Who Is the Next Tommy Wells?
With temperatures in the 20's, few people are opening their doors to Ward 6 D.C. Council candidate Darrel Thompson as he canvasses on a recent Saturday. Worse, one of those who does, an elderly woman, says she won’t vote for anyone in the race.
But Thompson, toe warmers stuffed in his socks, thinks it’s worth another shot. He’d dealt with cranky lawmakers on behalf of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid for four years as his deputy chief of staff. Surely he can win one more vote.
Running up the woman’s steps, Thompson doesn’t resemble his most recent boss as much as he does an earlier one: Barack Obama. Thompson worked as the chief of staff on Obama’s 2004 Senate campaign, and he picked up Obama’s lilting baritone along the way. Alas, the woman never gets a chance to hear it—she won’t open her door for Thompson.
Another more local pol looms over Thompson’s day of tundra canvassing: Ward 6 rival Charles Allen, the former chief of staff and anointed heir to current Councilmember Tommy Wells. According to Thompson team intelligence on Allen (most of which boils down to reading tweets), Allen’s throwing a lunch meeting even while Thompson and campaign manager Aimee Occhetti are out on East Capitol Street losing feeling in their fingers. Thompson wonders how Allen figures he can get away with lunch instead of door-knocking on a Saturday.
Thompson is looking to eat Allen’s lunch in the metaphorical sense. With Wells trading his Council seat for a run in April’s Democratic primary for mayor, Ward 6 is wide open. With Mary Cheh unopposed in Ward 3 and At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds facing enough opponents to split the challenger vote, it might be the most competitive race this year (though now that Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham has only one rival, that one will be worth watching, too). And for Thompson and Allen, both veterans of Democratic politics, it’s a chance to prove that they can be more than aides.
Until he left Wells’ office in October to run, Allen’s desire for his boss’ seat was the worst-held secret in the Wilson Building. Wary of violating Hatch Act rules about campaigning while employed by the government, Allen insisted that he wasn’t eyeing the office. Asking him about it would turn a friendly conversation chilly, even as he registered a website and Facebook fan page for himself.
All the faux-secrecy has paid off, though—seven years working in Wells’ Council office left Allen able to run on his former boss’s accomplishments, like the bag tax, and toss off details about picayune neighborhood issues like crumbling sidewalks around a senior center. At a meet-and-greet in Southwest’s River Park neighborhood, he knows why one elderly couple in the room is leaving the area and turns that into a line about the lack of medical care in the ward.
Admittedly, being a councilmember’s chief of staff doesn’t mean the average voter is much likelier to recognize your name than being, say, the neighborhood street sweeper. But the connections Allen built in the Wilson Building are paying off among the people who care about these things, landing him endorsements from the Service Employees International Union and several Ward 6 Advisory Neighborhood Commission members.
Allen comes with Wells’ ethical prudery about corporate contributions, but without his old boss’s kamikaze sensibility. When Wells boycotted the opening of Shaw’s O Street Market Giant over a contract dispute, Allen joined his old boss on the picket line. But while Wells waded through the crowd at the ribbon-cutting in a haphazard attempt to take the grievances to the company’s executives and Mayor Vince Gray, Allen stayed outside. (In fairness to Wells, the workers eventually did get their contract.)
Allen has a chance to refresh Wells’ livable, walkable ethics brand in Ward 6. While former Ward 6 councilmember Sharon Ambrose has ditched Wells for potential Independent candidate David Catania in the mayor’s race, she’s still backing Allen.
Nothing says more about Allen’s tenure in the ward than his yard sign. At the start of the campaign, Allen had to decide whether to make the font on his first name or his last name bigger—which name, in other words, to make pop. Ultimately, he made each name about the same size after hearing that people just thought of him idiosyncratically as Charles Allen, like when Gotham supervillains say “The Batman.”
“We had people telling me, you’re ‘Charles Allen,’” Allen says, investing himself with the most legal name gravitas this side of Marion Barry.
Allen has a lot of money for those signs. He’d raised $81,940 by the December campaign finance deadline, which would normally be more than enough to win a ward race—if not for Thompson, who’s managed to rustle up even more.
The connections Allen built on Wells’ staff rankle his opponent. Between hitting doors Saturday, Occhetti and Thompson engage in what seems like a well-trod conversation about what Occhetti says is the irony of Wells and Allen, who ran one of the most pro-ethics reform offices on the Council, trying to hand down the seat.
“People say we’re talking about ethics, and somebody is just anointed in a position?” Occhetti says.
“When is the city going to be past this place where we’re handing down seats to family members, to staff?” Thompson replies.
Thompson’s got the cash to be more than a nuisance for Allen. Between his exploratory committee and his campaign, Thompson’s collected $103,773.77, some of it at a fundraiser hosted by Reid. His own former staffer connections have drawn maximum donations from a host of Capitol Hill denizens, including former House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt and a lengthy list of people who list their occupation as “government relations.”
Those connections would make Thompson sound like an ideal candidate for Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton’s job. While Norton’s running for another term this year, at 76, she can’t bat back Republicans forever. Despite rumors to the contrary, Thompson tells LL he’s not interested in going for the District’s nonvoting House seat in the future.
Thompson’s campaign has tried to distinguish him from Allen’s own pro-ethics, pro-education platform with a new mailer that went out Monday. How do you convince a ward to throw the bums out when things are going pretty well? There’s the usual grousing about sloppy constituent services—Thompson tells a story about a sluggish response from Wells’ office after he asked for a stop sign in his neighborhood—but the campaign’s really staking itself on opposition to the Virginia Avenue Tunnel project, which residents near the Navy Yard worry would create an open trench railroad track right before their (currently very expensive) homes.
To make himself the candidate of CSX opposition, Thompson bought a full-page ad in Hill Rag attacking the project. Allen didn’t respond with an ad in favor of the train—since he’s against it, too. If you want to get elected in Ward 6, there’s really no reason not to oppose the project. At meetings on the trench, they both show up. Both men are used to trying to stand out from their more famous bosses. Standing out from one another, though, may be even harder.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery