The Debate Watcher: Wooing the progressive vote at Sixth and I


Five Democratic candidates shared their views with the city’s progressives Wednesday night. (Mike DeBonis/The Washington Post)

The Debate Watcher is an ongoing feature reviewing this year’s D.C. mayoral candidate forums

The Hosts: D.C. for Democracy, D.C. Jobs with Justice, D.C. Working Families, the Fair Budget Coalition, Jews United for Justice  and the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Washington, D.C.

The Venue: Sixth and I Historic Synagogue, Chinatown

The Candidates: Vincent Gray, Reta Jo Lewis, Vincent Orange, Andy Shallal, Tommy Wells

The No-Shows: Muriel Bowser, Jack Evans, Carlos Allen

The Moderator: Jerry N. Clark, business consultant and liberal activist

The Crowd: About 200, generally well-behaved

The Stakes: Wednesday night’s event was hosted by some of the city’s most active liberal groups, and drew a strong crowd of self-described “progressive” voters interested in economic justice and ethics issues. Wells and Shallal have strongly targeted this voting bloc, though it was also an opportunity for Gray and Orange to remind them of their progressive bona fides, including the passage of the recent minimum wage hike.

The Topics: Minimum wage, homelessness, income tax rates, campaign finance reform, “ban the box” legislation, standardized testing in schools

The Upshot: Most of the candidates broadly agreed on most of the topics covered: Yes, the city should raise the guaranteed minimum wage for tipped workers and better enforce sick leave requirements. Yes, there should be “ban the box” legislation preventing employers from screening out criminal offenders on initial job applications. Yes, the city should do more to end chronic homelessness. Yes, “pay to play” in D.C. government has to end. For Gray in particular, the questions became an opportunity to quickly pivot to his record as mayor, including turning a question about the wisdom of standardized testing into an opportunity to tout the D.C. school system’s continued progress on test scores.

The Moment of Truth: Wells was not shy about attacking Gray and, to a lesser extent, Orange and the absent Evans. He criticized Gray for opposing paid sick days for D.C. workers on a procedural vote back in 2008. He mentioned the federal investigation into Gray’s 2010 campaign. He touted the expansion of “Housing First” programs for the chronically homeless under the Adrian Fenty administration but said the program “has not hardly grown one bit” under Gray. The mayor, for the most part, refused to engage, criticizing only “people who are up here who glibly tell parts of the story” while defending his homelessness record.

The Crowd Favorite: While Wells landed the most punches and earned a good deal of applause, the event was tailor-made for Shallal’s broad “tale of two cities” rhetoric. He got particularly big cheers in lambasting the proliferation of standardized testing: “We have gone from No Child Left Behind to no kid left untested to no teacher left unstressed, and we still haven’t improved our school system.”

Mike DeBonis covers Congress and national politics for The Washington Post. He previously covered D.C. politics and government from 2007 to 2015.

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Mike DeBonis · January 30, 2014