D.C. Councilmember Tommy Wells arrived late to the interview, glistening with sweat after rushing from one appointment to the next on a typically sweltering summer morning.
But the Ward 6 Democrat who represents Capitol Hill and its surrounding area was unruffled. Striding into his office on the fourth floor of the John A. Wilson Building, he was generous with a smile and a firm handshake as he sat down at the head of a long conference table. He had a pattern of sailboats on his tie.
“Where I wish I was right now!” he joked.
But he quickly got down to business. He was there to talk about why he wants to be the next mayor of Washington, D.C., and why he thinks he’s the best man for the job. At the same time, he knows he has to tread lightly amid the city’s current political turmoil.
Wells emphasized to Roll Call his track record during his six-year tenure representing Ward 6. During that time, he said, the area has had “the greatest renaissance of public schools anywhere in America” and leads all other wards in public housing growth, job creation and crime-rate decline.
A public transportation enthusiast fond of using the phrase “livable, walkable community,” Wells wants to improve access to Union Station and is a relentless advocate of the potential for streetcars to connect the District’s neighborhoods.
“We have a plan for 37 miles of streetcar traffic that will automatically connect east of the river to west of the river,” Wells said. “There is no doubt in my mind that Anacostia is the next H Street Northeast.
Not everyone shares Wells’ enthusiasm. Critics, including Councilmember and former Mayor Marion Barry, have argued that the plan is not well-conceived and costs too much.
‘A Tragedy for All of Us’
It’s also a challenging time for Wells to be talking up his ambitions for higher office: In the background, the District government is roiling from the latest installment in a series of recent political corruption scandals.
In January, Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. (D) resigned after pleading guilty to embezzling more than $350,000 of government money and filing false tax returns. Last month, D.C. Council Chairman Kwame Brown (D) stepped down after being indicted for bank fraud.
Now, Mayor Vincent Gray is being scrutinized for the extent to which he was aware of, and involved with a “shadow campaign” his associates oversaw to bolster his 2010 bid for office. Depending on how things develop, Gray could be forced to resign.
If the mayor chooses to leave office before his term ends in 2015, it would thrust Wells into a mayoral race much earlier than he anticipated.
That’s one reason he’s treading cautiously, and why he hasn’t joined some colleagues — including Ward 4 Councilmember and possible mayoral candidate Muriel Bowser (D) — in calling for Gray’s resignation.
“What I don’t want anybody to think is that I’m trying to profit from and take advantage of the downfall of our city’s mayor,” Wells said. “This is a tragedy for all of us and I do not want to be viewed as someone who is opportunistic, and that is why I have not called for [Gray] to resign. Clearly a special election benefits me more so than anybody else.”
Independent voters can participate in a special election — Wells claims this constituency as his own — but are not allowed to vote in the Democratic primary, in which the city’s mayoral elections are always informally decided.
The Race Race
Even if Wells’ assessment is true, he still faces one inalterable obstacle: Since the Home Rule Act of 1973 allowed D.C. residents to elect their own mayor, no white person has ever won the office.
“I put up a trial balloon to see who would be interested in me running, and there’s been absolutely nothing about that that has been discouraging,” Wells said. “The thing that’s been surprising is the number of African-Americans supporting me. A lot of us get in our heads, ‘Is the city ready for a white mayor?’ I have found nothing discouraging me from running.”
Washington still has a higher proportion of black residents than any state, but the city’s demographics are changing.
Census data shows that the black population declined between 2000 and 2010 — no state experienced a similar drop — and now it stands at less than a majority, 49 percent, if non-Hispanic blacks are not included in the total. With black Hispanics counted, the total is 52 percent, according to 2010 and 2011 census data.
Demographics aside, a few Wells initiatives could come back to haunt him during any mayoral campaign, this year or in 2014.
One is the ongoing negotiation to put vendors at Eastern Market under control of a special “governing board.” Some vendors fear the board would wield undue power and create a situation where those who operate stalls at the Saturday and Sunday flea market are treated unfairly.
Another is push back from activists who want Wells to use his influence to stop Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners and the Zoning Commission from greenlighting the current proposal for a mixed-use space set to break ground around the Hine School near Pennsylvania Avenue and Seventh Street Southeast. Critics say the size and scope of the proposed development would be a blight on the neighborhood landscape, be environmentally unfriendly and isolate lower-income residents in the area.
But at the end of the day, Wells believes he has a special relationship with the people and places of D.C. that will buoy him, even in tough waters.
“I know every corner of this city, go to places where police won’t go without backup,” Wells said. “There is no place in the city where I’m not comfortable, and where people don’t know and support me. ... I have a social agenda of social justice that speaks for itself.”