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Friday, May 24, 2024

Ward 7 Democratic Race Heats Up

In December 2023, Incumbent Ward 7 Councilmember Vincent Gray (D) announced he would not seek re-election. The race to replace him is shaping up to be one of the most hotly contested on the 2024 ballot, with eleven candidates in the Democratic primary, set for June 4.

The general election takes place Nov. 5. But DC is largely a blue city, so the June 4 primary elections often function as the main event.

Dwight Sinclaire Deloatch, Jr. (far L) speaks during the first panel of the Ward 7 Democrats Councilmember Candidate Forum March 23. Denise Reed and Villareal VJ Johnson II listen as Nate Fleming takes notes. Screenshot: Youtube/Ward 7 Democrats [croppsed]

Voters had a chance to hear from ten candidates for the Democratic nomination on March 23 as the Ward 7 Democrats hosted a candidate forum at Ryland Epworth United Methodist Church at (3200 S St. SE).

Discussion centered around economic development, public safety and community resources. While the majority of the candidates aligned fairly closely on the issues, there were still heated exchanges between them in discussions about their respective campaign strategies—and fundraising.

The forum split candidates into two panels. The first included educator Ebbon A. Allen; businessman and former family support worker Dwight Sinclaire Deloatch, Jr.; former DC Council staffer and Shadow Representative to Congress Nate Fleming; Hillcrest Community Civic Association Vice President and former ANC 7B Commissioner Villareal “VJ” Johnson II; and retired CSOSA and former DC Council Staffer Denise Reed.

The second panel included ANC 7B Chair and Marshall Heights Community Development Organization Board Member Kelvin Brown; current Chair of ANC 7D Wendell Felder, who took a leave of absence as Chair of the Ward 7 Democrats to run; current Secretary for Friends of Kingman Park and ANC 7D Commissioner Ebony Payne; attorney and ANC 7E Commissioner Veda Rasheed; and Ward 7 State Board of Education Representative and former ANC 7F Commissioner Eboni-Rose Thompson.

In “Poll” Position

The second panel of candidates accounted for the bulk of the votes in a straw poll which took place at the end of the forum. Felder, former chair of the host organization, was the clear leader with 126 votes, followed by Thompson with 81, Rasheed with 47, Payne with 35 and Brown with 18. All other candidates pulled in less than 10 each.

The leaders in the straw poll are also the leaders in campaign spending. According to the DC Office of Campaign Finance (OCF), as of March, Payne has spent $53,000 and Thompson about $51,000; Felder spent around $44,000 and Rasheed just under $34,000.

Campaign fundraising was one area of dispute at the panel. Moderator James Wright, of the Washington Informer, allowed candidates to ask one another questions and Felder pushed Payne on her spending, referencing campaign mailers and a television commercial. “I’m trying to understand where’s this money coming from and why are your expenses not being reported?” Felder asked.

“I think you’re just upset that I’m running a better campaign than you,” Payne responded, before taking a shot back and a swipe at Thompson. “I don’t understand why I’ve been owning the mailboxes — I sent my education piece quicker than yours, Miss Thompson, and I’ve knocked on thousands of doors at the same time.”

Thompson did not respond, but Felder did. “Let me be unequivocally clear,” he said. “I don’t need to hide behind my literature because I’m socially awkward. I have the relationships and the work in the community and we knock on doors every day.”

RFK as Leverage

While there was division on the dais, there was less in terms of where candidates stood on the issues. All of the candidates support increasing resources in Ward 7 communities and especially in schools, where Allen and Deloatch emphasized programming and funding while Fleming touted a universal after-school program. All expressed distaste for bike lanes along Minnesota Avenue.

Answers from each candidate in the lightning round. Many expanded beyond Yes and No. Question 4, about affordable housing, was not asked (N/A) in panel 2.

Payne and Thompson were a hard “no” when asked whether the NFL should come to RFK Campus. Felder equivocated. “It’s too early in the process,” he said.  Only Rasheed and Reed said yes. Deloatch and Reed both emphasized that Ward 7 needs should come first at the site.

