The Debate Watcher: Bowser, Gray show up late to final forum


Soak it in, folks — no more of these for at least a few months. (Mike DeBonis/The Washington Post)

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

The Hosts: The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington

The Venue: Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, Chinatown

The Candidates: Muriel Bowser, Jack Evans, Vincent Gray, Reta Jo Lewis, Vincent Orange, Andy Shallal, Tommy Wells

The Moderator: Will Sommer, Washington City Paper’s Loose Lips columnist

The Crowd: Several hundred spectators packed the synagogue

The Stakes: Thursday night’s event was the final candidates’ forum before the April 1 primary, thus giving the Democratic mayoral hopefuls one final chance to prove their mettle in front of a sizable group. Sommer asked the crowd to raise their hands if they were undecided voters, and at least one-fourth of the crowd did. But the leaders in the most recent published polls, Bowser and Gray, didn’t arrive until more than an hour into the event, prompting some hisses from the crowd early on.

The Topics: Housing and homelessness, tax reform, faith relations, bicycle policy

The Upshot: Gray, who arrived at 8:45 p.m. for the 7:30 event, had just wrapped up his opening statement touting his administration’s accomplishments when Sommer announced, “And now we’re going to move on to closing statements.” Bowser, who showed up only 10 minutes earlier, used her time to make her implicit case that she has the best chance to beat Gray: “I’m asking you to think long and hard about our campaign. Ours is a campaign that has energy in each of the District’s eight wards, and nobody else on this stage can say that.” Meanwhile, Evans made it fairly explicit in his opening statement that Bowser and Gray had in fact emerged from the field: “This now is not just a two-person race. This is not a race to vote for or against the current mayor. There are a number of candidates who have a lot of great ideas for this city. … Keep an open mind and listen to what we have to say.”

The Moment of Truth: The forum’s first question was tragically topical, seizing on the case of missing 8-year-old Relisha Rudd to ask about the issue of affordable housing and homelessness in the city. Evans started thusly: “We have an old saying in Shaw: We need to stop celebrating a problem and find a solution,” oddly counting himself as denizen of a neighborhood he drew out of his ward in 2011. Wells sized the moment to attack the then-absent Gray’s handling of homeless families and take a more high-minded stand: “As a city we have to show what our values are,” he said. “One of the most fundamental duties we have as a civilization is to safely bring the next generation into adulthood. … She’s a symbol of our failure.”

The Crowd Favorite: The polite crowd reacted most strongly not to a candidate, but to a topic: bikes. An audience-generated question about what the candidates would do to encourage bicycle use in the city prompted cheers and a few sharp answers. Wells criticized the Gray administration for altering plans for a separated bike lane on M Street NW, changing the design in the 1500 block at the behest of Metropolitan AME Church. That comment incensed Orange —  who left unspoken that he is a Metropolitan congregant — accusing Wells of divisive rhetoric: “Last time I checked, I don’t believe I saw a bike lane in front of National Cathedral over on Wisconsin Avenue,” he said. “You can’t be on both sides of the equation depending on what audience you talk to.” Shallal, meanwhile, won cheers and applause for questioning the city government’s push to install bike lanes. “Just painting a bike on the road doesn’t make it safe,” he said, adding, “I stopped biking in the city because it’s too damn dangerous. … We have to come up with a real understanding of what safety is before we start just painting lanes.”

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 · March 28, 2014

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