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On a chilly Saturday afternoon, Kevin Chapple is scouring his neighborhood hoping to hustle up a few extra votes. Clad in jeans, a fleece pullover, and baseball cap, the 40-year-old black attorney and six-year Shaw resident knocks on one door after another. He finds plenty of residents fed up with his neighborhood’s current advisory neighborhood commissioner.
“You don’t have to pitch it,” says Marc, a white man in his late 30s who lives near the intersection of 6th Street and Florida Avenue NW. “I don’t care who you are, as long as you’re not Leroy. I can’t stand that guy!”
“That guy” is Al Hajj Mahdi Leroy Joseph Thorpe Jr., the current chair of the Shaw advisory neighborhood commission (ANC). To some, the African-American and devout Muslim commissioner has earned a reputation as a bully to his constituents and a thorn in the side of other community leaders. To others, he’s come to be known as a hero, a man’s man. Either way, he’s managed to serve on the ANC for 18 years despite pissing off more than a few people.
Chapple is one of them. It was seeing Thorpe’s methods in overdrive that prompted his run against Thorpe, he says. At an ANC meeting a couple of months ago, Chapple witnessed Thorpe humiliate Felicia Sullivan, who was trying to get community support to improve a park near her home. Although Sullivan, who is black, has lived in Shaw her whole life, Thorpe didn’t know her and, because she had been working with the Mount Vernon Square Neighborhood Association, he accused her of being a spy. She left the meeting in tears.
Chapple had witnessed Thorpe’s misconduct before, but he says that ANC meeting was the tipping point. “I just felt that somebody ought to do something, and it doesn’t seem like anybody could or had the courage to do it,” he says.
“People come away from the ANC meetings being intimidated, being frustrated, being hurt, not wanting to speak up if they have an opinion that is different from the commissioner,” Chapple says. “It’s unnecessary to treat people that way.”
Thorpe’s reign is well-known and well-documented. Conversations with Shaw residents and others who have dealt with Thorpe yield numerous anecdotes. He’s banged his gavel and cut people off during ANC meetings. He’s harrassed people at work, according to the leader of one community group. He once led a campaign to transfer a police officer he disliked. He’s attempted to stall a community project because he doesn’t like the person in charge. He’s made homophobic and racial slurs, says fellow ANC commissioner Alex Padro, among others. In 2001, At-Large Councilmember David Catania held an unprecedented hearing about Thorpe attended by more than 50 Shaw residents.
The commissioner has long refused to talk to the Washington City Paper. When an African-American reporter contacted Thorpe for this article, he said, “I’ve seen a lot of Uncle Toms and house niggers, so, no, I wouldn’t be interested in giving you an interview even after the election. You’re working for the enemy,” then hung up.
Thorpe’s divisive rhetoric extends to his campaign materials. “In our own communities, we are treated as second class citizens, as if our rights don’t count,” reads one flier distributed by his campaign. “Of course they will deny this because they are in denial. They have never taken the time to get to know us….The opponents use their websites to belittle us. They’re trying to divide us, it’s time for us to stick together and show these people that we are somebody too.”
Easygoing, reserved, and pleasant, Chapple is the opposite of the confrontational and abrasive Thorpe. Chapple continues down 6th Street, knocking on the doors of the closely quartered row houses, dropping his glossy brochure into mail slots when no one answers.
“I’ve met a lot of people who are supportive of my candidacy,” Chapple says. “But they are afraid to acknowledge it publicly by putting up signs. They’re afraid [that if I lose] there will be backlash against them.”
Brian, who’s lived in Shaw for three years, would like to put a sign in his yard, he says, but he’s the only white guy on his block, so he’d rather not. But he assures Chapple of his support: “I almost ran against [Thorpe], and I was told, ‘You don’t want to be the white guy running against him.’”
Tony, who’s black, has lived in the neighborhood for six years. He’s preoccupied at the moment, doing some work on his basement unit. But before Chapple walks away, Tony shakes his hand, smiles knowingly, and tells him, “I got you, don’t worry.”
Then Chapple cuts over to 5th Street NW. Fifth Street is a little different from 6th; it’s Thorpe’s territory—he lives in the 1700 block and is often seen driving or walking down the one-way street.
