A Nov. 10 Metro article incorrectly attributed a question posed during the previous night's D.C. mayoral debate. Reporter Tom Sherwood of WRC-TV (Channel 4), not Mark Plotkin of WTOP radio, asked the candidates whether, if elected, they would succumb to the "siren song of travel." (Published 11/11/2005)
More than 700 people turned out last night for the first debate of the 2006 D.C. mayor's race, a lively and fast-paced forum where one candidate committed his first public stumble, another indignantly asserted her hometown credentials and a third embraced his reputation as king of the campaign stunt.
Five major Democratic candidates participated in the 90-minute exchange at the University of the District of Columbia. With the election nearly a year away, the event gave voters their first chance to scrutinize the five people with the best chance of replacing retiring Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D).
The debate also underscored the importance of three issues in the campaign: a shrinking pool of affordable housing, patchy economic development and, above all, the troubled public school system. Although every candidate has pledged to find more money to fix crumbling schools, D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp said she would reject a proposal to raise taxes for that purpose and would instead pay for school renovations by leasing the air space over public buildings, such as libraries, to developers.
Early polls suggest that Cropp and council member Adrian M. Fenty (Ward 4) are the best-known of the five candidates in last night's debate. The others are council member Vincent B. Orange Sr. (Ward 5), lobbyist Michael A. Brown and former telecommunications executive Marie C. Johns. Since the campaign began in earnest in September, Cropp and Fenty have cast the race as a choice between Cropp's long experience in city government and Fenty's youthful energy and vision.
Last night, experience scored an embarrassing point. After claiming a record of "fiscally responsible" decision-making on the council, Fenty botched a request to name the three Wall Street agencies that have upgraded the city's bond rating from junk-bond status.
"I know Moody's, of course," Fenty said. He paused. "To be honest with you, I don't know the other two."
Cropp easily tossed off the names of the agencies -- Moody's, Fitch and Standard & Poor's -- then noted that she has visited all three over the years as the city climbed to an A rating. Much of her answer was drowned out by cheering supporters, but a beaming Cropp could be heard to exclaim, "Experience."
Fenty quickly recovered and a few minutes later expressed his opposition to the mayor's plan to build an expensive hospital on the site of the former D.C. General, calling it a "financial quagmire." But the slip did not go unnoticed.
"I don't think Fenty fared well," Glo Ivory, an undecided voter from Ward 6, said after the debate. "I thought he came across as a junior council person."
Fenty and Cropp later joined forces to reject a suggestion that the District hold a runoff election if no mayoral candidate receives 50 percent of the vote in the Sept. 16 Democratic primary. Fenty said runoffs attract a small number of voters, giving too much power to "a real truncated group."
Fenty and Cropp also said that, if elected, they would forgo the "siren song of travel," as panelist Mark Plotkin of WTOP put it, and would stay home much more than Williams has in recent years. Orange and Johns pledged to stay in the city during their first year in office.
Brown was the lone dissenter. "We have to educate people around the world about how great the District of Columbia is," he said.
Plotkin posed a line of questions that clearly ranked among the crowd's favorites: He asked candidates to respond to "the worst things about each of you."
For example, Plotkin asked Johns, a political novice: "Where have you been? Nobody knows you. Where do you get the chutzpah to run for mayor?"
An indignant Johns called the question "pretty amazing," then rattled off her long history as president of Verizon's local office and as a leader in such civic organizations as the Girl Scouts. "I am not an elected official, but I have a long record of service, not just passing legislation, but really addressing problems," Johns said. "So that's where I've been, Mr. Plotkin."
Plotkin described Orange's campaign as "an amalgam of theatrical stunts," such as suing Cropp, the council chairman, when she refused to let him hold a hearing on the planned baseball stadium and pumping free gas for D.C. drivers.
Orange replied that his "record of achievement is second to none." So Plotkin can say what he likes, but "I'm going to keep on giving out gas," Orange said.
Staff writer Yolanda Woodlee contributed to this report.