Wells campaign motto is Buiding
Wells campaign motto is Buiding Credit: Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

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On a wet Monday morning, Tommy Wells parks his Car2Go on Pennsylvania Avenue and strolls across Freedom Plaza to the John A. Wilson Building to kick off his workweek and the 17th day of his mayoral campaign. His first order of business is a five-year-old murder case.

The weekend brought news that Attorney General Irv Nathan was planning to settle a lawsuit brought by relatives of Banita Jacks, who killed her four young daughters and prompted accusations that city social workers hadn’t responded properly to warning signs. The settlement would pay $2.6 million to family members, and Wells is not happy about it.

“I need to understand why we just ponied up $2.6 million,” says the Ward 6 D.C. Councilmember. “[Nathan] wanted to avoid litigation, but he may have just fucked up. We’ll see. So I’m calling him now.”

Wells has found a Supreme Court precedent he thinks absolves the city from responsibility. As soon as Nathan picks up, he asks about it.

“What’s the legal basis under which you thought it was not worth going to trial?” asks Wells, 56, who holds a law degree from Catholic University. “How do you square that with DeShaney? With the Supreme Court decision in Joshua DeShaney v. Winnebago County? … How do you not know that case, Irv?”

Nathan sounds annoyed. “Is this a mayoral election matter, or what?” he asks.

“This is not a mayoral election matter,” Wells shouts back. “This is what I do for a living. I have oversight, Irv, of the attorney general’s office.” He continues to hammer away at Nathan for not knowing the case.

“Oh, the hell with you,” Nathan responds.

“He went places in that call he shouldn’t have gone,” Wells says after hanging up. “He doesn’t like being questioned. But he seemed to forget that I have oversight of the attorney general’s office.” (He also had, at the time of the Jacks case, oversight of the agencies whose work the city was sued over.)

Wells, who chairs the Council’s judiciary committee, thinks he acted nobly on the call. “What I didn’t do is go to the press first thing and issue a press release, ‘Did you fuck up?’” he says. “That was a courtesy call. I think he fucked up.”

Two days later, Wells emails to let me know that Nathan provided him with more information and his staff has “concluded all in all the Atty Gen acted in the best interest of the District.”

Wells, who allowed me full access to his Council activities and campaigning for this story, insists he hasn’t staged anything for my benefit, that his schedule and behavior are exactly as they’d be without a reporter present, that—as he told Nathan—this isn’t electoral posturing, but everyday public service.

That may be so. But the call highlights Wells’ central challenge in the mayoral race: determining which Tommy Wells voters will perceive.

The Tommy Wells on display calling Nathan is the Wells he wants the public to see. This is Councilmartyr Saint Tommy Wells—as Washington City Paper’s former Loose Lips columnist referred to him when then-Council Chairman Kwame Brown stripped him of his beloved transportation committee chairmanship after Wells investigated Brown’s procurement of two luxury SUVs on the city’s dime—who fights for what he believes in, regardless of the consequences. This is the politician who stands above the moneyed interests that have caught so many of his colleagues in ethical snares. This is the man who’s not always the most popular among his fellow councilmembers because he shuns the backroom deals that are common currency in the Wilson Building.

“I’m taking on the old guard of D.C.,” says this Tommy Wells. “It is making people uncomfortable. I’m ending corporate contributions for my campaign. I’m saying that the old way of doing business is corrupt.”

But then there’s the Tommy Wells some of his colleagues see, a genial but ineffectual lawmaker, whose principled stands are mostly bluster and blunder, who’s accomplished little in his six and a half years on the Council, and whose campaign for mayor consists of empty slogans lacking clear vision.

Which Tommy Wells will voters see on the April 1 Democratic primary ballot? It’s up to the candidate to convince them that he’s the crusader for a more livable and ethical city that he sees in the mirror. And he’s got his work cut out for him.

Wells’ entree into D.C. politics was the product of a series of accidents. In 1983, he was finishing up a master’s in social work at the University of Minnesota. He had no desire to stick around Minnesota, which he found too homogenous, nor to return to his hometown of Birmingham, Ala., so he asked his favorite professor, Ira Schwartz, for advice.

“He said, ‘Without question, I’d go to Washington D.C.,’” Wells recalls. “I’d never been here. So I went home, worked a little bit at a summer camp, sold my car for a train ticket, and took the Southern Crescent up here.”

