In Ward 5 special election, no Thomas on ballot

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Electioneering door-to-door, Ron Magnus likes to remind Ward 5 voters there has been a “Thomas” on their ballots since 1986.

“They say, ‘Wow, you’re right,’ ” said Mr. Magnus, one of 11 candidates hoping to replace former D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. in a special election May 15.

D.C. voters nominated four incumbents to stay on the council — and maybe five, if absentee and provisional voting favors Vincent B. Orange in a tight at-large race — in primary elections on Tuesday. But even if the city’s electorate opted not to shake up the legislative body, one thing is for sure — voters in Ward 5 will be sending a fresh face to the council dais this spring.

The most recent list from the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics shows nine Democrats, Republican Tim Day and independent John C. Cheeks vying for the seat left vacant by Mr. Thomas, who resigned in January before pleading guilty to stealing public funds and filing false tax returns. An additional contender who is still listed, Democrat Amanda Broadnax, withdrew on March 27.

The stakes are high in the ward. It is navigating the budget season without a direct voice at the John A. Wilson Building, tracking the public school system’s plans to set up stand-alone middle schools in its Northeast neighborhoods and debating job growth and economic development.

Mr. Thomas, who served from 2007 until his unceremonious exit, faces a likely prison term at his sentencing May 3. His father, Harry Thomas Sr., served Ward 5 on the council from his election in 1986 until his loss to Mr. Orange in 1998. The younger Mr. Thomas also lost to Mr. Orange in the 2002 primary before finding victory in 2006.

Candidates to replace him said voters tend to stress ethics and corruption at city hall, even if they do not mention their former representative by name. Some refer to Mr. Thomas as “the last one,” while others are more blunt, they said.

“It’s 50-50,” said candidate Drew Hubbard, a 34-year-old Democrat and former council staffer. “Some people ask me straight up if I’m going to steal like he did.”

Mr. Magnus said one elderly voter asked him three questions: Are you a crook? Do you tend to steal? And do you own an SUV? The latter question could be a reference to the Chevy Tahoe federal agents seized from Mr. Thomas‘ home or two “fully loaded” Lincoln Navigators that council Chairman Kwame R. Brown leased in early 2011 and later returned.

“They’re disappointed, and they’re upset,” Mr. Magnus said of voters. “We’re challenging them to get out and getenergized. Some people are taking the opposite view: They don’t want anything to do with politics.”

One high-profile candidate, Kenyan McDuffie, said he had difficulty getting people to sign his ballot petition at times because of lingering disgust with the state of D.C. politics. It wasn’t a vote, he would point out, but a way to let him run.

On Tuesday, voters in Ward 5 overwhelmingly opted for their former ward lawmaker, Mr. Orange, in an at-large race that had him leading challenger Sekou Biddle by a little more than 1 percent pending the results of absentee and provisional voting. With no contested presidential primary among Democrats this year, turnout for the earlier-than-usual primary elections on Tuesday left many observers disappointed.

Nonetheless, Ward 5 candidates saw Tuesday’s partisan day at the polls as an unparalleled opportunity. Candidates positioned staff and campaign signs at polling places or showed up to shake hands, chit-chat and pass out literature.

“This is how we get the word out,” Mr. McDuffie, a Democrat, said as he greeted voters near volunteers for opponents Delano Hunter and Frank Wilds at the Brookland Educational Campus at Bunker Hill. “The folks who come out today are the same folks who will come out for the special election.”

Meanwhile, a federal judge is scheduled to sentence Mr. Thomas a mere 12 days before the special election. It should drive up awareness among Ward 5 voters, “as long as the connection is made,” Mr. Magnus said.

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