Ward 8 D.C. Councilmember Trayon White
Ward 8 D.C. Councilmember Trayon White Credit: Darrow Montgomery/file

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Salim Adofo sent many eyebrows skyward when he launched his Ward 8 Council campaign the day after the 2022 election. But he is far from the only politico who’s already jockeying for advantage in what could become the marquee local race of the 2024 cycle.

Adofo, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Congress Heights, is the only candidate actively campaigning thus far, but Ward 8 insiders tell Loose Lips that several others could soon join him. Former Ballou High School Principal Rahman Branch has already filed for a run and is keeping a low profile so far, but the field could grow quickly in the coming weeks.

Just how much it expands depends on one very important factor: whether incumbent Councilmember Trayon White opts to try for a third term. White is a polarizing enough figure that he’s sure to face a few challengers if he does run again, just as he did back in 2020, but whispers abound that White is on the fence about mounting another bid. His retirement could very well open the floodgates and prompt a huge field of contenders to try for the seat, which hasn’t seen a wide-open race since the death of Mayor-for-Life Marion Barry back in 2014. In a year without a prominent citywide race like mayor or Council chair on the ballot, LL imagines that sort of free-for-all would consume an outsized amount of attention among D.C.’s local politicos.

“People feel like the ward is entering a different moment,” says Markus Batchelor, Ward 8’s former State Board of Education representative who also ran for an at-large Council seat in 2020. “The ward’s boundaries changed with redistricting, and I think it’s also very present in people’s minds that we seem to be hitting our stride when it comes to economic development here. I think people feel like the decisions that will be made in the next decade are going to be critical.”

Batchelor himself is likely to jump into the race soon regardless of what White does, according to several Ward 8 sources (he declined to discuss his future plans just yet). Another name generating a lot of buzz: Monica Ray, who recently announced plans to leave her post as executive director of the Congress Heights Community Training and Development Corporation this summer.

Ray told the Washington Informer earlier this month that she has “no interest” in a Council run, but she would be a formidable candidate if she happened to change her mind. She could well pick up quite a bit of Green Team support given her close ties (and healthy political contributions) to Mayor Muriel Bowser and her allies over the years. Longtime Ward 8 activist Philip Pannell tells LL he believes Ray would be a “great councilmember” if she chose to run, and noted that none other than Cora Masters Barry all but endorsed Ray for such a bid at her recent retirement party. Ray didn’t respond to LL’s request for comment.

Mike Austin, who was among the three candidates who most recently challenged White, is also seen as a potential contender, though politicos differ on just how seriously he’s considering another run after winning just 2,300 votes to White’s 5,000 back in 2020. Austin and Ray could well draw from the same pool of supporters considering Austin’s own Green Team ties and history working with ex-Councilmember LaRuby May. (Austin also didn’t respond to a request for comment).

The key to all this is White, who has not filed for reelection or responded to a request for comment on his 2024 plans. LL imagines that some of these contenders would take a pass on the race if the incumbent sticks around for another shot. It’s not hard to imagine why he looks like a strong candidate—Pannell reasons that White starts out with at least a third of the vote locked up if he runs again, and he suspects White will be in an even stronger position if several candidates divide up the field. But others sense some weakness.

“He seems to stay in the spaces, particularly in Anacostia, where he’s comfortable, or where he has already built relationships,” says the Rev. Wendy Hamilton, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Bellevue who challenged Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton in the 2022 primary. “So that loyalty is going to be there for him. But he has to be willing to grow his base, which he has not, and that leaves an opportunity for a challenger, in my mind. And now that Ward 8 has expanded west of the river, it presents an even larger opportunity for a candidate who is in a position to take advantage of that and build relationships there.”

But many Ward 8 politicos LL spoke with believe White remains broadly popular. He’s never been the most legislatively minded councilmember, eschewing many of the Wilson Building’s traditions in favor of an on-the-ground approach. His attendance at the scenes of shootings and the funerals of shooting victims (as documented on his popular Instagram) remain key parts of his appeal, particularly among younger residents. Pannell says he’s heard some dissatisfaction with White’s responsiveness among the ward’s older and politically engaged inhabitants, but there hasn’t been enough grumbling to suggest he’d face a serious rebellion.

That perhaps explains why Adofo has yet to directly challenge White’s record in his energetic first few months of campaigning. The two are diametrically opposed on the hot-button issues of bike lanes and transportation improvements in the ward, so there is certainly room for conflict—Adofo has built a brand on Twitter as a prolific 311 requester and favorite of the smart growth set, while White has intervened repeatedly to block the installation of new bike lanes in the ward and publicly questioned whether such changes speed gentrification and displacement.

Yet Adofo would only take oblique swipes at the incumbent in his interview with LL, arguing that bike lanes should not be perceived as “big bad boogeymen” considering that “Black people ride bikes, too, and they deserve to feel safe.”

