The Debate Watcher: Vincent Gray gets comfortable on ‘home turf’


Incumbent Vincent C. Gray addresses voters in his home ward Saturday at H.D. Woodson High School. (Aaron C. Davis/The Washington Post)

The Debate Watcher is an ongoing feature reviewing this year’s D.C. mayoral candidate forums ahead of the April 1 primary election.

The Hosts: The Ward 7 Democrats

The Venue: The new H.D. Woodson High School, which opened in Gray’s first year in office.

The Candidates: All eight Democratic hopefuls were present: Carlos Allen, Muriel Bowser, Jack Evans, Reta Jo Lewis, Vincent Gray, Vincent Orange, Andy Shallal and Tommy Wells

The Crowd: Hundreds of Ward 7 Democrats and many others, sporting colorful T-shirts, pins and other campaign swag.

The Stakes: Gray’s campaign team distributed a news release touting the debate a couple of miles from the mayor’s home as the one on his “home turf.” The Saturday forum also fell on the first day of March, the beginning of a final month sprint to Election Day that Gray campaign manager Chuck Thies has cast as “surge” time for the mayor’s abbreviated reelection bid.

The Topics: Crime, education, unemployment, workforce development, affordable housing, marijuana decriminalization, and local Ward 7 issues

The Upshot: Gray took the stage more combative and animated than at any point in the race. Whether his pacing and pointing at challengers signaled a new assertiveness or that he was scrambling to shore up support among his base was largely in the eye of the beholder — and there was plenty of spin afterwards pushing both narratives. Council members Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) and Vincent Orange (D-At Large) also had vocal contingents in the crowd, signaling the mayor faces a battle on two fronts to maintain majorities in communities east of the Anacostia River that helped propel him to victory four years ago.

The Moment(s) of Truth: Crime. Foregoing the usual pleasantries, council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) hit on the District’s spike in homicides — 25 in the first two months of the year — in his opening statement, and it set a major theme for the debate, with Bowser, Orange and Busboys and Poets owner Andy Shallal piling on. Gray said the police department was responding appropriately, but blamed “some of these” homicides on crimes of passion that no police department could prevent.

Unemployment/work-force training. Bowser blasted Gray for failing to do more on job training, saying that in her role as a Metro board member, she knew the agency was about to hire 1,000 people for the Silver Line, and that Gray’s administration had recommended only seven people for jobs with Metro in the past year. “Seven,” she slowly repeated several times. Gray responded that he had inherited a job-training program that was in disarray from former Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and had accomplished major improvements. He stressed the opening of 10 new technical and vocational academies this year, and the decline of Ward 7′s unemployment rate from 17 percent when he took office to 11 percent. “We also have a community college that graduated 929 people, right here in this auditorium, ladies and gentlemen,” he said, to applause.

Schools. Bowser blasted the city’s middle schools. Wells claimed credit for helping to turn around Capitol Hill area elementary schools. Gray called out Wells, saying, “Tommy Wells didn’t turn around any schools” and, more broadly, that he would personally contribute to a “pool of fact checkers” to test his challengers’ statements. “We are on a trajectory going up, we are on a path forward for our schools, and we need to stay the course,” he said.

Marijuana. Orange scored points with the crowd, saying the city’s march toward marijuana decriminalization would still entrap the city’s African American youths. By eliminating criminal penalties for possession, more people would try it, but then be discriminated against when applying for jobs if drug tests reveal “dirty urine,” he said.

The Crowd (Un)Favorite: Restaurateur Andy Shallal may need to make good on a promise to open a Busboys and Poets — and before Election Day — if he wants to win over Ward 7. In his closing remarks, Shallal focused on disparity in unemployment rates on either side of the Anacostia: “On this side, 17 or 18 percent seems like a victory. I don’t get it.” The response drew heckles from the crowd: “Bring a Busboys here,” one audience member yelled. “You could have helped,” yelled another, as the auditorium broke out in applause. Shallal tried to tame the crowd: “No, no, let me explain something to you, hold on a second, hold up, hold up, hold up. … I want to bring a Busboys here. There is no developer who is willing to work with me on this side of the river. … If you find me that developer, I will bring a Busboys and Poets east of the river.” (Shallal has said most developers now pay him to open a restaurant.) His defense was met with more boos.

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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