The Debate Watcher: Ward 4 Dems speak

Aaron C. Davis/The Washington Post - D.C. mayoral candidates took the stage Wednesday night at Paul Public Charter School for the city's second straw poll
Aaron C. Davis/The Washington Post – D.C. mayoral candidates took the stage Wednesday night at Paul Public Charter School for the city’s second straw poll

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

The Hosts: The Ward 4 Democrats of Washington D.C.

The Venue: Paul Public Charter School

The Candidates: Carlos Allen, Muriel E. Bowser, Jack Evans, Vincent C. Gray, Reta Jo Lewis, Vincent B. Orange, Andy Shallal, Tommy Wells

The No-Shows: None, perfect attendance

The Moderator: Bruce Johnson, reporter and anchor for WUSA 9

The Crowd: 652 ballots cast

The Winner: Muriel Bowser, 322 votes; Vincent Gray, 223 votes; Andy Shallal, 33 votes; Vincent Orange, 23 votes; Tommy Wells, 21 votes; Jack Evans, 13 votes; Reta Jo Lewis, 8 votes; No endorsement, 7 votes; Carols Allen, 0 votes.

The Endorsement: None. Bowser won 49 percent, but not the 60-percent threshold required for the ward endorsement.

The Stakes: Coming off Bowser’s win last month in the Ward 8 straw poll and Gray’s powerful showing last week in fundraising, both campaigns claimed momentum going into Wednesday night’s candidate forum and endorsement.

Gray won the Ward 4 poll over incumbent Adrian Fenty four years ago, and nearly three out of five people in the ward voted for Gray in the 2010 election. But it would have been an embarrassment for Bowser to lose on her home turf.

The Topics: The first question was, “What would you do for Ward 4?,” and that theme carried the night, with voters most animated over longtime ward issues, including redevelopment of the old Walter Reed facility. Schools, taxes, and ethics also featured prominently.

The Upshot: There was no upset. Bowser won a plurality and almost a majority. She knew her audience and hit all the right notes on ward issues. But Bowser also seized on a moment when she followed Gray on a question about the city’s budget surplus to highlight citywide problems with homelessness, schools, unemployment and high-profile failings by the fire department.

Gray won consistent applause steering the conversation back to the city’s list of accomplishments under his watch, including rising bank balances, new development and school test scores.

Unlike in previous debates, however, when the mayor refused to engage his council challengers, Gray was put on the defensive Wednesday by the issue of homelessness, which elicited the most animated confrontation between Gray and his challengers to date.

The Moment of Truth: The District’s record budget surplus of $1.75 billion “gives Ward 4 the reputation of being one of eight wards . . . that is part of a city that is doing phenomenally well fiscally, ladies and gentlemen,” Gray said.

“Yes, we have a surplus,” Bowser said picking up the microphone, “but we have children and families that are living in our recreation centers. We have a surplus, but we have people that can’t get a job all across our city because our schools have failed them, and we don’t have job training that works. We have a surplus, but we can’t seem to get the number of our ambulances that respond to our citizens.”

The Crowd Favorite: Gray’s base clearly liked him getting fired up for the first time. A couple dozen of his supporters leapt to their feet in applause when he shook his finger at his challengers, saying that those on the council share the blame for the homeless problem for thwarting his proposed reforms.

“There is nobody up here who is going to tell me how to do this,” he said. “What I need, ladies and gentlemen, what I need is the legislation that we put in front of the council last year.”

Notes: Busboys and Poets owner Andy Shallal came in a distant third in the voting, pulling in marginally more votes than three of the incumbent council members. Evans and Wells will get a chance to turn out core supporters when debates move to their wards.

Aaron Davis covers D.C. government and politics for The Post and wants to hear your story about how D.C. works — or how it doesn’t.
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