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Washington voters on Tuesday tried to turn the page on a scandal that sent a former D.C. Council member to prison on corruption charges. Democrat Kenyan McDuffie overwhelmingly won a special election to replace Harry Thomas, Jr., who earlier this month was sentenced to a 38-month federal prison sentence. McDuffie joins Kojo to share his vision for the city and for the future of Ward 5.
- Kenyan McDuffie Member-Elect, D.C. Council (D-Ward 5)
Kenyan McDuffie talked about the racial and generational divide in Ward 5:
McDuffie discussed plans to revitalize the McMillan Reservoir as a mixed-use residential and commercial space. He also addressed what it means to be called a progressive, and recalled his experiences as a postal carrier who sometimes delivered mail to the offices at WAMU 88.5:
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, Food Wednesday, the premium on outdoor dining and drinking in the Washington region, but, first, the District's Ward 5 turns the page on a painful political scandal. Kenyan McDuffie won a special election in Ward 5 yesterday to replace former Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. He was sentenced earlier this month to a 38-month sentence in federal prison for stealing city money away from various youth programs.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIMcDuffie will now represent a ward that's not only recovering from the Thomas episode but one that's also changing block by block and is at the center of citywide debates over race and class. Joining us to explore his vision for Ward 5 and for what he'd like to achieve as a councilmember is Kenyan McDuffie. He's a Democrat. He won that special election yesterday. Kenyan McDuffie, welcome, congratulations.
MR. KENYAN MCDUFFIEThank you for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIAlso joining us in studio is Tom Sherwood. He's our resident analyst, an NBC 4 reporter and a columnist for The Current Newspapers, who we asked, you should know on Friday, to predict the outcome of this election, and he decided not to. But now, he's going to say, I knew this would happen, anyway.
MR. TOM SHERWOODNo, no, no. You know, I don't mind knowing what I don't know. And so I'm not embarrassed at all that I wouldn't pick it. I think that The Post story that ran and picked the top four people kind of had it right. I do think people are surprised, Kenyan, that you won so overwhelmingly.
NNAMDII thought so. The official count, he beat his closest competitor by a 2-1 ratio. That did surprise me. Did that surprise you?
SHERWOODDid it surprise you, Mr. Winning Candidate?
MCDUFFIEWell, I -- you know, I will tell you...
SHERWOODYour first chance to be honest.
MCDUFFIEI will tell you I was surprised by that margin. You know, there were -- first of all, it was a special election, which generally has low voter turnout, and there were 11 candidates in the race. And so there was clearly a lot of opportunity for voters to split their vote up between the 11 candidates. And so I think, you know, definitely was surprised by the margin. But I think it sends a clear message that residents of Ward 5, they want new fresh leadership, somebody with some experience, somebody who stands on, you know, sound, firm ethics to make sure that we get some positive change for the ward.
SHERWOODThere are a lot of good people in Ward 5. It doesn't make that much news because there's just the middle-class people live there who go about their lives, raising their children, doing things in the community, but it's now known, of course, as the Harry Thomas, the felon, the first councilmember to be a convicted felon. How did you handle that and going forward knowing that that stain is there? What did you say to the people of Ward 5 that -- how different you are from Harry Thomas, moving forward, not looking back?
MCDUFFIEWell, one of the things I -- right. And I think you hit the nail on the head, moving forward and not looking back. There are a lot of people who were -- who are still to this day, you know, disappointed, disheartened with what happened in that.
MCDUFFIEBut they want to close the chapter on that book, though, Tom, and they want to move forward and look to Ward 5 and all the opportunities ahead of us to really usher in a new brand of leadership that is ethical, that does, you know, put residents first and actually highlights the beautiful things that are going on in Ward 5 and the beauty that is the diversity that exists in Ward 5.
NNAMDIWell, you talk about new leadership. We spoke two years ago when you were running against Harry Thomas Jr. in the Democratic primary for this seat. Since then, you've actually worked as a public safety adviser for Mayor Gray. You former interned with our Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. What do you say to people who say, new, this guy has got ties to the old establishment?
MCDUFFIERight, right, right. Well, I was actually on the staff of Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton after I graduated from Howard University...
NNAMDISorry, I called it internship, yes.
MCDUFFIE...and had an opportunity to work in her constituent services office before, you know, joining the staff of her Capitol Hill office. And so I think it was a great opportunity. It was an opportunity for me to see, you know, delivery of top quality services. If anybody knows Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, you know she demands excellence. And so I had opportunity from a very nice perch to see her in action and see how hard she works.
