Livable! Walkable! Winable?
Late in the afternoon on Feb. 4, Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells filed papers to form an exploratory committee taking the first step in his quixotic quest to become the first white mayor of the District of Columbia. Having taken such momentous plunge, most politicians would have headed back to their home ward intent on raucously celebrating with their coterie of true believers.
Opening in Anacostia
Early evening found him working the crowd at Big Chair Coffee & Grill, Martin Luther King Jr. Ave SE, deep in the heart of historic Anacostia. While the area is the up and coming home to the new Anacostia Playhouse and boasts two art galleries, it bears little resemblance to the bustle of Barracks Row or the hip vibes of H Street in Wells' home ward.
A crowd of forty, mostly African-Americans, turned out to hear Wells in the first of a series of exploratory sessions he plans to conduct across the District in the coming year. The group was demographically diverse. There were young parents and seniors; new residents and old. Some were busy twittering on their phones, while others listened intently.
“I don't remember when I first met Tommy Wells. He was always there,” stated Nikki Peele, Congress Heights blogger and Managing Director of the nearby HIVE business incubator, as she introduced Wells enthusiastically to the audience. She went on to endorse Wells for his focus on small business development and his commitment to the redevelopment of historic Anacostia.
“This government is a mess and it can only be straightened out by the citizens of DC,” stated Wells in his opening remarks.
Taking nothing for granted, Wells narrated his origins. Son of a minister, born in Texas and raised in Alabama, Wells first came to DC at the suggestion of a graduate school professor in the School of Social Work at University of Minnesota, where he received his MSW.
Selling his car to buy a train ticket to DC, Wells arrived in the city knowing a single friend at Catholic University. “When I came out of Union Station, I fell in love with DC,” he remembered fondly.
Wells reminded the audience that he is no stranger to issues of inequality. Beginning his career as a DC childcare social worker, he later became director of the Consortium for Child Welfare. Concurrently, he obtained a law degree from Catholic University at night.
Long active in District politics, Wells told the audience of his service as an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner and stint on the School Board. His reminiscences about running the Barry for Mayor campaign in Ward 6 received an enthusiastic audience response.
“I want to hear some answers. What are we missing in our government?'” Wells asked the audience as he opened the forum for questions.
Asked about the challenges of running a small business, Wells suggested that the government should be run on an 18-hour basis, allowing small business owners deal with the city bureaucracies at times convenient to them. Extend the hours of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) and the Office of Tax and Revenue (OTR) to suit their customers.
“We need small, local businesses in neighborhoods, so people have jobs,” Wells stated. “Government must help support our businesses, so that they can support the rest of us.”
“I don't shop in my neighborhood. I don't eat in my neighborhood. I don't do anything in my neighborhood,” observed a Bellevue resident sadly.
“Ward 6 got it going on. A baby Georgetown,” added another audience member wryly.
Wells responded by outlining his transit-driven vision of economic development. Use the built environment to foster safety and small business development using better lighting and more attractive street-scape designs.
Everything should be available to residents within five-minutes of their home by foot, bike or mass transit, Wells stated, citing Ward 6's H Street as an example.
The case of H Street should also provide an important caution, Wells argued. The city had not protected existing residents, mainly renters, from the ravages of gentrification. More money for the Home Purchase Assistance Program (HPAP) and the Housing Trust Fund would allow the city to provide renters with a pathway to homeownership, he stated.
Wells echoed the concern of one audience member that the coming development at St. Elizabeth's would result in a walled compound much like Bolling Airforce Base.
'“St. Elizabeth's needs to be an economic opportunity for the whole area,” Wells stated.
Confronted by an angry mother frustrated with the difficulties of finding a school that would accommodate the specials needs of her child, Wells drew on the experience of Ward 6.
“Parents need to be convinced that neighborhood schools can educate their children,” he stated.
The key is to force schools to be entrepreneurial in orientation to give parents what they want. In Ward 6, the schools are doing this, he pointed out, leading to a huge increase in enrollment.
Wells also stated his support for skill-based educational programs aimed at youth. He urged audience members to visit the new Phelps Architecture, Construction and Engineering High School.
Ron Moten, one-time Republican candidate for council and founder of Peaceaholics, cross examined Wells on his opposition to city funding for Moten's former organization from the Children and Youth Investment Trust Fund. In the face of heated questioning, Wells stuck to his position opposing sole-source contracts, citing the Harry Thomas Jr. scandal.
Moten also questioned Wells heatedly on his opposition to Marion Barry's (D-Ward 8) recent bill outlawing employment discrimination against ex-offenders.
In reply to Moten's frustration with year-long unemployment, which he attributed to a decades old criminal conviction, Wells stated that he believed that Moten should be employed by the District to assist returning citizens.
“Every morning when I open up my business (on Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE), there is a long line of people waiting for assistance,” observed one audience member.
There is a disconnect between city social services and the requirements of indigent residents, Wells stated. The poor should not be punished when proper assistance is unavailable, he added.
“We are working on creating pathways out,” he stated, promising to hold social services accountable.
Beyond Ward 6
Wells' foray into historic Anacostia met with a friendly reception. The audience appeared ready to engage him in dialog and disputation. Can his quest make headway outside of the comfort bubble surrounding Eastern Market? Will Wells be the first white Mayor of DC?
'Things can change,” said Linda Smith, an older, African-American resident of Ward 6.
Smith has voted for Wells three times.