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Persistent political candidate Don Folden Sr. gets back in the racethis time for his 17-year-old son.
Seventeen-year-old Donald Folden Jr. figured that the June election for student member of the D.C. Board of Education was just a formality. He was the only student who’d signed up to run for the spot by the June 8 deadline. And when he showed up at Eastern Senior High School for the first day of a two-day election the next week and saw that his was the only name on the ballot, he felt pretty confident.
“I kinda figured, I guess I got it,” says Donald of the yearlong position, which allows the city’s sole student member to introduce resolutions, make motions, and speak at most school board gatherings. (Student members can vote, however, only in assigned committee meetings.)
Shortly before Donald began his campaign speech in front of student leaders from across the city at Eastern, the election administratorMichon Peck, acting director of student affairs for D.C. Public Schoolscalled for nominations for the post from the floor.
“Another kid raised his hand to nominate himself. When I saw all the people that seconded him, I thought, Oh no,” recalls Donald. (School system officials would not release the name of Donald’s competitor.)
Donald would have to wait one more day to learn the outcome of the race. On the second day of the election, the two contenders campaigned before a crowd of elementary school student leaders gathered at Logan Professional Development Center in Northeast D.C. The competition was stiff, Donald says, but he tried to stay positive.
“[My opponent] was passing around candy and a little piece of paper that said, ‘Vote for me,’” says Donald. “I didn’t have any candy or paper. But [the students] all told me I looked like this rapper named Nelly. When I went up there [to the podium to give my speech], they were all yelling, ‘Nel-ly, Nel-ly!’ So I thought I’d won.”
But Donald’s faux celebrity appeal wasn’t enough to win a majority. When the votes were counted, Peck announced that Donald’s opponent had won. “He jumped up with his hands in the air. I was just looking at him, like, He doesn’t know what he’s getting into,” Donald says.
Donald’s fatherrecurring D.C. political candidate Don Folden Sr.could have told him that there are no easy political campaigns. The elder Folden is a former street vendor who has run in several citywide political competitions and never won. Though Donald lost the initial count, his father’s political combativeness has helped to put this particular schoolyard race back into contention.
Known for his characteristic white straw hat and his tendency to speak out at almost any gathering, Folden Sr. has campaigned unsuccessfully once for mayor and three times for an at-large spot on the D.C. Councilenough for the Washington Post to dub him a “perennial candidate.”
When Folden found out that another candidate had entered his son’s race at the last minute and won, he challenged the electionarguing that his son’s opponent had failed to complete the application by the deadline and that the entire election had taken place after the required date outlined in the D.C. Municipal Regulations. He demanded that his son be declared the winner.
Last week, after several meetings with Folden, a school system representative announced his decision to hold the election againthis time in September. That didn’t satisfy the elder Folden, who marched down to D.C. Superior Court and filed for a temporary restraining order to stop the second race. A court hearing was scheduled for Aug. 2.
“They must think I’m stuck on stupid or something,” says Folden. “They tell me that my grievance is sustained, but they don’t give me anything I asked for….It looks like I’m going to have to go to court.”
For the elder Folden, struggle is really an everyday thing. His previous experiencespersonal, professional, and politicalhave been anything but easy. He’s played single pop to his two kidsDonald and an older daughter, DeShawnsince they were toddlers, when Folden moved them to his mother’s house and the kids’ mom skipped town.
With his mother’s help, Folden supported the family for years on his small income selling incense, T-shirts, and other odds and ends from a vending stand located on 4th Street NW, across from a parking lot that would later become Judiciary Square, the heart of city government.
In 1999, he opened a store on Georgia Avenue called African Tabletop, which specialized in African-themed dinnerware. He didn’t make enough to pay the rent and closed the shop less than a year later. He now peddles the dishes from his home, via brochures in a black binder that he carries with him.
Folden’s foray into District politics began in 1994, when he campaigned in a crowded Democratic mayoral primary that included the so-called Big Threeformer Mayors Marion Barry and Sharon Pratt Kelly, and former D.C. Councilmember John Ray.
Folden wasn’t intimidated by the big guns and spoke out vociferously on topics ranging from the school system’s woes to the need for better drug-rehab services. But he spent much of his campaign struggling to be included in political forums, which were often restricted to his bigger-name competitors. Called “the angry candidate” by some, Folden didn’t back down when challenged. When Ray allegedly called him “a nothing, a nobody,” Folden confronted Ray outside a D.C. polling office on Primary Day and demanded an apology. The request resulted in a scuffle with Ray supporters, and the confrontation ended up on the local news (“Look Back in Anger,” 10/14/94).
