Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White Credit: Darrow Montgomery/File

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If you need to find Trayon White, just look at his Instagram (unless you’re LL, who has been blocked from viewing the Ward 8 councilmember’s account for months).

The freshman lawmaker, nearing the end of his first term, entertains an audience of 37,000 followers with near-constant uploads of images and videos from the Council dais, live streams from crime scenes and food give-aways, and posts about goings on in the ward. In one video shared last year, he quizzes a few kids about a lesson he just gave them about gentrification.

Even when White’s itchy thumbs have landed him in trouble—like the time he posted a picture of himself kicking back in Mexico during a budget vote, or the time he repeated a conspiracy theory that suggests a wealthy Jewish family controls the weather—he has managed to escape relatively unscathed.

Most recently, White took to Facebook Live and, over several days, recorded himself and his team standing outside Hope Village, the soon-to-be-shuttered halfway house in Ward 8. Dressed in a white hazmat suit, White at first responded to complaints to his office that the men housed inside lacked food and supplies. From the street, White shouted to the men, who responded through their open windows.

He later responded to reports of two deaths inside the facility on two different days, and streamed live as employees loaded the bodies into a black van and drove them away. On camera, he called out the facility’s operator, Jeffrey Varone, and its spokesperson, Ward 8 political operator Phinis Jones, and gave out the email address and phone number for Jon Gustin, an administrator in the Bureau of Prisons’ reentry branch.

The two men who died inside were housed in the same building where other residents were said to be quarantined due to the coronavirus, White said in one of his videos, and one of the men was “suffering from some type of respiratory infection,” according to a firefighter he spoke with.

“They just pulled a body out, a gentleman who was in the basement who was allegedly the same person who said he had the flu last week, who was quarantined, who said he was being tested for coronavirus, man,” White said with a sigh, adding that he didn’t know the official cause of death.

With the June 2 primary approaching, White’s political opponents seize on the Hope Village episodes as only the most recent example of why the current occupant of the Ward 8 seat is better suited as an activist than a councilmember.

Mike Austin, one of White’s primary challengers, calls White’s constant social media presence a “dog and pony show” and accuses the incumbent of spreading false information about the deaths inside the halfway house. The BOP has said neither death is related to COVID-19. A BOP spokesperson says via email that the deaths are under investigation and declined to comment further.

“Banging pots, making a fuss, and getting thousands of views and spreading false information on Facebook Live, and just (putting out) propaganda,” Austin says. “As a councilmember your job is to get the facts and instill calm.” (Austin later clarified that he was speaking figuratively about the commotion outside the halfway house and didn’t see White banging pots.)

Yaida Ford, a civil rights lawyer and another of White’s challengers, says his call to shut down the facility without a plan to house its residents is indicative of his “wrongheaded” policies. Although some men will move to home confinement, it’s unclear where the rest will be housed as they near the end of their sentences.

Following White’s posts from outside Hope Village, the company that runs the facility announced it would not seek renewal of its contract with BOP, which expires April 30.

Varone, Hope Village’s chief executive, did not respond to a phone call seeking comment, but he told the Washington Post that a recent lawsuit alleging a lack of medical care and testing for the facility’s residents cost the company “unnecessary time and attorney’s fees” and that some men could head back to prison. The facility also employed more than 50 Ward 8 residents, the Post reported.

Stuart Anderson, White’s third challenger, who served more than a decade in prison and lived in Hope Village in 2008, says “I do the work. Social media? Posting? I don’t need that.”

White did not agree to an interview and did not respond to written questions by press time.

Others believe White’s Instagramming and Facebooking show a level of authenticity that’s rare among elected officials. At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman, who is supporting White and donated to his campaign, calls his Instagram feed “must-watch TV” and says his service-heavy approach to the job is necessary for one of the most economically depressed areas of the District.

“He has a different job than almost any other member,” Silverman says. “The need for services is so great in Ward 8, and the level of violence is higher than any other ward. So he’s directly responding to crime scenes, and oftentimes he knows either the victim or sometimes the suspect.”

During his first four years on the D.C. Council, White’s unconventional approach to the job has made him more than a few enemies. Ten people originally filed to dethrone Trayon “Ward Eight” White, as his name appears on the ballot, and there is growing frustration over what critics say is White’s hostility and unwillingness to work with those who disagree with him. The question is, will it matter?

“I consider him Ward 8’s Donald Trump,” says Darrell Gaston, an advisory neighborhood commissioner who is supporting Austin. “No matter what he does, his supporters feel he can do no wrong.”

***

The campaign is heating up, Austin tells LL at the beginning of a phone interview. Last week, a hooded man busted the window of Austin’s Mustang while it was parked in front of his house. Austin believes it was a campaign-related scare tactic.

On the same day, White posted on Instagram that a neighbor called to say someone was taking his campaign signs down. “Then I see all these Mike Austin signs up,” White wrote. “So who do I see, Ole Lenwood walking around with signs in his hand. The hate is going to bring more love.”

White asked his supporters to post pics tagged with #ImWithTray, and the comments came flooding in.

Austin brands himself as a more experienced, mild mannered alternative to White. The chair of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 8C is unimpressed with the legislation the incumbent introduced in his first term and says White’s abrasiveness toward people who challenge his ideas has ostracized certain people in the ward.

