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Is generational change coming to Ward 7 via the DC Council race?

For some Ward 7 residents and political observers the general answer to that question appears to be yes. After all, there is a batch of young politicians who might remind some of that Nina Simone song: “To be young, gifted and Black / Is where it’s at.” 

The majority of the 10 candidates vying to win the June 4 Democratic primary and ultimately become the area’s next DC Council member certainly would qualify. “I think 90% of the candidates are in their 30s or 40s,” said Ambrose Lane, founder and chair of the citywide Health Alliance Network of DC and a one-time candidate for an at-large seat in the legislature.

“It’s a historic time in Ward 7. We have only had three councilmembers representing us in the last 30 years,” he continued. “It’s actually a generational change.”

Former Ward 7 Councilmember Yvette Alexander said that she was in her 40s when she ran in 2007 and probably was part of the new political generation gaining a foothold at the time. “They are definitely going to change the way we do business.”

But Alexander offered a cautionary note: “They are going to have to connect to older people. It’s not always about social media. Some people are not going to want to do email. [Seniors] are going to talk on the phone,” she said, adding that the new councilmember “may need a senior adviser,” literally.

The winds of change began blowing after Vincent Gray, the current representative, announced that he intended to leave office when his term ends in January 2025. He has been plagued by serious medical issues stemming, principally, from a stroke he had in 2021. 

Gray has been a dominant political presence in the ward since 2004, when he first ran for the council, winning 50.02% (5,342 votes) against five other candidates in the primary election, including incumbent Kevin P. Chavous. In 2006, Gray was elected council chair. Four years later, he took on Mayor Adrian Fenty and won. In 2014, allegations of campaign finance corruption and an aggressive Ward 4 councilmember, Muriel Bowser, pushed Gray out of the mayoral suite. 

Two years later, following the political-career-reviving model made popular by Marion Barry, Gray ran for the Ward 7 council seat against Alexander — his one-time protégé — and won the Democratic primary with 60.73% or 6,333 votes. 

He may have won reelection in 2020, but Gray’s shine was dimming. He received only 5,254 votes in the primary. His five opponents racked up a total of 6,277, exposing his vulnerability.

I reached out to Gray’s spokesperson, who did not respond to my questions about this year’s race and the future of the ward.

Two of this year’s contenders — Veda Rasheed, a lawyer and advisory neighborhood commissioner, and Kelvin Brown, chair of ANC 7B, member of the board of Marshall Heights Community Development Organization and an Army veteran — ran against Gray in 2020, coming in second and third place respectively. The two of them may have thought his retirement would essentially create a rematch between them. 

Understandably, they both jumped into the 2024 race. So did a raft of sharp and aggressive opponents with political experience, including Ebony Payne, the secretary of the Friends of Kingman Park and an advisory neighborhood commissioner. Her Kingman Park community had been part of Ward 6 until the redistricting after the 2020 census. She is the first person to run for Ward 7 office from that redistricted neighborhood, which has a history of high voter participation.

Wendell Felder, chair of ANC 7D as well as the Ward 7 Democrats, launched his candidacy in December. Eboni-Rose Thompson, current president of the DC State Board of Education and former chair of the Ward 7 Education Council, entered the race, too, as did Nate Fleming, a former council staffer and former DC shadow representative to Congress; and Ebbon Allen, an educator and former ANC 7E commissioner. They are perceived as the young-pol brigade.

Others in the race include Denise Reed, a former ANC 7B commissioner who held senior management positions in both branches of the DC government and who in January retired from the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency; Villareal Johnson, president of the Hillcrest Community Civic Association and a former ANC 7B commissioner; and Roscoe Grant, an established small-business owner and former labor union president.

A few candidates’ personal narratives — overcoming childhood trauma, moving beyond the struggles of a single-parent household, rising from public housing to ultimately become a key official at a top university, for instance — are inspirational. Collectively, they are an impressive group. 

They may reflect a new generation, but the issues plaguing Ward 7 — troubling adult illiteracy rates, palpable health and education inequities, insufficient economic development, even crime — have been around for decades, creating the feeling, if not the reality, of stagnation.

“Crime is devastating our community; education continues to receive less funding and housing continues to be unaffordable across the District,” Brown said during the recent Ward 7 Democrats candidates forum.

“I’m deeply concerned with the state of our community,” said Felder, offering that he would ensure the “streets are safe” and also guarantee “smart economic growth, quality schools and that seniors can age comfortably in place.” 

Those are the mainstay DC political campaign positions; they tap into the self-interest of predictable voting populations. 

According to a 2022 U.S. Census report, Ward 7 is home to nearly 90,000 residents — 83% of whom are Black and 7% of whom are white. Surprisingly, 40% of the population moved there between 2010 and 2014 — a bit higher than the DC average of 38% and the U.S. average of 37%.

The median household income is $62,243. However, 42% of the residents earn less than $50,000; 10% have incomes over $200,000.

However, 23.8% of Ward 7 residents live below the federal poverty line. That includes 34% of children under 18 and 18% of seniors (ages 65 and older).

More than half (57%) of the housing units are occupied by renters; the remainder are owner-occupied. However, 35% of the owner-occupied homes are valued at between $500,000 and $1 million while 3% are over $1 million.

It is a community with unrealized potential in the eyes of many.

“I’m optimistic that we have good candidates. I’m impressed that they all have skills, and they can go in and do the job,” said John Capozzi, who has been involved in District political affairs for decades. One of the ward’s white residents, he lives in the Hillcrest neighborhood.