“He was a good student,” says Schwartz. “He was always interested in the area of public policy. Actually, that’s what led to my suggestion that he go to Washington, D.C.”

It didn’t work out. Wells found himself crashing in a convent off Wisconsin Avenue with the keyboardist in a Grateful Dead cover band called New Potato Caboose. The nuns washed and folded his clothes, and prayed every day for him to find work. Wells spent his mornings at the Tune Inn, drinking coffee and reading job ads in the Washington Post, and many of his evenings there, drinking $5 pitchers of National Bohemian with his friend Tom Williams. (Thirty years later, it’s still his bar of choice, though he’s cut it out of his schedule since declaring for mayor.)

Wells interviewed for government jobs, but nothing panned out. He took a position at the Kitchen Bazaar in Tenleytown selling coffee makers. Then Williams got a call from Walter Mondale’s presidential campaign to ask if he’d work on the trail, but he had just gotten a “groovy job” working in Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s mailroom, so, he recalls, “I said, ‘I can’t do it, but I have a friend.’”

And so Wells, whom Williams remembers as “not very political,” rented a car and drove out to Iowa. Hitching a ride was another young campaign aide named Jim Thompson, who became Wells’ best friend. (Thompson’s girlfriend, Barbara Barchard, would later become Barbara Wells. Thompson insists there was nothing awkward about it. The couple is still married, with no children; Barbara is a vice president at Reingold, a communications firm that counts the D.C. government as a client, but Tommy says he’s never taken a related vote and there’s no conflict of interest.)

Wells took part in seven primaries and caucuses, making $15 a day, and when Mondale won the 1984 Democratic nomination, Wells was named field director for Arkansas. There, he quickly found himself overwhelmed as black ministers who had been affiliated with Jesse Jackson’s campaign demanded some of the money he had for voter registration.

”The ministers wouldn’t even come talk to me,” Wells remembers. “They were just waiting for me to get the money and distribute it. And so I was really in over my head. So I called Washington and I said, ‘You gotta help me out here.’ The assistant U.S. field director for Jackson had been Anita Bonds. So they sent Anita Bonds out. And Anita came in and solved everything.”

“When I met Tommy, he was a little under stress, to say the least,” chuckles Bonds, a longtime operative in D.C. who’s now an at-large councilmember. “And they were very demonstrative. And we had some rather heated discussions: ‘Tommy, you stay there, let me see what I can negotiate here.’”

Bonds told Wells that if he had trouble finding work after the campaign, he should give her a call—out of courtesy, she says, not expecting him to take her up on the offer. “I said, ‘Well, if you find yourself grasping for straws, call me. I work for a good person,’” she says—that person being then-Mayor Marion Barry. “And he showed up!”

Wells says that’s not right: He only called Bonds after applying for a D.C. social work job and going months without an answer. Whatever the details, he landed a position as a child protection social worker, and two years later Bonds asked him to run Ward 6 for Barry’s 1986 re-election campaign—“before crack,” Wells is careful to point out.

Two decades later, with experience as a school board member, Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner, and director of the Consortium for Child Welfare, Wells ran for Council—at the urging of popular retiring Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose.

“I think the biggest strength in 2006 is that the machinery of Sharon Ambrose was solidly behind him,” says Leo Pinson, one of Wells’ primary opponents in that race, who considers Wells’ mayoral ambitions “far-fetched.”

Ambrose agrees that Wells would’ve had trouble winning without her support, predicated on the understanding of the ward he demonstrated on the ANC. But Wells’ former benefactor has been disappointed by his tenure; when asked how much credit he deserves for the ward’s successes he frequently boasts about, she says “almost none.” And she thinks his mayoral platform is little more than a promise not to be as corrupt as some of his colleagues.

“I don’t know what his vision is except for not to be a crook,” Ambrose says. “And that didn’t work so well for Richard Nixon.”

There are two things that hold Wells back as he campaigns door to door. The first is loquaciousness. Wells seems constitutionally incapable of cutting off a conversation before his volunteers resort, almost literally, to dragging him away. On his first stint of neighborhood campaigning, in Mount Pleasant, his initial conversation lasts more than five minutes—with a man who tells him at the start that he lives and votes in New York. Some chats run close to 20 minutes.

“I’m not the machine that Fenty was,” Wells admits, referring to the energetic door-to-door campaign that helped former Mayor Adrian Fenty get elected. “Fenty would just blast through here. I talk too much.” He predicts the headline I’ll slap on this story: “Wells Can’t Get Past Four Doors.”

