Inviting in a former House majority leader and presidential candidate to ring doorbells in southeast Washington could seem like calling in the big dogs for a D.C. Council campaign.
“Some may say that,” Ward 6 candidate Darrel Thompson acknowledged last week as he sat near the window at Eastern Market’s Peregrine Espresso, waiting on Missouri Democrat Richard A. Gephardt, a 28-year veteran of Capitol Hill. But then again, as D.C. voters pull the lever in Tuesday's primary, what separates winners from losers is likely to be a mere handful of votes.
“Dick was in my wedding. He’s a mentor and a friend,” Thompson said, reflecting on the lessons he learned while working on Gephardt’s 2004 presidential campaign.
In the race to fill D.C. Councilmember Tommy Wells’ seat, Thompson’s opponent in the April 1 primary, former Wells chief of staff Charles Allen , appears to have momentum.
Allen has been endorsed by Wells and former Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose. The police union, D.C. chapters of the National Organization for Women and the Sierra Club, the city’s chamber of commerce and 35 Ward 6 advisory neighborhood commissioners also have endorsed Allen’s bid.
“I need Charles to join me on the Council,” said at-large Councilmember David Grosso in an endorsement that lauds Allen’s focus on neighborhood schools and his commitment to ethics reform. “I've seen his work first-hand, I know his vision, and I trust his leadership for Ward 6. I know he'll be a great partner and ally."
As for Thompson pulling Gephardt as a trump card, Allen told CQ Roll Call he didn't see how a "retired congressman from Missouri" might help sway Ward 6.
Thompson’s strategy for gaining ground centers on retail politics. Since he resigned his post as a deputy in the office of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., in late September, Thompson has knocked on thousands of doors. Even walking Taco, his friendly dog, has become a campaign exercise. He says he ties a "Dogs for Darrel" bandana around Taco’s neck for strolling in parks throughout the ward.
Thompson boasts he’s braved rain, snow and the polar vortex. Gephardt arrived shortly after 5:30 p.m. on March 26 to hit the windy streets with his former employee.
“This brings back a lot of memories,” Gephardt said as they stepped out onto the sunny sidewalk. The former politician now lives in Southwest D.C., running a government affairs firm that bears his name.
“I’m out campaigning with my old boss Dick Gephardt, the former House Democratic leader,” Thompson announced to the first couple they encountered. They didn’t seem to recognize Gephardt, but told Thompson they’d like less noise in the neighborhood as an ambulance went screaming by.
Pennsylvania Avenue resident Mario Hernandez recognized Thompson and seemed to remember the face of the tall, blond man standing next to him. Hernandez, who is deaf and mute, wore a big smile during Thompson’s introduction and enthusiastically pumped Gephardt’s hand. He later posed for a photograph with the pair and agreed to let them place a yard sign outside his rowhouse.
Thompson talked about education, one of his key campaign focuses, with another voter, saying he understands, “parents want choice.”
Schools are also a top priority for Allen. Like they do on most of Ward 6’s key issues, the two candidates agree that a seat on the council’s Education Committee would be the top priority if elected.
With so much similarity , Allen has attempted to steer discussion to one sharp difference: campaign finance. He did so on March 26 during the final debate of the campaign.
Allen claims D.C. is “in a culture of pay-to-play” and one of the best ways to restore ethics and accountability to the city is by rejecting contributions from contractors or corporations. He says some corporate contributors bend campaign finance laws by donating as an individuals, then writing checks from multiple business accounts.
“When we have that happen, that is how our system has been corrupted and that’s what we have to fight against. I have to be willing to stand next to anyone whose check I’m going to cash,” Allen said, inspiring applause from the crowd.
Thompson accused his opponent of being “disingenuous” by actively soliciting campaign donations from business interests or corporate interests in the form of a personal check. He suggested Allen accepted thousands of dollars in individual contributions from union members, while rejecting money from labor political action committees — a claim Allen tells CQ Roll is bogus.
“This isn’t a question of ethics for me,” Thompson said, drawing cheers from his supporters. “How you run your campaign, that’s fantastic ... we’ll run our campaign and continue to play by the rules.”
Recent reports filed with D.C.’s Office of Campaign Finance show the candidates running even in money game in the final week of the campaign. Each has about $45,000 in cash on hand. Thompson’s campaign has raised $172,000 over the course of the race, including loaning himself $20,000. Allen, meanwhile, reported $141,000 with a personal loan of less than $1,000.
With early voting under way last week in the Democratic primary, Thompson tried pulling another ace from the deck. On March 28, with help from Reid, his campaign spun the news that Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, would be introducing legislative autonomy and budget autonomy bills for D.C. as "an example of how I will work with Congress to advocate on behalf of the District."
Allen told CQ Roll Call he feels confident going into April 1, but the campaign would still "keep our foot on the accelerator."
If recent election history holds true, the Ward 6 election may be decided by only a few hundred voters. In 2012, the Democratic primary's closest ward race was in Ward 7. Incumbent Councilmember Yvette M. Alexander won 3,730 votes to edge out challenger Tom Brown, who earned 1,950 votes. That's a difference of 1,780. Vincent Orange won his at-large seat by a narrow 1,746-margin in the citywide election.
More ballots are usually cast in presidential years like 2012, and according to calculations from 2014 early voting, turnout could be at a historic low. If you'd like to know where you should go to vote, plug your home address into the search field below.