D.C. Council member Tommy Wells turned the city’s young mayoral contest into a race Saturday, becoming the second candidate to formally declare his intention to seek the city’s top public office.
Wells (D-Ward 6) used his campaign kickoff event, held along a fast-developing corridor in Northeast, to lay out a vision of replicating his home ward’s transformation in other parts of the city while placing a strong emphasis on issues of integrity in city government.
“We have seen the greatest ethical crisis in our city since the beginning of home rule, and people want that changed,” Wells told about 75 umbrella-holding supporters. “And we have seen people want livable, walkable neighborhoods.”
Wells, who arrived at the event, at the intersection of H Street and Benning Road NE, on the X8 Metro bus, also becomes the most viable white mayoral candidate in two decades in a city that has been led exclusively by African Americans since it gained home rule in 1975.
He acknowledged in an interview before Saturday’s announcement that race is an issue likely to suffuse his campaign. “There’s going to be people that will not vote for me because of my race,” Wells, 56, said. “If I become mayor, I have to be able to be sure they’re represented the minute I become mayor.”
Two other white council members, Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) and David A. Catania (I-At Large), are also potential and possibly formidable candidates. But Wells has been the most open and methodical about his mayoral ambitions, launching an exploratory campaign in February that included a “listening tour” of city wards and a test of his fundraising mettle.
Wells said his exploratory haul — more than $150,000 from 500 individual donors, he said — indicates that he has sufficient fundraising capacity despite a pledge to eschew all corporate donations as part of his ethics stance. And he said he was encouraged about what he heard during his exploratory period, particularly on the racial concerns.
“When I went to wards 7 and 8, nobody brought up the color of my skin,” he said, adding that he has won significant numbers of black votes in previous campaigns. “I’ve trusted the voters before, and I’ve gotten a fair shot before, and they’ve elected me.”
Wells said he was heartened by the results of recent citywide elections, which he said demonstrated voters’ focus on integrity issues.
That included last fall’s general election, where upstart David Grosso defeated incumbent and fellow independent Michael A. Brown for an at-large council seat. In a special election last month, longtime city Democratic operative Anita Bonds, who is black, won but with a bare plurality. White candidates split more than 63 percent of the vote.
Fellow council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) entered the race last month, launching her campaign from the steps of her childhood home in North Michigan Park, and former city administrator and school board president Robert C. Bobb has taken steps to explore a run.
Wells said he respects many of the accomplishments of Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), particularly his long-term planning efforts and focus on job creation. But he suggested that the mayor is “disqualified from running” because of his campaign woes, which remain under federal investigation.
“To say that there is a separation between your government and how you get elected is something that I think that anybody would love to be able to do,” Wells said, “but the fact is that the mayor was elected with an illegal campaign.”
Wells also referred to employment controversies that erupted in the early days of Gray’s administration, including the hiring of former mayoral candidate Sulaimon Brown, whose subsequent firing from the Department of Health Care Finance drove Brown to reveal secret cash payoffs from Gray campaign aides, prompting the federal investigation that continues.
Gray has demurred when asked about his reelection plans in recent months. But he has not been shy about defending his record as mayor.
Asked about Wells’s candidacy, Gray spokesman Pedro Ribeiro dismissed the candidate’s allegations about the mayor’s 2010 election as a “talking point.”
“It is very telling that Mr. Wells makes some nebulous and unfounded allegation of corruption when he doesn’t mention” the mayor’s record, Ribeiro said. “Unemployment is down. Crime is down. Schools continue to improve, and cranes dot the sky for as far as you can see. When you have nothing to run on, you make veiled and unfounded allegations.”
Wells’s strong base in his home ward, support from smart growth and environment-minded voters and the city’s changing demographics make him the city’s most viable white candidate since at least 1994, when Republican Carol Schwartz ran a strong but unsuccessful bid to block Marion Barry’s comeback from a federal drug conviction.
Wells is in his second term representing Ward 6, which stretches from Southwest north and east through Capitol Hill and up to the fast-changing area surrounding H Street NE. Raised near Birmingham, Ala., he came to Washington in 1983 after completing graduate school at the University of Minnesota.
He worked as a social worker for the city’s child welfare agency and, after pressing for improvements from inside the agency in the early 1990s, founded and led the nonprofit organization Consortium for Child Welfare until his election as council member in 2006.
He also served on the city’s Board of Education for six years before his council service.
Despite his background as a social-service advocate, Wells has made his promotion of “livable, walkable” neighborhoods the cornerstone of his political identity — for instance, distributing yearly awards to neighborhood businesses and institutions.
In his remarks at Saturday’s rally and in an interview Thursday, Wells renewed his emphasis on pedestrian-friendly neighborhood development. He sketched out a goal of providing a well-performing elementary school within walking distance of every city household. And he set a goal of cutting the number of crimes committed by teenagers by half within two years.
But pushing a model of development based on Ward 6, which has been ground zero for the city’s explosive economic growth, could be risky in a citywide campaign in which Wells is likely to face questions about race, gentrification, and the clashing priorities of old and new residents.
The blocks of H Street NE west of Wells’s rally, where barbershops and black-oriented boutiques have been replaced by chic bars catering to a more racially mixed crowd, have become to some a symbol of an African American majority city that is now slipping away.
But Wells said he’s confident that his message can transcend the racial and economic tensions bound to follow his campaign.
“Everybody wants safe neighborhoods. Everybody wants to be able to walk to a great neighborhood school. Everybody wants to be able to walk to fresh food,” he said. “It’s not a black or white thing. Who says, ‘No, don’t give me a decent grocery store in my neighborhood?’ Everybody wants the same things.”