When voters in Northeast Washington go to the polls Tuesday to elect a council member to replace disgraced Harry Thomas Jr., they won’t just be electing a new representative for Ward 5.
They will also be selecting the potential swing vote on the 13-member council, presenting voters with outsize influence in determining future policies that could shape the city for a generation.
With the D.C. Council increasingly fractured by personal rivalries and differences on policy, many council members and Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D) will be looking to the new colleague as a potential tie-breaking vote. The winner will be sworn in within days of the election and casting votes, including on the fiscal year 2013 budget.
Although 11 candidates are in the race, political strategists and Ward 5 observers believe that Kenyan McDuffie, 36, Frank Wilds, 67, and Delano Hunter, 28, all of whom are Democrats and have competed in past Ward 5 elections, are best positioned to pull off a victory. But with turnout expected to be light, former council staffer Drew Hubbard, 34, a Democrat, and Republican Tim Day, 40, could also potentially claim victory.
In recent days, The Washington Post posed a series of questions to all of the competitive candidates to gauge their views on some issues of concern to voters citywide.
Q: Would you support doubling the city’s $35 residential parking permit fee to encourage more residents to take public transportation and free up more parking in residential areas?
A: McDuffie, Wilds, Hunter, Hubbard and Day all oppose the idea.
Q: Do you agree with the city’s plan to build a 37-mile, $1 billion streetcar network? If so, how would you pay for it?
A: Day wants the streetcar plan “scrapped” until a new, comprehensive transportation plan for the city is developed. McDuffie and Hubbard support streetcars but wouldn’t make it a priority until other programs, such as affordable housing, are better funded.
Wilds would support streetcars only if all the money comes from the federal government or through a regional partnership with Maryland and Virginia. Hunter said the streetcars are a “good investment” and require continued funding.
Q: Do you support continued taxpayer investment to expand the number of Capital Bikeshare stations?
A: Hunter said yes. McDuffie and Hubbard said only after other spending priorities, such as affordable housing, are met. Wilds said no because he worries that stations are “cluttering up sidewalks.”
Day said he would not support additional funding until a broader transportation vision for the District was in place. “Adding bike share stations to certain parts of Ward 5 is a moot point because they are mostly seniors and not going to ride them,” Day said.
Q: Would you vote to give D.C. police officers, who have not had a new contract since 2007, a pay raise if it resulted in cuts to other public-safety programs?
A: Day said yes. Hunter, Hubbard and McDuffie said they think there may be money in the budget to give the raises without making other cuts to public safety. Wilds said he would give police officers a raise only if it is accompanied by raises for teachers and firefighters.
Q: Should Internet gambling be legalized in the District?
A: Hunter, Hubbard, McDuffie and Wilds said they are not opposed to the concept, but would first want broad vetting from the community. Day is opposed.
Q: Should criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana be reduced and made similar to those in surrounding states?
A: Wilds, Hunter and Hubbard said yes. Day said no. McDuffie responded that he first wants to hear the community’s views. “I don’t think the council needs to assume that they know best what people want in terms of marijuana, particularly people who live next to open-air drug markets,” McDuffie said.
A: All the candidates said it’s good for Ward 5, except Day, who worried that the area could become too much like Columbia Heights and Adams Morgan. McDuffie also stressed that development should be “community-oriented, responsible and sustainable.”
Q: With renewed talk of raising the city’s 130-foot building height limit, is there any part of Ward 5 where taller buildings might be appropriate?
A: McDuffie, Day, Hunter and Hubbard all oppose taller buildings in Ward 5. Wilds would support taller buildings along New York Avenue NE as part of a refurbished “hotel zone.”
Q: If you could attract one business to the ward, what would it be, and where would you put it?
A: Wilds said a District government agency for Rhode Island Avenue NE. Hubbard said a Kinko’s or coffee shop at Rhode Island Avenue NE. Hunter said a large gym, perhaps at the Shops at Dakota Crossing development in Fort Lincoln. McDuffie said “something with job training,” but that he wasn’t sure. Day, an accountant, said an accounting firm.
Q: Are big-box stores good or bad for Ward 5?
A: All the candidates said they were good if they were well planned and included community benefits. “My concern is we just don’t have copies of what is in the suburbs,” Hunter said.
Q: Do you support spending city money to extend health insurance to undocumented immigrants?
A: Hubbard, Hunter, McDuffie and Day said yes. Wilds said no, adding, “we can’t supplement everybody.”
Q: Do you think welfare benefits should be cut off after five years, as is called for under the 1996 federal welfare reform law?
A: All candidates say they would support time limits, but they are not currently convinced that the appropriate job training and life-skills training is in place to help recipients make the transition. “We can’t say, ‘Here you go’ for five years, and then say, ‘Oh well, good-bye, we don’t care about you anymore,’ ” Day said.
A: Hunter, Wilds, Hubbard and Day said no. McDuffie said yes.
Q: Currently, residents who earn between $40,000 and $350,000 a year pay an 8.5 percent rate while residents who earn more than $350,000 pay an 8.95 percent rate. What do you think the highest tax rate should be and at what income level?
A: McDuffie, Day, Hubbard and Hunter would keep the current rates, though Hubbard eventually wants a “more progressive” structure. Wilds wants to cut the city’s 6 percent rate for residents who make less than $40,000 while raising taxes on those who make more than $300,000. “The rich should pay more,” he said.
Q: Should at least some charter schools in Ward 5 have a neighborhood admissions preference so that some residents near those schools can be assured seats?
A: McDuffie and Hunter said no, fearing it could undercut the flexibility those schools need to be successful. Day said yes. Hubbard said he believes “there should be some threshold” where charter schools could become neighborhood schools. Wilds appeared unfamiliar with the topic, saying he would do “what’s best for the community.”
Q: Should 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation be tied to test score growth, as is currently the case?
A: All the candidates said no, raising concerns that such an evaluation fails to adequately capture teachers’ true classroom performance. “Sometimes, test scores are just reflective of the school and the community the school is located in,” Hunter said.
Staff writers Mike DeBonis and Bill Turque contributed to this report.