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The Race is On in Ward 8

Three candidates are challenging incumbent Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White, Sr. (D) in the June 4 Democratic Primary.

Lining up against him are two Democrats: former Ballou High School Principal Rahman Branch, who also served as Executive Director of the DC Office on African Affairs, and Chair of Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 8C Salim Adofo. Republican Nate Derenge is running unopposed in the GOP Primary, reprising his 2020 run.

Salim Adofo at an April 30th candidate forum. Photo/ E’Gorek

There hasn’t been much chatter about the Ward 8 race since White confirmed his intent to seek re-election in last fall amid rumors that he might step down.

But the 2024 Ward 8 election is still one to watch. It is the first to take place since the decennial redistricting process concluded in 2020, changing the shape of the ward. Some of the challengers come with experience in community organizing and government and they each bring their own perspective to key issues for voters, including public safety, economic development and the future of the ward.

A Different Landscape
The general election takes place Nov. 5. DC is largely a blue city, so the June 4 primary elections often function as the main event. However, the 2024 election is the first that will select a representative for the new cross-river wards since redistricting. In 2020, Ward 8 was expanded to include about 6,700 voters in Navy Yard. In 2021, the DC Council Redistricting Subcommittee estimated that as much as 10 percent of the voters in the Ward 8 Democratic Primary are living west of the river.

It’s not clear if that will impact the election but residents have expressed concern. Navy Yard has a reputation as a conservative part of the city; in 2020, 14 percent of Navy Yard voters cast their vote for Donald Trump. That doesn’t seem high, but it is in DC, which overall gave Trump just 5.4 percent of the vote.

The other concern is that Ward 8 has historically had a low voter turn-out relative to the rest of DC. In the June 2022 primary, 20.7 percent of eligible Ward 8 voters cast their ballot; that’s compared to 32.2 percent in DC overall. Ward 8’s new voters are being moved from Ward 6, which in 2018 had a 50 percent voter turn-out.

Rahman Branch. Courtesy the campaign

Will that matter? It remains to be seen. In 2020, White carried the Democratic primary with 4,050 votes of the 6,712 cast. As an attendee at a recent public meeting said, “there are 3 SMDs [Single Member Districts] on the west side of the river. That’s at least 6,000 voters. You try to get that many out on this side. Think about it.”

Development
White leans on his record. He said the District needs to infuse capital in order to keep businesses in Ward 8, citing the struggle to keep the Giant open on Alabama Avenue and the 20 new businesses opening at Sycamore & Oak (1110 Oak Dr. SE).

Republican Nate Derenge said the government shouldn’t subsidize failing businesses. “We should let businesses die and let other businesses who can provide better goods and services because of a profit incentive move into those areas,” he said, also calling for the District to auction lots for development to the highest bidder.

At recent forums, Derenge has acted as a foil to White, whom he used as representative of DC Council decisions. White said the District needs to be involved in economic development. “Developers are in business to make money so DC needs to make sure they are good for communities,” the incumbent said, citing Community Benefit Agreements (CBA) which ensure developers invest in the community.

Branch said development is itself an economic driver, linking it to both household economics and amenities. “We’re building up and developing the workforce of our ward with folks who have the money to now have the taxable income that brings big box stores here,” he said.

Adofo agreed, saying development needs to guarantee resident participation. But, he said, that means across multiple skillsets, from plumbers to engineers as well as policy experts. Pointing to the new Bridge District (Colombian Quarters) and the nascent Congress Heights BID, Adofo said there’s opportunity, “but we also have to develop the people who even understand what it means to build up the economy,” starting with high school programs.

Food Desert
Asked about healthy food options, Adofo cited the closure of Good Food Markets, saying that stores need to reflect neighborhood needs and sell what people want at prices they can afford. He called on the Deputy Mayor of Planning and Economic Development (DMPED) to fund new supermarkets and scale up farmer’s markets that already exist. White said he was disappointed in the closure of Good Foods but pointed to the Fresh Food Factory opening at Sycamore Oaks and his work with food justice non-profit DC Greens.

