A D.C. mayoral debate Wednesday night quickly turned to what three candidates for the April 1 Democratic primary agreed on: that the guilty plea of a businessman who helped elect Vincent C. Gray four years ago has breathed new life into their campaigns.
City Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) claimed he has received more online donations and volunteer inquiries over the past few days than he has throughout the whole campaign. Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) said she has been hearing from more residents than ever in Ward 7 — Gray territory — that they “want a new mayor, too.” And Busboys and Poets owner Andy Shallal said after the forum that Gray’s State of the District address Tuesday night — in which the mayor reiterated that he has not broke the law — had the “feeling of a wake.”
“Things have changed,” Wells said, echoing the general mood of the other candidates as they answered several questions related to the scandal.
The debate came two days after prominent D.C. businessman Jeffrey E. Thompson pleaded guilty to an illegal, off-the-books fundraising operation to help Gray win the mayoral election in 2010. In his plea, Thompson said Gray knew about the scheme, which funneled more than $660,000 in illegal donations to his campaign. Gray has strongly denied any wrongdoing, calling the allegations “lies” and using his yearly speech to ask supporters who they believe — “a greedy man attempting to save himself or me, a public servant who has dedicated his entire career to giving back to our communities?”
Despite their apparent distaste for Gray, the debate participants mostly stopped short of pledging to oppose him if he wins the April 1 primary and faces off against at-large council member David A. Catania, who filed Wednesday to run in the general election as an independent.
Shallal said he plans to support the Democratic nominee, dinging Catania as a “micromanager” who is difficult to work with. Bowser ducked the question for the most part, saying she is counting on a primary victory for herself. If he wins the nomination, Wells joked that he doubts voters will choose the “former Republican angry other white guy.” But Wells indicated the answer is not as straightforward if Gray is the nominee.
“Will I support David Catania? No,” Wells said. “Will I vigorously support the Democratic nominee? Let me tell you — that’s in question.”
The debate was hosted at The Eclipse nightclub in Northeast Washington by D.C. M.U.S.I.C., a community group that describes itself as dedicated to preserving arts and culture in the Washington region, especially the go-go music scene. The candidates were asked about that mission several times, and they generally agreed that the city’s progress must not come at the expense of D.C.’s rich cultural history.
Shallal garnered the most applause throughout the forum, usually for his blunt talk on race and inequality, which have been talking points since he launched his bid. He scoffed at the idea that D.C. schools were improving due to anything other than changing demographics — the “white kids doing much better.” Asked about homicides east of Anacostia River, he wondered aloud what would happen if the victims were all white. “The world would stop,” he concluded.
Brian Taylor, a 46-year-old television production specialist who attended the debate, said Shallal appealed the most to him because the candidate “doesn’t seem like an incumbent” — a welcome quality given the controversy swirling around Gray since he entered office.
Ron Moten, a community activist who helped organize the debate, said D.C. M.U.S.I.C. plans to endorse one of the three candidates from the debate over the next few days. As for the two mayoral hopefuls who were listed on the program but did not show up — Ward 2 council member Jack Evans and at-large council member Vincent Orange — Moten reminded audience members earlier in the night that they should not be “fooled on April Fool’s.”