Wells’ second weakness is trees. He can’t seem to pass one without stopping to identify it and discuss its features. (He took an amateur interest in trees during his social worker days, and he has an app on his phone that helps identify invasive species.) Which is a problem in a thickly canopied neighborhood like Mount Pleasant.

“This is a type of maple tree,” he lectures his antsy volunteers. “It doesn’t look like a maple, but it is. And this is an American linden. This is an elm tree. This is what used to be the heroic tree of D.C.”

His first conversations with would-be voters are awkward. “Anything you want to know about the next mayor of Washington, D.C.?” he asks a Mount Pleasant resident with a grin. “Well, what are you going to do?” the resident responds. “What do you mean, what am I going to do?” Wells shouts boisterously. A long pause ensues.

To another resident: “I’m running on, well, everyone runs on integrity, but I’m running on integrity.”

It’s not until an elderly woman asks if he’s a born-again Christian that he appears to relax. He tells her he’s a “cradle-to-grave Episcopalian” and proceeds to debate scripture with her, contesting her views on gay marriage so comfortably that she tells him, “You seem like a very nice guy. With that smile, I’m sure you’re going to win.”

For a man who’s never run a citywide race before—and who’s facing skepticism as he attempts to become D.C.’s first white mayor under Home Rule—Wells is surprisingly good at connecting with people no one expects to vote for him come April. On a scorching Saturday in the overwhelmingly black Ward 7 neighborhood of Hillbrook, Wells, sporting a red Nationals cap and his trademark two-sizes-too-large button-down shirt, chats with middle-aged women attempting to stay cool on their porches. Some people who have never heard of him when the conversation begins tell him he’ll have their vote by the end.

Wells’ campaign motto is “Building a Livable Walkable D.C.,” and he’s focused much of his energy as a councilmember on improving public transit and cycling infrastructure. These issues have been divisive in the past; Fenty lost the 2010 election in part because poorer voters thought he was focusing too much on yuppie quality-of-life measures like bike lanes and not enough on more basic needs. Wells, too, has taken some heat on this front: As he presided over the streetcar-related construction on H Street NE, some business owners accused him of favoring newer businesses with a white customer base over older ones with a black clientele. Wells, says one prominent H Street businessman, “sent signals that some people saw as racism.”

But Wells hasn’t backed away from his mantra so far, arguing that “livability/walkability” means safety, nearby schools, transit options, and neighborhood amenities—things that are just as desirable east of the Anacostia River as on Capitol Hill.

“I think everyone wants the same things,” he tells an elderly woman on Hillbrook’s Gault Place NE. “In Ward 6, we got great new elementary schools. We can do that everywhere. We cut crime. We can do that everywhere.”

In the mayoral race, Wells has a few themes he emphasizes more than transit. One: He isn’t taking corporate campaign donations. His critics charge that’s because corporate donors wouldn’t give to him anyway. He admits as much. “I didn’t say, ‘I’m not taking Jeffrey Thompson money, because one day this is gonna come back and haunt everybody,’” Wells says, referring to the businessman suspected of financing a shadow campaign to elect Mayor Vince Gray. “It’s just ’cause he always funded my opponents.”

Two: He wants every neighborhood to have a quality elementary school within walking distance. He points to recent school successes in Ward 6—which Ambrose and others say he did little to bring about, but Wells argues he sparked with his push for programs for 3-year-olds.

Three: He promises to cut teen crime in half within two years, with a combination of after-school jobs, better data sharing between police and nonprofits, and marijuana decriminalization. This is the most concrete theme, if also the most infrequently mentioned.

Four: He used to be a social worker. This isn’t really a campaign platform, but it seems to impress people. One woman, after hearing his background and a 30-second rundown of his priorities, asks what his name is, then tells him, “Well, you got my vote, Mr. Wells.”

The question is whether that woman, and thousands of other undecided voters across the city, will say the same thing to the other candidates when they come to make their pitches.

Like his arrival in D.C., Wells’ mayoral bid is something of an accident. Walking to catch the bus to his campaign kickoff in May, he tells me he probably wouldn’t have run had it not been for the scandals that have seen three of his former Council colleagues plead guilty to federal charges in the past 18 months and raised questions about Gray’s 2010 campaign.