Branch suggested the ward leverage healthy food grants to motivate smaller stores to add to their selection, arguing that businesses already in the ward should be supported. He emphasized that improvements in the workforce would lead to additional amenities, including grocery stores.  “I can’t stress enough developers make decisions on where they’ll do business based upon the tax base in that community,” he said.

Meanwhile, Derenge said that reducing crime would motivate businesses to move into the neighborhoods, linking a lack of fresh food options to the low federal prosecution rate.

Public Safety
How to get guns off the street was a question posed in multiple forums. White said the guns come from other cities. He argued that DC has some of the strictest gun laws in the country, pointing to stricter legislation targeting ghost guns passed by council in 2022. White said that the District needs to work with federal offices, referencing the US Attorney, to improve prosecution rates.

Both Branch and Adofo called for greater collaboration among law agencies. Branch focused on the more than 20 law enforcement agencies operating in the District, saying they need to work together across jurisdictions to identify who is selling and trafficking guns. Adofo pointed to Maryland and Virginia, saying “we don’t manufacture guns in DC or sell them at Walmart,” and arguing that loose gun laws there lead to more guns in the District. He called for more stringent enforcement in the District, praising a recent increase in traffic stops that led to recovery of illegal guns but also noting this requires a balance with ensuring officers aren’t violating civil rights.

Nathan “Nate” Derenge. Courtesy the campaign

In terms of wider public safety, White said the District needs a comprehensive plan. “Every other month there’s something new,” he said, referencing Building Blocks, a program intended to provide intense wraparound services for 151 city blocks identified as high need. “We haven’t heard about it in four years,” he said.

On the topic of public safety challenges, Adofo said that the District needs to address truancy and chronic absenteeism. “Staying in school will help kids develop critical thinking skills and improve the community and keep it safe,” he said.

But Branch cited his experience in teaching, arguing that while youth are linked to safety issues, the city needs to identify where challenges come from and what alternatives look like to set them up for success. He proposed a youth council to work with DC Council.

Councilmember Trayon White, Sr. at the opening of Cedar Hill Urgent Care Center. E.O’Gorek/CCN

White’s Performance
For all the discussion and debate, in the end the election itself may boil down to a referendum on White’s performance since he was first elected in 2016.

“He could simply go on vacation between now and the primary and he’d be fine,” one wag wrote on social media in March. White hasn’t done that, appearing at most of the forums he’s been invited to. So far, none have asked him questions about how he is running his campaign after shutting down his campaign finance committee in the face of more than $80,000 in fines from the DC Office of Campaign Finance linked to both his 2020 re-election run and his unsuccessful 2022 run for Mayor.

At an April 12 forum, White credited himself with getting funding for Ward 8 schools back after deep cuts in the 2020 budget, working with then Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyon McDuffie to get violence prevention programs in Ward 8. He also took credit for new recreation centers in Ward 8 (including Ferebee-Hope, Anacostia, Congress Heights, Fort Greble).

White said he had been working in the community since he was 17, saying he was the only candidate with the experience to get things done on council.

”I’m not just talking the talk but I’m working each and every day to fulfill those promises here in our ward,” he said.

Adofo cited White’s tendency to vote “present” or absent on DC Council, saying “I want to thank him for a service but it’s time we move in a different direction. I am somebody who will make decisions,” in particular saying that rather than voting “present” on the Secure DC bill he would have come out to the communities to talk to them “and I would have got up on the dais and voted yes.”

Branch urged voters to look back at the incumbent’s record, telling voters to see if they’re happy with roads, youth violence, education, and affordable housing. “Those are the things that you get to look at and determine if you want to try an alternative to what you had,” he said.

The Ward 8 Democrats hold their Ward 8 Councilmember Candidate Forum May 18. Time and location were not finalized at press time. Get information at www.ward8dems.com

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