Despite that last-minute publicity, Folden came in dead last, garnering 189 votes to Barry’s winning 66,777. That loss didn’t stop him from running again in 1995, this time in a special election to fill Barry’s Ward 8 council seat, which Barry had given up to become mayor. Folden got 41 votesnot the lowest tally, but well below what was needed to win.
Folden came in last again in a 1996 election for one of two at-large council seatsa campaign notorious for a near-fistfight that he had with incumbent Harold Brazil, who was angered by Folden’s criticism of his council record. Folden didn’t even make it to voting day during his last political effort, in 2000, when he tried once again for an at-large spot on the D.C. Council. He dropped out after his nominating signatures where challenged.
“They’re not ready for a person like me,” Folden says of his losses. “I’m not for sale. I’m not going to suck up to anybody.”
Folden swears the 2000 campaign was his lastalthough he’s made that same promise in the past. “There’s not a day someone doesn’t come up to me and say, ‘Man, you speak the truth. Are you going to run again?’” Folden shakes his head and lets out a long, singsongy “Nooo.” He adds, “People want you to keep running into a brick wall.”
We’re seated at the food court at One Judiciary Square as we talk, across the street from where Folden once peddled knickknacks to passers-by. He suggested the meeting place. “This is my home,” he says.
In a sense, Folden never stops sellingor campaigning. He’s friendly and animated as he discusses his son’s plight, but he’s constantly distracted by people walking past. He runs off to shake hands or give hugs. When an advisory neighborhood commissioner from his area passes by, Folden warns him that kids can access pornographic Web sites on computers at a local library. “I’m just telling you because it’s in your single-member district,” Folden tells the commissioner.
When George Crawford, former chair of the D.C. Taxicab Commission, passes the table, Folden pulls out a brochure on dinnerware from his binder and shoves it into Crawford’s hands.
“What is this, like for soup?” asks Crawford. Folden offers his sales pitch while reminding Crawford, who heads a local community development corporation, that he needs a new spot for his dinnerware store.
Crawford stares blankly, glancing down at the catalog in his hands. Again, Folden’s spiel lacks an interested audience. “I’ll give it to my wife,” Crawford says of Folden’s brochure.
Despite his tenacious campaigns, Folden insists that his latest endeavor is personal, not political. “I made a promise that if I ever had kids, I’d stick with them,” he says. “If nothing else, both of my children know Daddy’s going to fight for them.”
Folden attended the first day of the June student-member election with his son. When he saw that another contender had been allowed to run from the floor, he wrote a note to a student-government sponsor at his son’s school, saying he didn’t think the late entry was fair. He later charged down to the school system’s main offices, on North Capitol Street NE, to deliver his complaint in person. That outburst got him an informal meeting with Peck.
Folden also filed a formal complaint, and he attended a grievance hearing at the school system’s offices two weeks ago. It was after that hearing that Ralph Neal, assistant superintendent for student and school support services, issued his decision: He agreed that the election had taken place after the deadline listed in the city’s guidelines, and he determined to hold the election for the student-member spot again. He also decided to issue a student-government handbook prior to all such races in the future, which would clearly explain all the guidelines, including whether to allow nominations from the floor.
“I felt, to be fair to both partiesnot only the one person who wonbut also to be fair to Mr. Folden’s sonwe should have the entire election process over in September, after school started,” says Neal. “We hope not to upset anyone. We just want to be fair.”
The decision didn’t comfort Folden. “This really has the potential to disenfranchise my son from being involved in the political process before [he] even started,” he says.
Donald is currently on a monthlong student-exchange program in Manaus, Brazil. He gets updates from his dad via telephone, and he says that he’ll go ahead with a “do-over” if his father’s legal efforts fail. Donald will be a senior at Phelps Career Senior High this fall, and after graduating, he hopes to go to Howard University to study drama and someday become an actor. He says he doesn’t plan on a career in politics, but he doesn’t rule it out, either.
Donald’s father, however, hopes that there will finally be a political winner in the family soon. Even if there is another race, Folden figures his son has a pretty good shot.
“He has name recognition now, period,” Folden argues. “That’s one thing I have provided for him.” CP