Election Forum Focuses On Poor
By Michael Powell
It was an unusual evening in a campaign largely dominated by middle-class concerns, as D.C. Council members and the city's former chief financial officer acknowledged that the fiscal crisis had prompted them to cut -- or wipe out -- many programs that serve the poor. But the candidates vowed to dip into the city's newfound budget surplus to begin restoring money for some social programs, from nutrition efforts to drug treatment.
"We've punished those who can defend themselves the least," said D.C. Council member Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7), who sat alongside six other candidates at the human services forum at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in downtown Washington. "My administration would make sure that we don't balance the budget on the backs of the low-income people."
Democrat Anthony A. Williams, the city's former chief financial officer, agreed that the poor have suffered most during the fiscal crisis. However, he placed the blame not on a lack of money, but on terrible management and contract administration by city officials and on poor oversight by the council members. He noted that D.C. officials had failed to spend $70 million in community development funds and $100 million in federal health grants.
"We're talking about a collapse of human services, and it didn't happen because of an El Niño storm," Williams said. "It was a failure of oversight and leadership. The District has over-promised and under-delivered."
Williams noted that, as CFO, he had cut through contracting problems and delivered money to AIDS programs, a success he pledged to replicate for other human services. In a promise later echoed by several candidates, Williams said he would direct tens of millions of dollars to human services programs by creatively tapping into unused federal funds. And he said he would authorize the city's inspector general to closely monitor the programs.
He acknowledged that during the fiscal crisis, he once proposed cutting the Department for the Aging, a decision he now views as "stupid" and born of desperation.
Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) said he supports programs like drug treatment and child care for welfare-to-work participants. But he rejected raising taxes and warned against those candidates who would promise to restore dozens of programs.
"We have to get a grip here, folks," Evans said. "If we restored money to all the programs candidates have talked about," he said, the city would plunge back into a fiscal crisis, and the D.C. financial control board would remain in place "for the next generation."
"I'm trying to tell it to you as it is, not as you might want to hear it," Evans said to scattered applause.
Evans hammered at oversight, noting that his council Judiciary Committee has issued subpoenas during its hearings into police misconduct. No other council committee has issued a subpoena. "There is no excuse not to use that authority," he said.
But moments later, council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large), also a mayoral contender, swiped back at Evans, saying that she and Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3) deserved credit for pushing him to hold the police hearings. "You should drop the holier-than-thou about how you issued subpoenas," she said.
More broadly, Schwartz spoke of her background in human services. She is on the board of the Whitman-Walker Clinic, the city's largest provider of AIDS-related services. She noted that her brother is mentally disabled and that her husband committed suicide, and she said she has a special feel for the mentally ill.
She also treated the audience to the unlikely sight of a Republican staking out ground to the political left of her Democratic opponents, as she spoke in favor of taxing Fannie Mae and perhaps other large nonprofit agencies. Federal law now prohibits the city from passing such taxes, and the other Democratic candidates said they oppose trying to change the law.
Council member Harold Brazil (D-At Large) said he favors trying to eliminate the court-appointed receivers who control so many aspects of the city's human services, including public housing, foster care and prison health care. And he questioned the "consensus" budgets agreed upon by the mayor, the council and the control board, a process credited with balancing the budget the past two years.
"Do we have a surplus-surplus?" he asked. "Or do we have a surplus because we didn't fund our needs? It's a rope-a-dope tactic."
John Gloster, the Statehood Party candidate, who has staked out stances on the left side of the political spectrum, said he favored cutting D.C. school class sizes in half; funding youth, recreation and drug treatment programs; restoring all cuts that have been made to the University of the District of Columbia; and enacting a commuter tax, as many other cities have. And he accused his "status quo" opponents of operating within a tightly prescribed box.
Democratic candidate Jeffrey Gildenhorn, who owns a diner, touted his "Hamburger University" program to train impoverished youths as supervisors and managers. Noting that he is a diminutive man, he said he is, literally and metaphorically, in touch with "small" businesses.
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