The candidates running in the citywide race for two seats on the D.C. Council clashed Thursday night over ethics, speed cameras and even whether incumbent Michael A. Brown planted the father of a slain transgender woman in the audience.
At a forum at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Southwest Washington, all the at-large candidates on the ballot except Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large) showed up to begin framing their message for the final month of the campaign.
With Orange heavily favored to win one seat because he’s the Democratic nominee, the candidates largely aimed their criticisms at Brown (I-At Large). One of Brown’s opponents, A.J. Cooper, was particularly aggressive in challenging the incumbent’s record and his personal controversies, including Brown’s failure to pay his rent, mortgage and taxes on time.
About midway through the forum, Brown sought to shift the focus away from his personal finances by citing his legislative record, including efforts to build more affordable housing.
“I am extremely confident, especially when you look at my record, I will put it up against everyone,” said Brown, who is seeking a second term.
When Cooper got a chance to respond, he accused Brown of being a liar. “You must think people don’t realize most of what you say is a lie,” said Cooper, a policy director at the D.C. Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. “I work in the nonprofit field. I see the results of the council ignoring nonprofits.”
A few minutes later, when moderator Tom Sherwood took questions from the audience, Alvin Bethea stood and began referencing the February murder of his child, JaParker “Deoni” Jones. Jones, a transgender woman, was fatally stabbed at a bus stop in the 4900 block of East Capitol Street in a potential hate crime.
Despite efforts by Sherwood to enforce forum rules barring speeches from audience members, Bethea started praising Brown for helping his family get through the tragedy.
After Bethea’s speech, another audience member, Brown communication director Asher Corson, leaned back in his seat and told Bethea “thank you.”
Cooper then accused Brown of planting Bethea in the audience to generate sympathy for his campaign.
“I think it is so disgusting to use a tragedy like that for cheap political points,” said Cooper, the nephew of philanthropist and former school board chairwoman Peggy Cooper Cafritz.
Brown responded: “We didn’t orchestrate that. I don’t know why some folks have so much negative energy.”
Bethea also jumped out of his seat and began shouting at Cooper as Sherwood, a reporter for NBC 4 (WRC), tried to maintain order. In an interview after the forum, Bethea said he was insulted that Cooper falsely accused him of working on behalf of the Brown campaign.
The remainder of the forum also featured pointed exchanges between the candidates.
Brown stressed that he’s advocating for public financing of campaigns to help curtail the influence of money in District politics. But GOP candidate Mary Brooks Beatty noted that the council had failed to ban outside employment and constituent service funds when it approved comprehensive ethics reform legislation in December.
“The constituent service fund is not used for constituents,” said Beatty, a former advisory neighborhood commissioner near H Street NE in Ward 6. “Most of it is used as a slush fund.”
Green Party candidate Ann C. Wilcox argued that the key to more ethical behavior on the council is “more teeth” and resources for the Office of Campaign Finance.
In response to questions about Brown’s personal, financial and campaign issues, including an investigation into how more than $100,000 went missing from his campaign, the council member accused his opponents of trying to distract voters from the real issues.
“Clearly, I don’t think anyone up here is perfect,” Brown said. “If you’re perfect, raise your hand.”
But Leon Swain Jr., a former police officer and former chairman of the D.C. Taxicab Commission who is running as an independent, countered that Brown’s personal affairs are relevant for voters.
“Once you let people represent you, your personal life and your professional life become one and the same,” said Swain, who lives in Ward 8. “Our city council has become an embarrassment.”
Later, Swain said his background in law enforcement makes him best suited for the council.
“You’ve had lawyers, you’ve never had a cop up there,” said Swain, a former FBI informant who helped break up a corruption ring in the city’s taxicab industry. “You’ve never had someone watch what was going on.”
Sherwood also asked the candidates about plans by Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s administration to install as many as 80 additional speed cameras in the city.
Attorney David Grosso, an independent, said he supports speed cameras. “If it slows people down and saves lives, then I think it’s important to do it,” he said.
Beatty and Swain said they oppose additional speed cameras. “It almost creates a sense the government is out to get you,” Beatty said. “I sometimes feel they are watching every move.”
Cooper also called speed cameras “un-American,” but said he supports their use near hospitals, schools and other areas with high pedestrian traffic.
Brown said he wants speed cameras placed near city borders to issue more tickets to residents of Maryland and Virginia to make up for the District not having a commuter tax.
Voters in the Nov. 6 election will be able to cast ballots for two candidates in the at-large race.