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Later this month, the type of people who give money to political campaigns will gather at Mayor Vince Gray’s Hillcrest home for chit-chat and barbecue. They’ll also be asked to open their wallets for Ward 7 Councilmember Yvette Alexander, Gray’s hand-picked successor, who is running for re-election.
The campaign event underscores two things: election season is now in full swing (the earlier-than-usual April primary is less than nine months away), and Alexander is likely going to need a lot of help to keep her seat.
Alexander is one of the council’s friendliest members, but she has a thin record of legislative accomplishments. And now she’s facing opposition on three flanks. Parts of Ward 7’s old political guard, located mostly in the Hillcrest and Penn Branch neighborhoods, has already gone public with their desires for a new candidate. A younger and more progressive group, both inside and outside the ward, also wants somebody besides Alexander. And then there’s Ron Moten, the ubiquitous D.C. political gadfly who has all but launched his campaign to unseat one of his biggest political enemies.
At the core, all three camps share similar complaints with Alexander: She’s a nice enough person, but she’s not getting the job done.
Last month, The Washington Times reported that a group of Ward 7 Brahmins had gathered to discuss Alexander’s future on the council. The group is frustrated by what they see as a lack of leadership and initiative, says Paul Savage, a member of the group who helped spearhead an effort to get Anthony Williams to run for mayor. When the topic of whether Alexander could be rehabilitated came up, “people did not want to waste time on that,” Savage says.
Savage says Alexander, who won her seat in a special election in 2007 after Gray went from Ward 7 councilmember to council chairman, has had plenty of time to prove herself. He says Alexander’s failure to properly advocate for Ward 7 during the latest redistricting battle was the final straw against her.
“You have to turn the page at a certain point,” says Savage, whose group includes some of the same people who helped Gray launch his first run for council in 2004. “By any measure, when you look across this ward, we can do better. We can do better. A lot better.”
Savage says his group is in the process of finding a strong candidate to back in a contest against Alexander. If they find that candidate, Savage promises a professional roll-out in the next few weeks.
Alexander says the fact that finding a candidate to run against her requires a search process proves that there’s not a broad interest in seeing her replaced.
“People are trying to create [someone] when there’s no need; there’s someone already there,” says Alexander, who says she’s not aware of any draft efforts. “It’s news to me that people are looking for new leadership.”
Alexander says she’s got a strong record to run on, including being approachable to all her constituents and her dogged defense of capital spending in her ward. “Capital projects, who makes sure that they are funded? The Ward 7 councilmember. And no one can disprove that. No one can disprove that,” says Alexander.
OK, LL won’t disprove that. But elections are less about disproving things and more about proving you can deliver, and LL can’t find much in the way of significant legislation that Alexander’s pushed into law. One of her biggest wins was getting the council to approve a measure requiring gas stations to install security cameras, legislation she introduced after her purse was stolen at a—wait for it—gas station. And Alexander appeared to get totally rolled by Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells during the redistricting debate.
Savage’s group isn’t the only bunch who’s going to try to unseat Alexander. A loose-knit group of more progressive Ward 7 residents is also looking for a candidate. Some live outside the ward’s old guard strongholds, in neighborhoods like Fairfax Village, and are relatively new to Alexander’s turf.
Other progressives from outside the ward, like Greater Greater Washington founder David Alpert—and some political insiders whose day jobs won’t allow them to go public—have also been shopping for candidates to run against Alexander.
“We’re very concerned about recent events on the council around corruption scandals, the budget, and more and are interested in finding candidates who may run for office in the 2012 races,” says Alpert, adding that so far, “we haven’t made any specific decisions about which wards or races to focus on.”
LL might not worry about folks from other wards west of the river if LL were Alexander. But potentially more ominous: One younger Ward 7 activist says members of the progressive crowd and those of the old guard have had discussions about potential candidates both would find acceptable.
“There’s definitely a recognition that we have to get behind one candidate,” says the activist, who asked not to be named because they may run. In the special election that first put Alexander in office, there were a total of 18 candidates; she won with 34 percent of the vote.
Another Ward 7 wag says finding a candidate that makes both the old guard and the more progressive crowd happy might be a tall order. The old guard, says the wag (who didn’t want to be named because he works at the Wilson Building), wants a candidate they already know personally. The newer crowd wants a candidate who is willing to knock on their door.
