Ward 5 Democrats slate of all women candidates from left to right: Ursula Higgins, Dr. Tony Miles-Maloney, Jennifer Blemur, Bernita Carmichael, Vincent Orange, Shirley Rivens-Smith, Vanella Jackson-Crawford, and Irene Kang Credit: Courtesy of Vincent Orange

The June 26 election for the Ward 5 Democrats executive board had pretty much everything a local politics observer could want: an impressive turnout of more than 500 people, an historic slate of all women candidates who nearly swept the board, big name endorsements, and Popeyes chicken and biscuits. There were also a few things no one wants: sweltering heat and accusations of racism shouted through a megaphone.

Gordon-Andrew Fletcher, current chair of the Ward 5 Democrats, narrowly retained his seat by just 12 votes, according to results released last week. All but one of his slate members lost handily to a slate of women candidates in what some see as a proxy for a potential matchup in the Ward 5 Council race. (The only candidate on Fletcher’s slate who won ran unopposed.)

Loose Lips is disappointed that he missed it, but he’s spent the past week talking to the politicos involved to recreate the busy and, at times, tense day of voting at Faith United Church of Christ on 10th Street NE.

On one side you have Fletcher and his slate that includes John Lucio, Anthony Roberson, Hazel Thomas, Sherry Pate, Juan Torres, and Sean Sullivan. Fletcher pitched his group as a mix of age and race that reflect the ward’s changing demographics.

On the other, there’s Bernita Carmichael, Ward 5 committeewoman on the D.C. Democratic State Committee, and her all-women slate that includes Jennifer Blemur, Dr. Toni Miles-Maloney (aka Justine Love), Ursula Higgins, Vanella Jackson-Crawford, Irene Kang, and Shirley Rivens-Smith. The ladies bill themselves a “powerhouse of talent, history, warriors, diversity, and advocacy.” Their efforts appear to be aimed at Fletcher, who, as chair, has faced accusations of sexism.

The two slates jockeyed for control of the Ward 5 Dems executive board. The positions are unpaid and come with only a bit of political power but count for a lot in terms of prestige and name recognition.

From left to right: Ursula Higgins, Dr. Tony Miles-Maloney, Shirley Rivens-Smith, Kenyan McDuffie, Bernita Carmichael, Vanella Jackson-Crawford. Courtesy of Bernita Carmichael

Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie and At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds lent their support to the slate of women. So did Ward 5 State Board of Education Rep. Zachary Parker and former councilmembers Vincent Orange and Harry Thomas Jr., all three of whom have expressed interest in or are testing the waters for a Council run. Parker declined to comment when asked recently whether he’s planning to run. But a recent “listening session” hosted by progressive budget wonk Ed Lazere in support of Parker’s possible run for the Ward 5 seat is telling.

Fletcher is also a potential challenger to McDuffie, who hasn’t said yet whether he’ll run for re-election and didn’t return LL’s phone call this week. Fletcher previously told LL that his potential Council campaign would hinge on the results of the Ward 5 Dems election. Now victorious, Fletcher says he’s “highly, highly considering” a run.

Following a tense campaign and day of voting, questions remain about how the organization will function under Fletcher as he sets his sights on McDuffie’s seat and prepares to work with the new board members, some of whom have been critical of his leadership.

“I’ve seen Gordon cultivate a culture that’s not necessarily as inclusive as he would claim to be,” says Blemur, who is also the president of the D.C. Young Democrats and will take over as first vice chair. “Some people have spoken up and were ignored.

“Having all women there was just to say ‘We’re not going to be recognized under this person’s leadership, and we have to take control of that,’” she continues. “’We are no longer going to sit by and ask for time. We are going to take our time.’”

In an interview last week, Fletcher says he’s ready to work with the new members but is still bothered by tactics some of his opponents used on Election Day.

“I represent change and something different than what the Democratic party in Ward 5 is used to, and no one can control me,” he says. “The only people that can control me, and who I’m going to answer to, are my wife and the people.”

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Fletcher says Carmichael, who challenged him for chair of the organization, called him a racist over a megaphone as residents arrived to vote on June 26. He also says that longtime Ward 5 resident and occasional Council candidate Frank Wilds told voters that Republicans were running on Fletcher’s slate. Fletcher assumes Wilds was referring to Sullivan and Lucio, who are White. 

Carmichael, who was a delegate for Joe Biden at the Democratic National Convention, says she is helping her parents recover from some medical issues and was unavailable to talk before LL’s deadline.

Wilds acknowledges that he told voters Fletcher’s slate included Republicans despite not knowing their party registration. He says he never called anyone out by name. (Candidates must be registered Democrats to run and are verified as part of the campaign process.)

“If you got thin skin, stay away from politics,” Wilds tells LL. “Politics are not for thin skinned people.” Wilds says he and Fletcher have butted heads since Fletcher tried to run for chair of ANC 5A as a first-term commissioner.

“He was only elected in November [2016] and wanted to be the chair in his first year,” Wilds says. “And it don’t go that way. We’ve had a rocky relationship since then.”