“I had planned that when I ran for mayor, whether it be this time or next time—and actually I thought it would be more likely next time—that it would be all about a vision for the city of continuing to create a wonderful urban place,” says Wells, who’s giving up his Council seat to run. “But the things that happened—oh, that’s a massive basswood, which is in the linden family. That’s why you see those little whirly copter things on them. So yeah, there’s a lot more about integrity and corruption and all that than I had planned. It’s kind of like being an accidental spokesperson on that.”

In this sense, his campaign is more about what he’s not—a criminal, a corporate puppet—than what he is. Except he’s not running against his disgraced former colleagues, but two current colleagues who have never been charged by the feds. Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans has served on the Council for 22 years and is seen as a supporter of business and development. Despite a slimmer record, Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser is the likely frontrunner if no other candidates enter, given the bellwether nature of her ward, the fact that she’s managed to avoid ruffling feathers, and her race and gender in a campaign against two white men in a majority-black city.

Wells hopes to attack Bowser for taking corporate campaign donations and passing a weak ethics bill. But in a city with truly crooked politicians—not to mention a city that re-elected a mayor after he’d been jailed for cocaine possession—that may not stir voters to do more than shrug.

Still, Wells is remarkably confident that he can win. “If me, Muriel, and Jack are the only ones in the race, I will win that race,” he says. “There is no doubt in my mind.”

In all likelihood, they won’t be. The big question is whether Gray will run. He’s presided over an economic boom, but each week seems to bring a new guilty plea from someone connected to the alleged shadow campaign that funneled more than $650,000 in unreported funds into his 2010 bid. Gray hasn’t been charged with anything, but he’s also held off long enough on announcing his plans to arouse suspicions that he won’t run. If he doesn’t, Council sources expect a prominent outsider to jump in. (Last week, former State Department official Reta Lewis announced her candidacy.)

Wells thinks Gray’s ethical cloud should prevent him from running. “The mayor is under federal investigation,” he says. “I mean, this is horrible. I don’t know how the mayor could get re-elected.”

But to one Council source, this smacks of hypocrisy, or at least cowardice. (On the subject of cowardice, it’s worth noting that none of Wells’ colleagues who criticized him for this story were willing to do so on the record.) Last year, when the first Gray associate pleaded guilty for her role in the shadow campaign, three councilmembers called for Gray’s resignation; Wells stayed mute. Now, with a mayoral campaign underway, the source complains, suddenly Wells thinks the shadow campaign disqualifies Gray.

“If the field were the Wizard of Oz, Jack is clearly the Tin Man, no heart,” says the source. “Muriel is the scarecrow. And Tommy is the lion.”

Ask Wells to name his top accomplishment, and he’ll point to the five-cent fee he helped impose on plastic and paper bags. But ask for more examples, and he’ll launch into a catalog of his work during his half-year helming the transportation committee: doubling the Capital Bikeshare program, moving a Circulator bus line east of the Anacostia and upgrading other bus lines there, securing extra funding for Metro.

“What I did in six months, I think was extraordinary,” he says. “We’ve not seen that kind of leap in [the Department of Transportation] since then.”

And then, as he puts it, “Kwame defrocked me.”

Brown denied that Wells’ inquiry into his SUVs had anything to do with removing Wells from the transportation post, though few people believed him. Wells had the last laugh; Brown resigned after being charged with bank fraud. Wells now says the judiciary committee he took over in December is “probably about the most powerful committee on the Council”—a debatable claim—but it’s clear that his heart isn’t in oversight of cops and firefighters as much as it was in buses, bikes, and trains. This is, after all, Mr. Livable-Walkable, who bikes to work and aims to give the whole city the car-free accessibility his Capitol Hill neighborhood enjoys.

Still, Wells has attempted to spin the incident to his advantage.

“I think he’s been in search of victimhood since he arrived,” says a Council source, “and that provided a perfect opportunity for him to embrace the role he wanted.”

“I didn’t mean to become Councilmartyr Tommy Wells,” he says as we walk on the Hill, before becoming distracted by a tree. (“Everybody knows what these are, right? Everybody!” His volunteers take a guess. “No.” Another guess. “No! C’mon, anybody? It’s a birch tree!”) “My campaign advisers say, ‘Come on Tommy, you want them to say it over and over again, tell them not to let up. You’re Saint Councilmartyr. As much as that might irritate you at some point, make sure they keep saying it.’ It’s to remind folks. To lose it would be worse. It’s like ‘Today we’re going to remove Saint from his name.’ That would be devastating!”

