A full recap of the first D.C. mayoral candidate debate
Even before last night's inaugural mayoral candidate forum in Ward 3 kicked off, it was clear that a sizeable portion of the crowd gathered at the Field School was already a fervent supporter of one of the three candidates sitting on the dias.
Not only were few of the people filing into the frigid auditorium to watch Mayor Adrian Fenty, Council Chair Vincent Gray, and Leo Alexander spar over campaign issues without a sticker, button, or hat for their candidate, they were vocal. A woman getting signatures to put Alexander on the ballot in September chastised a man who had never heard of him, saying, "If you only rely on the mass media to inform you, then you're stuck in time!" A man worked up a so-so "Gray! Gray! Gray!" chant as the candidates prepared to debate.
But the diversity of the crowd made itself really apparent when the debate got off the ground. Some hissed when Alexander when he outlined his hardline on illegal immigrants working in the District. Gray's condemnation of the corruption that he claims haunts Fenty's administration earned ardent applause. Chants of "Gray!" and "Fenty's got to go" followed the candidates out of the room as the debate came to a close, while Fenty supporters cheered to drow out those chants.
The candidates debated about education, fiscal responsibility, job creation, and community integrity for an hour-and-a-half that was also riddled with jabs at each others' job performance. The questions were either written by the moderator or submitted by audience members to representatives of the Cleveland Park Citizens Association, Foxhall Community Citizens Association, and the Palisades Citizens Association, who co-hosted the debate. Below is a wrapup of their opening and closing statements, and the highlights of their one- or two-minute answers to questions.
Gray touted his native Washington roots and his career spent working in the D.C. government. "I believe we need a style of leadership in our mayor that is transparent," he said, and open and inclusive. He stressed the importance of improving public education in the District and pointed to his work that's helped create better public early education. "We need to bring back responsible fiscal government," he concluded to applause—the same line would get an enthusiastic audience reaction all night.
Fenty began by saying, "Even our strongest critics note that the state of city services have never been better." He said that his staff is "professional, accountable, and excited about serving the District" and claimed that his office has raised the city's bond rating and and brought about "unprecendented economic development" and a great increase in city services.
Alexander boasted, "I'm the only person up here who's not a career politician or bureaucrat." He then began to rail against the current administration, the first of many invectives against Fenty (and Gray) that he would go on all night. "No one's asking the question of, what are we doing about generational poverty here in D.C.? What are we doing about the creation of jobs here in D.C.?" He also stressed the need to overhaul Washington's health care infrastructure in case of a terrorist attack that could injure hundreds, explaining that "we are the target of every lunatic around the world, and none of our hospitals are equipped to handle bioterrorism." The moderator cut him off as he promised to make sure illegal immigrants stop taking the jobs of blue-collar Washingtonians.
Q & A highlights
Gray, on keeping mum about whether or not he'd boot Chancellor Michelle Rhee if elected: "I believe that we have to get through this election first ... It is not about politics. Rhee has the right to determine if she wants to work with me, too ... But anyone who has automatically concluded that I would not keep Michelle Rhee is mistaken."
Alexander on Rhee: "I'll come right out and say it. Michelle Rhee, she does not have a place in my administration," he said, adding that he would focus on improving students' homes by fighting poverty rather than just on raising test scores.
Business as usual?
On the development contracts that went to members of Fenty's college fraternity in an alleged act of cronyism, Fenty said that there was nothing unusual about the contracts bypassing Council approval, and that reviews have not turned up anything suspect about the contract awards.
Both Alexander and Gray cried 'cronyism,' with Gray saying, "This incident was one of the worst examples of cronyism I've seen in my time in Washinton, D.C.”
On the residents of Cleveland Park voicing concern about over-development, Gray assured residents that his administration would be collaborative and transparent so that citizens felt they had a stake in the outcomes of its decisions. Fenty touted the development several wards of the city had seen in the last four years.
Alexander said, "The first Saturday of every month I'm going to have open office hours .... Transparency and accountablity. I love the sound of that, I love that I get the opportunity to say that." He turned to Fenty. "So thank you for showing up, because you usually don't show up," and turned to Gray, "and you ususally don't come on time."
Asked whether diverting the ballpark and bag taxes constituted an abuse of taxing authority, Fenty's response hearkened back to the days of the Federal Control Board to demonstrate the importance of closing budget gaps. Alexander promised to raise the minimum business tax from $100 to $500 to eliminate "nuisance taxes, like parking meters, massage taxes, and all these crazy taxes that are being proposed."
"There was abuse, the most egregious of which was the use of the Anacostia bag tax," Gray said. "And let me dispel something. This budget wasn't balanced when this mayor sent it to the council." He also blasted the idea that Fenty had improved the City's bond rating through better management, saying they had merely switched to a more secure type of bond.
The near future
Asked about Georgetown's 2010 Campus Plan, Fenty and Gray both agreed that more community input was vital. Alexander seemed to be under the impression that Georgetown was threatening to move if it didn't get its way, but he called their bluff.
On special education, Gray called D.C.'s public schools program "one of the worst special education programs in the nation," and said he would work on creating the capacity to move students out of private programs and back into public schools when appropriate. Alexander vowed to replace Rhee as schools chancellor, to considerable applause.
What would each candidate do on Day 1 of office?
Fenty would shore up the cabinet and continue work on the schools immediately. Alexander said he would sign ID verification legislation into law within the first 100 days of administration. As a few audience members hissed, he said, "I'm going to write the strictest regulations [against hiring illegal immigrants] to fine employers and possibly jail people who break this law." He also vowed to hire a new police chief and replace D.C. General Hospital in his term.
Gray would "try to bring fiscal order to the District of Columbia once again, [and not a budget] that reaches into the savings account of the District of Columbia."
The moderator began to ask questions that praised an aspect of the candidates' careers or platforms, allowing the candidates to expand on their ideas and their opponents to comment.
When asked about rising test scores and falling murder rates under his administration, Fenty said of his critics, "I don't know what city you're looking at, but we're making progress ... Yes gentleman, you can keep criticizing, but this city is getting things done."
Alexander responded that test scores were only going up among grade schoolers and that high school test scores are down. "There's a reason why murder rates are down, we've locked everybody up since the '80s," he continued. He said that armed robbery, by contrast, was up in every Ward.
Asked about his campaign to create new jobs, Alexander reiterated his plan to crackdown on the hiring of illegal immigrants. Gray said he would push to bring jobs to the District that matched the skillset of its citizens. Fenty more or less agreed, saying, "We need to give people a trade. The real money is in training .... It's about creating a K-12 environment where all our students have the opportunity to graduate with skill sets."
On public transportation, Fenty and Gray both stressed the need to expand and better maintain the City's system. Alexander scoffed at the proposal for streetcars, however, saying, "
There's a difference between a need and a want. And right now, streetcars are a want." He said that issues like poverty were more pressing at the moment.
Finally, each candidate spoke to the stalled appointments of two members to the Zoning Commission. Fenty, who made the appoinments, said it was important to have experts in the field on the Zoning Commission, and that there were slots for community input on other boards, like the Board of Zoning Adjustment.
"Three of the members [would be] developers," Alexander said. "That's classic Fenty, isn't it? That's where he gets his money from, so of course, that's who he's going to put on the Commission .... If that doesn't reek of corruption and cronyism, I don't know what does."
Gray said he had "enormous concern" about three developers on the Commission, and that there ought to be a community voice.