Chapter two of what has become a modern-day David vs. Goliath story popped off last month when Trayon “WardEight” White, millennial community figure and protégé of the late, great Marion S. Barry, threw his hat into the ring for the Ward 8 council race, slated to culminate in an Democratic Primary in June that automatically decides the victor.
Last April, White lost a high profile race for his mentor’s seat to LaRuby May, a Florida-born attorney who had D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s endorsement and corporate financial backing, by fewer than 100 votes. Even with the defeat, White proved that his grassroots message could pose a considerable challenge to what some described as a well-oiled political machine.
With the Ward 8 council seat up for grabs once again, White, now equipped with a team that includes opponents turned allies, has refined his message and taken more of a direct approach in showing residents that he can best represent them at a time when development and displacement go hand in hand for many longtime Washingtonians.
“I think the people recognize that I’m a formidable candidate. During the last election, a lot of people counted us out,” White, a former member of the D.C. State Board of Education and onetime staff member in State Attorney of the District of Columbia General Karl Racine’s office, told AllEyesOnDC.
In early February, White registered as a candidate for the Democratic Party during a visit to the D.C. Board of Elections. Accompanying him that morning were Stuart Anderson and Jauhar Abraham, both of whom ran against White during last year’s election before shutting down their campaigns and endorsing him. Anderson, a staunch advocate for returning citizens and their families, currently serves as White’s campaign manager. Christopher Barry, the late mayor’s son and onetime contender for the Ward 8 council seat, has also reportedly thrown his support behind White’s candidacy.
At this point, White hasn’t revealed much about his campaign strategy but he has hinted at the construction of a movement coalesced around Ward 8 residents of various backgrounds, many of whom have seen him grow as a leader. In his interview with AllEyesOnDC, White noted that his areas of focus – which include economic development, public safety, and education – resonate with people frustrated with the status quo.
“Together, we’re stronger because it creates more diversity within the campaign. Residents know I have a heart for service. I’ve been consistent with serving the Ward 8 community. Folks are looking for someone who can represent the people. I can be an independent voice on the D.C. Council,” White added.
The current field of candidates in the Ward 8 council race, much smaller than last year’s, currently includes May the incumbent, White, Aaron Holmes, Bonita Goode, and Maurice Dickins. Whoever snatches victory in the next couple of months will have a lot on their plate.
Even with middle-income enclaves, Ward 8, a jurisdiction where African Americans count among the majority of residents, currently has one of the highest rates of unemployment in the D.C. metropolitan area and United States. With the lowest concentration of full-service grocery stores in the District, Ward 8 residents often have few, if any, accessible healthy food choices.
Public safety has also been a pressing concern. As of publication time, more than 190 instances of violent crime have been reported to the Seventh District Metropolitan Police Department (7D MPD) which oversees Anacostia, Congress Heights, and other communities within Ward 8. One of the most recent instances took place at a BP gas station on the corner of Alabama Avenue and Naylor Road in Southeast earlier this month during which gunmen fired more than 40 rounds. On that Sunday afternoon, Ivy Tonnett Smith, a 39-year-old woman from Northeast, died during the melee. Last year, East of the River reporter Charnice Milton died during a shooting not far from where that gas station while walking home.
In response to the spike in homicides during her first months in office, May organized “pop-ups” in those communities during which she talked to residents and helped them obtain social services and job opportunities. She also reached out to community members, attending large scale events on St. Elizabeths East Campus and spreading messages of peace and unity. Ward 8 residents can also read what their councilmember is up to via the “Councilmember’s Corner,” a column featured in some Southeast-based publications.
Even with such overtures to voters, things got a bit murky last summer when year-to-date homicides rose to a record of 103. To the chagrin of local Black Lives Matter activists and returning citizen advocacy groups, May supported a proposal by Bowser that, if passed, would increase supervision of parolees and those on probation. She also pushed for legislation that would impose huge fines on vendors selling K2, also known as synthetic marijuana.
Since its introduction, the anti-crime bill has stalled, perhaps a testament to how polarizing the issue of public safety has become in gentrifying city. Earlier this month, May switched gears, introducing the Social Equity Empowers Dreams Act, legislation that would close disparities in health, education, and business development via incentives for development east of the Anacostia River and deadlines for Mayor Bowser to present plans for a hospital and language immersion school among other resources.
As seen in other areas of the District, such improvements come along with displacement. Despite such prospects, some residents, long frustrated with rampant violence and lack of economic opportunity, have welcomed the development slowly creeping over their side of the city. Whether the ongoiong projects will result in a change of fortune has yet to be seen.