It wasn’t just Brown who did the defrocking; every councilmember except Wells voted for the demotion. Several tell me they mainly did so out of deference to the chairman. But even so, it’s apparent that Wells isn’t popular among his colleagues, some of whom are irritated by the airs they think he puts on.

“He had no wellspring of sympathy,” one Council source says of Wells’ demotion. “Sometimes he would offer pieces of legislation that he didn’t bother to see if he could get support for. He just wanted to grandstand about it, or maybe embarrass other members. If you work on a collegial body, you have to take that into account.”

“He tries to be professorial, and I just think he falls short of that,” says another Council source. “He’s not dumb. He’s just not very dynamic. He’s a lot like George W. Bush. He’s affable, and his appeal is his affability.”

(Of course, that shouldn’t be underestimated: Bush won two presidential elections. And Wells certainly is affable. On a stop at the Mandarin Oriental, a doorman asks him, “Are you the guy who’s running for mayor? I’ve seen you on TV.” Wells replies with his disarming smile, “That’s either me or John Lithgow,” to whom, come to think of it, he bears more than a passing resemblance.)

Wells doesn’t deny that he isn’t the most popular man in the Wilson Building, though he downplays the importance of popularity among his colleagues. “Let me put it this way: I’m better liked than Adrian Fenty was when he ran for mayor by his colleagues,” he says. “And he won every single precinct of the city.”

Asked if this is true, one Council source bristles at the comparison. “Let me paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen: I served with Adrian Fenty,” the source says. “I knew Adrian Fenty. And Tommy Wells sure as hell is no Adrian Fenty.”

Wells has a label for the people he sees as standing in the way of progress in D.C.: the old guard. Backroom deals are old guard. Circumventing the Council and going public with social media isn’t. Corporate donations are old guard. A leaner campaign relying on volunteers isn’t. When Bonds won her seat in an April special election over Elissa Silverman, a candidate who largely shares Wells’ base but whom he stopped short of endorsing—after all, he had a mayoral race coming up; no sense in being divisive—he said it was a product of the old guard coming together.

His “old guard” colleagues, of course, don’t see it that way. “I think that I’m the new guard, and he’s the old guard,” says Bonds, who has decades-long ties to Barry and city politics but has been on the Council for less than a year. Another Council colleague says of Wells, “He tries to be the best of both worlds. He often boasts about having ties to Marion Barry, and he boasts to be a progressive. And I think you can be both, but don’t pit one against the other.”

Of course, Bonds and Barry gave Wells his start in D.C. politics, and Wells says he learned from Barry how to listen to voters rather than just preaching to them. But distancing himself from the so-called old guard may be Wells’ best strategy. Much as he’d love to win on a sweeping livable-walkable mandate, it’s not likely to happen; none of the declared candidates is likely to win on policy, for the simple reason that they’ve failed so far to differentiate their vision from Gray’s. The fact is, the city’s done pretty well these past two and a half years. All three candidates, when asked what they’d do differently, give some version of “I’d do the same things Gray’s doing, but better.” Even Wells, who’s less of a political insider than his rivals, is really only pledging to build on Gray’s track record, which has already seen a proliferation of bike lanes and transit-oriented development.

Ethics may be his opening. If the federal investigation into the shadow campaign does close in on Gray, D.C. voters could have a serious case of scandal fatigue. And suddenly, the unlikely candidate—the goofy guy with the toothy grin, the middle-aged man who still goes by “Tommy”—might seem more appealing than the polished Bowser with her careful talking points or the business-friendly Evans with his decades of service.

It won’t come easy, though. Wells must convince people that Bowser and Evans do represent that corrupt old guard—a tall order when they both have squeaky clean records next to some of their recent colleagues—and that he stands apart, that his martyrdom comes from integrity and not blunder. Even the slightest shadow of controversy can derail his strategy.

Shortly after his call with Nathan, Wells has a meeting scheduled that makes him uneasy. It’s with superlobbyist David Wilmot, who has financial ties to Jeffrey Thompson and represents everything “old guard.”

“I’ve met with David Wilmot maybe three times in six years,” he’s quick to clarify. “I’m not sure exactly how he got on the list to come in.”

Wilmot never shows—he calls later to say he’s traveling with his niece—but the episode underscores the tenuousness of Wells’ supposed ethical edge over his rivals. If Wells is to have any shot at becoming D.C.’s eighth elected mayor, he has to keep the “Saint” in front of his name. Losing it, as he well knows, would be devastating.