Voters in Ward 5 handed Kenyan McDuffie a decisive victory Tuesday in a special election to replace former D.C. Councilmember Harry L. Thomas, Jr.
McDuffie, 37, captured 44.5 percent of the vote and fended off a host of challengers in an election that saw light voter turnout to the tune of 15 percent. Councilmember-elect McDuffie promised to be an ethical legislator who would work hard to win residents' confidence and respect. McDuffie told a throng of cheering, jubilant supporters Tuesday night that he would waste no time attending to the ward's needs. McDuffie, accompanied by wife Princess and his mother to the lectern, appeared humbled by his supporters' emotional and very vocal displays of affection.
"Today marks a bright new day in Ward 5," said McDuffie, who received 4,085 votes. "When the numbers came back, it was clear that Ward 5 wanted to send a mandate. Folks counted us out, they said the race was not important, said it was not about integrity. If it wasn't clear before, it's clear now. Without you, I wouldn't be standing here tonight. Let's get to work. We're going to roll up our sleeves and get it done."
McDuffie, a former prosecutor and resident of the Stronghold community, defeated 10 challengers in the May 15 special election. The newly minted councilmember swamped his challengers by a 20-point margin in unofficial election results released late Tuesday night. Delano Hunter, who garnered second place against Thomas in the 2010 primary, amassed 1,850 votes or 20.2 percent of votes cast. Frank Wilds, another frontrunner, earned almost 15 percent of the vote.
Other challengers such as Drew Hubbard and Republican Tim Day, had strong support in the ward, but could not come anywhere near McDuffie's totals.
This special election closes what many Ward 5 residents regard as a painful chapter in the ward's history and disappointment has been replaced by hope. When McDuffie strode into Layla's Lounge in Northeast, he was greeted as a conquering hero. Supporters whooped and hollered, cheered with reckless abandon, pumped their fists and surrounded their man, hugging him, kissing him and pumping his hand vigorously.
Almost every person in the building wore a red T-shirt and red balloons festooned the entrance and various sections of the lounge.
"Ladies and gentlemen, he is in the house, ladies and gentlemen, our new councilman from Ward 5," said Ward 5 Democratic Chairman Robert Vinson Brannon. "Ladies and gentlemen, the time has come. He is going to take us to places we've never been! This is a wonderful day for Democrats, a wonderful day for Ward 5. I'm so very proud of Ward 5."
"We have outworked, out-funded and raised more money in this election – and you did it without bundling. We're creating history in Ward 5. We have taken our rightful, righteous place in the political leadership of this city."
McDuffie's elevation to the council seat, brings closure to an episode in Ward 5 life that sullied and shamed residents after Thomas admitted in January – after months of denial – that he had stolen at least $353,500 in federal funds meant for disadvantaged youth in the District of Columbia. Thomas, 51, used nonprofits he created such as TeamThomas, to funnel the money he then used to buy a luxury sports utility vehicle, a motorcycle, fancy clothes and shoes and to pay for golfing trips. On May 3, U.S. District Court Judge John D. Bates sentenced Thomas to three years and two months in prison for his crimes.
This election was the first in many years that a Thomas was not on the ballot. Harry L. Thomas, Sr., was a well-respected councilmember who held the Ward 5 seat from 1986 until his death in 1999. His son succeeded him when he won the seat in 2006.
Hunter, 28, won the Ward 5 Democrats straw poll earlier this year and received the endorsement of AFSCME District Council 20. Republican Candidate Tim Day, 40, received the endorsement of The Washington Post, which at one time in the city's political history was highly coveted by candidates.
However, Hunter was dogged by his former stance as being opposed to same-sex marriage and problems with his personal finances. Day, who has been credited with starting the political downfall of Thomas, could not convince an overwhelmingly Democratic ward that they would be best represented on the D.C. Council by a Republican.
A former policy advisor to the deputy mayor for public safety and justice, McDuffie was endorsed by organizations such as the Metropolitan Washington Council AFL-CIO, the Washington Teachers' Union Local 6, the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, Greater Greater Washington and the Sierra Club.
D.C. Council Chairman Kwame Brown (D) and Councilmembers Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), and Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7), as well as Washington Teachers' Union President Nathan Saunders were among the revelers.
"Kenyan seemed to more clearly come down on the same side of where I am on some major issues, such as ethics and ending corporate contributions in local elections," Wells explained after McDuffie's victory speech. "He seemed very progressive and had an 'open tent.' He appealed to blacks, whites, young, old and that is reflected in his landslide victory."
At Colonel Brooks Tavern in Brookland, Wilds supporters looked weary and some appeared shell shocked. A few dozen campaign staff and supporters sat around, chatted and consoled each other. Wilds said in a recent interview that he expected a large senior turnout to power him to victory but that element was never a factor in the race because, as one campaign staffer explained, Hunter and McDuffie were able to each attract sizeable chunks of the elderly constituency.
"I'm fine. I feel great. Hey, I gave it my best," Wilds said with a smile. "He [McDuffie] got the vote across all sections [of the ward]. He killed us. All I can say is congrats. He won hands down."
Wilds, a 67-year-old businessman who has lived in the ward for more than 30 years said the electorate chose youth over real-world experience.
Campaign Manager Windy Carson-Smith said the turn of events was unexpected and after the polls closed, she said she and others "got a sense of the tide turning."
"My reaction is surprise," she said. "We ran the best campaign we knew we could. He is one of the most honest people I know. He is a man of integrity but he was caught up in a wave of innuendo and speculation of what's going on at City Hall."
Wilds' Campaign Chairman Mark Jones said now that the combativeness of this political campaign is over, it's time to coalesce.
"Kenyan appealed to everybody and that's why he won the race," said Jones. "He ran a good race and now we have to come together and heal. Frank ran a good race. He will still be in the community and we will work with our new councilman. That's our new charge."
Saunders noted that McDuffie is an example that young people who are the products of the District's school system can succeed, and tabbed him as someone to watch.
"Kenyan grew up with caring parents and he is an example of what our students are capable of," said Saunders, 47. "He can write his own ticket. It's up to him how far he goes."
McDuffie will serve out the remainder of Thomas' term, which ends in 2014. If he is declared the winner after the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics certifies the results, he will be sworn in on May 30.