- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 10, 2006

The D.C. Council next month will install three new members and a new chairman, Vincent C. Gray.

The seats for Wards 3, 5 and 6 were filled in the Nov. 7 elections. The Ward 4 seat of Adrian M. Fenty, now mayor-elect, and Mr. Gray’s Ward 7 seat will be filled during a special election in the spring.

Potential candidates for the Ward 4 seat include Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Muriel Bowser and failed mayoral candidate Michael A. Brown. Communications consultant Cleve Mesidor and chemist Victor Vandell are among those pursuing the Ward 7 seat.

The new council members along with Mr. Fenty, 36, and Mr. Gray, 64, will take office Jan. 2. Here is a look at who they are, what they advocate and what they hope to accomplish.

Harry “Tommy” Thomas Jr. said he was born to be a politician.

“I think we all have a purpose,” said Mr. Thomas, Ward 5 Democrat. “It’s just that I finally got on the path that was laid for me and followed it.”

The 46-year-old founder of a community-based nonprofit is the son of former council member Harry Thomas Sr., who served three terms during the 1980s and ‘90s. Mr. Thomas worked as a campaign manager for his father and married his father’s chief of staff, Diane Romo.

Despite such connections, Mr. Thomas is just now taking political office. He is succeeding Vincent B. Orange, who defeated him in the 2002 Democratic primary.

Mr. Thomas said the experience has taught him the value of teamwork. It is one of the sports metaphors that the former college football player and high school baseball coach employs.

“I learned how to be a team player,” Mr. Thomas said. “I learned how to support Mr. Orange even though I lost to him.”

Mr. Thomas said his priorities for the ward, which includes the Brookland, Fort Totten and Trinidad neighborhoods, are economic resurgence, education and public safety.

Sitting in Cafe Sureia, a Northeast coffee shop, he explained the importance of merging the District’s “big-box development” with small businesses.

A strong economy results in improved schools and safer streets, he said.

“We have to find ways with all this growth in our city to connect it to our businesses and our residents,” Mr. Thomas said. “That, in itself, economics, can change a whole lot of things.”

That same day, Mr. Thomas met with developer Obiora Menkiti, an entrepreneur focused on urban renewal and a man Mr. Thomas sees as a football receiver in the game of politics.

“My role as a council member is … to be the quarterback and get the ball to you, get resources to you,” Mr. Thomas said.

Mr. Thomas said he talks frequently with Mr. Fenty.

He supports the incoming mayor’s plan to take over the struggling public school system, but said the Board of Education should remain an elected body.

The board now is a hybrid of elected and mayor-appointed members, but is scheduled to revert to an all-elected body in 2008.

“We need a drastic change in education,” Mr. Thomas said. “We can’t keep doing what we’ve been doing.”

Mr. Thomas said he is interested in becoming chairman of the council committees on economic development, education, public works or health.

He said he hopes Mr. Gray does not award committee chairmanships on tenure.

“I’m more accountable in a lot of regards than an at-large member or a minority party member,” Mr. Thomas said. “There should be some parity in our committee assignments that matches that.”

Mr. Thomas said the selections should be based on accountability and, of course, teamwork.

“I’m just one of 13 with some very strong views that we all have to balance,” he said.

The board member

Tommy Wells was running late for a business meeting, but the newly elected Ward 6 council member had a good excuse: He was at a funeral and unexpectedly saw his name on the program.

“I never anticipated after being elected how many funerals you’re asked to speak at, and how many T-shirts you receive,” said Mr. Wells, who was elected five years ago to represent District 3 on the D.C. Board of Education.

Mr. Wells, 49, a Texas native, will replace retiring council member Sharon Ambrose.

As a social worker with the D.C. Department of Human Services, he helped bring a lawsuit against the city that led to improvements in the child welfare system.

As director of the nonprofit Consortium for Child Welfare, Mr. Wells helped create the District’s Family Court. As an advisory neighborhood commissioner and school board member, he led reform efforts in the Capitol Hill community.

Mr. Wells hopes his council position will give him more power to improve schools than he had as a Board of Education member.

“A school board member, it seems, is a very weak position,” he said. “With the council, it’s an opportunity to work on issues that are very important to me and to do it full time and from a far more influential position than an ANC commissioner or school board member.”

Leaders of the Downtown Business Improvement District recently showed him a boom of construction projects in Ward 6, but it wasn’t until later, when he saw two pedestrians crossing the street, that his eyes lighted up.

