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Thursday, June 13, 2024

Ten Candidates Vie to Succeed Vincent Gray in 2025

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

Ambrose Lane, Jr., who moderated an April 13th forum held by Million Man Vote, says this is a unique election for Ward 7.

Kelvin Brown, Wendell Felder, Veda Rasheed, Eboni-Rose Thompson and Ebony Payne listen to moderator Andrew Lightman, General Manager of Capital Community News, during the first panel of the Hill East Ward 7 Candidates Forum.

“This is a transition in leadership for the first time,” he said. “For the last almost thirty years, there’s really only been three councilmembers—and the last two have been around for quite some time.”

“Most of the leadership who are running are younger,” Lane said of the 2024 race. “The person who ends up winning—if they do well, they’ll probably end up being a councilmember for a long time.”

It’s also the first time Ward 7 will select a leader since the 2020 redistricting process. And it comes at a time of tremendous pressure, as residents of Ward 7 say there needs to be more focus on public safety, education and economic development. The last remains prominent as the future of RFK Campus remains at the forefront of debate even as residents want to see full plans for development at the Fletcher-Johnson development.

Crowded Field
The ten candidates include:

  • 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;
  • businessman Roscoe Grant, Jr.;
  • retired Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (CSOSA) employee and former DC Council Staffer Denise Reed;
  • Secretary for Friends of Kingman Park and ANC 7D Commissioner Ebony Payne;
  • ANC 7B Chair and Marshall Heights Community Development Organization Board Member Kelvin Brown;
  • current Chair of ANC 7D Wendell Felder;
  • Attorney and former ANC 7E Commissioner Veda Rasheed;
  • Ward 7 State Board of Education Representative and former ANC 7F Commissioner Eboni-Rose Thompson.

An endorsement from incumbent Ward 7 Councilmember Vincent C. Gray could really move the needle in the race. But so far, he has not come out publicly in support of a single candidate, although his Director of Communications Chuck Thies says Gray has been paying careful attention to the election. “At present, Gray has not reached any conclusions about an endorsement,” Thies said. “He believes it is important for Ward 7 voters to pursue a similar, contemplative process about the election.”

Most agree that as of late April, there is no clear leader in the race, although Felder emerged as winner of a March 23 straw poll held by the Ward 7 Democrats. Felder had 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. Felder is the former chair of the Ward 7 Democrats. He took a leave of absence a few weeks after declaring his candidacy.

A Question of Interference
However, the Ward 7 Democrats straw poll happened before publication of Felder’s responses to a question about Congressional oversight on an American Civil Liberties (ACLU) candidate questionnaire.

“If a bill were passed by DC Council that diminishes the quality of life experienced by residents or poses an undue burden or threat I would advocate for Congress to overturn it,” he wrote.

Social media backlash came quickly.

In a statement published on social media April 7, Felder said that his answer actually underscores the need for statehood. He would consult with constituents, he said, but he would ask Congress to intervene if a bill threatened the well-being or rights of DC residents.

But six days later at the Hill East forum, Felder appeared to back away from Congressional intervention. “Under no circumstances would we support that,” he said. “Over the last ten years I’ve been fighting for statehood and I will continue to do so. It was a reflective response to a hypothetical question.”

RFK and Development
Development at RFK Campus has been a main discussion point at nearly every forum. Payne and Thompson were both a hard “no” when asked whether the NFL should return to RFK Campus. Thompson tsaid he NFL at RFK was a proposal, “not a plan,” and that all the possibilities for the campus should be.

Of the ten candidates, only Rasheed and Reed said yes to the NFL, with Reed saying that the stadium could be a potential DC destination.

Felder equivocated. “It’s too early in the process,” he said.

Johnson opposed the NFL but said there was power and potential in developing the site, saying the difficulties must be negotiated or the community will lose the opportunity. Allen opposed the NFL, saying he had heard families want a “St. James-style facility” at the site. Fleming pointed out that there is already $25 million in the budget for a St. James-style facility at RFK and that council must keep that in the budget. Fleming did not come out in support of the NFL at RFK at any forum, saying Ward 7 needs should come first.

“The campus is too big for small ideas,” he said, arguing that there is space for affordable housing, restaurants, retail and recreation as well as a Ward 7 Innovation Hub.

At the Hill East forum, Payne pressed Felder on his non-response to the RFK question. “Part of the issue that I have with your candidacy is that we cannot get a firm yes or no answer from you on whether you are for or against building a new football stadium.”

Felder said that he wouldn’t make decisions that impact thousands of lives without all the facts. “We’re not there yet,” he said. “If there was a conversation happening about RFK going to a community like the Palisades there will be at least a year worth of community meetings and the families in Ward 7 deserve the same.”

But other candidates said that RFK was only one cog in the development machine.

“I keep getting this question about RFK stadium, but we don’t think about all of the development that’s going to occur in Ward 7 as a whole,” Rasheed said, pointing to a need to ensure infrastructure such as transportation is in place.

Allen said that on the other side of the river, the slow pace of development on the 15 acres at Fletcher Johnson is as significant a concern as RFK. Candidates such as Rasheed, Allen and Brown said they were pleased with the March announcement that an emergency services unit was in the works but wondered about progress on a promised 817 rental units and retail with community and recreational spaces.

On the topic of education, all of the candidates said that schools need additional resources and more targeted programming. They all advocated for safe travel to and from school.

Johnson in particular argued that the city needs to do more to ensure educational funding gets into the schools, calling the system “top heavy.”

Most pointed to a need for DC Council to work on teacher retention and to allow schools greater autonomy in spending and teaching strategies.

Addressing DC Council Chair Phil Mendelson (D) as he walked into the Hill East Forum, sitting SBOE Chair Thompson said that the Community School Initiative had proven to address concerns with programming, family stability and student needs. Despite that, funding has been cut to the OSSE program. She called for reinstatement of the program and a push back on budget cuts.

Payne cited the stability of school leadership, arguing that the 12-year tenure of the principal at Friendship’s Benning campus accounts for higher scores versus those at Miner, where the past several years have seen tremendous principal turnover.

Rasheed pointed to the role of parents, saying that parent organizations provide pressure and additional funding. She said when she was at Eastern High School, parents would monitor the community and intervene with students out of class.

Fleming pointed out that 50 percent of Ward 7 students leave the ward to attend school, a transportation challenge that can exacerbate truancy. He called for more attractive school programming in Ward 7 schools, citing his work as legislative director at DC Council in bringing BARD Early College High School to Ward 7 (it has since relocated to Ward 8) and again referenced his plans for a Universal After School program, which would put 100 percent of kids into after-school activities of their choice.

Public Safety
Public safety is also a key issue and one that is linked to truancy and education. Again, nearly all candidates said 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.

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 Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) force, proposing expansion into high schools and even universities. Payne emphasized a need for more Black female MPD 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, suggesting that 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, [security officers] are 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.

Some candidates took a harder line on public safety at the Hill East forum. Grant said that he would introduce legislation that would provide stiff penalties to adults getting youth involved in carjacking and send a strong message. “We need more officers,” he added.

Reed agreed that minors need to have higher charges instead of being sent home after they commit crimes.  He also agreed that adults need to be held accountable but also cited the role of parents. “I believe that if you see more parents being reprimanded or charged with certain offenses that their children have [committed] there would be better outcomes.”

Allen said that he spoke to officers who tell him that young people aren’t taking the system seriously because penalties for youth are relatively light. “I believe in pretrial detention because it allows youth to have to think about some of the crimes that they have committed,” he said.

Fleming said the lack of charges is linked to constitutional issues during arrest and officers need better training. Fleming, who has been carjacked at gunpoint twice, said not all young people who use a gun during a crime are required to go before a judge; “that’s a legislative change that I would make,” he said.

More Opportunities to Hear
Many of the Ward 7 Candidate forums took place in two separate panels in an effort to accommodate a crowded field. While some candidates had concerns with the format, attendees said it allowed them to consider each as individuals.

“It highlighted points of difference across the candidates,” Andria said after attending the Hill East forum, adding that she had reconsidered a candidate she had previously ruled out. Amy thought it allowed for a deeper dive on key issues, although she wished there were a candidate forum focused on public safety. But these panels allow her to take a closer look at individual candidates, she said.

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.

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