Tommy Wells sat shotgun in an aging Lexus SUV on his way to a rowhouse where he would dutifully sip a glass of Norwegian mulled wine and introduce himself to residents of Burleith, a neighborhood north of Georgetown University.
Eight months into his campaign, the 56-year-old D.C. Council member would adroitly explain why he is running for mayor: to “restore integrity” to District government, to solve a “crisis of ethics” in the city, to bring the improvements his own Ward 6 has seen to other parts of the District.
The Democrat is less able to explain the conundrum of his political career: How did an ex-social worker who toiled in the city’s poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods, who played a major role in reforming the city’s child welfare system, become the candidate of bicycles and buses, of Twitter, YouTube and Reddit, of a “Top Chef”-themed campaign fundraiser?
Asked this question as the Lexus raced down the Whitehurst Freeway, Wells was stumped. “I don’t know,” he murmered. “I don’t know how I became the — the smart-growth candidate.”
The candidate, in other words, of the young, the educated and the white.
A recent Washington Post survey found that Wells is the leading Democratic primary candidate among white voters. Among black voters, his showing is dismal. He is dominant in his home ward, which includes Capitol Hill, Southwest Washington and the H Street NE corridor. Elsewhere, he lags.
And yet, The Post poll indicated that he’s neck and neck with the other leading challengers to incumbent Vincent C. Gray in the April 1 primary. He boasts a devoted corps of volunteers and a message seemingly tailor-made for voters seeking an alternative after a three-year period in which three D.C. Council members pleaded guilty to felonies and Gray’s administration was clouded by an unresolved campaign investigation.
Many of Wells’s weaknesses are proudly self-imposed. He pledged to eschew corporate contributions, so he is well behind his most important rivals in fundraising. His campaign headquarters is on the third floor of an office building two blocks from the condo he and his wife, Barbara, have owned for 25 years — and therefore all but invisible. His campaign has placed no signs on street posts, and he lacks name recognition in many parts of the District.
That makes it all the more urgent for Wells to figure out how to transform his candidacy from outspoken advocate of “livable, walkable neighborhoods” into something more akin to Gray — another former-social-services-advocate-turned-politician — minus the federal investigation.
“I don’t think he’s made the best use of what’s been his history, working with people across race,” said Howard Croft, a longtime friend and former professor of urban studies at the University of the District of Columbia. “And I don’t think he has, as effectively as he can, made the connection between what he’s done and the way that the issues that he talks about speak to the many economic issues black people face in the city.”
Wells said he understands the challenge.
“The messaging I have, the initiatives I have, they work,” he said. “But I have to do a better job communicating them.”
The campaign-season mythology of Thomas Clayton Wells begins in 1983 with his arrival in Washington at the age of 26: a Texas-born, Alabama-raised scion of a Minnesota family stepping off an Amtrak train into seedy Union Station and out into Capitol Hill, the neighborhood that would become his home and political base.
The making of the mayoral candidate begins later — after Wells worked on Walter Mondale’s 1984 presidential campaign, where he would meet his wife and several lifelong friends, after he took a job with the District’s child welfare agency and after he helped Marion Barry win a third mayoral term in 1986.
He became one of a few employees willing to speak out about systemic failings in what was then called the Division of Child and Family Services — not enough workers, not enough cars, not enough support — as the city was hit by the triple crisis of crack, AIDS and fiscal mismanagement.
In 1991, he and a fellow social worker, Chainie Scott, testified against the city in a federal civil rights lawsuit. (To this day, the case remains open and the city’s child welfare agency remains subject to court supervision.) After putting himself through law school at night, Wells led an advocacy group that helped persuade a Republican Congress to create a new family division within the D.C. Superior Court.
He sought office as an advisory neighborhood commissioner. He ran for and won a school board seat in 2000, then ran six years later to succeed Ward 6 council member Sharon Ambrose.
Wells had long been in the public eye as a child welfare advocate. Early in his tenure, he was handed the council’s Human Services Committee, a portfolio that included child welfare, homelessness, juvenile justice and other areas of expertise for him.
But he chafed at being pigeonholed as a social-services maven. He sought to create a new political persona — to make a mark in transportation, planning and development matters. Now, that persona seems to be limiting his appeal. Then, it seemed a smart way to expand his portfolio.
