Tommy Wells Says DC Is in the Midst of an Ethics Crisis That Could Be Costly
The Ward 6 council member joins the list of city pols who are exploring a run for mayor.
Ward 6 City Council member Tommy Wells vividly remembers when he first arrived in Washington, DC. It was 1983, he had just earned his master’s degree in social work from the University of Minnesota, and he was eager to launch his career. A professor he admired said the nation’s capital was the best place to start. “I sold my car for a train ticket,” says Wells. “And when I came out of Union Station, I fell in love with the city.”
Wells didn’t follow the conventional path of many college grads who arrive in Washington, however. He didn’t head to a white-shoe law firm, a glamorous media job, or a comfortable Capitol Hill or administration post. Instead he went into the bleak trenches of inner-city Washington, becoming a child protection social worker. He recalls those years—the mid-’80s to early ’90s—as “one of the most difficult times families had ever seen in Washington. We had the advent of crack, the advent of AIDS, the city was going broke and [Marion] Barry was mayor.” Wells decided to do something about it. He filed a class-action lawsuit to improve child services. He also became director of the Consortium for Child Welfare, and began “to help rebuild the city’s child welfare system.”
Wells has been in the city council since 2006, and now is giving serious thought to a run for mayor, either in the scheduled election of 2014 or sooner, were a special election to occur. As with his colleagues Jack Evans and Muriel Bowser, who are exploring mayoral campaigns, he sees incumbent Vincent Gray as vulnerable, due to charges of campaign fraud that are being investigated by the US Attorney’s office. Gray could resign, but even if he doesn’t, it is uncertain whether he would run for reelection. In sum, the Wilson Building, Washington’s “city hall,” is living a daily soap opera of political turmoil.
It’s worth noting that Ward 6 is a microcosm of modern Washington. It is home to Union Station, which is facing an overhaul; to burgeoning NoMa; the Southwest waterfront, which is undergoing redevelopment; Nationals ballpark and all the development and parks that have sprung up around it; and the revitalized H Street corridor. Wells boasts about his constituent neighborhoods but also that one in particular, Shaw, has “the highest concentration of affordable housing.”
We talked to Wells today about his city, his ward, and his ambitions.
The city council is in recess until the middle of September. How are you spending the time?
[laughs] I’m taking two weeks at our family place in Minnesota to see my mom, but otherwise most of it is in DC. The recess is two months; my vacation is two weeks.
When you go out into the community right now, among your constituents, what are they talking about?
Mostly people are very upset about the situation with the current mayor, and that is the number-one issue that comes up. I’d like to be talking about the future of the city, but you can’t.
Do you find the political turmoil to be a burdensome distraction?
Without question. Everyone is distracted by the conversation, anger, and angst about the mayor. I find people are disgusted with the city council and their elected government. There’s a crisis of ethics.
Do you get the sense that people want a total house-cleaning?
Some people think that.
But you want to be mayor? What are you thinking about that right now?
I am definitely exploring it. I’ve been meeting with leaders in different neighborhoods and talking about 2014.
Yes, or sooner.
When will you make an announcement?
I’ll decide by Christmas or the first of the year, assuming no special election is needed.
Some of your colleagues have called for Gray to resign now, but you have not. Why not?
A couple of reasons. He’s not been charged with anything. There has to be a perception of fairness. Also, in the event that Gray resigns we will be faced with the possibility of four mayors in two years: Gray, [Phil] Mendelson [as acting mayor until a special election], whoever is elected in the special election, and then if someone else is elected in 2014. If the city is already slowed by distraction, we will have a government that becomes completely ineffectual. We could lose many of our good government administrators in a mass exodus.
Do you think the US Attorney’s office is moving too slowly and causing harm to the city?
No. Especially in the area of illegal campaign financing. That’s going to involve a lot of people, and it will probably impact sitting city council members at some level.
What are the standout reasons you would make a good mayor for Washington?
The best reason is I have a vision for the city that will provide a high quality of life for everyone in a diverse city, and creating livable, walkable neighborhoods. I call it “five-minute living”—[the idea] that you can get what you need in five minutes: fresh food, pharmacy, recreation, transit. The challenge is to assure a diversity of affordable housing. And education. In Ward 6 we’re seeing a renaissance of elementary schools. Out of ten traditional elementary schools, seven have waiting lists. Ward 6 has had the greatest drop in crime of any ward, and we also have the greatest amount of public housing of any ward.
What are your committees?
When I joined the council, [then-council chairman] Vince Gray gave me human services. I had that committee for four years. The day I started, we faced a number of crises in the child welfare system. We’ve had almost no crisis over the past two to three years. When Kwame Brown became council chairman he gave me transportation and public works. I moved the Circulator bus lines to Wards 7 and 8. It was unfair that no Circulator ran east of the river. I dealt with the bikeshare program and made a substantial push to help move forward the streetcar system.
You make it sound like that committee assignment didn’t last.
When Kwame rejected a Navigator because he didn’t like the color and got another fully loaded, it came under my committee and I was compelled to do an investigation. The report said he erred and that the Department of Public Works violated our laws by providing an SUV without justification. After I released the report he reconvened the council and changed committee assignments. He took me off transportation and public works and gave me libraries, recreation, and the office of planning.
Was that purely vindictive?
Completely, and he told me it was. But when asked by reporters, he said I’d done a “fabulous job.” The Washington Post called the other council members “gutless” for approving committee reassignments.
Is there an upside?
Since taking over libraries and recreation I have established a citywide book club, I’ve more than doubled the books budget, I’ve put money into creating parks downtown to serve children, and I’ve put funds into creating a new division of parks and rec for building neighborhood gardens.
In the potential special election, and perhaps even for the 2014 election, it appears right now that the principal crop of candidates would come out of the city council.
I think so.
Is this good? It’s been a bumpy year.
I do think I’m tainted by being with the rest of the council members, but I have also been very outspoken about holding the city council accountable, and I put ethics as a centerpiece. Ethics is not what I ran on, but it’s where I’ve been spending a lot of my work over the past year. I didn’t get any support from my colleagues when I put out a critical report about car usage. There was no support for cutting back on the use of constituent services funds. [Those] funds should be used for the constituents as much as possible, not on season tickets for professional sports or bottled water for council members.
Is your constituent services fund squeaky clean?
I have ended mine. Any money people want to give me for constituent services I redirect to needy groups in the Ward.
Does it matter whether the mayor of Washington is black?
There will always be important conversations about race in a cosmopolitan city like DC. But my experience since considering a run for mayor is that I’ve had as many African-Americans, or more, say they want to help me run for mayor as I have had from any other ethnic group. It’s very reassuring. I would not be in elected office if not for the votes from African-Americans. What’s helped me is my history working on issues related to social justice.
You were instrumental in establishing the bag tax in the city. How has that worked out?
The response from Washingtonians was incredible. They seemed to adapt almost overnight. The expected outcry never materialized. The nickel charged for using bags now raises about $2 million a year, and that goes back into cleaning up the Anacostia River. Before, 47 percent of the trash in the tributaries of the Anacostia River was plastic bags. About 21 percent [of the trash] in the main stem of the river was plastic bags. Both have decreased by more than 60 percent.
Would you raise the bag fee from 5 cents to 10?
You also want to reduce the fines on photo enforcement tickets.
It’s a matter of smart public policy. With cameras you create a much higher level of catching folks, and that reduces unsafe behavior. The public policy of using high fines is no longer warranted if you create a high likelihood of being caught. Tickets have become unreasonable. It’s clear to me that the expansion of camera usage, coupled with increasing fines, was being used to function more as a revenue generator than [for] changing unsafe behavior. I don’t want it to be about raising money. The governed don’t want to be taken advantage of without a good reason.
Do you foresee a commuter tax?
I would love to have a commuter tax. It makes a lot of sense, so the residents of DC don’t have to subsidize the residents of Virginia and Maryland.
Would you try to make that happen as mayor?
What grade would you give DC on its handling of child welfare?
I love the establishment of a family court for DC. I helped rewrite all the child protection and adoption laws for the city, to improve the safety for kids. Before the family court there were about 65 adoptions a year. Now it’s between 100 and 200 a year. When I started in child welfare in 1985 there were about 1,600 children in foster care. In the early ’90s there were 3,200 children in foster care. Now, we’re back down to 1,600, and I would like to get it under 1,000. We have one of the best resourced foster care systems in the nation.
If I asked you to give me a walking tour of Ward 6, where would you take me?
Certainly H Street, and Southwest. Even though there’s a lot of pain around urban renewal, Southwest is one of the most amazing libraries of ’60s and ’70s architecture. Then the Shaw neighborhood. It has a lot of diversity, which creates challenges but makes it one of the most interesting neighborhoods in the country. We’d walk around NoMa and see how new neighborhoods are being built out of whole cloth. Yards Park and the baseball stadium area. You’ll find around the riverfront area some of the best new public parks on the East Coast.
Where were you born and raised?
I was born in Austin, Texas. My dad was going into the ministry as an Episcopal priest. He changed his mind and went into hospital administration, and we moved around the country. I grew up in Alabama mostly, but my family is originally from Minnesota.
One last question: do you think the city is in crisis?
There is a crisis of ethics, but I don’t think the city is in crisis.