Prominent community figures, including Nikki Peale of Congress Heights on the Rise and Charles Wilson of the Historic Anacostia Block Association, have commented on record about the sluggish transformation following the presence of the Coast Guard on St. Elizabeths West campus. Earlier this year, news of a deal for a $56.3 million Wizards basketball practice facility and Mystics arena garnered mixed reviews, mainly due to a concerns about displacement.
During a gathering at the Players Lounge on Martin Luther King Avenue in Southeast last month, White, surrounded by family, friends, and loved ones, reminisced about his upbringing as a youngster and activist in Ward 8, telling guests that he could balance his obligations on the council and that to his constituents if elected.
In the weeks after, White, along with an army of supporters donning apple green and red T-shirts and toting campaign material have knocked on doors and walked the streets of Ward 8, chatting with residents and spreading the word about his new endeavor. In conversing with his neighbors, Trayon said he increasingly understands the importance of economic development that prioritizes common folks’ wellbeing.
“I’m not against development. I’m pro-people development,” White told AllEyesOnDC. “D.C. invests in the infrastructure but lacks the focus and strategy to build the bridges for everyday people. The poor are getting poorer and poverty is getting more concentrated. People from all over the city are moving to Wards 7 and 8. It’s not being addressed and has translated to higher crime. At the end of the day, I represent the interests of the people. I’m a community organizer. It’s at the heart of who I am.”
Kenneil Cole, one of the young men that White mentored during his time as a football coach at a now shuttered recreation center, said he plans to send an absentee ballot from the confines of his Delaware State University (DSU) dorm room, noting it was the least he could do for a person who kept him on a path to academic success.
“I’ve known Trayon since I was 10. He had never been very tall so it was funny walking up on him and seeing a man of that stature,” Cole, a 22-year-old junior at DSU, told AllEyesOnDC, recounting college tours White would often take students on, which included schools in Tennessee and Delaware.
“He was always known for helping people. If I were to call him about my school fees and problems, he would make me laugh. He has done a lot for the community. Those people don’t come around very often,” Cole, an aspiring masters of public policy candidate, added.
Ward 8 resident Amanda Lee said she plans to vote for White because of the way he galvanized support among the young black males in the community. She recalled seeing voter turnout among her contemporaries increase immensely during last year’s special election, all due to the prospect of Trayon winning the race.
“Trayon was in the trenches getting young men registered. He was able to do a lot in the last minute with little money,” Lee told AllEyesOnDC. Issues she said she would like to get addressed include mental health and homelessness.
“That led me to believe that he would be the best fit for a ward that’s unique from other areas. He’s from Southeast. It’s hard to replace Marion Barry. Not just because of his resume, but because of the love he had for black people,” Lee, a D.C. government employee, wife, and mother of one, added.
Kim Harrison, Ward 8 resident of 40 years and education advocate, also said she could attest to White’s passion for service, noting that the best scenario for Ward residents would be White sitting on the D.C. Council alongside people who won’t easily acquiesce to bad deals, as well as business and corporate executive demands.
Harrison, who lives near 7D MPD, recounted White’s community involvement through Manpower DC and Helping Inner City Kids Succeed, also known as HICKS, telling AllEyesOnDC that he has always been able to navigate social and political circles to secure resources for his people.
“This isn’t new for Trayon. He’s pretty astute,” Harrison said. “He has always come back to give to his community before he ever thought about running for public office. I don’t see the same passion for helping the poor with any of the other candidates. Trayon can work with those who are trying to get on the council. If they win those seats, he could get support. Their presence on the will help [him] represent the interest of the people, particularly those who reside east of the [Anacostia] River. ”
Ward 8 resident Porche’ Jordan however had a slightly different take.
Jordan, an artist also known as Porche’ 9-11, said that unity should be the primary goal for whoever secures the Council seat in April. While Jordan, former PTA president at William E. Doar, Jr. Public Charter School for the Performing Arts, hasn’t decided on a candidate just yet, she expressed her hope for a more conciliatory solution.
“I hate to do the rival thing. I wish they could both be on the bill,” Jordan told AllEyesOnDC. “I’ve had the honor of working with Trayon [White] on a few events and he spoke at the eighth grade graduation. Even so, I would say LaRuby [May] is included among those trying to bring unity in the community. That’s a beautiful thing with her. I know she has a good heart.”