- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 11, 2012

A major labor union has endorsed Kenyan McDuffie for the Ward 5 seat on the D.C. Council ahead of the special election next month. It’s a boon that could help separate his candidacy from a crowded field despite recent evidence that organized support does not guarantee victory.

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Maryland and D.C. State Council decided to support Mr. McDuffie after surveying the 11 candidates and interviewing some of them with about four weeks left until voters pick a replacement on May 15 for former city lawmaker Harry Thomas Jr. He resigned in January and faces a prison term at sentencing in May for stealing public funds and filing false tax returns.

Candidates say that in doorstep conversations, residents are asking them if they have a foundation, if they like to steal or if they drive an SUV — pointed references to the details of Thomas’ scheme, even if they do not mention the former lawmaker by name.

While it is clear the voters want their next voice at city hall to restore integrity to the ward seat, each candidate is angling to rise above the heavy slate of competitors with a unique pitch to voters.

For Tim Day, a Republican, it is his public call for an investigation of Mr. Thomas during the 2010 campaign — suspicions that proved true when the disgraced legislator pleaded guilty in federal court to siphoning off funds earmarked for youth sports program. He said his house has been egged and his car was vandalized on April 3, “definitely in retribution for blowing the whistle on Harry Thomas.”

Much of the backlash has “really kind of subsided,” he said, as he tries to cash in on his reputation as a corruption fighter while clearing up confusion over his party status in a heavily Democratic ward.

“It’s about educating them to realize you don’t have to be a Republican to vote for a Republican,” he said.

Frank Wilds, a resident of the Lamond-Riggs neighborhood, is leveraging himself as an untethered businessman who is not linked to the beleaguered city government.

“They want someone who is free, more independent,” Mr. Wilds said.

Kathy Henderson emphasizes her years of service as an advisory neighborhood commissioner and community activist.

“I have a record,” she said. “You don’t just see Kathy Henderson when it’s time to run.”

The field also includes six more Democrats — Drew E. Hubbard, Delano Hunter, Shelly Gardner, Ron L. Magnus, Ruth E. Marshall and Rae Zapata — and an Independent, John C. Cheeks. Unlike the primary elections earlier this month, when incumbents survived through massive campaign operations or by splitting up the vote among strong challengers, candidates in the Ward 5 race agree that their contest will come down to who gets out the vote.

Mr. McDuffie, who lives in the Stronghold neighborhood, has picked up endorsements from National Nurses United, the Local 25 Hospitality Workers’ Union and former candidate Amanda Broadnax, who withdrew at the end of March. The SEIU endorsement, he said, will help him separate his campaign from the rest of the pack.

“I think they were also impressed, quite frankly, with my experience,” Mr. McDuffie said of the SEIU council. Mr. McDuffie, a lawyer who left his job in Deputy Mayor Paul Quander’s office to run for the open council seat, has worked for the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division and as an assistant state’s attorney in Prince George’s County.

Labor endorsements, while coveted, do not always launch candidates to success at the polls. More than one candidate picked up union support ahead of the District’s primary elections on April 3 only to fall short to incumbent Democrats.

“I don’t know how significant it will be,” Mr. Wilds said before referring to the unsuccessful candidates in Wards 7 and 8. “Didn’t they endorse Tom Brown? Did that bring victory? Didn’t they endorse Jacque Patterson? Did that bring victory?”

Mr. McDuffie said the endorsement’s impact depends on the voter, but there are many “blue-collar” retirees in the ward who used to work for the federal government.

“When they see certain labor unions,” he said, “they recognize them.”

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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