The Debate Watcher is an ongoing feature reviewing this year’s D.C. mayoral candidate forums.
The Hosts: The Ward 3 Democrats of Washington, D.C.
The Venue: St. Columba’s Episcopal Church, Tenleytown
The Candidates: Carlos Allen, Jack Evans, Reta Jo Lewis, Vincent B. Orange, Andy Shallal, Tommy Wells
The No-Shows: Muriel E. Bowser, Vincent C. Gray
The Moderators: Bruce DePuyt of NewsChannel 8 and veteran political analyst Mark Plotkin
The Crowd: Hundreds, standing room only.
The Stakes: Without a good showing in Ward 3, it is difficult to envision a path to victory for any of Gray’s challengers. Wards 2, 4 and 6 are likely to break heavily for their incumbent council members, Evans, Bowser and Wells, respectively. Wards 7 and 8 still appear likely to tilt for Gray. That leaves Ward 3 as one of the city’s only true battlegrounds — and one disinclined to vote for Gray. Nearly 80 percent of the ward backed then incumbent Adrian M. Fenty four years ago.
The Topics: Far less parochial than last week’s debate in Ward 4, DePuyt and Plotkin repeatedly turned the conversation to citywide issues of affordable housing, homelessness, ethics, finances and leadership. While Plotkin eventually lost the crowd over a diatribe on city voting rights, the debate might be remembered most for his attempts to throw each of the candidates off the talking points that had dominated almost every debate so far. Plotkin took aim at what he called each candidate’s “Achilles heel.” A sampling:
Tommy Wells: Q: “The word on the street is … you’re too liberal, you’re too left, and it said in the Washington Post today, you’re too white.” A: “I’m a progressive Democrat. … If you believe that cleaning up government [is] too far to the left, so be it, I’m there and I’m that. In terms of being too white, I have to say that, you know, as someone who has represented Wards 5 and 6, I wouldn’t be here but for the votes of African Americans. They made their judgment, and I will trust the voters of D.C. every time to make the decision who is the best leader for our city.”
Vincent Orange: Q: “You never met an election you didn’t like. You run for everything, and this … diminishes your stature. Explain your political ambition, and how do we know that once you lose this election, you won’t be running for another one?” A: “I have a great record in Ward 5, and it’s one you can ride around and touch and feel. … Home Depot and Giant, and all 247 affordable housing complexes there. … I lost in 2006 … and the citizens of the District of Columbia brought me back … The bottom line is, I’m here because the people want me here.”
Jack Evans: Q: “You live in Georgetown, you don’t have the common touch, you’re in the pocket of big developers, and you’re the candidate of big business, what do you say to that, Jack?” A: “Yes, I live in Georgetown, and people view me as the rich white guy who is from Georgetown, who supports the developers. But I came from a very small town, first on my dad’s side to go to college. When Nat Gandhi used to say, ‘I came to Washington with $2 in my pocket’ — well, I came to Washington $20,000 in debt. I worked hard … [and to pull city up], yes, we worked with developers, and with residents who stuck it out.”
Reta Jo Lewis: Q: “You have wonderful qualities, but you can’t win, I’m gonna waste my vote, if I vote for Reta Lewis. … what do you say?” A: “I say the only vote that matters is the one on Election Day. … Can I win? If you send me to city hall to bring back integrity, transparency, and accountability.”
Andy Shallal: Q: “Someone like me might question your commitment in terms of your participation … since you registered to vote, you have not voted in six elections … Would you explain that absence?” A: “I only vote when I think I have a real good reason to vote. … I’ve been an activist all of my life … I’ve been involved in movements … I’ve been on the outside … [and I was turned off when the D.C. Council overturned a ballot measure I worked on to limit campaign contributions] … but I do believe you also need people on the inside to make change, it’s not enough to just make change from the outside.”
Carlos Allen: Q: In the immortal words of Ross Perot’s running mate, Admiral James Stockdale, who asked himself ‘what am I doing here?’ … Carlos Allen, what are you doing here?” A: “If you believe, you shall achieve. When I came here from Panama, I couldn’t speak English, so I had teachers tell me I was slow. My dad said … ‘Believe in yourself,’ and guess what? Now I am running for the mayor of Washington, D.C.”
The Upshot: Without Gray or Bowser in the room, it was hard to gauge how effective any of the rest of the field had been at changing hearts and minds. Evans had a small crowd of mostly Gray supporters crowded around him afterward. Wells had line of well-wishers, too. He garnered one of the biggest applause lines of the night in his closing remarks by going hard after Gray and suspected 2010 “shadow campaign” financier Jeffrey Thompson. “Jeffrey Thompson is going to go end up going to jail,” Wells said, “What will happen to Vince Gray? Well, the U.S. attorney says ‘There is there there,’ so we know something will happen. … Vince Gray says turn the page; together, we have to turn the page on a culture of corruption.”
Notes: Both Bowser and Gray called organizers Tuesday evening to say they wouldn’t make it. Bowser was eight hours into a hearing on the Gray administration’s record on economic development and housing. The public testimony portion of Bowser’s hearing was over, however, so some well-informed members of the crowd questioned why Bowser did not reschedule the testimony of Gray’s deputies and attend the debate, where she certainly would have had a bigger audience. A Ward 3 organizer also began the debate by saying that Gray campaign manager Chuck Thies had called Tuesday evening to say the incumbent had to visit a very close friend who was in “grave, very ill” condition. That friend appears to have been former mayor and council member Marion Barry. But according to tweets from Barry late Tuesday, his condition was never that dire.