Council Chair candidates face off in Georgetown
The hosts of Thursday night's debate between the candidates for City Council Chair Vincent Orange and current At-Large Councilmember Kwame Brown delivered on their promise to make the debate Georgetown-focused. That didn't keep it from getting bland at times—about half of the audience filtered out of the ornamented basement of the Latham Hotel—but anyone who wanted to know how either candidate felt about the 2010 Campus Plan, small business taxes, and even miscreant cyclists got their answer.
The money question that everyone was waiting for came from Citizens Association of Georgetown President Jennifer Altemus: "Georgetown University is in the process of submitting their 2010 Campus Plan to the Zoning Commission. Do you understand the extent of the community's concerns and, as Chairman of the D.C. Council, what would you do to ensure that the community's concerns are given great weight when the Commission votes on the Plan?"
Orange replied that Georgetown University needed to pursue a method of "transparency, hearings, [and] testimony from their side" to get "collaboration for consensus." "You all need to live together in this community," he said, reiterating that the university needed an "open door policy."
Brown came out more strongly in favor of neighborhood residents who are opposed to what the Plan is proposing. "I think the residents should always come first," he said. "We live here, you pay taxes here. We love the University ... but we need to make sure that you don't just have a voice but are heard."
But despite the Georgetown bent that the sponsors gave to the debate, at times, it was predictable. Orange missed few opportunities to reiterate his commitment to fiscal caution, calling the current City Council a "tax-and-spend" body more than once. Brown, meanwhile, didn't miss many opportunities to remind the audience that he already works with the Council and has the endorsement of almost all of his colleagues. They stood apart in typical ways: Brown said that spending on middle schools was a priority for him, while Orange said that the District wasn't in a position to expand spending. Orange would encourage whoever is mayor to invite D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee to stay with his administration; Brown dodged the same question.
Often, neither Brown's nor Orange's answers to questions were notably compelling or revealing. Many of the GBA's questions were phrased to give away the 'right' answer. Unsurprisingly, for example, neither candidate endorsed Mayor Adrian Fenty's choice to appoint developers to all three spots on the Board of Zoning Adjustment in front of a Georgetown crowd that is usually suspicious of new development. Neither opposed higher fines on drivers who don't yield to pedestrians at crosswalks.
Both pledged lots of support for small businesses, with Brown promising to explore property tax reductions for small businesses that lease space in the city and Orange saying that he would step up enforcement of lax laws that require spending percentages of certain budgets on local businesses and hiring a certain number of District firms or residents for D.C. projects.
The GBA also forced yes-or-no answers out of Brown and Orange on several occasions, making for a series of un-shocking declarations: neither candidate would raise income taxes on citizens making over $500 thousand a year when asked point blank whether or not they would. Name-dropping abounded, too, with both candidates seemingly competing to say Natwar Gandhi's name as many times as possible, and Brown referencing his work with Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans at a rate that could be seen as gratuitous.
Of course, there were exceptions—like Brown's reminding the audience that he would let chastised Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry chair a committee—"a special kind of committee," he said, qualifying his affirmative answer. (Enter crowd murmurs...Orange said he, on the other hand, would not do the same).
Orange asked Brown pointedly why he had declined a series of three televised, one-on-one debates. Brown answered that he preferred to use his time to "touch the voters" in person. On purpose or not, Brown didn't prepare a question for Orange. He fumbled until finally asking whether he could count on Orange's support if he, Brown, were elected Chair. The room burst into laughter. (But Orange's question and Brown's lame response and question beg the question, is Orange dependent on engaging Brown to get attention, and is Brown taking advantage of that?)
How did local leaders judge the candidates? Altemus, of CAG, said that both of them seemed knowledgeable about Georgetown, but that she would have like to hear more about how the specifically Council Chair would weigh in on Georgetown University's Campus Plan. "We've been hearing the line that the D.C. Council has very little to say on the issue, and I'm not sure that's totally true. The politicians do weigh in," she said.
Their answers to questions on the Hurt Home, she said, were less impressive. It was shortsighted of Orange, she said, to suggest that the City could sell the decaying, unused historical property for its assessed $9 million.
ANC Commissioner Bill Starrels felt both candidates were on target with their plans to ease taxes on or increase support to small businesses and their support for local legislators who want to limit the hours of takeout restaurants.
Overall, despite the orange-toned wall paper, it was a Kwame Brown, not Orange room. At the end of the debate, several Georgetown leaders approached him to shake his hand, and take his picture.
After the debate, community leader gathered with the candidates. From left, Anthony Lanier, Commissioner Bill Starrels, Vincent Orange, Commissioner Ed Solomon, CAG President Jenifer Altimus, Kwame Brown and Commissioner Ron Lewis.
At-Large Councilmember Kwame Brown