Loose Lips

The Thomas Antidote

D.C. Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie is Ready to Move On in Ward 5

LL wasn’t in the car long with Ward 5 Councilmember-elect Kenyan McDuffie before the District’s newest elected official started talking about his “self-destructive” tendencies.

That’s a loaded term these days, considering the spectacular self-destruction of the last guy to hold the Ward 5 seat. Harry Thomas Jr. is set to report to federal prison soon, after pleading guilty to stealing more than $350,000 from the city.

But for McDuffie, who was taking LL on a brief tour of the old neighborhood haunts, it’s self-destruction of a much less worrisome, if more painful, kind. Like when he was a kid and jammed his finger playing basketball. After wrapping the finger in ice, McDuffie was so eager to rejoin the game that he sliced off the tip of a different finger in the door leading to his backyard. McDuffie also has ugly scars left from the time he cut his fingers on the sideview mirror of a parked car while he was playing football.

These days, voluntarily joining the current D.C. Council might well be considered a self-destructive tendency, too. McDuffie, who will be sworn in later this month, will be joining a legislative body filled with cold-blooded political operatives, smooth-talking lobbyists for well-funded interests and members who often actively hate each other. Throw in disillusionment over Thomas’ behavior, anxiety over the city’s demographic shifts, and ongoing federal investigations into Mayor Vince Gray and Council Chairman Kwame “Fully Loaded” Brown, and it’s a fraught time to be a politician in the District.

The big question is whether McDuffie—an affable, easygoing 36-year-old with no noticeable trace of cynicism—will thrive, merely survive, or get eaten alive in such an environment.

McDuffie obviously has high hopes for his service: While we were driving along neglected Rhode Island Avenue NE on our tour, McDuffie talked of wanting to make it a destination boulevard like what H Street NE is becoming. And he hasn’t been short on ambition in the past; he still remembers the August day in 1998 when he quit the Postal Service, leaving behind a secure government job with good money and benefits.

“My hand was quivering as I was handing in the papers, because I didn’t know what was on the other side,” McDuffie says. The postal employee who took the papers asked McDuffie if he was sure he knew what he was doing.

“No, not really,” McDuffie remembers thinking.

But the leap of faith paid off. McDuffie enrolled at UDC, then transferred to Howard University, where he graduated in 2002. After seeing his two older brothers drop out of college, McDuffie says he half-assed an earlier attempt at UDC, withdrawing from one class and failing another. But the second time around, he says he had a purpose, which, corny as it sounds, he says was to give back to his community.

After college came a stint in Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton’s office before law school at the University of Maryland. McDuffie, who says that in his youth he was occasionally harassed by police for being a young black man out late at night, says he initially “wanted to be the next Johnnie Cochran” but instead found himself drawn to the enforcement side of the law. After graduating law school in 2006, McDuffie worked as a prosecutor for the Prince George’s County State’s Attorney’s Office and in the Civil Rights division of the Department of Justice. He ran for the Ward 5 seat in 2010 and came in third behind Thomas and Delano Hunter, who he beat this month.

McDuffie says he left a good job at the Justice Department to make the long-shot run at Thomas because he was frustrated with what he felt was a lack of leadership. McDuffie hadn’t had much luck in city politics before that race: He lost a bid to be an ANC commissioner in 2002. After getting walloped in 2010, McDuffie worked as a policy advisor for Paul Quander, Gray’s deputy mayor for public safety.

McDuffie’s tour of his new constituency ended with a look at the spiffy brick alleyways near his house in Stronghold. He says he joined the local civic group in his 20s and played a key role in getting the bricks installed. At the end of one alley is a garage where several generation of neighbors have etched their name in brick. “Kenyan” is there, along with the names of McDuffie’s father, brothers, and other relatives.

“Boone, that’s my best friend’s dad,” says McDuffie, who lives with his wife and two young girls in the house where both he and his dad grew up.

As he reads, LL can’t help but think of the similarities between McDuffie’s and Thomas’ upbringing, and how they’re both products of tightknit, middle class Northeast D.C. neighborhoods.

