The Debate Watcher: ‘Young voters’ in focus at AU forum


WRC-TV’s Tom Sherwood hosted the first mayoral candidates event on a college campus. (Mike DeBonis/The Washington Post)

The Debate Watcher is an ongoing feature reviewing the D.C. mayoral candidate forums being held ahead of the April 1 primary elections

The Hosts: Kennedy Political Union of American University

The Venue: AU’s Katzen Arts Center

The Candidates: Carlos Allen, Jack Evans, Reta Jo Lewis, Vincent Orange, Andy Shallal, Tommy Wells

The No-Shows: Muriel Bowser, Vincent Gray

The Moderator: WRC-TV reporter Tom Sherwood, with questions from WTTG-TV’s Matt Ackland and WJLA-TV’s Sam Ford

The Crowd: About 200, many of them AU students

The Stakes: The Wednesday night forum was billed as the “first centered on young voters and their concerns,” and it drew a much younger crowd than an average D.C. political confab. It also took place as the first flakes of the biggest snowstorm the city has seen in four years hit the ground, perhaps keeping the crowd more campus-oriented.

The Topics: Campaign finance reform, fire department management, street crime, traffic cameras, statehood, transit passes for college students

The Upshot: While plenty of “young voters” were present, only one question dealt directly with their concerns: Would the candidates support offering free Metro passes to college students, just like younger students now get free fares? Lewis and Orange said they didn’t believe they would have the power to do that as mayor, and Orange instead took the opportunity to lay out his extensive plans for the University of the District of Columbia. Shallal mentioned, to applause, universities don’t pay property tax: “We need to be able to have them invest back in the city,” he said. Wells, to applause, pitched a student-loan forgiveness program for graduates willing to work for the city. And Evans, to guffaws, mentioned his status as a father of six college-age or near-college-age children: “Absolutely,” he said. “Free Metro passes … and I want free tuition,” too. Allen made the fine point that many kids don’t get a chance to go to college, then went on to stereotype the students in the audience: “You’ve got to basically … thank your parents for allowing you to be able to be here.”

The Moment of Truth: After a discussion of recent woes in the Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department, Ackland asked each candidate if they would keep Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe. Evans and Lewis both gave an unequivocal no. Wells seemed to punt at first, saying he had to work with Ellerbe in his role as chair of the council’s Public Safety Committee, then later clarified he would not keep him on. Allen, Orange and Shallal each offered indisputable punts. Allen said the chief “has to be evaluated again,” while Orange said he would ask for every cabinet member’s resignation before deciding how to proceed. Said Shallal: “It’s either Ellerbe or somebody else, but I will make sure that the vision that is there is to make sure that the fire department works for the people.”

The Crowd Favorite: While Evans, Shallal and Wells each got above-average cheers, Wells was on the most comfortable ground of the night, with plenty of opportunities to hit his key messages of ethics and campaign finance reform. He was not shy in lambasting absentees Bowser and Gray — the latter for his 2010 “shadow campaign,” the former for her votes against toughening campaign finance laws — but Wells also took shots at Evans and Orange. When Evans said he backed a “disclosure and enforcement” campaign-finance regime, Wells noted he’d voted against an amendment requiring campaign donors to identify themselves as city contractors. Wells even managed to tie in the fire department dysfunction into the Gray campaign probe: “This is what happens when you’re distracted, being investigated,” he said.

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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