D.C. Council candidates plow ahead as the forum circuit stretches longer

(Amanda Voisard/ For The Washington Post ) - At-large D.C. Council candidates, from left, Elissa Silverman, Perry Redd, Patrick Mara, Matthew Fruman and Anita Bonds wait for Monday's candidate forum to begin at Ballou High School.

(Amanda Voisard/ For The Washington Post ) - At-large D.C. Council candidates, from left, Elissa Silverman, Perry Redd, Patrick Mara, Matthew Fruman and Anita Bonds wait for Monday's candidate forum to begin at Ballou High School.

The 40 people inside Eliot-Hine Middle School in Capitol Hill could have asked questions for hours.

But the moderator of Tuesday night’s six-candidate forum ended the hour-long debate: The candidates had less than 15 minutes to make it across town to another forum ahead of the April 23 D.C. Council election.

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Paul Zukerberg, a Democratic candidate, raced to his Kia Sorento parked nearby. Inside, hurrying and out of breath, he looked for directions on his cellphone. Zukerberg was supposed to go to the D.C. Jewish Community Center near Logan Circle. But he said he’s been to so many debates that he mistakenly drove to Adas Israel Congregation in Cleveland Park — where he had attended a forum weeks earlier.

“I’m even Jewish; I should have known where I’m going,” Zukerberg said when a synagogue guard told him he was at the wrong place. “I should have just followed another candidate.”

The legendary District forums are as quirky as they are clubby — a tight circuit of familiar faces turns out for them — and their numbers have soared, including about three dozen for this month’s citywide special election. And although the forums are tamer compared with some in the 1980s, when prostitutes would fill the audience and shouting matches were often the norm, some now question whether they are starting to outlive their usefulness.

“It’s almost impossible for a candidate to knock on doors, because there is a forum almost every night,” said Elissa Silverman, a Democrat running in the special election. “It’s a frustration. I would rather be meeting voters on their doorstep. . . . The reality is most forums have physically less than 40 people.”

For this month’s special election, candidates have attended scores of forums. Some are sponsored by Democratic clubs. Others are hosted by business groups, such as the Georgetown Business Association , or held by activists, such as the D.C. Tenants Advocacy Coalition and D.C. for Democracy. The Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority held one on April 7. On Thursday, the candidates appeared at one held by the Washington Area Secular Humanists.

Candidates started their morning on March 20 at a breakfast forum sponsored by the Penn Quarter Civic Association, then appeared at an AARP forum in the afternoon and ended their day in a bar at a forum sponsored by the North Columbia Heights Civic Association. They attended a forum hosted by the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club the following night, when they answered questions on affordable housing, term limits and their favorite gay bar in the city.

“It’s hard to imagine it happening anywhere else,” said Jerry Clark, a local activist who has been attending forums for two decades. “I’d love to know if it is.”

When Zukerberg finally made it to the Jewish Community Center near Logan Circle on Tuesday night, he immediately apologized.

“Sorry for being late,” Zukerberg said as he walked in 30 minutes after the starting time.

“Did you come from a forum?” joked moderator Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council.

“I came from a forum,” Zukerberg responded, to laughs.

For a candidate like Zukerberg, who is making his initial bid for office, forums are an inexpensive way to get his message out: He wants to decriminalize marijuana. (With no campaign staff and a full-time job as an attorney, he relies on another opponent, Statehood Green Party candidate Perry Redd to keep him informed on the forums.)

But for candidates with more extensive campaigns, including fundraisers and door-to-door canvassing, the pace can be exhausting. Council member Anita Bonds (D-At Large), the incumbent in the race, notes some forums can stretch for hours. “It’s hard in that you try to do at least two things each evening, and if something goes on two, three and four hours,” Bonds said, “that’s a problem.”

Democratic candidate Matthew Frumin, who once ran for Congress in Michigan, said he’s also trying to keep up with the schedule.

“There were a lot of forums [in Michigan], but it didn’t feel like this,” Frumin said Thursday as he walked to the Metro on his way to a forum. “Here, literally, there have been forums almost every night.”

After a forum last week and two weeks to go before the election, Republican candidate Patrick Mara noted that, well into April, he was still being invited to candidate debates.

Despite some grumbling, the candidates and their strategists said it’s generally unwise for candidates to skip the forums, even when they include few undecided voters. Those who attend, they said, are often the type of voters who can influence relatives, neighbors and friends.

“The problem is, you can intellectually say, ‘Oh I am not going to go to these things,’ ” said political strategist Tom Lindenfeld. “But then comes the Ward 3 forum, the Ward 4 forum, the Ward 8 forum, and you cannot not go. You have to make some pretty hard decisions when you say no.”

City politicians, including D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), say the District forums date to at least Home Rule. But as they have grown, the events also have changed. In the 1980s, for example, some mayoral forums included prostitutes in the audience rooting for Dennis Sobin, a candidate who also ran an escort service and several sex shops.

Bill Rice, a Ward 3 Democratic activist who has attended hundreds of forums over two decades, recalls “catcalls” from supporters of some candidates who often became disruptive.

“It’s become tamer, more studied, more studious,” said Rice, who ran unsuccessfully for the council in 1998 and 2006.

Still, there are unpredictable moments.

At mayoral forums in 2010, candidate Sulaimon Brown became known as a flamboyant contender who mostly aimed his attacks at then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty. After the election, Brown alleged he was paid by Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s campaign to disparage Fenty at forums. The disclosure prompted an ongoing federal investigation into Gray’s campaign.

This year, the audience jeered a moderator at a February forum sponsored by the Ward 3 Democratic Committee when he asked a question it disliked. A month later, at a 2 ½-hour forum in Ward 8, former council member Michael A. Brown got up to use the bathroom, where he was approached by several men upset that he had opposed a bill that would extend employment protections to ex-offenders. Brown has since withdrawn from the race.

Despite the uncomfortable moments, political analyst Mark Plotkin said the forums serve a purpose. District voters, he said, want to know whether candidates “are funny, if they are clever, if they are witty, and their mannerisms.”

“It’s a job interview,” he said. “It’s not so much what they say, it’s how they comport themselves.”

Ellen Abraham agrees, saying she just wants to be informed.

“Sometimes there are silences, long pauses, that tells me things when they answer, and you only get that being there,” Abraham, 64, said after a recent forum at the Chevy Chase library.

Activist Dan Wedderburn, 72, notes that forums have also become a social network for a few hundred people who follow District politics. “There is a camaraderie . . . and I see a lot of my friends,” said Wedderburn, who takes his dates to the forums.

 
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