For Thomas, getting into politics was a given: Both parents were in the game, and his father was a three-term Ward 5 councilmember. But McDuffie, who says his parents were never political, may turn out to be more of the natural pol. He surprised everyone with his lopsided victory in the special election to fill Thomas’ seat, which he won by forming a diverse, broad coalition and infusing it with something that’s been lacking in other recent city campaigns: genuine enthusiasm. Voters were drawn to the fresh face who promised ethical leadership.

Says Justin Fairfax, an attorney who grew up with McDuffie, “I think this was the thing he was born to do.”

We’ll know soon enough whether that’s true.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

Got a tip for LL? Send suggestions to lips@washingtoncitypaper.com. Or call (202) 650-6951.

  • Sally

    Some high hopes for this guy. Let's see if they're justified.

  • NE John

    I support Kenyan. From another NE boy

  • smgreene67

    I live in Bloomingdale and support Kenyon. I hope he does not let us down. We need honest, ethical leaders in this town.

  • RealDC

    No hopes here, just get in and get to work. Definitely, disappointed seeing Tommy "the drunk weasel" Wells in McDuffie's mix. Not good! What favors is Wells looking for? Same old DC inside move, let the ward 6 monkey support or get the ward 5 monkey in office and the ward 6 monkey can get the ward 5 monkey to support him for his dream for the chair or mayor. Hell no McDuffie, ward 5 is not having it, don't try it. Ward 5 will get rid of ur a$$ in 2014.

  • FedUpWithDCPolitics

    The thing I've noticed about the residents of Ward 5 and the District is that we put too much faith and hope in MAN! Have we not been proven WRONG time and time again by trusting these so called "leaders" that we elect to represent us ethically? The entire Wilson building is CORRUPTED and needs to be cleaned of all the snakes whom are all looking for the next $(dollar). Kenyan is Gray's puppet, and we all will see during his short stint in office.

  • Rory O’Neil

    He is Paul Quander's boy. Another mediocrity who thinks will be Mayor someday. Quander, not Ken.

  • StrangeFruit


    If McDuffie wants to be reelected in 2014, he best distance himself from Tommy Wells!

  • RealDC

    @strangefruit- McDuffie has already gotten in bed with Wells, It was the progressives that pushed his campaign over the top on May 15th.

    Wells is trying to set the table for a 2014 run at Chair/Mayor. Each position will need support in Ward 5. McDuffie has promised to support Wells...... be careful ward 5, as things changed, the more they stay the same.

  • RealDC

    LOL. Really, Justin Fairfax? That's your quote? LOL!! SMH.

  • DC5

    The "progressives" did not push McDuffie over the top in the special election. McDuffie scored high margins in every part of the ward and came within 40 votes of beating Hunter in his own precinct (71). McDuffie came within 85 votes of Hunter throughout the 4 southerly precincts, and Bob King's principality in Fort Lincoln got Hunter only an 87-vote margin out of nearly 600 votes. McDuffie won Harry & Romaine Thomas' precinct comfortably (69/Taft), as well as Bunker Hill, Edgewood & Ft Totten. Where are the "progressives"? Eckington (Taft) and Dunbar saw 10% & 12% turnout, half that of precinct 66 and similar northern areas where McDuffie was strong. In each of those northern high-voting precincts McDuffie's margin was over 100 votes except in 66, where he lost by fewer than 100 but scored over 10x as many votes as Wilds got in Bloomingdale.

  • KeepInItReal

    ANY faith vested in local politicians is a waste. EVERYONE in the Wilson Building is a total disappointment.

  • http://distcurm.blogspot.com/ IMGoph

    McDuffie brought every part of the ward together. Those saying otherwise are either bitter, don't want to acknowledge the truth, or have a misplaced agenda.

    He's starting with a clean slate. If he screws up royally in the next year, then go ahead and complain. Until then, people whining sound silly.

  • What?

    Yeah, I agree with IMGoph here. Dude isn't even sworn into office and already people are griping. It smacks of sour grapes. Read what DC5 wrote above so you can truly understand how widespread Kenyan's victory was.

  • W52W3

    Give the man a chance before you start attacking him. I'd say that McDuffie is a much need breath of fresh air in the city council. He's what we're looking for in NEW government, honest, ethical, hardworking and impartial. He's got an uphill battle at the Wilson Building but I have faith that he'll do an excellent job.

