Four candidates in the D.C. Council at-large race sparred Saturday during a 90-minute debate that included several fiery exchanges between the candidates and the reporters who questioned them.
The debate, sponsored by the League of Women Voters, included incumbents Vincent B. Orange (D) and Michael A. Brown (I) and two challengers – independent David Grosso and Republican Mary Brooks Beatty – hoping to unseat them in the Nov. 6 election. The three other candidates in the race did not meet League of Women voters threshold for fundraising and name recognition criteria needed to be invited to participate in the event on the Campus of Catholic University.
With a recent poll by the Washington City Paper and “The Kojo Namdi Show” showing that Brown is vulnerable, the first-term lawmaker unleashed a new line of attack against Grosso, one of his chief rivals.
In a sign that he plans to be more aggressive over the final two weeks of the campaign, Brown sought to turn Grosso’s ties to former Ward 6 council member Sharon Ambrose against him.
Grosso worked for Ambrose, a former head of the Economic Development Committee, in the early 2000s, and she chairs his campaign. Though she remains well known in Ward 6, Brown appears to be betting he can use her to drive a wedge between Grosso and voters in predominately African American neighborhoods.
Brown argued that Ambrose, who served on the council from 1997 to 2007, did not do enough to oversee compliance with District laws that require contractors to hire a certain percentage of city workers.
“Now that I am chair of the economic development committee, I noticed that a lot of the things you guys did not do, I am fixing,” said Brown, citing his recent overhaul of the First Source law. “It seems under council member Ambrose’s leadership of the committee, and David you were working there, you didn’t enforce nor make sure ... D.C. companies were hired for these projects, so I wonder why you were there? Why you weren’t standing up for D.C. folks?”
“In fact we were standing up,” Grosso responded. “We were standing up in a way that made a lot more sense than the First Law.”
“Council member Brown often paints it as the saving grace for our city,” Grosso continued. “The reality is the First Source law is in court because council member Brown was unable to negotiate and work with developers to make sure the programs we put in place were actually creating jobs for the people.”
Grosso went on to argue that Ambrose sought additional investments in targeted job training programs such as apprenticeships. But Brown kept up his criticisms of Ambrose, implying in his closing remarks that she did not do enough to manage the impact of gentrification on longtime residents.
“You see, a lot of folks in this city, and I am sorry to say, my worthy opponent and his boss, let a lot of folks just come in, not D.C. residents, and kicking people out who have been here a long time,” Brown said. “I am not going to stand for it.”
Grosso also took fire from Beatty, who is also hoping to unseat Brown for one of two council seats reserved for a non-Democrat.
Noting that Grosso has raised more general election funds than any other candidate in the race, Beatty said Grosso “will owe $127,000 in favors to people.”
“I offer a fresh start,” said Beatty, a former Ward 6 advisory neighborhood commissioner. “I am a little bit different than anyone else up here. I am not doing this for self- interest, this is not about me, this is about improving my community.’
But the most direct exchanges were between Orange and Brown and the two debate moderators, Mark Segraves of WTOP radio and Mike DeBonis of The Washington Post.
When Segraves questioned Orange about the suspicious money orders his campaign collected from Jeffrey E. Thompson in 2011, the council member pushed back that the media has unfairly reported the story.
Orange argued that he can’t be linked to Thompson — who is at the center of the investigation into how Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) funded the alleged “shadow campaign in 2010 — because he was an outsider when he ran for the council in 2011.
“I had two months, do you think I could put together a shadow campaign in two months?” Orange asked.
DeBonis then noted that Thompson funded a major part of Orange’s 2011 campaign, but Orange maintained that he did not know that Thompson had given him 26 money orders that contained similar handwriting and sequential order numbers.
As he spoke, Orange became increasingly agitated, accusing DeBonis of having an agenda.
“You get to report the news, you don’t get to make the news,” Orange said.
Later, Segraves and DeBonis questioned Brown about his failure to pay his rent, mortgage and taxes on time. Brown said some of the recent media reports about his finances were “totally exaggerated and some were flat-out wrong.”
When pressed for specific examples of erroneous media reports, Brown said it is not factual to say he hasn’t paid federal income taxes because he is currently working to settle his tax debt with the Internal Revenue Service.
“Sometimes you say, ‘did not pay taxes’ and that is not true,” Brown said. “There is nothing wrong with being on a payment plan with the IRS. I am like millions of Americans, but you continue to say, ‘did not pay taxes,’ and that is just absolutely not true.”
Brown, raising his voice, then went on to accuse The Washington Post and other media outlets of not fairly reporting on the allegation that someone stole $113,000 from his campaign. Brown said The Post should have published a news release he issued a month ago that stated he had been clear by the U.S. attorney’s office of any wrongdoing. (The U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment at the time on Brown’s statement.)
“My opponents haven’t been vetted the same way I have, and to me, that speaks to a level playing field,” Brown. “ I will stand up for the issues where I’ve made mistakes, but I don’t think anyone is perfect.”