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Kenyan McDuffie found a lot wrong in his ward last Saturday. Empty bottles of Corona and Christian Brothers brandy lined Bladensburg Road NE, while the auto mechanics on the street topped their fences with razor-wire that dangled low enough to catch a passerby.
Fumes wafting from one auto-body shop made the whole block smell like a paint store. Looking to catch the business throwing away chemicals illegally, the Ward 5 councilmember, to the chagrin of the shop’s manager, took a peek into the dumpster himself.
It’s constituent service, Ward 5 style. McDuffie brought a small army of representatives from D.C. government agencies for a walk-through in his ward’s Woodridge neighborhood.
Between vacant houses and the ubiquitous mechanics, there was more than enough to keep the inspectors busy. Quality-of-life problems aside, though, the neighborhood activists tagging along with McDuffie’s entourage were delighted to see their elected representative walking the streets. One civic association member enthused to LL that the councilmember had restored “integrity” to the entire ward.
High praise, except pretty much anyone in the District would have been an improvement over the Ward 5 seat’s last occupant. McDuffie won his position in a 2012 special election to replace Harry Thomas Jr., who had leveraged his Council position and roots in a Ward 5 political dynasty into a three-year prison sentence after he was caught stealing city grant money meant for at-risk kids.
Later this month, McDuffie, 38, will mark his second anniversary in office. McDuffie has the entire District government in his portfolio as chairman of the Councilís government operations committee. With a photogenic family and a sparkling ethical record, McDuffie is well-poised to run for citywide office. With mayoral hopefuls David Catania and Muriel Bowser facing off in November, it’s not clear who will be the next mayor, but there’s a good chance that whoever wins, McDuffie could be the next next mayor.
When McDuffie took office, his ward—-thanks to the District’s zoning rules—-was dealing with an influx of uses other wards would rather not have, attracting strip clubs, medical marijuana shops, and a streetcar barn. Meanwhile, flooding in Bloomingdale was sending sewage into people’s homes.
Judging by the reaction to McDuffie’s campaign to win a full four-year term this year, his constituent-service work paid off. The crowd at McDuffie’s campaign kick-off at Bladensburg Road’s Eclipse nightclub in January included three of his former special election opponents and Thomas’ mother, who introduced McDuffie. He won his re-election primary with 78 percent of the vote, facing only token opposition from Ward 5 gadfly Kathy Henderson.
With his re-election in the bag—-he’s unopposed in the general election—-McDuffie has used the government operations committee perch he landed in January 2013 to give himself citywide prominence on ethics. He pushed through a campaign finance reform bill, then mediated a dispute between feuding watchdogs at the District’s Office of the Inspector General and the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability. And he’s become a reliable vote with good-government types like Ward 6’s Tommy Wells and At-Large Councilmember David Grosso.
Of course, not everyone in the District government wants to be reformed. After landing the radioactive assignment to head a special committee charged with punishing Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry for taking thousands of dollars in gifts from city contractors, McDuffie faced pushback from veteran councilmembers like Vincent Orange. Orange suggested that McDuffie’s proposal to take away Barry’s committee chairmanship was actually a scheme to get better assignments for councilmembers Anita Bonds and Grosso. McDuffie’s recommendation passed anyway.
McDuffie’s faced so much opposition from the Council’s old guard that he’s developed a trademark verbal tic for it: a stutter. Baffled by critics of his reforms, McDuffie stammers like he can’t even comprehend why he’d draw opposition.
He’s getting better at dais theatrics, though. When Orange criticized his attempt last week to change a District law so the city could conduct a national search for a new inspector general, McDuffie came prepared. After Orange complained that no experts had been consulted on the change, McDuffie started reading from 11-year-old notes on an Orange-run committee that hadn’t consulted experts, either. (McDuffie eventually withdrew the bill anyway, with plans to reintroduce it when it has more support.)
Unlike the last occupant of his seat, McDuffie has a squeaky clean image. When one of his Council staffers spent a couple hundred dollars from McDuffie’s constituent service fund on bar tabs (an egregious use of the money, even by the loose standards of constituent service funds), McDuffie quickly fired him. McDuffie is willing to take his good-government image to extremes—-during his Woodridge walk-through, McDuffie refused to cross an empty street against the light, lest LL take a picture of him jaywalking.
Last October, District politics wag and sometimes campaign manager Chuck Thies wrote a column for NBC 4 dubbing him “Mayor McDuffie.” After labor coalition D.C. Working Families endorsed McDuffie in his primary, Delvone Michael, the group’s executive director, told LL that McDuffie was the kind of person his organization thought “should aspire for higher office.” Hint, hint.
McDuffie’s potential hasn’t been lost on the District’s campaign financiers, either. Despite facing almost nonexistent opposition in last April’s Democratic primary, McDuffie raised more than $115,000, then spent less than $60,000 of it.
His campaign disclosure forms read like a who’s-who of deep pockets necessary to run a citywide campaign: developers, mega-contractor Fort Myer Construction, and lobbyist Rod Woodson. District bigwigs have at least one reason to like McDuffie: his industrial land use task force, which promises to shake up development opportunities in the ward.
“I don’t think donations to an elected officials campaign equate to unequal access to an office,” McDuffie says.
McDuffie’s popularity with the usual Wilson Building crowd could pose a problem for how effectively he runs his committee, if not for any citywide ambitions. Unlike otherwise ideologically similar politicians like Wells, McDuffie does accept corporate contributions, a decision he defends on the grounds that his campaign finance bill closed a loophole that allowed contributions from mysterious LLCs. While Grosso doesn’t keep a constituent service fund, McDuffie does, a decision he says he made because of comparatively higher constituent service demands on ward councilmembers.
In another sign of McDuffie’s electability, he’s deeply uninterested in talking to LL about his electability. Asked about future plans, McDuffie instead gives LL a short civics lesson that included mentions of integrity, his background, and his plans for Ward 5. And yet…
“I don’t ever really foreclose the possibilities of what will happen in the future,” he says.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery