In Ward 7, A 17-Way Priority Contest
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.”
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.