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As a deputy chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Darrel Thompson worked on the forefront of economic development and labor issues for one of the nation’s most prominent politicians.
Since Thompson left the Nevada Democrat’s office in late September to run for the Ward 6 seat on the D.C. Council, he’s set his sights on some decidedly lower-profile subjects around Capitol Hill — including the vermin scampering down neighborhood streets.
“If you are fortunate enough to have had your alley repaved and rats exterminated, you’re in a good place,” Thompson said, laying out the priorities of his platform in an interview with CQ Roll Call at the Starbucks on Pennsylvania Avenue Southeast. For many of the residents he’s talked to while going door to door campaigning, “rats are a problem and they’ve become a bigger problem in the winter months when they start seeking refuge in warmer places, such as in homes.
“So, rat abatement programs is one major issue that I certainly want to see,” said the 43-year-old Northeast D.C. resident who hopes to represent Capitol Hill in the John A. Wilson Building.
Thompson has devoted his entire career to politics and helping fellow Democrats win their races, but most of that work has taken place behind the scenes. The campaign for the April 14 Democratic primary marks his first time running for elected office since he was an undergraduate at Morgan State University in Baltimore.
“When I started thinking about this race, I talked to a number of members of Congress, leaders within the party structure both here in the District, as well as at the national structure, and I kept getting this question: ‘Why on earth would you do such a thing?’” he recalled, laughing. “They said, ‘Are you crazy? Have you lost your mind?’”
For Thompson, the answer is, “absolutely not.”
“This is my home,” he said. Born at Washington Hospital Center and raised primarily in Baltimore, Thompson still remembers childhood visits to his grandma’s home on Georgia Avenue. His father sometimes slapped a Redskins cap on his head.
“This is where I lived for the last 20 years, and I’m going to do everything I can to make sure my neighborhood at home is tended to,” he said, noting that he feels pretty far from the Dome when visiting with voters in Shaw and East Capitol and is glad for the opportunity to be “hands-on.”
In addition to rats, Thompson lists abating crime, improving career opportunities and syncing stoplights to improve traffic flow as part of his platform. The Harvard Kennedy School of Government graduate, who tore his Achilles’ tendon playing on Reid’s softball team last summer, also wants to create more baseball fields.
“I’ve coached Little League right here in the District and we have very few places for people to play,” he said.
On the table in front of him during the interview was a black notebook embossed with the official seal of the U.S. Senate, a relic from nearly nine years as one of Reid’s trusted advisers. Thompson fills the pages with notes on local concerns as he knocks on voters’ doors, practicing retail politics with a perseverance that he learned from his former bosses.
Before joining Reid in 2004, he was chief of staff on President Barack Obama’s U.S. Senate campaign. He worked for former House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt in the chamber and on the Missouri Democrat’s presidential campaign. He consulted for more than 100 campaigns during his three-year tenure at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. He’s also managed races in Illinois, Maryland and Virginia.
“My loss is the District’s gain,” Reid said in a statement of support for Thompson’s campaign.
Gephardt said his former aide “understands that having a relationship with individual constituents is vital.” Working in both chambers has “put him in touch with everybody in the House and Senate that you would want to know to deal with any of the issues relating to the District of Columbia. ... He’s in a perfect spot to exercise great help and influence on behalf of the District, his ward and the federal government.”
Thompson must mobilize that political network for what’s shaping up to be a competitive race.
Three other candidates have picked up petitions, according to the District of Columbia Board of Elections, including Charles Allen, former chief of staff to current Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells. Wells is running for the Democratic nomination in the mayoral race.
“I’ve been working and serving in Capitol Hill for the past decade,” Allen said, emphasizing that’s he’s already formed relationships with residents, and he talks to Hill staff daily about everything from local schools to stop signs at dangerous intersections.
Thompson plays up his advocacy on behalf of D.C. issues in the Senate, such as removing social policy riders from the budget. He proudly watched Reid declare his support for D.C. statehood in June.
Thompson can also count on the support of his wife, Britt Weinstock, who works for Del. Donna M.C. Christensen, D-V.I., on the Hill.
“When Barack Obama started looking at running for Senate, that wasn’t a slam dunk,” he said, acknowledging he’s got a competitive campaign ahead. “That was something that was going to take time.”