Two potential candidates who might fit the bill that LL hears mentioned frequently are Veronica Davis, a civil engineer, and Advisory Neighborhood Commission 7C04 commissioner Sylvia Brown.
Alexander’s response to all this—What do you mean, people want to run against me?— isn’t exactly a sign-worthy slogan, but you can sense the fight with which the incumbent will approach this campaign.
In sheer terms of energy expended, though, Alexander and the potential mystery candidate will almost assuredly be outdone by Ron Moten, a human sparkplug who was former Mayor Adrian Fenty’s most vocal supporter.
To try to prove his candidacy could be formidable, Moten takes LL to Benning Terrace, a public housing complex in Ward 7 whose low-income residents Moten hopes will form his voting base. A group of residents, some who have worked with Moten’s anti-youth violence group Peacoholics, say Moten has strong support in their community because he’s got a long track record of working to improve things.
“He goes beyond his call of duty,” says resident Gloria Beard.
Moten says he’s counting on the good will he built up doing Peaceoholics work to help him win. He also says a council audit, which was requested by Alexander at the height of the mayoral campaign last year, will show Peaceohlics’s books were in order—and that, in turn, will help him emphasize his commitment to serve over his desire for personal enrichment.
“What I get erections from is helping my people,” he says.
Moten says his support isn’t limited to lower-income residents: He says he’s also gotten nibbles of support from residents of Hillcrest, where he currently lives. Savage says he’s keeping an open mind about Moten, but it’s hard to imagine Moten doing well with most of the old guard.
It’s also hard not to imagine Mayor Gray losing his mind if Moten, who once chased Gray through a parking lot demanding an apology, were somehow able to win his old council seat.
The big unanswered question for the race is how much support Gray will give Alexander if an old guard–backed candidate enters the race. Gray could go all in and use his sizable good will in the ward to get his pick across the finish line, or he could decide to cut her loose if she has trouble raising money. Nothing would look worse for the mayor than to heavily invest in Alexander, only to see her rejected by his own base.
Alexander is clearly hoping that Gray’s willing to take that risk.
“I think his endorsement is major,” she says. “For those that support him, I would ask for their support, definitely.”
* * *
Kwame Lays Down The Law
Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells found out the hard way this week that hell hath no fury like a Kwame scorned.
D.C. Council Chairman Kwame “Fully Loaded” Brown punished Wells for various transgressions—including investigating with a little too much relish Brown’s taste in luxury SUVs—by stripping Wells of his long-sought chairmanship of the transportation and public works committee.
Brown publicly denied that the move had anything to do with politics, but for the political types in the Wilson Building the message Brown was sending was loud and clear: Get in line.
“It was a message that ‘I’m in charge here,” says Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, an ally of Brown who now gets Wells’ old committee. “I don’t know if it was: ‘don’t mess with me,’ but it was “I’m the leader of the council.”
Cheh didn’t seem too sorry to see Wells go; she mocked his “livable, walkable” slogan to the Post as the story unfolded: “I’ll say ‘livable, walkable.’ If I say it enough, will that be OK?” But she says the urbanist voting bloc that greeted Wells’ appointment to the committee shouldn’t blame her for his removal, which she says she had nothing to do with. “I think [Brown] thought this through himself,” she says. Brown approached her Monday morning to see if she was interested in the transportation committee, and after thinking it over for a few hours, she accepted—well before Brown told Wells he was being moved out.
Brown’s had a rough start as council chairman. He came in under the shadow of a popular previous chairman, who’s now the mayor, and his reputation took a major hit early on because of Navigatorgate. Things got even worse last week after news broke that the U.S. Attorney’s Office is investigating Brown for possible campaign finance malfeasance. All of which explains Brown’s decision to try and assert himself.
It turned out that an over-the-top beatdown of Wells was the perfect way to do it; Cheh wasn’t the only one in the Wilson Building who didn’t mind seeing Brown push Wells around. When it came time for a vote on the committee shuffle Tuesday, there was an awkward silence after Wells spoke up to defend himself. The council then voted 12 to 1, with only Wells opposing, to support their leader’s decision—a vote that underscores the fact that Wells has no true friends on the council, and the rest of his colleagues were too scared to speak up against Brown.
The question is, will it last?
Photos by Darrow Montgomery
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