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A year from now, Trayon White could be the most powerful politician in Ward 8. Last weekend, though, he struggled to move a few blocks—people kept stopping to hug him.
LL was supposed to join White for a quick walk from his Congress Heights headquarters to a community event, then a door-knocking session across the ward. But cars keep pulling over to honk at him, and White keeps finding old basketball teammates, kids he’s mentored, or a particularly violent corner.
As yet another person asks White for help, multiple White campaign workers describe it as their job to keep the talkative candidate moving. But then White sees another friend, this time on the other side of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE.
“I know,” White tells one exasperated campaign volunteer as he jogs away. “But I gotta see Al.”
In nearly three hours, White, LL, and his irritated campaign volunteers will walk only five blocks. Barbershop owner Kevin Davis isn’t the only person to tell his kid to pose with White.
“He’s gonna be the next mayor,” Davis says to his son, pulling his boy out of the shop to pose with the dreadlocked candidate for a picture.
White isn’t running for mayor. He hasn’t even won a seat on the D.C. Council. He nearly did last year, though, when he lost the special election to replace the late Marion Barry by only 78 votes to LaRuby May. In June, White will take another shot at incumbent May in the Democratic primary. If he wins, he won’t just fill Barry’s old seat—he’ll take away one of Muriel Bowser’s most reliable votes on the Council.
The passion some in Ward 8 feel for White isn’t new. On election night last year, White and May shared the ballot with 11 other candidates. When the race between White and May ended up too close to call, the other candidates closed their campaigns or issued noncommittal statements about their plans for the 2016 race.
Blocks away at Anacostia’s Big Chair Coffee, White’s supporters spilled onto the street with their candidate and demanded a recount. The final figures from the D.C. Board of Elections favored May, but just barely.
“People feel like the Trayon White team was cheated, so they have to do something,” White says.
White’s supporters compare his new race to Ward 8’s special election in 1995, when Eydie Whittington, a candidate backed by the then-mayor Barry, won by a single vote, only to lose in the 1996 regular primary to her previous opponent. This year, no candidates from 2015 besides May and White are running again. (White rival-turned-supporter Stuart Anderson tells LL the campaign will deal with “every snake that sticks his head up.”)
There’s something else different for White this year, too: money. As of the most recent campaign finance deadline in March, White had raised nearly $12,000. That’s nearly as much as his roughly $16,000 haul for the entire campaign last year. This time, White’s total includes a maximum donation of $500 from patron and well-connected D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine. But it’s still woefully small compared with the more than $183,000 raised that May reported in March.
White’s headquarters in Congress Heights is located just a few storefronts down from May’s campaign office.
“Good,” White says when he walks by May’s office with his canvassers. “Apply some pressure.”
Despite the resources aligned against him, the Congress Heights residents who approached White had big ambitions for their candidate, who lives in Washington Highlands. One ice cream shop worker tells White she came into her business to find a May sign in the window, took it down—and then warned her employees they’d be looking for new jobs if she found a May sign there again.
One woman in the Congress Heights park where White launched his campaign two months ago asks him to oust May, whose turkey giveaway, she complained, required elderly residents to use the Internet.
“When Marion Barry was here, we didn’t have to get on no computer,” she says.
In torn jeans and a white undershirt, Congress Heights park visitor Frank Addison peppers White with questions.
“Marion Barry’s shoes is big,” Addison says. “Can you step in ‘em?”
Of course, Barry’s legacy soured with crack, sex, and graft. Walking around Congress Heights, White heard from several Ballou High School students who were irritated by the proposal to rename the school after Barry. But White enjoys the closeness with Barry (the former mayor’s kidney donor Kim Dickens is working on his campaign) but without the downside. He’s Marion Barry without the “but.”
White isn’t obviously charismatic. He’s soft spoken, with an ability to know the history of everyone he sees on the street. Still, he has a theory.
“One thing about Ward 8,” White says. “Ward 8 people real. And real recognize real.”
Got a tip for LL? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 650-6925.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery