D.C. political races are often divided by race. Even when all of the viable candidates are African American, support for a particular candidate still is usually easily discernable by race and geography. This year, we will probably have the closest Democratic mayoral primary since home rule. It is also the first year that we have white mayoral candidates who have a reasonable chance to be elected mayor.
Based on history, conventional wisdom suggests that most African Americans will support one of the African-American candidates. However, there are some black District residents who are strongly supporting white mayoral candidates in the Democratic primary. It may surprise some folks that the African Americans who are unabashedly supporting Tommy Wells or Jack Evans, the two white Democratic candidates, are quite diverse in background. Once you start discussing Wells’ and Evans’ campaigns with their African-American supporters, you realize that they are a hard group to generalize.
Dominic Sanders, 23, is a senior social work major at Millersville University and he defies every stereotype of a Tommy Wells supporter. He is an African American, native Washingtonian from humble beginnings, who grew up in several Ward 6 neighborhoods in Southeast and Southwest Washington. This May, he will become the first person in his family to graduate from college.
Sanders met Wells through late D.C. activist Jan Eichhorn when he was six. He kept asking Eichhorn, who organized a local mentoring and tutoring program, for a mentor and eventually she introduced him to Wells and they have been friends ever since.
“Tommy exposed me to a lot,” Sanders said. “He took me on an airplane for the first time at 12. It was my first time out of D.C. He took me to a cabin in Minnesota with his family. He also sent me to basketball and baseball camps out of my community. He showed me that there is stuff bigger than where I live.”
While Sanders’ support of Wells has a lot to do with the bond they developed over the years while Wells mentored him, he clearly believes that Wells is the right choice politically. When discussing Wells’ politics, he mentioned Wells’ minimum wage challenge this past December, where Wells purchased groceries and traveled on a minimum wage salary of $8.25 per hour for one week to show how difficult it is to live in D.C. on minimum wage.
“I don’t think there’s another candidate who will go as far as him to prove his point,” Sanders said. “He’s always willing to push the envelope and do things the average person wouldn’t do. He’s the first white guy I saw who would come to pick me up in the hood, wait 20 or 30 minutes in a car, and not think about it.”
“I look at his whole track record. When I first met him he was an ANC commissioner, then he got on the school board, then the City Council, and now he’s running for mayor. That’s my motivation that you can always do more than what you do. You watch the stuff he does for people. I know I’m not the only person he helped out and mentored. He took me to play basketball with the kids in the youth detention center in Northeast and there were no cameras around, we would just go. He’s that down to earth and that grounded.”
Jacques Point Du Jour, 27, is also an African-American native Washingtonian. He lives in Ward 6, works as an assistant at a legal consulting firm and supports Jack Evans for mayor. He was introduced to Evans by one of his friends and he believes that Evans’ “history has been nothing but amazing. He played a vital part in revitalizing 14th Street. I remember 14th Street 20 years ago and I see what it is now.”
Point Du Jour said he did not consider race when deciding to back Evans. “It’s 2014 and it shouldn’t be about race,” he said. “Race tends to get in the way of the greater role.” He hasn’t experienced any backlash from his friends for supporting a white mayoral candidate. Many of his friends aren’t even paying attention to the election. “People in their mid or late 20s don’t think supporting a mayoral candidate is relevant,” he said, “but I think it’s extremely important.”
Point Du Jour, who described his political leanings as “Democratic toward the liberal end of the spectrum,” said Evans’ pro-business reputation does not bother him at all. “If you don’t have business connections, how would you create jobs and bring in more prosperity.”
He thinks that Evans can serve the entire city. “I heard him talk about meeting with communities in Ward 8 and how it’s important for them to take part in the prosperity.”
Maceo Thomas, 42, a property manager from Ward 7, is a Wells supporter. Thomas said he supports Wells because “there is a real issue around integrity in our government. It’s not confined to D.C., but we have a big problem in D.C. I watched Tommy from afar and watched him get punished in the Council for doing what’s right.”
“People are rushing to get into Ward 6, into the Capitol Hill area, because of the schools and the amenities,” Thomas said. “Tommy was in a leadership position to help the community get those things. Those are the same things we want in ward 7 and east of the river.”
When asked about any resistance that he has faced in supporting a white mayoral candidate, Thomas acknowledged that when he “went door knocking with Tommy near the Minnesota Avenue Metro, some folks responded that [Wells] is white.” However, Thomas said that after people started “talking to Tommy for a little bit, they were shaking their head and following along in the conversation.”
Thomas said he did not consider race when he decided to support Wells. “Black people are much smarter than people give us credit for,” he said. He added that people are wrong “if they think we wouldn’t vote for Tommy Wells because he’s white.” Thomas attributes Wells’ limited support outside of Ward 6 to there not being “a lot of media around Council members, so people don’t know who he is. As more people examine who he is, I think they will give him a chance.”
While I personally have limited my mayoral choices to three candidates — one of the candidates featured here, along with two of the leading African-American candidates — I would be disingenuous if I did not acknowledge that race, or more so the ability to appeal to all races, is at least part of my consideration. I would never vote for anyone who I don’t believe is qualified to run the city well, but it is also important to me that all Washingtonians feel that they are a valued part of the city. Candidates of any race can do that, but it is imperative for the next mayor to have that quality.
Lateefah Williams’ biweekly column, ‘Life in the Intersection,’ focuses on the intersection of race, gender and sexual orientation. She is a D.C.-based political and LGBT activist. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @lateefahwms.