Delano Hunter: From Nike to D.C
by Pharoh Martin
Ward 5 is still hurting. The Northeast ward ranks below most of Washington, D.C.’s other seven wards in almost every significant quality of life statistical category like HIV/ AIDS and unemployment rates as well as youth violence. That’s not good news for the ward’s sitting councilman Harry Thomas, Jr.
Although Thomas carries an impressive political resume and a local family name to match, as the September primaries approach, the first-term councilman’s once certain chances of re-election seems to slipping to a 26-year-old community organizer named Delano Hunter, whose campaign platform and slogan is to “Make Ward 5 First”.
In a June 12 Democratic party straw poll, conducted during the D.C. Democratic Convention at Howard University’s law school, Hunter finished a close second behind Thomas, trailing by only four percent. Holding 43 percent of the Democratic straw poll vote to the incumbent’s 47 percent Hunter, who’s a first time candidate in anything, made more than a few heads turn in his direction. People are paying attention. But of course, that straw poll was conducted by D.C.’s Democratic delegation and not Ward 5’s voting public. Still, it’s a good indicator of the young upstarts proximity to Thomas’ council seat and re-election hopes. He says it’s just a matter of time before public comes on board as well.
“As a young candidate, people didn’t know me, but they are starting to know me now,” says Hunter. “There’s a direct correlation to the harder you work the greater your name recognition is and the more likely the people are to support you. There has to be a first introduction. So whether I’m calling you on the phone and speaking to you for the first time or I’m knocking on your door there’s going to have to be a first time.”
But how real are Hunter’s chances of unseating an incumbent who not only is the son of the late-Harry Thomas Sr., a beloved former three-term Ward 5 councilman, but also has the proverbial machine behind him? No local voting polls have been conducted and the Democratic primary elections aren’t until Sept.14 but aside from a strong showing at the Democratic Convention all other early indicators point to modest.
Hunter’s campaign manager points at his candidates ability to mobilize the youth yet his Twitter page only has 199 followers, none of his campaign -produced You Tube videos have generated more than a few hundred views and his Facebook fan page only has 800 members. Maybe social media isn’t the campaign’s focus. Maybe old fashioned door-to-door canvassing and on the street sign waving are what still wins campaigns.
Hunter has been getting his contributions knocking on one door at a time. He shares that much of his contributions have come in as $100 and less while the incumbent has the advantage of having big city developers with deep coffers and connections to back him. The challenging candidate still has some neighborhood small mom and pop businesses that he patronized growing up supporting his candidacy. Hunter has raised just under $50,000 dollars in contributions to date for his campaign but admits that it’s far from enough.
“Well, we’re going to need a lot more than what we have,” he says while laughing. The campaign has been getting a lot of non-financial in-kind donations in the form of free and subsidized services such as graphic designed work for campaign signage and handouts and video editing for his videos that he embeds on his You Tube page.
Hunter’s campaign team has a mix of very passionate youthful energy and seasoned senior advisers. His older cousin James Grayton is his campaign manager. Grayton is a former ANC commissioner who worked on the campaigns for the incumbent Harry Thomas and his father. He also has five other former ANC commissioners on his campaign staff.
“Delano has been wanting to be in politics since he was nine-years-old,” Grayton says. “He was working for Nike but he wanted to come home. He found out that some things wasn’t going right for some people in the neighborhood and he was like,” The councilman ain’t doing nothing.” He said he wanted to run and I told him to go home and think about it because this is not an easy win. This is a machine that we are going against. I was a part of that machine.”
The native Washingtonian hasn’t received any endorsements from any of the major players already in office such as Mayor Fenty or any other council members but he says that it’s not needed.
“You can get caught up in the pageantry but at the end of the day unless you can touch the hearts and minds of the residents of this ward, the voting population and you can’t convince them then you are not going to win,” Hunter says. “TV ads and fancy endorsements are not going to win this election.”
After graduating from Delaware State University, Hunter went on to work for behemoth athletic shoe brand Nike’s business development and sales department in their Beaverton, Oregon headquarters. He made twice as much money as he does currently but something was calling him to return to his hometown. He left in 2008.
“I had this routine of reading the Washington Post and I started to read about guys that I knew being killed in the street,” Hunter says. “These are folks that I had personal relationships with, folks that I mentored, folks that lived five or six houses down the street from me. It was just something that I felt like I wanted to come back to and be part of the solution.”
For the past couple of years, Hunter has been working as a community organizer and job developer in a lower socio-economic community of Ward 5 called Brookland Manor.
At 26, Hunter is youthful enough to side step to set the political dirt that typically helps opponents but that also works against him. Opponents can paint him as too young and inexperienced to be effective as a ward councilman.
“I think it’s about relevant experience,” he says. “If you look at some of the issues that this city is facing [even with] those who are elected are people who, on paper, have some of the most lauded resumes and credentials but that doesn’t necessarily equal any effectiveness. I tell people to look at relevant experience–passion, work experience and perspective. These are things that I bring to the table.”
Hunter doesn’t see a true passion or vision from Thomas, which he says are the two most crucial elements that an elected official in leadership must have.
“Do you have that desire to roll up your sleeves and really go in and attack these issues in our communities head on,” Hunter says. “I don’t see that with him and I don’t see the vision. Let’s talk about HIV/AIDS– D.C. has one of the highest rates in the nation and here in Ward 5 we have one of the highest per capita rates in the nation as well and Thomas doesn’t address it. He doesn’t have a plan. The only thing that he can speak to is bringing in [radio personality] Big Tigger in a Winnebago.”
Hunter, a self-described fiscal and social conservative Democrat, is taking a bottoms-up approach in his campaign platform. He wants to expand early childhood education and extend the traditional school day and year as well as introduce legislation that guarantees free education at the University of the District of Columbia Community College for all DC high school graduates who held a GPA of 3.0 and above, a measure he’s borrowing from Delaware.
“The jobs are here in D.C,” he says. “Our residents are just not getting our fair share of jobs. Remember, this is the seat of the federal government. This should be, to a large degree, almost a recession proof city. There are 700,000 jobs here but only 600,000 D.C. residents. 70 percent of the people who work in the D.C. government don’t even reside in D.C., they reside in the suburbs. We have to ask ourselves, ‘Why aren’t our residents getting the jobs?’ They aren’t getting the jobs because they aren’t getting adequately prepared. When you start making that investment into our public schools, when you start providing educational opportunities like vocation, when you build pipelines to places like the District of the Columbia to be your primary vessel for workforce development than you have a more capable workforce to compete for these jobs.”