MCDUFFIEAnd so I was inspired by that and actually inspired enough to actually go to law school myself. And so -- and I think that, you know, the work that I was able to accomplish in the office of the deputy mayor is directly relevant to some of the things that council members do.
SHERWOODWhat did you do in the deputy mayor's office?
MCDUFFIEI was a policy and legislative adviser to the deputy mayor. And so I work with the public safety and cluster agencies on issues, you know, related to public safety, whether it was NPD, fire and EMS.
SHERWOODAny particular issue within public safety, the onerous way people give out tickets or traffic problems or were there any particular -- an issue that will help you as a councilmember?
MCDUFFIEWell, sure. I mean, one of the things that we did, we had an opportunity to do a number of walkthroughs through communities throughout the city, one in Ward 5 over in Trinidad neighborhood, but we did walkthroughs over at a couple other neighborhoods that NPD had termed -- had deemed to be focus improvement areas. And so -- and it was -- for me, it was an opportunity to see firsthand some of the challenges that those neighborhoods are facing and perhaps, you know, some of the ways we might better engage them.
SHERWOODOne of those was in Trinidad, was the traffic stops where, you know, they got into court issues over that.
SHERWOODDid you support the essentially the blockades of streets, the checkpoints they called them?
MCDUFFIEWell, you know, my background is as a civil rights attorney, and so, obviously, I'm always concerned about, you know, any attempts to infringe and impede on people's civil liberties. And so I don't -- I didn't support stopping people for the similar reasons as a lot of courts didn't support it.
NNAMDIFor those people who may be unfamiliar with Ward 5, you live on North Capitol St. in Ward 5. And what, I guess -- how would you describe Ward 5 for those listeners who happen to be in Maryland or Virginia who don't know? They'll know North Capitol Street.
NNAMDIThey'll probably know North Capitol Street and the intersection of Michigan Avenue...
NNAMDI...children -- Catholic Hospital, you can find in Ward 5. What else can you mention?
MCDUFFIEWell, I can tell you Ward 5 is one of the largest wards in the city. It's a beautiful ward with tree-lined streets, a really diverse, you know, housing stock. We've got Cape Cods in parts of Woodridge. We've got federal-style row homes in Bloomingdale and (word?). And so I think that's one of the attractions to the ward is that you have an opportunity to come and really get integrated into communities. You know, they're well established for decades.
NNAMDIOK. Enough of the tourism talk, 800-433-8850.
SHERWOODI'm sorry. You're giving the number. I apologize. Go ahead.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. You do like the ward, don't you?
SHERWOODI do. The ward is terrific.
SHERWOODI mean, it's -- you know, Harry Thomas Sr., you know, when I actually spent a lot of time there, but even with Bill Spaulding, who was -- remember that? You'd go around in Franklin Street and the stores. I mean, there are economic opportunities there, McMillan Reservoir, people with -- the thousands of commuters who come up and down North Capitol at a very high pace, maybe they see the reservoir there. Where does the status -- that could bring jobs and economic development. Is that ever going to get off the ground?
MCDUFFIEWell, somebody who's...
MCDUFFIE…been here for quite some time. And referring to you, Tom, now, and Kojo as well, you know the, sort of the history associated with McMillan. The city purchased it decades ago with the intent on developing the property, but every intent to develop the property has been thwarted or for whatever reason just didn't happen. And so, right now, there's a real opportunity to develop the property and to do it in a way that that really balances the equities between what the developers want to achieve, what the city wants to do in terms of generating revenue...
NNAMDIYou've been critical in the past that there hasn't been enough community input into the development at McMillan Reservoir.
NNAMDIYou get a lot of support from people who identify themselves as progressive. In some circles, progressive has become a kind of code word for things white people care about or things that gentrifiers care about. How would you define progressive? And how do you -- and do you identify yourself with the term?
MCDUFFIEWell, I generally don't like to identify myself with labels because it sort of puts you in a basket with things that some people might not associate positively. And so -- but one of the things I do think about is the root of that word is progress. And so if progressive means that you're going to be forward thinking, if it means that you're going to represent the interests of a diverse group of residents to make sure that you have a holistic approach to how we do government, then I'm fine with it. And so -- but I also want to finish my thought, Kojo, about McMillan because...
NNAMDIYou saw that I was going to rush you. Go ahead.
MCDUFFIEYou know, I think it's a real opportunity to do economic development in the right way, which is community oriented, which is responsible, which is sustainable, to do a mixed-use project there what has, you know, components of commercial, retail, residential, but also preserves some green space so that some of the folks and the neighborhoods not only surrounding the property but throughout the city can come there as a destination to really enjoy it. And so I can walk across the street with my kids and my wife to be able to enjoy that property, which now is just fenced up.