All candidates agreed that resources are key to economic development in the ward, pointing to a need for vocational programs, business incubators and calls for more funds to the Home Purchase Assistance Program (HPAP) to broaden the path to generational wealth.

Some candidates viewed development at RFK as one potential source of development. Felder said he wanted to create a “Ward 7 economy,” trading on the city’s desire to build at RFK Campus. He proposed putting the I-295 underground and building a hospital over it to create a Ward 7 business district.

Payne proposed leveraging the decision looming over RFK in a different way to improve household economies. She said the city should take any funds earmarked for a stadium and instead use them to eradicate the food desert. “What I have found is that there is a network of Black farmers all across the Mid-Atlantic region,” Payne said, “who are ready to bring us fresh fruits, fresh vegetables and actually solve our problems here.” Kids can learn how to grow food and make meals. “That stops poverty,” Payne said.

But Rasheed said the focus should not be on RFK but on whole ward economic development, agreeing with Allen and Deloatch that investing in youth through vocational training programs was the best way to invest in the economy. But she also called for more and stronger community development corporations in the ward, saying there needs to be more lawyers at the table
calling for Community Benefits Agreements (CBA) with developers.

Public Safety

Public safety was also a key issue. Nearly all agreed that there should be increased investment in families, calling for increased out of school programs for kids and for the District to help families meet their basic needs.

Many said the public needs to hold officials accountable, including elected officials such as the Mayor, council and the US Attorney General as well as others such as Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) and US Attorney Office (USAO). Fleming suggested universal after school for all youth in the ward and guaranteed subsidized jobs for disconnected youth under the age of 30. 

Reed said that the District needs to implement better interagency cooperation at a formal level, saying that the Department of Behavioral Health, DC Health and DC Public Schools (DCPS) should work to address mental illness and domestic violence in student homes.

Many called for cadet programs as a pipeline to a larger MPD force, propping expansion into high schools and even universities. Payne emphasized a need for more Black female officers to be “sure that our Police Department reflects the vibrancy of our communities.” Thompson suggested that District residents need to see officers as part of the community, which would be helped if officers were seen on the streets and in the schools. The latter would also increase officer familiarity with youth, she said.

Felder went a step further; he suggested the District partner with universities to cover cadet tuition in exchange for a five-year term of service in the District and work to convert security officers in public buildings. “Nine times out of ten, they’re from the community [and] understand the needs of the community,” he said. He also proposed professionalizing violence interrupter roles to allow for proper resourcing and centralizing them in the Mayor’s Office of Community Relations.

But discussion grew heated, particularly during the second panel’s closing remarks, when the audience grew riled along with the candidates. Felder referenced his track record, saying,  “I didn’t just come out of nowhere. I didn’t just have all this money funneled,” apparently taking another shot at Payne. “I’m not trying to sneak an election in because I’m under the impression by way of the redistricting process it’s “13 candidates over here and one candidate on the other side.”

Payne gave it right back. “I’m tired of lazy politicians,” Payne said in her comments. “I have worked with pretty much everyone and seen what they have accomplished, which really isn’t that much,” she said to jeers from the crowd.

Thompson, the last to speak, said she would not disrespect her community by calling anyone else mediocre. “What I know,” she concluded, “as someone who has already won a ward-wide election, is that on June 5 we will all be neighbors, and have to work together again.”

Acting Chair of the Ward 7 Democrats Dr. Delia Houseal thanked those who attended the discussion, telling them they were playing a critical role in the democratic process.

“This forum is more than just a gathering; it’s a testament to the power of collective action and the shared belief in the importance of having a voice in the decisions that affect our community,” she said. That decision is coming soon.

You can watch the entire debate on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/@Ward7Democrats. Learn more about the June 4 primary at dcboe.org; learn about the Ward 7 Democrats at www.ward7dems.org

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