Tommy Wells Represents the Representatives

Posted November 16, 2011 at 4:40pm

D.C. Councilmember Tommy Wells once received a phone call from a U.S. Senator, calling on behalf of his neighborhood about a rat infestation.

During his tenure on the school board, he fielded a two-hour call from a Member who wanted to pick his brain about the best local schools.

It’s just another day on the job for the Democratic member of the D.C. Council representing Ward 6, which spans from the southwest Waterfront to the H Street corridor to Penn Quarter to Capitol Hill, Congress’ backyard.

“It’s somewhat unique,” Wells conceded, “to be a councilmember who represents Senators and Congressfolk who are elected from across the country but who then come to Capitol Hill to raise their families, eat at our restaurants and have their homes here.”

He was elected to the D.C. Council in 2006, but Wells has been around awhile. He was a member of the D.C. Board of Education for wards 5 and 6 from 2000 to 2006, and from 1994 to 2000 he was an advisory neighborhood commissioner.

His career in the district dates back to 1983, when he came to town as a social worker for the foster care system; he went on to lead the D.C. Consortium for Child Welfare in 1991.

During that time, he has seen the neighborhood change — there’s less crime, increased commercial diversity and broader housing options.

Those changes have led to a diversity of residents, too, among them lawmakers who have chosen to have homes in the area and send their kids to local schools, something Wells says he hasn’t seen before.

“But the Senators and Congressfolk and staffers who live in Ward 6, they’re attracted to the same thing everyone else is attracted to,” Wells stressed.

During a recent sit-down with Roll Call in his suite in the John A. Wilson Building, which houses the offices of the mayor and D.C. councilmembers, Wells said his relationship with his high-profile residents has generally gone without incident.

“I’ve never had to say, ‘Turn your music down,’” Wells said with a laugh.

There have been some points of contention, though, in Ward 6’s relationship with the Capitol Police, which oversees the grounds of the Capitol complex that are also part of Wells’ turf.

“There’ve been a couple of times where the Capitol Police have made unilateral decisions about closing off streets to buses that have had a substantial impact on the neighborhood, where they didn’t confer with me or the city at all,” Wells said.

Wells has also seen the Capitol Police’s administrative barriers firsthand: He was among the dozens arrested in April for protesting D.C. policyriders contained in Congress’ short-term funding measure. Taken into custody late in the afternoon on charges of disturbing the peace and blocking traffic, Wells did not get released until about 6 a.m. because of a broken fingerprinting machine. 

In addition to talking shop about life as Congress’ councilman, Wells shared some developments he’s excited about in the area. 

He led the effort to institute a 5-cent tax on plastic bags, which took effect last year and was aimed at easing pollution in the Anacostia River. 

And he has introduced legislation in the council that would put Eastern Market, currently run by the city, under a private management board, which he said would protect the vitality of the institution.

For many reasons, Wells said, the past few years serving the Hill’s ward have been rewarding.

“There are very few people in Congress or in elected office who I would trade places with,” he said. “I think I got the better deal.”