Running in Place
If you have amazing hearing and listenclosely, you just might be able to detect the pitter-patter of potential political candidates, jockeying ever so carefully for position in the event of a special election to replace embattled Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr.
Thomas, as LL hopes all of his readers are aware, recently agreed to pay $300,000 to settle a civil suit with the District that accused him of improperly using city money to buy, among other things, an Audi SUV, golf trips, and a meal at Hooters.
He’s also under federal investigation, and while the inner workings of the U.S. Attorney’s Office are a mystery known to few, there’s a widespread feeling that Thomas will be brought up on criminal charges.
“This is much, much too serious,” former U.S. Attorney for the District Joe diGenova says of the allegations made in the civil suit against Thomas. “I think the U.S. Attorney’s office is all over this like a cheap suit.”
The current U.S. attorney, tight-lipped Ron Machen, hasn’t given any clues as to whether he’ll go after Thomas, who says he agreed to pay back the money because it was best for the city—not because he did anything wrong. But that hasn’t kept many people in Ward 5 from writing their councilmember’s political future off and planning for an as yet-undetermined future race.
“It’s just a matter of time,” says Debbie Smith-Steiner, a former ANC commissioner who ran unsuccessfully against Thomas in 2006, who says she’s actively trying to recruit candidates to run in a special election. “The ward needs a cleansing.”
There are three scenarios that could lead to a special election. One: Thomas resigns, which seems doubtful even if he were to be indicted by the feds. Two: Thomas is removed from office, which the Board of Elections and Ethics could do only if he were found guilty of a felony and sent to prison, according to a board spokeswoman. And three, the most likely scenario: Ward 5 residents recall Thomas next January when he becomes eligible for such an effort. (Based on current numbers, petitioners will need 5,983 signatures of registered Ward 5 voters to initiate a recall vote.)
“A lot of people have told me that they can’t wait for the opportunity to do a recall,” says ANC commissioner Vaughn Bennett.
Kathy Henderson, a former ANC commissioner who ran for the council seat in 2006 and 2010, says her phone has been ringing off the hook from neighbors wanting to know more about the recall process. She has helped organize a special meeting for later this month to explain how it works.
The meeting could very well have a campaign feel to it, as Henderson sounds like an all-but-declared candidate for any potential special election.
“I feel confident that I would be able to represent the ward competently, ethically, and with passion,” says Henderson, who adds that Thomas is a failed leader who lacks the “dignity” or the “grace” to resign.
Thomas did not respond to a request for comment.
Not everyone feels so free to publicly badmouth Thomas. The family name carries weight in the ward, long the backbone of D.C.’s black middle class. His late father, Harry Thomas Sr., was a popular councilmember, and his mother, Romaine Thomas, is a former school principal who remains a beloved fixture in ward politics and affairs.
Evidence of the vast reservoir of goodwill the Thomas family has established in Ward 5 is in the reticence of At-Large Councilmember Vincent Orange, who used to represent the ward and has long had a frosty relationship with Thomas, to speak out against him now.
“His advisers explained to him: Stay out of it,” says a source close to Orange.
It’s not just Orange, either. Smith-Steiner says a common refrain she hears from potential candidates is, “We don’t want to disrespect his mom, we don’t want to go out there too soon.”
One Ward 5 political source, who asked not to be identified so he could speak freely, says past Thomas supporters who are interested in replacing him are using surrogates to try and line up support on their behalf for a future run. These supporters are treading carefully, the source says, because they’re afraid of angering Thomas and his close friend, Mayor Vince Gray.
“They don’t want to be in position of running for office while Thomas is still councilmember,” the source says.
Some potential candidates LL heard come up several times, but who declined to comment, didn’t return multiple calls for comment, or couldn’t be reached, include Ward 5 school board member Mark Jones, former D.C. Council candidates Frank Wilds and Kenyan McDuffie, and Ward 5 Democratic Party Chairwoman Angel Alston.
“It’s certainly my intention to run again if the seat opens up,” says Delano Hunter, who ran against Thomas last year and isn’t as gun-shy. Hunter says you won’t hear serious candidates criticize Thomas, because no one wants to be seen as kicking a man while he’s down.
“You have to be careful,” he says, comparing the current low-key politicking that’s going on in the ward to a “cold war” atmosphere.
That being said, Hunter says his team of supporters are eager to get started on another campaign “at a moment’s notice.”
“We really feel like this is our moment,” says Hunter.
Just when that moment comes, if ever, depends on Thomas, Machen, and whether nearly 6,000 Ward 5 residents are willing to put their name to paper five months from now.
* * *
THE THRILL IS GONE?
Earlier this summer, Scott Kubly, whoheaded the District Department of Transportation’s streetcar, Circulator, and Capital Bikeshare programs, resigned from his post.
The departure was big enough news to merit a Friday night tweet from Ward 6 Councilmartyr Tommy Wells—and concern from members of the smart-growth set that DDOT has been suffering from a brain drain and low morale ever since the Gray administration took over.
That concern is shared by at least a few current and former staffers who began their District government careers under former Mayor Adrian Fenty and were willing to give, at least for a little while, his vanquisher a chance.
Their basic complaint goes like this: Bright, young staffers were given lots of responsibility and leeway under Fenty to pursue aggressive changes in the city, which made it an exciting place to work. The Gray administration, by contrast, made clear from the get-go that it wasn’t going to be as hard-charging, and the youngins’ weren’t going to be calling the shots anymore.
One former staffer (who, like all the malcontent whippersnappers LL spoke with, is deathly afraid of publicly dissing a former employer, and thus spoke on the condition of anonymity) left after being ignored for several months by a new boss.
“I realized I was part of the problem with the government, a waste of taxpayer money,” says the former employee. “I loved my job there, and I felt like I was making an impact, and even now sometimes I think, ‘Maybe there will be a new mayor, and maybe I can go back.’”
Another former employee complained that the Gray administration has “a ‘no first’ mentality,” whereas under Fenty, “typically, ‘no’ was not the first thing you ought to say.”
Throw in the rash of embarrassing scandals involving the city’s top elected officials, these bright young things say, and the District government is becoming a lot less appealing place to work for smart kids from fancy schools and blue chip companies.
That might not be the end of the world; after all, the Fenty administration was often charged with being dismissive of community concerns, something that probably wasn’t helped by the fact that there were so many young guns hired from around the country calling the shots. But LL thinks it ought to at least be on the mayor’s radar.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery
Got a tip for LL? Send suggestions to email@example.com.