SHERWOODPeople who don't know you -- I mean, again, they know Harry Thomas Jr., what he did, and he'll be going to prison soon. But it's interesting to me that you graduated from the University of the District of Columbia...
MCDUFFIEI graduated from Howard. I started off at community...
SHERWOODHoward -- you started there and went to Howard.
SHERWOODI apologize. And then you went to Maryland to law school. And then when did you work in being a postal -- and did you actually letter-carry?
NNAMDIThat's what I wanted to know. Thank you.
SHERWOODOr did you actually deliver? I mean, this is what people really want to know.
NNAMDIWhere did you deliver mail?
NNAMDIAnd what would people there say about you?
MCDUFFIESo I graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School in 1993, so I'm a proud Tiger. And -- but when I graduated from high school, I didn't go to college right away. A lot of folks don't know that. I actually, you know, didn't apply to a single college. I got a job. I started off selling ice cream at the zoo. And my mom, the angel that she is, she really stayed on my case about attending college.
MCDUFFIEShe wanted me to do it. And so, just to appease her, I enrolled at UDC. I took two classes, got an F in one. I withdrew from the other one, and I dropped out. The saving grace, though, was that the United States Postal Service called me back and gave me a job as a letter carrier. And it was a phenomenal, you know, job at that time. I was a young guy, 19 years old, really looking to put some money in my pocket to keep me off the streets.
MCDUFFIEAnd so I will forever enjoy the experience that I had at the postal service, and I know the benefits of having a good salary and health benefits. But I did that and decided after four years that I wanted to go back to college. I wanted to give it another try. And so I resigned from the postal service in the first week of August in 1998. Two weeks later, I was back at UDC. I re-enrolled.
SHERWOODNow, did you carry one of those big bags? Some guys carry the big bags. Some, like, they drive the truck right up to your door and just kind of throw out the mail.
MCDUFFIEWell, you know what?
SHERWOODDid you carry the heavy bag?
MCDUFFIEThere was a combination of the two. I actually delivered mail out of the Friendship Station, which is right down the street from here. And so I had the opportunity to deliver to this building, in fact. But I carried my satchel, which is what they call it, but also in some of the more sprawling areas of Ward 5 around (word?) Rd. and, you know, and Spring Valley, had the opportunity to sort of drive up and deliver directly to mailboxes. And so it was a phenomenal experience. I still carry my, you know, lessons that I learned as a postal carrier with me today.
SHERWOODWhich is don't do that job again 'cause it's hard.
MCDUFFIERain, sleet or snow.
NNAMDIBack to the ward that you are now representing, some people feel there is both a racial and a generational divide in Ward 5. A, is that true, and if it is, B, can you bridge it?
MCDUFFIEI think it's more of class issue in Ward 5. You've got people who've been in areas of Ward 5 for decades, including my family, who in some cases there's just a certain level of inertia, a resistance to change, and then you've got new residents, new families to Ward 5 who perhaps have -- who are renters in areas like Dupont Circle or Adams Morgan who decided to purchase and were attracted to all the things we described earlier about Ward 5.
MCDUFFIEAnd so -- but I think this is not something we should focus on as a negative. I see this as an opportunity to really bridge the gap, to bring people together, to bridge coalitions, you know, to essentially provide a leadership that that transcends race, religion, gender, class, sexual orientation to build the coalitions necessary to get things done in Ward 5.
NNAMDITom Sherwood has talked a great deal about the fracturing of the D.C. Council. And so my next question, Tom Sherwood, is for you. Because of the fracturing of the council, does that put Kenyan McDuffie in a uniquely powerful position on this council, even though he is a freshman?
SHERWOODYes. He hasn't aggravated the other council members yet.
MCDUFFIEI don't intend to either.
SHERWOODHe was endorsed by Tommy Wells, Council Saint Martyr, you know, Tommy Wells, Ward 6.
NNAMDIYes, Ward 5 Council Martyr Saint Tommy Wells.
SHERWOODAnd no else got involved in the race. Mayor Williams -- Mayor Williams, I keep thinking about Tony Williams standing there with me at McMillan. Mayor Gray came to your victory party last night. He told me today he's looking forward to working with you. But you'll be sworn in before the vote on the -- after the vote on the budget, right?
SHERWOODI think it's a day after.
SHERWOODSo you don't have to vote on this big budget. But it is a fractious council, and, you know, Mayor Gray's under federal investigation. The chairman's under federal investigation. There's been some sniping among the council members. How do you fit in with your personality? You're a fairly low-key guy, not as low-key as Sekou Biddle, say, thank goodness. But how are you going to fit in with that? You know what the council looks like.