“I’m not running against anybody,” Adofo says. “I’m running for the seat, and the seat doesn’t belong to anybody. And if I’m saying I’m against somebody, it feeds into a narrative about discrediting somebody’s work. With all violence going on here, we have to show the people something different.”

It’s hard to imagine things will remain so civil if the race heats up, especially because Adofo and Batchelor may find themselves competing for the same pool of more progressive voters, given their ideological leanings.

Reaching such people may well become a key part of building any sort of anti-Trayon coalition. White has voted with the city’s lefty lawmakers on a variety of big priorities, especially on economic issues, but he’s made enough enemies there that it’s not inconceivable to imagine Adofo and Batchelor running to his left. His recent rightward turn on policing issues, in addition to his transportation-related apostasies, has not gone unnoticed—witness White casting the only vote to uphold Bowser’s very consequential veto of the proposed criminal code revisions and his push to get school resource officers back in schools after the Council repeatedly voted to remove them.

The city’s progressive left has never been a particularly strong force in the ward, which has generally been dominated by more moderate local Democratic organizations, but organizers have made it a goal to focus east of the river this cycle (and, in the process, combat perceptions that these groups are too White and centered in the city’s wealthier wards). Consider that the prominent lefty group D.C. for Democracy made a point of holding its annual convention in Ward 7 last month. Batchelor chaired that event while Adofo and at least half a dozen of his supporters attended, if you’re looking to read any tea leaves about their intentions.

Adofo certainly has the first mover’s advantage, raising more than $11,300 from more than 300 D.C. residents in his first three months of campaigning, per his latest finance reports. That should help him qualify for matching funds via the city’s public financing program to get his campaign off the ground. However, his early start means he runs the risk of hitting the city’s cap on donations that receive the five-to-one match long before primary day.

Branch, who is running with traditional campaign financing, has yet to file any financial reports so it’s unclear if he’s enjoyed similar fundraising success. However, most Ward 8 politicos LL spoke with believe Branch, who worked at Ballou for nine years and served in Bowser’s administration too, is well regarded in the neighborhood but unlikely to make a major impact in the race, considering he only just moved back to the ward recently. He didn’t respond to a request for comment.

But who knows how all this changes should White decide not to run after all. And there’s good reason to believe that’s a real possibility.

Many Ward 8 watchers seem to think the experience of witnessing so much trauma has worn on White (and the councilmember has been open about these challenges before, noting in a debate last year that he regularly attends therapy). It probably doesn’t help either that he still harbors a sizable grudge against the media and much of the city’s political establishment after he faced swift condemnation for his anti-Semitic remarks five years ago. On a personal note, White should be wrapping up his law degree in the near future and may not want to be on the Council while he takes the bar exam (being a councilmember pays well, but it’s hard to compare to being a lawyer).

And then there’s the matter of White’s mayoral run, which looms over all these discussions. He announced the bid haphazardly, via a reply to an Instagram comment, taking even some of his supporters by surprise. His campaign never gained much traction, struggling with a variety of campaign finance issues and scoring just over 8 percent of the vote in the primary—embarrassingly, he even lost Ward 8 to Bowser by more than 500 votes. Some political observers saw it as a savvy move to build up some name recognition for a future citywide bid; others viewed it as the last gasp of a politician lacking strategy and direction.

“His campaign had that kind of theme, like, ‘This is it, folks, this is our last chance,’” Hamilton recalls. “Here in Ward 8, in particular, so much of his message was, ‘We have to take our city back and this is our only option, this is the only time that we’re going to be able to do it.’ Was he using that to get people engaged in his race or is he really ready to just step away from everything altogether? I don’t know.”

If White hangs it up, some political insiders shared a juicy hypothesis with LL: His chief of staff, Wanda Lockridge, would launch a bid in his place, likely with White’s endorsement. She would probably be the instant frontrunner in such a scenario, given her long history in ward politics; her late husband, William, was also a longtime community activist, White’s predecessor as SBOE rep, and the future councilmember’s first mentor in D.C. politics. Wanda Lockridge didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Lockridge almost certainly wouldn’t run against White, but ward insiders see some evidence that she’s already thinking about a bid for office. It may be one heck of a conspiracy theory, but some read some serious meaning into Lockridge engineering the replacement of Anthony Muhammad with David Meadows on the ward’s slate of Democratic state committee members last year. Muhammad lives east of the river, while Meadows lives in the section of Navy Yard newly added to the ward’s boundaries—between his standing in the neighborhood and his ties to At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds, he’s hardly the worst person to keep close.

There is room for quite a bit of maneuvering between now and 2024. Political junkies better get their popcorn ready.

“Unfortunately, it doesn’t feel far away at all,” Batchelor laments about the Council primary. “It has been a very active conversation so far.”