Aaron Holmes and Bonita Goode.
Sitting in her campaign office recently in Congress Heights, May said she hopes voters evaluate her on two criteria: “I said nobody was going to outwork me for the residents of Ward 8 and that I’m going to fight for our share of investment and resources.”
She has kept those promises, she said.
In her brief tenure, May has cast few votes that run counter to Bowser’s policies, something that White has emphasized as he seeks to portray himself as more independent.
She also sided with Bowser and flipped her vote from supporting to opposing private marijuana clubs. The District legalized marijuana possession last year, but sales remain illegal and advocates have lobbied the council to allow clubs where people can legally smoke, saying the current law discriminates against those who live in public housing, where smoking marijuana remains illegal.
May initially voted to legalize pot clubs but switched her vote minutes later amid heavy lobbying by Bowser. She said she was not pressured directly by the mayor and that she changed her vote after reflecting on it and getting text messages on the council dais from constituents.
She said she opposes a centerpiece of Bowser’s proposed crime bill — a provision that would allow warrantless searches of former violent offenders.
“The mayor and I are fundamentally different people,” May said, “and oh, that was bad,” she said of Bowser’s proposal. Ward 8 residents nearly shouted Bowser off the stage last summer at the shuttered Malcolm X High School in the ward as she announced the idea.
Last week, May was across the street from the school, with a group of six paid canvassers, efficiently proceeding through a housing complex with voter registration cards, campaign literature and yard signs.
May’s signs easily outnumber White’s in the ward. Former D.C. Taxicab Commission member Sandra “S.S.” Seegars said she thinks that is because May’s appeal is broader than White’s.
Seegars, who was among the 13 who ran for Barry’s seat last year, recently interviewed the candidates for a domestic-violence group she founded and came away impressed most by May on crime and other issues. “White is all about the youth, but it’s about more than the kids,” she said.
Meanwhile, May and White are locked in a tough contest for Barry’s mantle. Philip Pannell, a longtime Ward 8 political activist, is not convinced either is the true successor. “No one person can replace Marion Barry,” he said. “And no one should try. His legacy is too big for any one person.”