Burly and towering over most crowds at 6 feet 2 inches, Tommy Wells is a Texas-born social worker with a law degree, who says he loves the district for its diversity and often unwinds with a game of basketball or dinner at Trattoria Alberto, an Italian restaurant in his Capitol Hill neighborhood.
Wells, 56, is the Democratic councilmember who represents Ward 6, a diverse area that includes Judiciary Square, Capitol Hill, Southwest Washington and the H Street NE corridor. He also serves as chair of the Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary.
Vision for the City
The issues Wells wants to tackle are reflective of his social work background. He would invest $100 million toward a youth initiative that aims to halve teenage crime in two years. Wells wants to create walking clubs for seniors and hire young people to help out after-school.
“There are many things we can do to connect youth to the future of our city that will keep them from committing crimes,” he said. “You have to be creative and smart. It’s as simple as that.”
He said he would offer mentorship programs and case management for families with at-risk youth.
Every elementary school in his ward has a waiting list, Wells said, vowing to bring high-quality elementary schools within walking distance of every family. He said he is different from Mayor Vincent Gray as he will personally take charge of the education system.
To reform the education system, he said he would keep D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson, who is credited with recent progress in the school system; partner with nationally known charters, and provide a mix of traditional and charter schools.
Investing in education harkens back to Wells' vision for “livable, walkable neighborhoods,” where all areas have access to schools, fresh groceries and sit-down restaurants -- the notion of "five-minute living" that will lay the groundwork for economic growth.
Wells looks to improve transit, especially in poorer neighborhoods.
“It does not matter if you can get a job, if you can’t get there safely and reliably,” he said. “We have to transform our public transit system so that it works for everyone.”
While in his role as head of the Committee of Public Works and Transportation, Wells helped create a new Circulator route for residents east of the Anacostia River and doubled the Capital Bikeshare program.
But Chuck Burger, a long-time Ward 6 activist, said Wells may be missing out on the credit he deserves for that.
“He has to stand up, be louder and create a clear picture of what he means," Burger said. "When he talks transportation, he's talking jobs creation. He needs to make that connection."
Wells was also instrumental in transforming the H Street Corridor, by working with the city to bring more than 100 locally owned businesses to an area once known for the heroin sold at a corner store, he said.
“I’ve proven I can do it, but I believe that next time when we do that in Anacostia, Bellevue and Benning Road, we also double down on affordable housing,” he said. “I think what happened on H Street is probably unprecedented in the country and I learned a lot."
Along these lines, he said he will only support a deal for a D.C. United stadium on Buzzard Point if the plan includes affordable housing for households making between $45,000 and $65,000 annually.
Clashes With Councilmembers
Despite the success he cites in working with the council to garner veto-proof majorities – like the one that increased the district’s minimum wage in December, Wells and the council butted heads in 2011.
At the time, Wells was chair of the Committee on Public Transportation and investigated then-D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown for leasing two $1,900-a-month custom luxury Lincoln Navigator L’s on the taxpayers' dime. The city had to pay for both Navigators after the first one arrived with a gray interior and Brown pressed for a black-on-black color scheme.
But Wells said he was hit by an act of political retribution when Brown stripped Wells of his post as chair of the committee. Every council member voted to give Wells the boot from his position, as they wanted to keep Brown’s displeasure focused on Wells. This created a tense environment behind council doors.
But Wells refuted the idea of any awkwardness. “I think that for the most part, my colleagues like me and I like them,” he said.
Despite what came later, Wells said he has no regrets about the action, which led Brown to return the SUV he drove.
“I’m the only one who had the guts to investigate the chair of the council,” he said. "I did the right thing. It's more important to have the trust of the people I govern than to be liked in the club that's really challenged by ethics.”
The challenge for Tommy Wells is to stand out in a crowded field of mayoral candidates. He is running his campaign on integrity and has been outspoken against Mayor Vincent Gray, who has been alleged to have been involved in a “shadow campaign” that illegally funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars to help elect him in 2010. The shadow campaign is currently the subject of a federal investigation.
Gray apologized for the “pain and suffering” caused by his 2010 election bid, although Wells said that is not enough.
“The scandal hasn’t ended,” he said. “These indictments will continue for a long time. He has not explained what he did, why he did it. We need to know what happened, but also I would not be running but for the fact that Vince Gray ran an illegal campaign.”
Wells will give up his council seat if his mayoral bid fails, making him the only one of his four Democratic challengers to do so. Wells, who is running a grassroots campaign, has railed against the other candidates for accepting corporate donations.
“They may say they are running on integrity; they are running against full disclosures of who gives them money,” Wells said. “It’s a pay-to-play system. The folks I am running against are status quo elected officials.”
But Wells' candidacy is not something people are energized about, said one source from a competing campaign. "He doesn't engender negativity like he doesn't engender excitement," the source said.
Wells doesn't run in a "loud, egotistical taking-credit kind of way," Burger, the Ward 6 activist, said. “He is a consensus builder as opposed to playing politics.”
A native of Birmingham, Ala., Wells earned his Master’s degree in social work from the University of Minnesota in 1983. In his mid-twenties, he moved to the District to pursue his interest in public policy. He began his political career a year later working for Walter Mondale’s presidential campaign.
He worked with the city’s child welfare agency during a time when the District was experiencing the dual crises of crack and AIDS. He also helped Marion Barry win a third term as mayor.
Wells’ roots are in social work, which "seems to reassure folks that I'm not just a guy who rides a bike," he said, referring to the black bike he usually rides to get around the city. "That I am someone who has the track record of helping the least of us."
During his time as a social worker, he attended evening classes to earn a law degree from Catholic University in 1991. That year, he also became director of the D.C. Consortium for Child Welfare -- a position he held for 15 years. During this time, he successfully advocated for a new family division within the D.C. Superior Court. He said his experience compelled him to join politics. “I saw the power of changing large systems rather than just complaining about them,” he said.
He also served as an Advisory Neighborhood Council commissioner from 1994 to 2000 and as member of the D.C. Board of Education from 2000 to 2006, where he represented Wards 5 and 6. Wells then successfully ran for Ward 6 council member to succeed Sharon Ambrose.
As council member, his major achievement was to impose a 5-cent tax on paper and plastic bags that applied to food and drink retailers. The measure was designed to discourage residents from buying bags that choke the Anacostia River.