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.