Nothing is certain in the fight for Marion Barry’s D.C. Council seat

D.C. Politics

Nothing is certain in the fight for Marion Barry’s D.C. Council seat

By Abigail Hauslohner, Washington Post, April 18

The ghosts of mayors past and present are haunting every step of the District’s Ward 8 council race.

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) showed up at a barbecue for LaRuby May ahead of a straw poll earlier this month; former mayor Vincent C. Gray appears side by side with his endorsed candidate, Sheila Bunn, on fliers; and just about everyone invokes the name of the late D.C. legend Marion Barry as they place calls and go door-to-door.

As Bowser’s pick, May has attracted high-profile business endorsements and raised more money than anyone — four times as much as Gray’s pick — ahead of the April 28 vote.

But whether May, whom opponents have labeled a big-money “outsider,” can capture the vote of the District’s poorest ward and lure residents away from a long tradition of personality politics tied for years to one familiar face remains unclear.

“LaRuby is perceived as the front-runner because she has so much money,” said Bunn. “But as we know in politics, money does not always win you a race.”

In a rapidly gentrifying city where pricey restaurants and yoga studios have sprung up on what were once the District’s most destitute avenues, Ward 8 is still referred to as the “forgotten ward.”

It’s the city’s largest swath of land, across the Anacostia River in the District’s southeast quadrant. Yet it was the last to acquire a grocery store.

It is the “dumping ward” for the rest of the city, as one voter described it, the section of the nation’s capital with the highest proportion of families living in poverty and the place where city authorities once tried to put a private prison.

Barry, as the city’s longest-serving mayor and council member, was a symbol of the politics and priorities of Ward 8’s underclass. But the area was Barry’s turf for so long — up until his death in November — that no one seems sure about how residents will vote when the “mayor for life” is no longer on the ballot.

The evidence of that uncertainty may lie in the sheer number of candidates — 13, more than any Ward 8 race in nearly 20 years — but also in the variety of sales pitches they make as they talk to voters and huddle over campaign strategy meetings in their neighborhood headquarters.

Eugene Kinlow tells voters that he has big dreams of development, including expanding commercial real estate at the Anacostia Metro station, while May has echoed the campaign promises of her backer and D.C.’s rising star Bowser to fight for city resources so that “hardworking families have a pathway to the middle class.”

Bunn argues that she has the most experience, having served as the chief of staff to the District’s non-voting congressional representative, Eleanor Holmes Norton (D). She is banking partly on the ward’s loyalty to her own backer, Gray, who lost to Bowser in last year’s mayoral race but won Ward 8.

“If you talk to folks in the ward, they don’t really know who LaRuby May is,” said Bunn, whose father was a community business mainstay and whose campaign office is housed on the ground floor of the “Bunn building,” a family legacy.

And yet everywhere you go in the ward, where campaign signs adorn lawns, street corners and telephone poles, the May signs loom the largest. The funding is palpable. And at the end of the day, the guiding factor in who wins may still be one that Barry excelled at: busing the largest number of people to the polls.

On Friday evening, a team of campaign workers clad in May’s campaign color, purple, canvassed Woodland Terrace, a public housing project, urging people to get in a van they had ready to ferry them to the city’s central early-voting location downtown, where voting began April 13.

These workers have been helping Ward 8 residents register to vote for five months. They cheered when people accepted the offer of a ride, and they handed out fliers for a free barbecue and concert on Saturday, which coincided with the opening of early voting in the ward.

May, who hit the pavement with her team, greeted some residents by name and snapped selfies with residents. When purple-shirted workers ran into more of their own, they broke into a call-and-response chant: “Vote LaRuby May”—“So Eight may rise!”

Nearly all of the candidates have taken aim at May’s Florida upbringing, her ties to Bowser and her endorsements from key business and labor power brokers.

“It’s good not to have all your money coming from the mayor,” said Marion C. Barry, the late mayor’s son and another candidate who argued that Bowser’s support would make May “beholden to a political machine.”

May, who runs a local housing nonprofit group and two day-care centers and whose pledges of affordable housing and community policing sound much like her competitors’ campaigning, dismissed such labels as baseless.

“I’ve been working hard in the ward for the past 15 years to build infrastructure,” she said. “There definitely can be benefits of being a legacy child,” she said of Bunn and Barry. “But I know there are also benefits of hard work.”

Charlie Dunn, a Ward 8 resident who was standing with friends at Woodland Terrace Friday night, said that Bunn lives nearby but that only May has visited.

“I haven’t met any other candidates who’ve come through this neighborhood,” he said. “I have one who lives right next door to me, and she hasn’t knocked on my door.”

All of the candidates, including Barry, Trayon White and Natalie Williams, the president of the Ward 8 Democrats, say they will improve education and foster opportunities for youths and ex-offenders.

But for them, the funding has been thinner.

Kinlow set out to knock on doors last week with only one staffer in tow. Bunn set out with only a few more, targeting the doors of men and women who had proven voting records, many of them senior citizens.

One elderly widower told Bunn that he’d vote for her if he “can keep it in my mind to vote.”

“Well,” Bunn said, making a note of it, “I will remind you.”

Abigail Hauslohner covers City Hall for The Washington Post. Previously, she served as the Post’s Cairo bureau chief.

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