Lucio and Sullivan were disheartened by Wilds’ comments. Fletcher suggests the comments stem from a resistance to the changing demographics in the ward among some he considers the old guard. 

“My disappointment was some of the racial undertones,” Lucio says. “It was unnecessary and unwelcomed and unwelcoming.”

“It was just unfortunate because we’re all Democrats at the end of the day,” Sullivan, who has served as the recording secretary for the Ward 5 Dems since June of 2020, says. “He kept repeating ‘I’ve never seen you at a meeting.’ And I’m like ‘You gotta be kidding. I’ve been pushing all you Boomers on Zoom for the past year.’” Sullivan acknowledges that he got a little heated in response to Wilds’ persistent heckling, but both he and Lucio say the intend to stay involved with the organization for now.

Hazel Thomas, the outgoing correspondence secretary and a longtime politically active Ward 5 resident, who ran on Fletcher’s slate, was disappointed that sitting councilmembers weighed into the races. She believes their endorsements unfairly advantaged her opponents.

“I believe councilmembers should remain neutral in these types of elections,” Thomas says. “Especially when their support is self-serving. This is a big tent party. It’s OK if councilmembers want to participate and encourage people to vote, but they shouldn’t support specific candidates.”

But Fletcher’s slate faced criticism as well. His campaign benefited from the help of Bob King, the so-called “senior guru,” who bussed in about 110 seniors, by King’s estimation.

“The seniors were the backbone of this election,” King tells LL. He says each of the seniors got a piece of chicken and a biscuit from Popeyes, drawing sneers from some of Fletcher’s opponents.

“Biscuits and chicken was the joke for the whole day,” says Tim Thomas, a Ward 5 committeeman who worked the election and didn’t campaign for either slate on Saturday. His name is, however, listed among the many supporters for the slate of women. Appearing alongside Tim Thomas are the current and former first ladies of Ward 5—Princess McDuffie, Gwendolyn Evans-Orange, and Romaine Thomas—five former Ward 5 Dems executive officers, Parker, the sitting state board of education representative, Jacque Patterson, the at-large SBOE representative, Mark Jones, the former Ward 5 SBOE representative, and several more community leaders.

King says Carmichael called him after the election results were finalized to chastise him for helping Fletcher. He says she repeated her belief that Fletcher is racist and disrespectful to Black women. King responded that he hasn’t seen examples of that behavior.

King believes the elected officials who endorsed Carmichael’s slate share some responsibility for her words. Parker says he didn’t hear Carmichael’s accusations, and LL is still waiting for McDuffie to return his phone call.

“There’s no room for this in Ward 5 or anywhere in the city,” King says.

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Tensions between Fletcher and his opponents extend from dissatisfaction with his leadership over the past two years. Some of those details are in emails sent after the organization’s January meeting, which were shared with LL.

In an email on Jan. 11, Carmichael noted the high turnover of women under Fletcher’s watch, and wrote that “it appears every bright woman that comes to the table to collaborate for the betterment of Ward 5 Dems leaves with the same whispers of sexism.”

Blemur echoed Carmichael, writing “there’s been a longstanding culture of toxic sexism, and I hope this is the first step in correcting it.”

Others, such as Caroline Petti, Ruth Pagani, and Hazel Thomas, came to Fletcher’s defense. 

Pagani replied that “Gordon has always been respectful and supportive towards me, but I understand the concerns of the treatment of women of color by a small number of our team members. And by extension the failure of our chair to moderate and control untoward behavior by one member against another could be construed as tacit acceptance. But under no circumstances do I believe that our Chair supports gender inequality or sexist diminishment amongst us or in the general population.”

The underlying issue, as Fletcher explains it, in part started with a heated interaction involving former first vice chair Emily Lucio, who is White, and a Black woman during an executive board meeting. Fletcher says Emily Lucio was asking questions in a way that was offensive to some, but doesn’t believe she meant any harm by it. He acknowledges that he could have moderated more effectively.

“I’m not perfect,” Fletcher says. “I handled the situation as best I could. I wanted to give everyone an opportunity to speak. Bernita thought I could have handled the situation differently, and I owned that. I tried to apologize about it, but she never responded.”

Fletcher says he plans to host a party in a couple weeks to bring the organization together.

But for Blemur, the toxic culture she says Fletcher created is only part of the issue. She hopes he remains the chairman for his full two-year term, rather than using the election to boost his Council campaign. To run for office and sit as chair of the ward-level Democratic organization, which typically organizes candidate forums and get-out-the-vote events, would be a conflict of interest, she says. Fletcher has no plans to step down, and says he would recuse himself from any Council campaign events if he decides to run.

“This is why people are uninterested in these organizations,” Blemur says. “They see them for what they are, and we don’t want to encourage that. We want 500 people to come to meetings and be invested outside of election years. This is how you cure voter apathy: by making sure that people are invested in the organization, not just lifting up a person’s individual cause.”