In one of the most breathtaking races in the District’s history, upstart Jeff Hildebrand snatched a one-vote victory over longtime politico James H. Jones for an advisory neighborhood commission (ANC) seat on Nov. 7.
The race sent shockwaves through single-member district 4A08, tucked between Rock Creek Park and Piney Branch Valley in Crestwood. Perhaps no resident was more shocked than Jones himself. “It’s shocking,” he said. “But, uh, what can you say?”
Jones says he will demand a recount. “One vote is insignificant,” he explains of the 289–288 unofficial tally, which did not include the provisional and absentee ballots that get counted on Nov. 17. “As far as I’m concerned, I am not defeated. It’s not a defeat, because it’s unofficial,” he says.
Jones, who has been a commissioner since 1998 and chair of the ANC since 2000, did not expect defeat on Election Night. Just as precincts were closing across the city, he had mused on his staying power atop the influential ANC to the Washington City Paper: “The major thing is you need to have a base of people who believe in you and that you can count on….I have that base.”
It turned out that his base suffered from some defections. Hildebrand’s virgin run for office netted him 49.57 percent of the ANC’s 577 votes (not counting six write-ins), according to an uncertified tally from the D.C. election board. Jones received only 49.40 percent. Neither candidate knew the outcome until they were notified of the results by a reporter.
While the mainstream media focused on more one-sided outcomes in the area, such as Virginia Senate candidate James Webb’s 0.3 percent victory over George Allen, a more intense soap opera was unfolding along 16th Street NW. The race for ANC 4A08 touched on accusations of neglect, shoddy power lines, and an “October surprise.”
The keys to any contested ANC race are simple, experts say. Longtime ANC member–turned–At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson believes the formula comes down to campaigning at the precinct on Election Day. “I guess the other thing I would say tongue-in-cheek is living in a single-member district that only has one precinct,” he explains.
From the start, Hildebrand took an inclusive tack with his campaign, reaching across his district’s boundaries for advice. ANC 4C’s Ronald Bland advised him to pull a page out of the playbook of Mayor-Elect Adrian Fenty (who lives in Bland’s district) by going door-to-door with his message.
Lacking Jones’ history as a neighborhood pooh-bah, Hildebrand—who moved to Crestwood in 2002—made his door-knocking rounds in addition to sending out a mailing and fashioning a few yard signs. All told, he ripped through a war chest totaling $283.
“After I did my mailing, [Jones] did a mailing and put out some yard signs,” says Hildebrand. It was going to be that kind of race.
Jones claims Hildebrand had no signs. “If he said that, that’s not true,” he says.
But Hildebrand stuck to talking points on several fronts. He vowed to take a hard look at zoning for his neighborhood, which he says has started to be overrun by developers putting up houses on substandard lots, including one at the corner of 16th and Upshur Streets NW. The way that lot is configured, he complains, makes it look “a lot like Oklahoma.”
Jones says the house in question is properly zoned—and points out that zoning is not the ANC’s bailiwick anyway.
Hildebrand also came out against his neighborhood’s frequent power outages. “If there’s any kind of wind, you turn down into Crestwood and there’s just nothing,” he says. “It’s just black.”
Jones says he’s urged Pepco for years to bury more power lines.
But mostly, Hildebrand says, the campaign pushed the often-successful message that the incumbent had become out of touch with his constituents. “The current ANC commissioner was not paying any attention to this part of his district,” he explains, referring to the voter-rich area south of Allison Street NW. “We’ve felt very underserved for a couple years.”
Jones says he has always been accessible, has never missed an ANC meeting in the past five years, and his number is in the book.
Key sources believe the race began to tilt for Hildebrand on Oct. 25—the day the Northwest Current published a Page 4 story centering on Jones’ management style. Under the headline “Shepherd Park resident calls for ANC audit,” the piece detailed resident Pat Bailey’s encounter with Jones at an Oct. 3 meeting in which she wanted to request grant money to renovate a local park.
During the meeting, Bailey asked if she could make a presentation concerning landscaping plans for Marvin Caplan Memorial Park, located along the 7400 block of Alaska Avenue NW, and then submit her grant proposal. Jones refused, according to the Current, on procedural grounds. After several commissioners argued on Bailey’s behalf, Jones slammed his gavel and “ended the discussion.”
The article went on to note that after Jones denied Bailey’s presentation, another resident was allowed to launch into a monologue on “healthy diets.” When another resident pointed out the apparent double standard, Jones ignored the question. After some pestering, he finally stated, “I am the chair of this commission; I do not have to answer your question.”
Hildebrand did not attend the meeting, but Jones, as the influential community paper paraphrased, deemed the scene and its fallout “politically motivated character assassination,” part of his invisible challenger’s attempt to oust him from office.
The story’s author, Ian Thoms, says he’s no Hildebrand operative and that his piece was no dirty trick. “I was at the meeting,” he explains. “The way he treated these people was very rude.”
When the story was published, Bland mentioned it to Hildebrand. “I said, ‘Jeff, this is a gift. If you really had to run on something, if you really had to put your eggs in a basket, if any of this is true, this is grounds for someone to take a hard look at this,’” Bland says. “I don’t think he or anyone else expected to get that kind of a gift.”
The gift kept on giving, as Bailey and others took to the neighborhood Internet message boards to slam Jones, who responded by writing Bailey a letter explaining the ANC’s bylaws in exacting detail.
Even after his narrow defeat, Jones admits his opponent still mystifies him. “I never heard of him before this election,” he says. “And I never heard of any issues that he had. I’d never seen the guy….Where does he live?”
Jones’ defeat might not have been so close. On the morning of the election, Hildebrand went to the polls, voted for himself, and went to work, thus skipping the Mendelson-endorsed all-day campaign marathon. “It was cold and rainy,” he says. “And I had a chest cold.”CP