MCDUFFIERight, right. And so I think there's an opportunity for me to just, you know, provide that fresh voice, to be that independent honest broker on the council. I think that's sorely what the residents of Ward 5 desire. And so I think there's an opportunity to really, you know, work with my colleagues, to be effective, to get things done for the residents of Washington, D.C., Ward 5, in particular.
SHERWOODWell, that's -- do you get angry easily? And if I keep poking you, are you going to get angry?
MCDUFFIENo. You know what? I think, you know, in my line of work, having been a former prosecutor and a trial attorney, you deal with a lot of different personalities, and so I think it's important to have good temperament, to be able to engage people because, you know, a part of this job is about compromise. It's about poking, prodding, cajoling your colleagues to try to build those alliances.
NNAMDIWell, Tom Sherwood, he says he'd like to be independent on the council. Is that going to be a difficult proposition for him? Will he be -- find himself being poked by various sides?
SHERWOODWell, part of the problem -- I think people don't realize, on the council, you've got the mayor and they have the 13 members -- or will be when you get there. They really are like 13 moons, you know, floating around in orbit, and they -- and you have to align seven of them to get something done. You can't just come in and say, do it my way. And the chairman has a hard time. It is a small group of people where you have to trade votes. And I don't mean that in any negative way. Do you have an agenda? When you hit the ground running, as they like to say, you don't want to hit the ground.
NNAMDIWhat are your issues? Yes.
SHERWOODWhat do you want to do when you first get in there to make sure that people know you're not Harry Thomas?
MCDUFFIERight, right. So they're not issues, per se. I think that there are issues that residents of Ward 5 have been clamoring to have an advocate for. I mean, we haven't had anybody down at the Wilson building over the last three months. And so, you know, things that are important to people in Ward 5 are sort of similarly important to people across the city.
MCDUFFIEAffordable housing is clearly an issue for people who want to be able to live in the nation's capital, particularly people who have, you know, perhaps, have lived here their entire lives, gone up to college and come back, saddled with debt, but would like to be able to, you know, start their families and get good jobs. And so affordable housing is something that's important. Education...
SHERWOODAnd you got a good housing stock in that -- in Ward 5.
SHERWOODBut is crime a big issue?
MCDUFFIECrime is a big issue. I mean, people want to feel safe when they leave their homes and so, you know, quality of life issues. We've had some burglaries in certain parts of Ward 5, and so we want to be able to tackle those and work with Chief Lanier and the folks at MPD to make sure we handle those issue. But education is something that's critical to Ward 5 residents as well. We've got -- we haven't had a middle school in Ward 5 for seven years now.
MCDUFFIEAnd so I'm pleased to see that, you know, in the budget -- it's funded to bring to quality middle schools back to the parents and the children of Ward 5. And I'm anxious to get the work, to see that through to make sure that we can attract some of our parents from the other schools...
NNAMDIWe're running out of time very quickly. I'm going to have to allow Kate in Washington, D.C. to have the last word. Gentlemen, please, don your headphones. Kate in Washington, D.C., you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MS. KATHLEEN RAND REEDHi, Kojo. This Kathleen Rand Reed, and I was part of Kenyan's campaign, and I support him. But let me say one thing about the race and class issue and the cultural issues. Number one, Kenyan has the unique ability to reach across the lines, not a thing about progressive and who frames it this way. It's a matter that -- I lived in Ward 5 for over 16 years now.
MS. KATHLEEN RAND REEDAnd one of the things I know that people in that ward are hungry for is the ability to have a safe place to sit down, compromise -- very much unlike our Congress -- but to compromise and to kick it back and forth, to see how can people go back and forth and come away with a very positive thing that serves all of the ward, all of the community?
MS. KATHLEEN RAND REEDAnd one of the reasons that Kenyan has that unique ability is that he's able -- rather than, you know, in this camp or that camp or this camp, he's able to actually go across the board and have conversations with everyone and provide a safe place for people to come in and talk to one another. And I am going to help with that, and I support that. That's what that ward needs.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Kenyan McDuffie, those are the last kind words you will hear when you appear on this broadcast. From now on, Tom Sherwood and I will be vicious. At least, he will. I'll...
MCDUFFIEI look forward to it. Thank you so much, Kojo. Thank you, Tom.
NNAMDICongratulations once again. Kenyan McDuffie is a member-elect of the D.C. Council. He is a democrat who won a special election in Ward 5 yesterday to replace former Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, the premium on outdoor dining and drinking in the Washington region. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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