City on a Hill: Wells–effective and ethical

February 27, 2014

The District of Columbia loves a good political drama, and whether it’s mayoral scandal or bribery and embezzlement on the D.C. Council, we’ve gotten a whole lot of it over the past four years. Maybe that’s what makes this year’s mayoral race such a disappointment. At a time when the city seems primed for a dynamic alternative to the status quo, the race is narrowing to a two-way contest about as interesting as my freshman economics lecture.

Part of the reason could be that incumbent Mayor Vincent Gray (D) is trying to play it safe. He’s proposed almost no new ideas, hoping to ride to victory on the back of good economic fortunes and divert attention away from his alleged involvement in a shadow campaign that has already seen three of his staff plead guilty to crimes. The staleness of his campaign is surpassed only by that of his closest challenger, Councilmember Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), who picked up an endorsement from the Washington Post this week.

Those factors play a role, but the bigger reason for the snoozer of a race may be that the candidate with the most ambitious and specific policy proposals has failed to capture the hearts of the local media. That candidate is Councilmember Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6).

On almost every issue, Wells’s record and platform reflect a candidate with deeper policy knowledge and a greater propensity for action than any other contender. Although he opposed the Large Retailer Accountability Act, he was a vocal proponent of raising the minimum wage and is the leading councilmember in the fight to decriminalize marijuana. He’s a white guy, but clearly understands the racial implications of the drug war, as well as the need to raise wages.

Wells, more than other candidates, also has a solid environmental record. Among his accomplishments is the implementation of the District’s plastic bag tax, with all revenues going to clean up the Anacostia River. His emphasis on a “walkable, livable” city may have been maligned by the Post and mocked by City Paper, but no one can deny he’s the candidate with the most developed proposals for extending public transport and bike accessibility, especially in low-income areas.

Wells leads the pack again when it comes to ethics. He is the only candidate who has eschewed corporate contributions, a decision that, if nothing else, was not fueled by political convenience. Wells had only about $170,000 on hand on Feb.1, far behind Gray and Bowser who have $560,000 and $791,000, respectively.

Lackluster fundraising is certainly a factor in why Wells remains relatively unknown, but it also indicates he’s not afraid to stand by his principles. Bowser loves to cite the modest ethics reform she shepherded through the Council, but come election time, she was content to be a big-money candidate.

The biggest difference between Bowser and Wells, though, comes in their proposals and rhetoric. Bowser’s is a campaign of shallow platitudes. In a recent interview on WAMU’s Kojo Nnamdi show, she could provide no specific answer on how her policies would differ from Gray’s, opting instead for “people want to know that we’re getting our city ready for the future.” That gives the impression of a political opportunist—someone comfortable with the status quo who only got in the race because the incumbent looks vulnerable. It’s also emblematic of a pattern in Bowser’s interviews and debates: she leans heavy on the generalizations.

Wells’s answer was that he would take control of education reform, something Gray has ceded to DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson. Top of the list would be to ensure every child in the city has a school within walking distance, a necessary reform given the school closures during the Fenty and Gray administrations.

That rhetoric reveals a theme in Wells’s candidacy. When asked about an issue, he actually gives an opinion, addressing the city’s problems with a specificity and passion that reflect his history as a social worker and child welfare advocate. His proposals for homelessness, affordable housing and jobs show those progressive motivations have only strengthened since he was elected to the Council.

Wells is no perfect candidate. He’s spent too much time on his now-abandoned “walkable, livable” theme rather than housing, homelessness, or schools. But Gray’s constant evasiveness about the shadow campaign should all but disqualify him, Bowser is an empty shirt, and Councilmember Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) is too separated from the issues affecting residents on the east side of the city. The rest of the candidates all fit similar categories.

At the end of the day, Wells is simply the most ethical and prepared candidate to lead the city. As activist and blogger Ken Archer put it, “I’m supporting Tommy Wells because he is the only true progressive running for mayor, and that matters now more than ever.”

Gavin Bade
Gavin Bade is Managing Editor of The Georgetown Voice

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