Late Tuesday, on the top floor of a Pennsylvania Avenue bar near the Capitol, D.C. Councilmember Tommy Wells capped a speech to supporters of his failed mayoral bid with a call to action: “Onward!”
Wells’ third-place finish in the April 1 Democratic primary means the 57-year-old Southerner will be out of elected office at year’s end.
He credits his 2006 election with ushering in “the beginning of progressive Democrats in D.C.” and believes councilmembers he’s endorsed, including David Grosso, Kenyan McDuffie and likely Ward 6 successor Charles Allen, formerly his chief of staff, will continue to work toward the shared goals of good government, smart growth and a city “where corporations are not the prime movers.”
“I think I have kicked off a progressive movement that may have, would have happened anyway,” Wells said in an election eve interview with CQ Roll Call at his Southeast D.C. campaign headquarters. “I’m just the person people gravitated to.” Unfortunately for Wells, that pull wasn’t strong enough to separate him from the pack of seven Democrats trying to defeat incumbent Mayor Vincent Gray. Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser won the competitive primary on Tuesday . Wells was the only councilmember campaigning whose term expires at the dawn of 2015.
But Wells has no plans to leave Washington, the city he’s called home since 1983.
Raised in Birmingham, Ala., he earned a master’s degree in social work from the University of Minnesota before moving to D.C. to start his career in the District’s child protective services agency. Like Gray, he built his résumé as social services advocate before entering politics. As director of the D.C. Consortium for Child Welfare, Wells played a key role in changing the system.
Unlike the mayor, whom he’s accused of bringing an “ethical cloud” over the city, Wells eschewed corporate contributions during his recent campaign. He hopes other progressives will take up the cause once he’s gone. Other issues he’s championed include raising the minimum wage and decriminalizing marijuana , both of which passed during this term.
But Wells’ most visible impact on Ward 6 requires a walk down H Street Northeast.
Years ago, H Street was a scene of “disordered chaos.” People parked their cars on the sidewalk outside famed seafood carryout joint Horace and Dickies, he remembers. Public urination was routine and the tree boxes served as trashcans.
Wells enlisted the city’s regulatory forces to help shut down a polluting car mechanic on 13th Street. If residents left the lid off their trash cans, they got a note saying they would be fined. In an effort to fill empty storefronts, Wells fought to quintuple property taxes on vacant building and set even higher rates on those that were blighted.
“Anybody that was sitting on property to speculate or otherwise, they started losing their value, so you had to find a tenant or sell your building,” he explained.
Wells went to bat with Pepco for local entrepreneurs who needed new power lines, and carved out financial incentives. “I did a major, $5 million tax abatement to get the Giant Foods to locate at 3rd and H.”
In the background, Percy Sledge was crooning “When a Man Loves a Woman,” and campaign staffers were dialing D.C. voters, making last-minute pitches for the man that helped coin the term “5-minute living,” as reflected in his walkable, livable city campaign.
He also restored $100 million in funding to the streetcar project after Gray zeroed out its budget. Ask Wells about the long delay and missed deadlines and he says, “The current mayor has mismanaged the project.”
Wells earned a reputation as a “smart growth” advocate by helping Capital Bikeshare expand, pushing for more bike lanes and clearing the path for Car2Go in the city. He launched “Rediscover the Bus” in 2011 to introduce D.C. residents to smartphone apps that show bus arrival times and helped secure the first Circulator line east of the Anacostia River.
His proudest accomplishment is the “resurgence and revitalization” of neighborhood elementary schools. Wells points out Ward 6 hasn’t just gentrified — it also has more public housing than any other part of the city. Middle schools are next, he acknowledged, and that’s where Allen can pick up the mantle.
Wells’ rosy cheeks grow more pink when asked about his ambitions beyond D.C. politics.
“I’m very interested in how you make cities work,” he said. “I would love the opportunity to continue to work with both Washington and other cities in the country to continue thinking through how to make cities healthy, sustainable and first choices for where you want to live … while, obviously maintaining the diversity of that city.”
Asked if he was aiming for a federal-level job, Wells said that could “absolutely” suit him.
In a final comments to supporters Tuesday night, delivered after setting down his glass of wine, a jovial Wells joked about his “floppy hair,” squeezed Barbara, his wife of more than 25 years, tight, and promised “whatever happens tonight, this is not the end of anything.”