Mr. Wells’ chief campaign promise was to create “a livable and walkable community” in his racially and economically diverse ward, which includes Capitol Hill, the Navy Yard and sections of Southeast where the Washington Nationals stadium is being built.

“This is the beginning,” he said with excitement. “Someone walking with a baby in a stroller, someone walking a dog: This is what it’s supposed to look like.”

Mr. Wells’ other priorities include quality-of-life issues, from eliminating a rat infestation in Southwest to continuing to revitalize the historic H Street corridor.

He has not decided which council committee he would like to lead and doesn’t plan on asking Mr. Gray for a post, but he would prefer to sit on the Economic Development and Consumer and Regulatory Affairs committees.

“What role I have in education and human services is open for discussion,” he said. “I don’t want to be presumptive. I’m a freshman.”

Mr. Wells is reserving judgment on Mr. Fenty’s plan to take over the school system, but he is in favor of keeping an elected school board, saying the role of liaison between the system and its parents must be preserved.

Mr. Fenty “has to show me and others what would be different,” Mr. Wells said. “It’s not enough to say accountability stops and starts with him.”

Mr. Wells disagrees with Mr. Fenty on one issue: aboveground parking garages near the new stadium site.

Mr. Fenty has given priority to meeting construction deadlines, but Mr. Wells sees a missed opportunity for mixed-use development.

He said the real issue is ensuring that neighborhood residents reap the benefits of the stadium.

Mr. Wells said he will “stay very involved in education,” but council membership “substantially expands my scope of influence for creating great places to live.”

The professor

Mary Cheh, a George Washington University law professor, never planned to run for political office.

“It was, in a sense, evolutionary,” said Mrs. Cheh, who will replace Kathy Patterson in Ward 3. “It’s an idealistic kind of reason I was propelled to do this.”

Mrs. Cheh is familiar with the council through her behind-the-scenes work with its members.

As special counsel to the Judiciary Committee in 2003, she worked with Mrs. Patterson to investigate and reform the Metropolitan Police Department’s handling of protests and undercover investigations.

She helped council member David A. Catania, at-large independent, draft animal-welfare legislation and has worked extensively with civil rights and civil liberties groups.

But it was the opportunity to bring change on a more direct level that drove Mrs. Cheh to run for a council seat.

It also helped that her two daughters were grown and out of the house.

“I thought, ‘Wow, this would be a wonderful opportunity given that I love the city,’ ” she said. “I love the life here and the politics here, even as peculiar as they are.”

Mrs. Cheh wasborn in New Jersey and moved to the District with her husband in 1977. She soon grew enamored with the nation’s capital.

In the general election, Mrs. Cheh faced opposition from Republican Theresa Conroy and Democrats who broke party lines because of her stance on development in Northwest neighborhoods.

Mrs. Cheh supports updates to a citywide development plan passed by the council that calls for more housing near already dense Metro stops and major thoroughfares.

She also was criticized for her intent to continue to teach at George Washington during the spring semester.

Mrs. Cheh said the campaign process was “often unpleasant,” but that she won without negative campaigning.

“My idea was that I’m not running against them; I’m running for this, and I’m going to put myself out there and people can pick me or not,” she said. “I think that worked.”

Mrs. Cheh said the election was a referendum on issues familiar to her: education, fiscal responsibility and public safety.

She called libraries, pools and community centers the “glue” of D.C. neighborhoods, and said they must be repaired and reopened. She said public safety and emergency services also must be improved.

Like the other incoming council members, she said the public school system is a major concern.

“If we don’t deal with that, it’s actually immoral,” Mrs. Cheh said. “We have in effect handicapped [students] from having a productive life. That’s unconscionable.”

Mrs. Cheh is open to a mayoral takeover of the school system but is concerned that a power struggle could detract from the real goal: helping students.

“Somebody’s got to put their job on the line,” she said. “If the mayor wants to take that on himself and say, ‘This is my signature issue, this is what you should measure me on in four years,’ I say, ‘Hallelujah.’ ”

Mrs. Cheh said she has told Mr. Gray she would like to be chairman of the council’s Committee on Government Operations.

The position would allow her to help reform the city’s contracting methods and create jobs in the District’s inherent industries such as tourism, hospitality and health care.

She also hopes to serve on committees dealing with judiciary matters, education and the environment, which are her areas of expertise and aspects of the city she would like to improve.

“There are so many things that need attention,” Mrs. Cheh said. “And I would like to have a chance to do that.”

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