In March, Austin secured an endorsement from a recently organized group of Ward 8 voters pulled together by former Ward 8 advisory neighborhood commissioner Sandra Seegers. The group of about 40 residents from across the ward scored each candidate based on their answers during in-person interviews. White refused to participate.

Among the group of voters is Rev. Anthony Motley, a former confidant of the late Mayor-for-Life and Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry, who also supported White since he was elected to the school board in 2011. Now, Motley finds himself in a bit of a pickle.

Publicly, Motley is sticking with the group’s choice in Austin, but he declines to say whether that support will transfer to the voting booth. When he asked White to sit for an interview, the councilmember said “he didn’t see it as beneficial to him,” Motley says.

“I didn’t understand why it wasn’t,” Motley says. “Because here are 30-plus people who have different views, different political affiliations, different interests, but who all want the same thing: good representation in the ward, and who wanted to make their voice be heard. And what was wrong with that?”

Ford brands herself as a quiet champion for Ward 8 residents who works as an attorney representing victims of police brutality. Before opening her Capitol Hill private practice, Ford worked on public benefits cases for the Legal Aid Society of D.C. and briefly as legislative counsel for the Council’s human services committee, then led by the late Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham.

Ford and Austin point to White’s renegotiation of the massive Reunion Square project in Anacostia as a mark against his development policies.

White renegotiated Mayor Muriel Bowser’s original proposal for $60 million in tax increment bond financing down to about $25 million, and replaced market rate rental units with affordable housing for seniors. He initially wanted to eliminate a planned hotel, which remains in the development.

White has said he’s working to prevent displacement of longtime residents. Ford says the original $60 million TIF would have “brought much needed development to a ward that’s failing.”

“Will I pay higher property taxes so I can have enough equity in my property, so I can build wealth for my family?” Ford says. “Yes, I will, because I understand black people have been deprived of opportunities to generate wealth.”

Austin suggests that one way to welcome development in the ward is with tax credits for homeowners and renters.

Meanwhile, Anderson talks broadly about his top priorities for Ward 8, including a new hospital, bringing more grocery stores to the area, and reducing violence. He spoke to LL on the phone last week as he was delivering meals to children and seniors, an effort he says he began on his own after public schools closed due to the coronavirus.

Anderson has worked with families of incarcerated people after serving more than a decade in prison himself. He ran in the 2015 Ward 8 special election after Barry’s death and dropped out to support White’s losing bid before returning to manage White’s campaign in 2016.

***

Each of White’s challengers have their own obstacles to overcome.

For Austin, it’s his perceived connection to White’s predecessor, LaRuby May and Bowser’s Green Team. (Ward 8 handed Bowser her lowest vote percentage in the 2018 primary.)

Austin worked as May’s legislative counsel in her Council office and as secretary and a vice president of United Medical Center’s board, which May chairs. May donated to his campaign, and Bowser has not said whether she is supporting any candidates in the Ward 8 race.

Austin pushes back against his connection to the Green Team and says he has not spoken with the mayor or her team. 

“If I’m Green Team, let me get the Green Team money,” he says.

But while talking about education inequality in the ward, Austin has to correct himself.

“Making sure we have a fair shot,” Austin says, quickly realizing he just uttered Bowser’s favorite hashtag. “Not a fair shot. Scratch that. Sounds like the mayor. But a real chance at a decent education, and that only comes with the money being in the budget.”

Ford, who moved to D.C. from Washington state to attend Howard University School of Law, is facing two hurdles. Her lack of name recognition is only overshadowed by her lack of funds. According to her March campaign finance report, Ford raised a little more than $3,100 but spent almost $5,000. 

“I’m not a newcomer,” she says. “I lived here for 15 years. A lot of people don’t know me and the reason for that is historically I don’t do photo-ops at food giveaways. I’ve served women and girls in Ward 8 for the last 15 years and never did media blitz or sought that recognition.”

For Anderson, an activist and organizer with deep ties in the ward, the coronavirus is his campaign’s greatest enemy. Anderson admits that his strongest campaigning tactic was in-person door knocking, and he’s still working on setting up an online apparatus. 

Olivia Henderson, a longtime ANC, is proof of Anderson’s loyal following and the dissatisfaction with White. For all of White’s work in the community, she says, Anderson has been providing the same service for much longer.

“[White] will not work with me as an ANC commissioner,” she says. “And that’s why some things in the community isn’t working. He has his pick of what communities and what people he works with.”

Although White won the Ward 8 Democrats endorsement last time around, the group is not endorsing anyone this cycle, and the chair, Troy Prestwood, declines to say which candidate he’s supporting.

“The winning candidate will be someone who illuminated a vision of inclusivity where they will work hard to find areas of opportunity and cooperation throughout all four corners of our ward,” he says. “In many ways we are the heartbeat of Washington D.C. And if we’re having a heart attack, then this city’s going to die.”

Update: In a text message, White provided an update on his campaign after this story was finalized: 

“Our campaign is doing great. My ground game is one of the best in the region. In fact, my instagram is dominating the air and has been the talk of dc all last week with #ImWithTray touching an average of 15,000 people a post. Our team has the highest name recognition and the most experienced person on the ballot. We are steadily building momentum as God has blessed us with 3 endorsements today ranging from AFL-CIO , ATU local 689, Washington Teachers Union, Sierra Club, AFGE Local 1975, Jews United for Justice, and most importantly The People of Ward 8.”