  • Political Observer

    Plus it is the residents working WITH the CM that makes this thing work. I can sense the cynicism among commenters here who will to stand to the side, see him trip (maybe even lay a fall line) & say told ya. Give us and your neighbors a break and tone down the snide, wanna-be political punditry.

  • DC_LovesYou

    Let me school of some you…McDuffie won't be perfect. He's human. He's flesh. He will undoubtedly make mistakes navigating the storm brewing inside the Wilson Building. Hopefully he’ll recover with class, wit and dexterity. But if he’s doing to get anything done for his ward; for this city, he will have to cut deals, compromise and make promises that may or may not get fulfilled. Those of you who don't know this about politics are naive at say the least; dumb to say the most. Give McDuffie a chance to feel his way and let's all pray (if you are a believer) that he won't become too corrupted. A little bit won't hurt..... Class Dismissed!

  • capitol hill

    He beat that homophobe delano hunter. Three cheers.

  • Typical DC BS

    @What: Exactly. They guy isn't even sworn in yet. Give him a chance.

  • Up Close

    Kenyan has integrity that will have him turn his seat over before he compromises that integrity. He won because the people that saw and felt his integrity donated and volunteered to make sure as many people as possible understood what we do. I have known the man for almost 8 years and although I was financially strapped tried to give the maximum contribution because what he represents is more than worth it. No person put into a job they have never done will be perfect and many of their decisions questionable but all of you skeptics and bitter Betty's can rest assured that his focus will always be for the Good of his constituency. Kenyan is the real deal PERIOD and the entire city would do well to place him higher after his experience expands. He has a tough fight with so many hearts loyal to deceptive people but the truth will stand above all the negativity and ignorance.

  • Ward5+

    Fine, can all of the candidates please remove their signs from the poles and light posts. Its a mess over here. Clean up!! Thats to the winner and the losers.

    BTW-Anybody with Wells behind him is not fresh and new.

  • DCNative


    Yes, McDuffie will be given a chance and watched carefully due to his affiliation with CM Wells who has a history in his Ward for being against diversity.

    And, if McDuffie shows any inkling of collaborating with CM Wells to transplant Wells' racial decisive tactics used in Ward 6--many Blacks in Shaw(redistricted to Ward 6) now hate Wells-- McDuffie will be history.

  • DT

    Go McDuffie, screw DelAnus!!

  • Wait. what?

    @StrangeFruit: Your obsession with Tommy Wells is adorable! Unfortunately for you, Wells will win Ward 6 by massive margins - again and again. Best learn to deal with that - and to get used to the notion of Wells in a more visible, citywide role...

    Must be tough to be an anachronism isn't it, StrangeFruit?

  • Gold Coast Kid

    Bowser in 2014!!

  • StrangeFruit

    @ Wait. what?

    I mentioned nothing about Ward 6, but Ward 5! And, FYI, I've heard tell of PAC being formed as we speak to bankroll a viable candidate to end Tommy's reign that has racially divided the Ward.

  • http://distcurm.blogspot.com/ IMGoph

    StrangeFruit: Well, fools and their money are easily parted.

  • What a wonderful DC

    Hell to the NO Bowser sorry

  • DT

    Fuck Bowser 2014 n fuck the Gold Coast for that matter!

  • Wait, What?

    HA! @StrangeFruit: that is comical. Whatever conglomeration churches (I'm guessing, as you've alluded to this before) and their PG County based parishioners are able to throw together stands little if any chance in finding a viable candidate, let alone defeating Wells. Mad he's stopped most of the illegal parking that was allowed on Sundays in years past?

    Good Luck. As I said before, must be tough being an anachronism.

  • Politicsasusual

    Please familiarize yourself with the DC BOE precinct details before you take the time and quote misguided and incorrect precinct voting results.

    Kenyan will perform as the rest of the compromised Politicians in DC. He has no voice its been brought by Gray and Wells. They are all strange allies but everyone loves a "YES" man!l That's how Tommy was able to survive so long. He had no talent or brains but voted the way he was told..............