Candidates Feel Their Way in Debate
By Hamil R. Harris and Yolanda Woodlee
D.C. Council members Harold Brazil, Kevin P. Chavous and Jack Evans and businessman Jeffrey Gildenhorn were greeted by television trucks, brightly colored signs and throngs of campaign workers as they entered the church for the first major debate among the Democratic mayoral hopefuls.
The admittedly nervous candidates spent most of the evening trying out campaign themes and expressing polite respect for one another, but things heated up when talk turned to whether the city should build a new $685 million convention center in the Mount Vernon section of downtown. Critics say that the building would be too small to attract the largest conventions and that the site offers no room for expansion.
Evans (Ward 2) came out in support of building the center at the controversial site, saying, "We have worked long and hard to make it a reality." His remarks drew loud boos from a good portion of the crowd of about 150.
Gildenhorn said he did not support building the convention center at Mount Vernon Square. "I would only support a new convention center if I knew we would get 30 years of use out of it," he said.
Chavous (Ward 7) and Brazil (At Large) said that they have not yet decided to back the choice of Mount Vernon Square, even though the council is scheduled to vote on the final proposal in a few weeks.
"It is irresponsible for us to minimize the negatives," said Chavous, who tried during the night to portray himself as the champion of the neighborhood activists. He said developers should not only seek big downtown projects but also smaller projects that will improve residential areas. "Developers beware, if you want to build downtown, you better be ready to build in our neighborhoods," he said.
During the 90-minute program, sponsored by the League of 8000, the candidates were questioned by Channel 9 broadcaster Bruce Johnson about their personal qualifications, as well as their views on race, what they wanted to do for D.C.'s youth and whether they would court the supporters of outgoing Mayor Marion Barry (D), who announced last week that he will not seek reelection.
Gildenhorn, owner of the American City Diner on Connecticut Avenue NW, said he wants to be mayor because "my passion for this city runs deep." Brazil said, "I am running for mayor for my little ones," referring to his two young children.
Evans said he wants the job because "I am tired of hearing excuses"; Chavous, because the city "is at the crossroads."
Council member Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6) said that the debate set the tone for a "lively" campaign, which culminates in September's Democratic primary. "I think these folks are talking substance, and that's what we want to hear."
But Don Folden, a community activist who ran for mayor in 1994, said he wasn't impressed with any of the candidates. "If anybody up there was going to fight for the people, they don't need to get promoted; they're already on the payroll."
JePhunneh Lawrence, a lawyer who lives in Ward 8, said Barry's decision not to run for reelection left some "very large shoes to fill."
"I didn't hear anything that's going to excite people or get them out to the polls," Lawrence said. "I was hoping I'd hear someone say this is the direction, the plan, the vision I have for the city. So far, nobody made it very clear where they can go and what they can do."
Recent Howard University graduate Reina Wooden said she's supporting Gildenhorn because of the restaurateur's business background and because he's not a politician.
"What you saw from the other candidates was a performance," Wooden said. "You can actually see from him a hard-working person who is not flashy, not showy, but he'll get the job done."
But the candidate of choice for some at the forum is not in the race. Several residents pushing the "Draft Anthony Williams" movement were passing out literature explaining their citizens committee and touting the District's chief financial officer as a viable candidate.
"These were three sitting council members in denial of their records and without a vision," said Paul Savage, a Ward 7 resident who is helping to spearhead the draft. "The reason I'm out in front to draft Anthony Williams is because he has shown leadership skills and made tough decisions."
Opinions varied about the candidates, but Bonnie Cain, a Ward 1 resident, said she felt "a tremendous spirit" at the forum.
"Two years ago there was not a contest. No one was listening. No one was involved," she said. "This is going to be an exciting race."
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