City Paper is not for tourists
Former felon Ahmad Braxton-Jones wants your vote for D.C. Council.
Ahmad Braxton-Jones is riding shotgun up Georgia Avenue on his way to the Takoma Metro station. As he lays out his plans for his upcoming D.C. Council race, his voice shifts into another gear—more hyper, more passionate.
“You seen Blues Brothers?” asks the 27-year-old council hopeful. His brainstorm is to obtain a van with his picture on the side and a set of speakers in which he can ride around the District—just as John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd did in the film—to get his message to the people. He’s equally amped about a plan to park the van in different neighborhoods and simply let community members approach to speak out about whatever is on their minds. Braxton-Jones has decided that he will eschew prepared political speeches; speaking off the cuff is more his style. He’s looking forward to it all.
“I’m about to get excited up in this joint,” Braxton-Jones enthuses, overwhelmed by his own campaign plans.
It wasn’t too many years ago that the pursuit of money and fancy clothes, instead of public service, was what motivated Braxton-Jones. As a teenager, he embarked on a string of illegal hustles that ended in a two-year prison term in St. Brides Correctional Center in Chesapeake, Va., from 1992 to 1994.
Thanks to a quirk in D.C. election law, Braxton-Jones’ felony conviction does not bar him from registering to vote or running for office. With the latter goal in mind, Braxton-Jones is eyeing one of the two at-large D.C. Council seats up for grabs in 2002.
Braxton-Jones is counting on his youth to snare voters aged 18 to 30 years and to bring a younger perspective to the mostly middle-aged council. His appeal, he believes, lies in a combination of his street knowledge and theories that he studied as a college student.
“This is my retribution,” says Braxton-Jones.
Braxton-Jones’ first brush with trouble came just before his graduation from Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, in 1992. Since the age of 12, he’d been dabbling in dealing cocaine, before he discovered that stealing cars was more lucrative.
“Basically, it was easy money to get cars and sell them,” he says. “I thought it was my way to happiness. I was an entrepreneur in an illegal way.”
His misstep came on a day when he went out to Tysons Corner to steal a car and drive it to D.C. A cab nearly sideswiped him on the way back, and Braxton-Jones avoided that collision by crashing into a pole. A police officer across the street witnessed the accident, and the alley that Braxton-Jones hoped would provide a getaway turned out to be dead-end. He was convicted of carjacking and armed robbery in 1992.
Braxton-Jones says that confrontation was a survival skill that his time in prison taught him. He recalls that other inmates persistently tested his resolve and that one encounter with a larger inmate in a locked room resulted in a fight. He adds that he came away from his prison experience with valuable lessons in discipline and respect. “Some people go to the military; some go to jail,” he says.
Prison also served as a spur to Braxton-Jones, he says, reminding him not only of his own misplaced priorities but also of problems that he sees at the heart of many of the District’s woes.
Braxton-Jones says he gained perspective of his own experience and its wider implications in college. He says that his courses in sociology and political science at the University of Maryland introduced him to theories that put the things he had seen and felt into words. He is scheduled to graduate in May.
“In class one day, I just put it all together,” says Braxton-Jones, “and said, ‘It’s not your fault the way we’re living.’”
During one sociology class in his junior year, Braxton-Jones says, he broke down in tears thinking about some of the inner-city problems discussed in the class. All he could think of, he says, was what he could do to help the situation.
At that moment, says Braxton-Jones, his independent run for the D.C. Council was conceived.
Braxton-Jones’ approach to politics is Kennedyesque, with a touch of Miss Manners. He’s a what-can-you-do-for-your-city? politician, describing his role as similar to that of a motivational speaker. For example, he believes that if District residents lower their trash output, the money currently spent addressing this problem can be used for other things.
“If we can cut $200,000 from this, we can put it in back into schools or back into summer jobs,” he says. “If D.C. residents had shared values, from litter to how we eat to common manners, we could save so much money.”
Braxton-Jones has found a mentor of sorts in Advisory Neighborhood 5B Commissioner Bernard Richardson. Richardson says he is ready for a change in the D.C. Council, and he is trying to prep Braxton-Jones to be the one to usher it in.
“I think he has good character,” Richardson says. ‘I think he will work hard for the whole city, not just particular wards.”
Both men know that a successful Braxton-Jones run will take more than good intentions and ideas. Richardson says that he is trying to direct his protege to key people in the local political scene.
“He can definitely be competitive, but he got to do a whole, whole lot of work,” Richardson says.
Part of that work is raising money. For the most part, that effort hasn’t begun yet, though the candidate has dipped his toe into the waters. In late October, Braxton-Jones spent a few hours on the Metro’s Green Line, soliciting $1 donations from people who seemed interested in his campaign. He raised $53 that day.
“We’re trying to get a dollar from 6,000 people,” Braxton-Jones says. “I’m going to individuals first. Then I’m going to small businesses. I don’t have a big campaign fund, but I won’t let that hinder me. My campaign is selling itself.”
Part of selling himself is getting in touch with local media. Braxton-Jones came to the Washington City Paper’s attention, for instance, by leaving an index card addressed to the editor, noting his “history on the streets” and the “historical” implications of his run for D.C. Council if he manages to win.
Like Adrian Fenty before him, Braxton-Jones also plans to use his youth as a selling point. Richardson says that the current council is old and out-of-touch enough to make a case for that change. “One of the reasons I support him is because he is a young male,” says Richardson. “All the other councilmembers are 43 to 45 on up.”
David Catania, one of the at-large councilmembers whose seat will be up for election in 2002, has no comment on Braxton-Jones’ run. Catania’s press secretary Carl Schmid notes, however, that Catania was under 30 years old when he was first elected.
At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson holds the other seat up for grabs in 2002. He says he doesn’t see age as a concern. “When it comes to issues of city services and quality of our government, it doesn’t break down by age,” Mendelson says. He cites his record of supporting job-training programs and the University of the District of Columbia as examples of his support of issues important to young people.
Richardson also cites accessibility as a key issue. Even in his role as an advisory neighborhood commissioner, Richardson notes, he can’t get councilmembers to address his concerns or to return his faxes.
“Every event that I’ve thrown in the last four years, not one of them showed up. The exception was [Harold] Brazil, when his seat was up,” Richardson says. “I guess they too busy for the community.” He says Braxton-Jones would be much more accessible.
Mendelson says his record on accessibility—which includes an open-door policy for members of the community and sidewalk office hours in which he goes into the neighborhoods to hear the people’s concerns—speaks for itself.
As a rookie politician without a record, Braxton-Jones is running on his own biography. And he believes that his background just might be a winning combination.
“It might take somebody who knows both sides to merge them together, almost like Malcolm X,” says Braxton-Jones. “I learned from Karl Marx that the best things in life are the biggest contradictions.” CP