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Early voting to replace Thomas shows seniors’ importance

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A heavy slate of candidates hoping to replace former D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. is courting a bloc of "supervoters" who could decide the winner - senior citizens.

Eleven candidates are vying for the vacant Ward 5 seat in a special election just seven days away. On a placid midday at early voting at the Turkey Thicket Recreation Center in Brookland on Monday, an almost comical number of campaign signs and an undercurrent of sniping among candidates over tactics outside the polling place showed the race could get really heated really soon.

But candidates and everyday voters alike can agree on one thing: Seniors in Ward 5 vote early, and they vote in large numbers.

"It's pretty critical, as a matter of fact," said Kenyan McDuffie, a Democrat from Stronghold who most recently worked for the deputy mayor for public safety. "They want to make sure they aren't forgotten, that we're cognizant of their concerns."

Residents aged 60 or older make up 15.8 percent of Ward 5's population, putting it behind only Wards 3 and 4 (16.4 percent and 16.8 percent, respectively) in its proportion of older residents, according to 2010 census statistics culled by the D.C. Office on Aging. By Monday evening, more than 500 people had voted early at the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics at Judiciary Square or at Turkey Thicket, according to the BOEE.

Those who visited the recreation center on Monday tended to be older, taking advantage of smaller crowds that enable them to vote with ease and get out of their vehicles closer to the polling site.

The ward is home to a large number of retirees who had long careers in government and now face the daunting prospect of living on a fixed income in a city where expenses are only moving upward.

"Most of them are literally being taxed out of their homes," said Republican candidate Tim Day, noting that property taxes are joined by rising bills, fees and transportation costs. He said candidates need to go beyond politicking at their doors and "actually commit to them and take care of them."

Shelly Gardner, a Democratic candidate who said she thinks the race is still wide open, noted that many senior voters lived through the civil rights era and understand the value of having a say in government.

"Seniors have always been the bedrock of civic responsibility," said Kathy Henderson, another Democratic candidate.

The stakes are high in the ward as voters choose someone to replace Thomas - a disgraced lawmaker who siphoned off more than $350,000 in public funds for his benefit and soon will begin a 38-month prison term. Even if they do not mention him by name, Thomas' legal saga has made ethics and trustworthiness key priorities for voters.

Candidates said seniors have been crystal clear in their demand for integrity, asking pointed questions about each contender's proclivity for fancy cars or stealing. Public safety, quiet streets and a high quality of life also are paramount to older voters, candidates said.

One Democratic contender, Ron Magnus, does not have to look any further than his own campaign chairwoman, Rose Smith, for a case study in older ward voters. Ms. Smith, who sat outside Turkey Thicket on Monday to promote Mr. Magnus, said she worked in printing for the D.C. government for nearly 30 years before an injury forced her out.

"We understand what we need for D.C.," she said of Ward 5 seniors. "At one time, we were the powerhouse of all the wards. We've got to get back to where we were."

To lead such a renaissance, candidates for the Ward 5 seat will have to cull a base of support regardless of each voter's age. The electorate is expected to be split among the crowded field, leaving little breathing room for multiple front-runners.

Mr. McDuffie, Mr. Day and Delano Hunter - who is running a highly visible campaign with his hard-to-miss yellow-and-green signs - each ran against Thomas during the 2010 election.

Mr. McDuffie touts endorsements from AFL-CIO, the SEIU's Maryland/D.C. State Council, LiUNA Local 657, the D.C. Association of Realtors and a pair of nurses unions, among others. Mr. Hunter has been endorsed by the AFSCME District Council 20 and won the majority of the vote 51 percent in a Ward 5 Democrats straw poll in March. Mr. Day, an accountant, impressed enough people by blowing the whistle on Thomas' money-shifting scheme to gain The Washington Post's endorsement.

But Ms. Henderson and Ms. Gardner maintain that voters in the ward are increasingly interested in selecting a woman to be their voice in city hall. Voters have a choice of four female candidates, with Democrats Rae Zapata and Ruth E. Marshall also on the ballot.

"This is just how we roll," Ms. Gardner said, noting gender equality comes through "access to power."

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