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These elections, they never end! On Tuesday, Ward 5 voters will pick a replacement for convicted felon Harry Thomas Jr., who was recently sentenced to more than three years in prison for stealing public funds.

Ward 5, long the backbone of the District’s black middle class, hasn’t seen such a wide-open race for its council seat in decades. Thomas’ father, Harry Thomas Sr., held the seat for three terms beginning in 1987. Vincent Orange then held it for two terms before Jr. reclaimed the Thomas legacy. This time around, there are no boldfaced names (or their progeny) in the running. But whoever wins will have his or her hands full, as the ward is still raw from Thomas’ betrayal. It’s also trying to figure out meaty issues like whether its future will lean more suburban or urban, or how a steady stream of newcomers will mesh with entrenched residents.

If this is all news to you, you’re probably not alone. With the Thomas affair, a citywide primary election last month, and both the mayor and the D.C. Council chairman under federal investigations, the special election hasn’t gotten much attention outside the ward’s boundaries. LL had a hard time finding any councilmembers who were keeping a close watch on who their next colleague might be. (Ward 7 Councilmember Yvette Alexander wants to make sure a Republican doesn’t join her on the dais. “I would just feel a negative vibe from that,” she says.)

To help, LL presents a handy guide:

• Who will win?

Unknown! Turnout will probably be low, and the margin of victory slim. No polls have been made public showing who’s ahead, but indications are that the race will be close. Consider that the ward’s traditional big campaign donors, which include gas magnate Joe Mamo, the paving company Fort Myer Construction, and lobbyist and former Councilmember John Ray, have all hedged their bets by giving to multiple candidates.

LL can tell you that based on name recognition, money raised, and that thing called “buzz,” the front runners are Kenyan McDuffie, Delano Hunter, and Frank Wilds.

• C’mon, pick one!

The talk among the chattering class is that attorney McDuffie, who most recently worked as a policy advisor for Deputy Mayor Paul Quander, has the momentum. McDuffie got only 15 percent when he ran in a multi-candidate race against Thomas in 2010, but has managed to put together a pretty wide coalition this year. He’s got the support of most labor groups, including the Washington Teachers’ Union. (While labor doesn’t have much power in D.C. politics compared to other cities, Ward 5 is home to many current and retired government workers.)

McDuffie’s also the favorite of the city’s progressive set. Ward 6 Councilmartyr Saint Tommy Wells has donated to his campaign, and the urbanist blog Greater Greater Washington has endorsed him. McDuffie says he’s trying to be a leader in the “most inclusive way possible.” In inevitable D.C. fashion, this has earned him attacks on neighborhood email lists, where one detractor accused McDuffie of going after the “White Person’s vote.”

• What about the others?

Hunter came into the race in good shape. The Spingarn High School graduate managed nearly 800 more votes than McDuffie in 2010 and is, as they say in the biz, a natural politician, despite being only 28 years old. Hunter also has the support of longtime ANC Commissioner Bob King, who has a special knack for feeding large numbers of Ward 5 seniors and then getting them to the polls.

But Hunter’s stock took a big hit on the news, first reported by the Brookland Heartbeat, that he’s been sued several times for unpaid debts. That might not normally be a dealbreaker in most elections (see: Kwame “Fully Loaded” Brown’s 2010 D.C. Council chairman victory), but with the Thomas affair fresh on everybody’s mind, it’s not good. Hunter’s also been dinged for his ties to the National Organization for Marriage, the anti-gay-marriage group that endorsed him in 2010, apparently to punish Thomas for his vote for D.C.’s marriage equality law. Hunter says he incurred the debts while he was focused on the 2010 race, and the negative press has only emboldened his supporters.

“They see me as an individual under siege,” Hunter says. “When I’m being attacked, they take it personally.”

Wilds, a successful businessman who came in second to Thomas in 2006, has the most money to spend this week. His $45,000 cash-on-hand, due in part to a $18,500 loan from himself, is far more than twice what McDuffie and Hunter have left. Wilds has emphasized his ties to the past and the fact that he’s been living in Ward 5 longer than some of his opponents have been alive.

“We need a grown-up in that seat,” he said recently at a small campaign rally that included former Ward 1 Councilmember Frank Smith, Ward 5 School Board member Mark Jones, and a former public school teacher who gave a speech that dealt almost exclusively with the nefariousness of former D.C. Public Schools chancellor Michelle Rhee.

Republican Tim Day, who helped spark the investigation that led to Thomas’ downfall and the council vacancy, won the Washington Post’s endorsement, which one might normally assume makes him a contender. But the Post’s influence in city politics has declined faster than its circulation numbers, and Day is a GOP candidate in a ward where Democrats outnumber Republicans 23 to 1. The other candidates are Democrats Rae Zapata, Ruth Marshall, Drew Hubbard, Shelly Gardner, Kathy Henderson, Ron Magnus, and independent John Cheeks.

• Has this campaign been clean?

Not really. Day says he’s been accosted, had his car keyed, and even had his campaign sign stolen from in front of his own home. He thinks he got the rough treatment because he first got the ball rolling on the Thomas investigation. But as far as sign-stealing goes, Day’s not the only one.

“If we put 400 signs on Friday, 300 of them are down by Sunday,” says Hubbard, who says he doesn’t know who is responsible for the sign theft, but that it’s “just curious” that the Hunter campaign’s signs never seem to be taken down.

McDuffie says his signs have disappeared throughout the campaign as well. He and his team put some signs out along West Virginia Avenue, only to find three-fourths of them gone a couple days later. Who is the culprit? McDuffie says he doesn’t know for sure, but also pointed Hunter’s way.

“There’s a candidate who is having a serious problem winning this election based on his own record,” McDuffie says, making a not-very veiled reference to the fact that Hunter’s financial problems have hurt him. “So he resorted to dirty politics to try and get the upper hand.”

But Hunter says they’ve got the wrong guy, and his campaign’s probably had more signs snatched than any of the others.

“We’re not playing that game,” Hunter says. “That’s just not our style. That’s just wasted energy.”

Yard signs, of course, don’t vote, so it’s doubtful all the sign-snatching will matter. But in Ward 5, this hoary old campaign trick has a history: Before he was a federal felon, HTJ was also an alleged sign thief.

The year was 1994, and Thomas’ late father was running against an upstart named Vincent Orange, who saw many of his signs disappear. Orange somehow caught on videotape an early morning exchange between Thomas and the police. A senior police officer told the Post that cops found campaign signs belonging to Orange and another candidate in the back of Thomas’ red Toyota station wagon.

Thomas denied any wrongdoing. “If the police found those posters, they should have taken them as evidence,” he told the Post. “It is their word against mine.”

Ah, such pluck. Those are going to be some tough shoes to fill.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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