Ward 8 candidate Trayon White came to the Congress Heights parade last Saturday with his own hype man.
“The people’s champ is here!” declared one White supporter.
But not everyone was happy to see him. The drill teams and children’s bands waiting to march were at best neutral about the man who has about a 50 percent chance of being their next : .
The parade’s organizers were even less impressed. They complained that White hadn’t registered to march in time. The fact that Monica Ray, the campaign treasurer for LaRuby May, runs the group that organizes the parade also didn’t help White’s chances. The special election to decide who would take the late Marion Barry’s seat left White just 152 votes behind May, Mayor Muriel Bowser’s candidate. As of Election Day, more than 1,000 provisional ballots remained uncounted, even as more absentee ballots came through via email.
At the parade, organizers told White he would have to march last, while May would lead the parade. Each of the rival campaigns passed the time trying to out-chant the other. White groaned that Ray and her candidate were just representing the interests of Phinis Jones, the frequently scandal-tied developer and political donor whose involvement in the Park Southern housing complex gave Bowser’s campaign heartburn last year.
“They’re the face,” White tells LL. “He’s [in] back with the money.”
Suddenly, things got heated about who would march behind whom. White’s supporters spilled out across the parade route on Congress Street SE, advancing on another parade organizer. Older White volunteers got up in younger men’s faces, trying to talk them down from brawling.
“Don’t let that nigga provoke you!” yelled one woman.
Welcome to the Ward 8 race in overtime.
Despite the mayor’s support and a campaign treasury more than 16 times as wealthy as White’s, May found herself within three percentage points of White on election night. What could have turned into a victory party lost momentum when Bowser declared May was just “winning”—so far—then quickly exited with her candidate.
The tight race leaves May and White now in dispute over the legitimacy of the provisional ballots, which could mean the difference between a suite in the Wilson Building and a year-long wait until the seat is up again. It also means one final round of White versus Bowser’s Green Machine, which has resources that extend far beyond who goes where in a parade.
The parade near-fight was an intense moment for White, who usually alternates between introspective mumbling and, at 5 feet two inches, a Pan-like glee at his good fortune in the race. Walking to the parade, White pumped his supporters up with stories about how many people the campaign had taken to the polls.
“There’s no way they’re even close to us, dog!” White told one.
As it turns out, there are a lot of ways for May to be close to him as the Ward 8 race drags on. Barring some truly bizarre electoral math, the roughly 1,000 votes won’t be split between just May and White. Instead, a majority of them will likely go to the other candidates who received votes last week. Candidates like Eugene D. Kinlow, Barry’s son Marion C. Barry, Sheila Bunn, and Natalie Williams kept both White and May under 30 percent on election day, and they could have the same effect on their provisional vote totals.
“We believe that most of those provisional ballots belong to us,” says Stuart Anderson, who dropped out of the race last month to organize for White.
Anderson thinks that if his candidate can get 400 of the votes, he’ll win. On Tuesday, the D.C. Board of Elections accepted 822 of the provisional ballots and rejected 344 of them, although the approved number could increase if more provisional voters prove their eligibility.
DCBOE plans to release an unofficial count on Friday. If May and White are separated by less than one percent of the votes, there will be an automatic recount. If he’s losing by more than that, White says he’ll pay the cost of a recount himself—at $50 per precinct, $850 if he opts to pay for a ward-wide recount.
DCBOE doesn’t make it easy for campaigns to prove that the provisional votes should be counted. First the campaigns have to find the voters, then they have to take them to DCBOE headquarters at Judiciary Square, miles away from Ward 8. Most difficult of all, the elections board doesn’t provide the campaigns with the names of people who cast provisional ballots.
“It’s sort of hard,” says May spokesman Everett Hamilton. “You don’t get the names of the people.”
Instead, the campaigns are left guessing about which of their supporters would have gone to the polls as a first-time voter or without proof of their address. On Monday night, White’s campaign organized volunteers to canvass their neighborhoods, while others worked on Facebook to find potential voters.
Knocking on doors during the workweek in the District’s poorest ward has one advantage, according to candidate-turned-White-supporter Jauhar Abraham: There’s a better chance that people will be home because they’re unemployed.
For his part, White insists he isn’t worried about the daunting task of figuring out who cast a provisional ballot. On Monday, his campaign estimated that they had identified roughly 100 voters.
“Ward 8’s small,” White says. “All I gotta do is put a poster up.”
That low-tech approach would be in keeping with the rest of White’s campaign, which managed to survive in the face of a crowded field and May’s overwhelming money advantage.
White, a former State Board of Education member and Barry protege, has embraced his underdog image. At one point during a press conference, he urged his supporters to chant “we will not be bought.”
“This is life-or-death for a whole lot of people,” White says. “We’re the hope.”
Lately, White has redirected many of his attacks from May to Bowser: He frequently says the mayor is setting up a “dictatorship” in the District (Bowser spokesman Michael Czin disagrees). As Bowser walked by White’s crew on Congress Heights Day, one White fan addressed her as Sharon Pratt Kelly—a reference to the mediocre ’90’s District mayor.
May has the money and the mayor, but White has at least one advantage of his own: everyone knows who he is. White lives every day like an episode of This is Your Life, constantly delighted to run into people he knows. Outside a Giant on Alabama Ave. SE, White ran into his high school football coach, who seemed unsure about his former player’s fifth quarter at the ballot box.
“Is that a good thing or a bad thing?” he asked.
White’s reply: “It’s just a thing, man.”
Update: This article originally misstated the cost of a recount based on erroneous information provided by the D.C. Board of Elections. It’s $50 per precinct, not $50 for an entire ward recount.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery