In Ward 7, A 17-Way Pri­or­ity Con­test

The Washington Post Sunday - - Metro - By Nikita Ste­wart

In the race for the Ward 7 seat on the D.C. Coun­cil, some can­di­dates have bankrolls and oth­ers only enough money to buy yard signs, but they find them­selves on equal foot­ing at de­bates.

For weeks, the can­di­dates have bounced from fo­rum to fo­rum, at times fac­ing dozens of vot­ers, on other oc­ca­sions speak­ing be­fore sev­eral hun­dred. The ques­tions of­ten re­volve around how the can­di­dates would re­pair the city’s crum­bling school sys­tem and bring eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment to their com­mu­nity.

Yes­ter­day, the 17 can­di­dates on the bal­lot in the spe­cial May 1 elec­tion par­tic­i­pated in a fo­rum spon­sored by the Hill­crest Civic As­so­ci­a­tion, Ward 7 Democrats and three lo­cal chap­ters of Al­pha Kappa Al­pha soror­ity at Ward Me­mo­rial AME Church.

The con­test is to se­lect a coun­cil mem­ber to fill the un­ex­pired term of Vin­cent C. Gray (D), who left his ward seat in Jan­uary to be­come chair­man.

The fo­rum be­gan with ques­tions about re­cre­ation and vot­ing rights for ex-of­fend­ers, then grew heated with a ques­tion about Mayor Adrian M. Fenty’s plan to take over the city’s pub­lic school sys­tem.

The coun­cil has given ini­tial ap­proval to the plan and has sched­uled a fi­nal vote on Thurs­day de­spite com­plaints from res­i­dents in wards 4 and 7 that they are not rep­re­sented. The Ward 4 coun­cil seat is also va­cant be­cause Fenty (D) had been the coun­cil mem­ber there.

“We can­not stop gov­ern­ment from work­ing,” said Yvette M. Alexan­der, a can­di­date who has the back­ing of Gray and coun­cil mem­ber Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large).

Al­though Alexan­der, 45, had said pre­vi­ously that she wanted the coun­cil to de­lay the vote, she said the pub­lic now has to “keep an open mind.”

But can­di­date Greg Rhett said: “I beg to dif­fer. I think it stinks.”

His terse state­ment drew hearty ap­plause.

Rhett, 48, gets good re­sponses from au­di­ences at fo­rums in the ward, which takes in 29 dis­tinct neigh­bor­hoods from Fair­lawn to Capi­tol View.

He of­ten cor­rects his op­po­nents on the is­sues and notes his long­time in­volve­ment in de­vel­op­ment, such as help­ing lure Denny’s, the ward’s only sit-down restau­rant. He also co-chaired the group that protested the clos­ing of D.C. Gen­eral Hospi­tal, the ward’s only med­i­cal fa­cil­ity, in 2001.

“My ques­tion is, where were all th­ese ad­vo­cates when the fight was go­ing on?” he said.

Alexan­der, a for­mer in­sur­ance reg­u­la­tor, also served with the group that ad­vo­cated for the hospi­tal. She said she would con­tinue to push for uni­ver­sal health care.

Alexan­der leads the can­di­dates in fundrais­ing. She and Muriel Bowser, a can­di­date in the Ward 4 spe­cial elec­tion who is sup­ported by Fenty, have raised un­usu­ally large amounts of money in what are usu­ally low-funded races.

Be­yond the fi­nanc­ing, the elec­tion lacks a high-profile is­sue or an un­pop­u­lar in­cum­bent, as was the case in 2004, when Gray de­feated three-term in­cum­bent Kevin P. Chavous (D). Many in the com­mu­nity had grown tired of Chavous, who was crit­i­cized for ne­glect­ing the ward.

Gray, who had never held or run for pub­lic of­fice, was plucked from his work in so­cial ser­vices to chal­lenge Chavous. Gray re­ceived 50 per­cent of the vote in a six-way Demo­cratic pri­mary. The Novem­ber gen­eral elec­tion was a for­mal­ity in the heav­ily Demo­cratic city.

Gray gar­nered 5,342 votes. Pri­vately, this year’s can­di­dates cal­cu­late that they will need to amass be­tween 3,000 and 5,000 votes to se­cure a win May 1.

At­tend­ing fo­rums is one way to be no­ticed. “I’m for a mora­to­rium on char­ter schools,” can­di­date Ed­die Rhodes, 50, who works as a com­mu­nity co­or­di­na­tor, said to ap­plause. In re­cent years, many stu­dents have trans­ferred to char­ter schools, con­tribut­ing to the loss of 13,000 from tra­di­tional pub­lic schools since 2001.

Can­di­date Iris Toyer, 56, chair­man of Par­ents United for the D.C. Pub­lic Schools, said: “I am not anti-char­ter. I am pro-tra­di­tional pub­lic school.”

“We have al­lowed la- di- da- di and ev­ery­body to open a char­ter school. We have writ­ten off 50,000 chil­dren for some­thing we don’t even know works.”

Some can­di­dates bring cheer­ing sec­tions. John­nie Scott Rice, a for­mer Repub­li­can known as a rab­ble-rouser run­ning as an in­de­pen­dent, al­ways brings a posse of T-shirt-wear­ing sup­port­ers to the fo­rums. Yes­ter­day, she said she was the only can­di­date who has worked at the D.C. Coun­cil as an aide to sev­eral mem­bers through the years.

“When you want ex­pe­ri­ence, you need to know, I have it,” said Rice, 66.

Rice fired up the au­di­ence when she said she is against high-den­sity de­vel- op­ment in the ward. “We don’t want to look like down­town Wash­ing­ton where the sun doesn’t shine any­more,” she said.

Dur­ing most of the fo­rum, there had been ap­plause, some­times laugh­ter, in re­sponse to an­swers, but in the case of Emily Y. Wash­ing­ton, there was a re­sound­ing “Oooooh.”

When the mod­er­a­tor asked the can­di­date if she was pro- or anti-union, she paused, and the mod­er­a­tor asked if the ques­tion was too dif­fi­cult.

“You haven’t even thought about any­thing that I can’t an­swer,” Wash­ing­ton replied. “I am a 34-year mem­ber of the Wash­ing­ton Teach­ers’ Union.”

As a union mem­ber, Wash­ing­ton said, she had stood up against lead­ers who even­tu­ally went to prison for em­bez­zling $4 mil­lion. She said her peers told her, “Well, Emily, you told us so.”

PHO­TOS BY MELINA MARA — THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Yvette M. Alexan­der, with D.L. Humphrey, left, and Greg Rhett, leads the 17 can­di­dates for the Ward 7 seat in fundrais­ing.

Can­di­date Sam Jor­dan, left, runs a con­sumer health-care ad­vo­cacy group. Roscoe Grant Jr. is a busi­ness owner.

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