“I’ve always voted for Leroy,” Pete says, accepting Chapple’s brochure from between the metal bars of a security gate. “But I’m-a look and see what you got,” he says, promising to visit Chapple’s Web site later. When Chapple makes his way up the 1500 block, he encounters a pocket of Thorpe’s longtime supporters—a group of black men standing alongside a pickup truck on the street. Greg Redmond sits in the cab of the truck talking to several friends who stand outside. He admits that, though he has always supported the commissioner, Thorpe can be tough to deal with.
“Leroy’s a hard guy,” Redmond says. “I don’t like the way he conducts his meetings, because I feel everybody should have a voice and you can’t cut people off, even if you don’t like them. Leroy is a tough customer—we’ve been trying to work on him. But at the same time, I know what he’s done around here.”
A man, 71, who introduces himself as Mr. Rice, has known Thorpe for years and is quick to tell any newcomer just what Thorpe has done for Shaw. He says that for years Shaw was so dangerous it was like the “wild, wild West” and that it wasn’t safe to walk the streets because of the violence. As he stands next to Redmond’s truck, a dark red Isuzu Rodeo pulls up to a group of young guys who are congregating on the other side of the street. As if on cue, Thorpe jumps out of the truck and mingles with the young men who have been watching Chapple’s every move. Thorpe looks suspiciously over in Chapple’s direction but doesn’t cross the street to confront him.
“I’ve been here 30 years,” Rice continues, speaking louder and more pointedly now that Thorpe is within earshot. “Sometimes me and him have battles; we go to war,” he says, pointing across the street. “When it comes to politics, Leroy has done more for [this neighborhood] than anybody. He has shut down crack houses. I remember when I couldn’t even walk around, but since this man has come on the scene, anything you need, you call on this man.”
When asked what he thinks of Chapple, Rice gets incensed.
“I don’t know him!” he exclaims, gesturing wildly. “But ain’t no way in the world he could do what this man has done,” he says pointing over to Thorpe. “Only Leroy can do this. It takes a man to do what Leroy do, and you got to be half-crazy.”
Supporters say Thorpe has single-handedly shut down many of the crack houses that plagued the neighborhood for years, by simply going in with a bullhorn and telling the vagrants they had to leave. Thorpe co-founded the “Red Hats” volunteer patrol group in 1988, which, according to a campaign flier, has closed down 56 documented crack houses and hosted more than 142 anti-drug marches and rallies. The flier also states that Thorpe “supports viable economic development such as the rebuilding and retail opportunities for the O Street Market and neighborhood sit-down restaurants.” But according to Padro, who’s been on the ANC since 2001, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“He’d like to prevent business development from happening, especially [alcohol] licensing,” Padro says. “He’d like to prevent any development that is mixed-use or mixed-income. He’s held this community back for decades.”
When Sullivan tried to get the lights turned on in a park near her home, Thorpe was unresponsive. Later, after she sought help from the Mount Vernon Square Neighborhood Association (MVSNA), she faced opposition from him because she had allied herself with what Thorpe deemed “newcomers.” After the National Park Service agreed to fix the lights, Sullivan & Co. asked Thorpe for his support. His response was to pressure the Park Service—and Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans’ office—not to proceed.
“He will not allow people to work together to get things done,” says MVSNA President Cary Silverman. The lights are still out.
Redmond says that in talking to neighbors, the underlying issue that bothers older residents is that white newcomers are imposing their standards on the old guard. To the longtime residents, newcomers should work from the inside out instead of “coming in and trying to run roughshod and just change things to the way they want them.”
Chapple is the epitome of a newcomer, and his supporters, at least the ones who aren’t afraid to admit their support, are part of a distinct demographic. Like many of his supporters, Chapple owns a newly remodeled row house. On his Web site, chappleanc.com, there are photographs of him arm in arm with residents who some might consider the poster boys and girls of gentrification in Shaw.
“[Thorpe] stated in the last ANC meeting that there’s going to be a race riot. I don’t know why,” Chapple says. “Someone has been telling [the residents] stories about me. I talked to this one gentleman and he gave me the impression that he’s being told that I’m working with the newcomers here to help get rid of the residents who’ve been here for years. It’s just foolishness.”
One day shortly after he announced he was running, Chapple came out of his front door and saw Thorpe ride by on a bicycle.
“‘I’m going to crush you. You’ve been listening to the wrong people,’” Chapple says Thorpe told him. “‘I’m going to embarrass you.’” CP