D.C. Mayor Hopefuls Make Pricey Promises

A D.C. mayoral candidate forum drew more than 800 people, including, in the middle row from left, Janet Smith, Carol Wheeler and Tom Wheeler.
A D.C. mayoral candidate forum drew more than 800 people, including, in the middle row from left, Janet Smith, Carol Wheeler and Tom Wheeler. (By Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)
By Lori Montgomery and Yolanda Woodlee
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The leading candidates for D.C. mayor pledged last night to make social justice for children and the poor their top priority in office, vowing to spend about $1 billion on neighborhood redevelopment, youth services and 14,000 units of affordable housing.

The five Democrats didn't bat an eye before committing themselves to funding the expensive demands of the Washington Interfaith Network, a coalition of churches, unions and community groups that held a forum last night.

In front of more than 800 coalition members gathered at Asbury United Methodist Church in downtown Washington, the candidates promised to pay for those programs by managing existing city funds more efficiently and by generating cash from development projects.

None of the candidates proposed raising taxes. But organizers of the interfaith network seemed particularly skeptical when D.C. Council member Adrian M. Fenty (Ward 4) pledged to find $350 million in "new dedicated revenue" for such youth services as libraries, recreation centers and extracurricular activities in public schools.

Last month, Fenty told a forum organized by some of the city's most influential business organizations that he would not raise taxes if elected mayor. Fenty was asked to clarify his position last night.

"I commit to you that I'm going to raise the bar," Fenty said, explaining that the city's housing production trust fund and its new school modernization fund are both being bankrolled with existing tax revenue. "We'll take that $7.4 billion budget we have and make sure the money goes to the priorities that you and the rest of my constituents want it to go to."

The other candidates were only marginally more specific about where they would find the money.

Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp said she would charge developers for access to air rights above public buildings and lands, such as Interstate 395. Former Verizon Washington president Marie C. Johns said she would make sure the city spends the federal funds to which it is entitled, charging that some Community Development Block Grant funds go unclaimed.

Council member Vincent B. Orange Sr. (Ward 5) said he would implement the interfaith network's funding strategies, including a plan to tap tax revenue generated by a massive planned development along the Anacostia River. Orange said he also would demand that developers pay condominium-conversion fees that the network charges have gone uncollected for years.

Lobbyist Michael A. Brown offered no specific proposals to raise money. He did, however, criticize city leaders for encouraging the wealthy to move to the nation's capital, saying that a thriving middle class is more critical to keeping the District fiscally strong.

Each candidate was asked to respond to three questions: Would they dedicate an additional $500 million to neighborhoods, $350 million to youth services and at least $117 million a year for affordable housing? Their answers -- an unbroken string of yeses -- were recorded in foot-high letters on a big, white board.

The candidates also promised to meet with leaders of the interfaith network in March to lay out more detailed plans for accomplishing their goals.

In the meantime, the nonprofit organization, which will not endorse a candidate, plans to put more than 400 election workers on the streets to educate voters about the candidates' commitments and to make sure they vote Sept. 12 in the Democratic primary.

"Others have come before us, and they said they would put neighborhoods first, and it didn't really happen," the Rev. Christine Wiley of Covenant Baptist Church told the crowd. "Read my lips. We are aware of the promises in the past that were made and not kept. We're going to hold you accountable."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company