He has whittled the candidates to a list of five he sees as having a chance of winning — Kelvin Brown, Wendell Felder, Ebony Payne, Veda Rasheed and Eboni-Rose Thompson (in alphabetical order). These are the same five Lane mentioned in our interview, which are the same ones called out by Alexander and others with whom I spoke. Keep in mind, however, that political prognosticating is a fine art that involves more than intuition.

The dynamics may have fluctuated Friday morning when Gray endorsed Felder. He praised Felder’s “diverse experience” in government and the private sector and asserted that he is “uniquely positioned to tackle” the challenges facing the ward while uniting its “varied interests toward a common goal.”

Will Gray’s announcement change the minds of Ward 7 voters this late in the race when each of the five top candidates has a solid political base?

Listening to the candidates and reading their responses to questionnaires sent by special interest organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union of DC, it was difficult to find much daylight between them. For example, they all want greater investments in public education and expansion of the academic portfolio within Ward 7, including more vocational courses and a special application institution. They want improved safe passages for those students traveling dangerous routes and better transportation for children with disabilities.

“Education changed the trajectory of my life,” said Fleming, who was raised by a single mother. When he was 25, he was elected as DC’s shadow representative to Congress. He later served as legislative director for Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White; in that role, he helped to bring Bard High School Early College DC to that community.

“We need innovation,” Fleming said, recounting his credentials while advocating what he called universal after-school programs. Little more than a third of elementary and middle school students are currently exposed to these offerings, he explained. “Let’s go from 35% to 100%.”

Grant argued that “everything starts in our schools,” and pushed for more vocational training. He also offered that he is worried about how senior citizens in the ward are treated, especially those who don’t have adequate resources. “Some can’t even afford to purchase the medicines they need,” Grant said.

Thompson cited her work on overhauling social studies standards, improving how schools teach reading, and working with “the DC Council and other education agencies to improve data transparency and accountability for DC Public Schools and public charter schools.” If elected, she pledged to “introduce legislation to improve and fully fund Community Schools”; “support policies that maintain funding for school-based mental health”; and “strengthen investments in middle and high schools, including career pathways, early college, and career and technical” training.

Interestingly, Thompson and the majority of candidates said they don’t support mayoral control of public education. There aren’t any signs, however, that the current council intends to repeal that law.

Candidates are generally pushing for more community policing as well as stronger methods to ensure police accountability. Felder has said, if elected, during his first 180 days in office, he would “establish a Police Safety Council” as a way to build relationships and hold police accountable. 

Noting that she currently lives in the home bought by her grandparents the year she was born, Reed said her main focus on the race is “criminal justice, public safety.” 

“I am interested in fostering a good relationship between citizens and the police,” she added.

When asked on the ACLU questionnaire whether they supported the recommendations made in 2021 by the DC Police Reform Commission, which among other things proposed “reimagining policing,” Felder and Allen wrote “No” while Fleming, Johnson, Payne, Reed and Thompson all wrote “Yes.” That may be moot since most of the recommendations have been shelved — at least for now.

In Ward 7, all roads to significant improvement and greater investments in the community seem to involve economic development, according to many people I spoke with. “We’ve always said Ward 7 is the last frontier for economic development,” said Alexander. “We have Skyland, Penn Branch, Capitol Gateway. We still haven’t completed the promises that were made for Hill East.

“We have so many unfinished projects,” she added with a note of frustration, noting that for several years Ward 7 was home to the mayor and council chair — Gray and Kwame Brown, respectively. “It’s shocking we have not gotten much further

That failure was underscored earlier this month when the ward’s first dog park opened — decades after those in most other communities.

“The first thing we must do is get these projects off the ground. We need a different type of leader [who] will push the envelope,” said Johnson at the Democrats’ forum. 

“Before we can have proper economic development, folks have to feel safe. They have to feel safe before they can bring their businesses here,” said Reed.

Payne frequently discusses addressing the area’s “food desert” by providing incentives for local food entrepreneurs, creating small-business incubators, and recruiting the region’s local Black farmers to help meet existing food and health needs. She has voiced opposition to using the former RFK site for any new football stadium. Rather she wants to convert the RFK campus, including Maloof Skate Park, into “much-needed housing and spaces our whole community can enjoy.”

“How do you eradicate poverty? Through education,” said Allen, asking and answering his own question, then circling back to a familiar refrain: “We need more resources for our youth. That’s going to make the difference. Education connects all the dots.” 

Rasheed said the ward needs “more community development corporations” to help consider the proper course. She has called for an array of tax breaks and incentives for select businesses and the creation of incubators and hubs.

Some may see those as worn treads. But she’s right about this: “It shouldn’t take 30 years for us to have economic development.”

Felder offered a more radical vision. He called for a Ward 7 “recovery plan” that would include an assessment of the community’s needs. Undoubtedly looking at the recent federal infrastructure funds received by DC, he has advocated for putting DC 295 underground in order to “reconnect our community.”

“I will establish a Ward 7 economy,” continued Felder, currently director of regional affairs at Howard University. “Every other ward has an economy but us.”

But here are the real questions for Ward 7 residents: Who is just talking the talk? Who has proven the ability to walk the walk?

photo credits (in order of appearance) Ebony Payne -campaign website; Kelvin Brown-campaign website; Eboni-Rose Thompson- campaign website; and Wendell Felder-campaign website


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