Paul D. Cooper, who met Wells during the Mondale campaign, was present at the creation of what became one of the most successful brands in D.C. politics: “For livable, walkable neighborhoods.”
“It literally came out of his mouth, and I wrote it down,” Cooper said. “It was, at that moment, a culmination of his vision for what the city is, and how it could be better. It resonates because it reflects something people believe.”
In his first term, Wells proved himself a savvy lawmaker, introducing a measure imposing a 5-cent tax on each disposable bag sold by food-and-drink retailers in the city. He shrewdly tied the bag tax to the cleanup of the Anacostia River, a symbol of the District’s economic and racial divides, and carefully built a coalition that overcame opposition from the plastics industry.
After he helped colleague Kwame R. Brown (D) win the council chairmanship in 2010, Wells took over the committee overseeing transportation and began aiming for big action on his “livable, walkable” vision by shaping issues that included bus service and bicycle infrastructure.
That lasted six months. After it was revealed that Brown had ordered pricey government-funded SUVs for his own use, Wells investigated and issued a critical report. Months later, Brown moved to remove him from his committee post.
Brown’s power move accelerated Wells’s embrace of ethics and campaign finance reform. But it didn’t help his relationships with his colleagues. His hard-line stances on corporate campaign contributions and “constituent services” fundraising prompt eye rolls in many John A. Wilson Building offices.
That is fine, as far as Wells is concerned. Cruising down Georgia Avenue NW with campaign aide Dan Conner at the wheel, he paused when asked whether he has any enemies.
“Your colleagues,” deadpans Conner, a former council aide who shares Wells’s Alabama drawl.
Wells chuckled. “That was perfect, Daniel, thank you.”
The tension was on display last week when the council took up a bill by Wells that would reduce the penalty for possessing an ounce of marijuana or less from a criminal misdemeanor to a $25 fine, or a $100 fine if the marijuana was being smoked openly.
It is rare for proposed legislation to be gutted so publicly on the council dais. To some, it was evidence that Wells is unable to persuade his colleagues.
Ambrose, who has supported each of Wells’s previous political runs, is not supporting this one for that very reason. “If you can’t do that, then as mayor, you’ll never get anything done,” she said. “You’ll have an Obama-and-the-Congress situation.”
Wells is the only one of the four D.C. Council members seeking the Democratic mayoral nomination who is risking his taxpayer paycheck to do so; Muriel Bowser (Ward 4), Jack Evans (Ward 2) and Vincent B. Orange (At Large) are running midterm and will keep their council seats if they lose.
That is a distinction he hopes will make an impression on voters. After Sunday services at Metropolitan AME Church in Northwest, he spoke with the Rev. Lewis M. Anthony, who has led several District churches.
They had a polite conversation centered on Wells’s efforts to manage church parking in his ward, and Anthony appeared pleased to have an understanding interlocutor. “You’re going to be here regardless,” he said.
No, Wells said. “I’m either up or out.”
Wells and his supporters understand that he must connect with a broader swath of the city. He has tweaked his campaign formula. The old slogan is out; the new tagline is “Making D.C. a great place to live, work and raise a family.” His campaign has modified its phone-call scripts and his stump speeches to play up his time as a social worker.
After drinking his glogg in Burleith, Wells climbed back into the Lexus and crossed Rock Creek Park for a potluck dinner in Shepherd Park, an integrated middle-class neighborhood near the city’s northern tip. Later, he attended a happy hour at an H Street NE bar, attended by mainly younger, mainly black Ward 7 residents.
The happy hour’s organizer, Maceo Thomas, a 42-year-old property manager who lives in Fort Dupont Park, a mostly black middle-class neighborhood east of the Anacostia, said Wells’s political barrier is more generational than racial. Thomas has been inviting Wells for months to events with young black professionals, with whom he thinks Wells has more potential than with the older crowd.
“I remember knocking on doors [in Ward 7] and people were saying, ‘Hey, he’s a white guy. . . . Black people aren’t going to vote for him,’ ” Thomas said. “I say, ‘Well, I’m black, and I’m voting for him. And not only is he white, he’s really white.’ ”