Peaceoholics co-founder Ronald Moten dominated a historic council debate in Ward 7 on Monday night, showing a broad grasp of a variety of issues while arguing he’s the GOP candidate most likely to be able to snatch votes away from the Democrats.
The debate, between Moten and Don Folden Sr., and held at the Denny’s on Benning Road, is believed to have been the first between two African-American Republican candidates for local office under Home Rule. It was also billed as the first Republican debate held in Ward 7, where more than 80 percent of voters are registered Democrats. Washington Post columnist Colby King moderated the event.
Despite Moten’s controversial past, much of the city’s Republican establishment is supporting him, arguing he’s best suited to take on incumbent Yvette D. Alexander (D-Ward 7) or the Democratic nominee in the fall election.
In one of the nastiest council debates so far in the 2012 election, Moten and Folden repeatedly clashed over their records, ties to the community, and plans for helping the residents of Ward 7 share in the city’s wealth growth.
Moten—best known for negotiating truces between rival gangs— repeatedly demonstrated his continued transformation from political provocateur to political candidate.
A convicted former drug dealer, Moten noted his modest upbringing, saying he hopes to go to the John A. Wilson Building so he can “work for” Ward 7 residents so “they become the lobbyists.”
“I’ve had to heat up water in microwave to bathe my children,” said Moten, who worked as a strategist for former mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) in 2010. “I’ have suffered, that is why the people relate to me, because I’ve been where they are and I am going to take them where I’m going.”
Folden, a former street vendor who has unsuccessfully run in several District elections, at times struggled to stay on message, but repeatedly argued Moten was not experienced enough to represent Ward 7.
“I’m going to tell you the truth,” Folden told about three-dozen Ward 7 voters. “I’m honest. I’m transparent. I have integrity and I’m a man of God.”
At one point, Folden questioned Moten’s ties to Peaceoholics, which the D.C. Auditor recently criticized for having lax oversight over city money.
Moten appeared ready for the attack, pulling out dozens of commendations and letters support that he has received over the years. He then ticked off a list of accomplishments, including, he said, helping 367 young adults find jobs, negotiating 40 gang truces and working to send 161 people to college.
“You’ve seen my face in the community, not just talking,” Moten said. “Walking the blocks. I’m here to tell you it’s a new day.” Folden, Moten charged, hasn’t been seen walking in the community since “The Million Man March” in 1995. Later, Moten suggested Folden was “dropped into Ward 7” from “a UFO.”
Moten is campaigning as a “civil rights Republican,” which he says pays homage to some of the ancestors of the Republican Party, including Frederick Douglass.
Folden said his Republican roots stem from his long-held belief in limited government.
“I’m a Republican because I am tired of Democrats,” Folden said. “All they are doing is keeping African-Americans in bondage and slavery.”
But neither candidate is enamored with the national leaders of their party. When King asked which GOP presidential candidate he most aligns with, Folden said, “none of them.”
In his biggest stumble of the debate, Moten responded, “Doug Christies,” an apparent reference to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), who is not running for president. Moten added he may vote for President Obama in November.
The sharpest disagreement between the two candidates came in a response to a question about how best to attract economic development to Ward 7.
Moten touted his “Circle 7” plan that includes tax breaks for new businesses, but he stressed he doesn’t “want Ward 7 to be H Street,” which he said would price many native residents out of the housing market.
Folden countered he would focus “cleaning up” on Ward 7 so it would start “attracting middle class people.”
“You want to attract growth, bring some white folks over here,” Folden said.
Folden failed to directly several questions from King or the audience. Moten, meanwhile, used humor to try to drive home his point that local government needs to partner with the community to reduce crime and expand opportunity.
“Every senior doesn’t want to play bingo and every youth doesn’t want to play basketball,” said Moten, arguing for expanded hours and services at District recreation centers. “The politics and poliTricks of this city must change.”
With only a few hundred GOP voters expected to vote in the April 3 primary, the stakes were high for both candidates. Folden repeatedly expressed frustration that District Republican leaders appear to be supporting Moten. Robert Kabel, chairman of the D.C. Republican Committee, and Patrick Mara, the GOP candidate in last year’s council race, both attended the debate.
“This is the first time I’ve seen them in Ward 7,” said Folden, later adding, “we’ve got nothing from the Republican Party over here.”
In interview after the debate, Kabel acknowledged the local GOP has “a lot of members who support” Moten because “he’s been very active” with the party in recent months.
“He deserves a lot of credit,” Kabel said.
Moten fans appeared to outnumber Folden supporters by nearly 10 to one during the debate. Several Ward 7 Democrats also attended, several of whom said they thought Moten performed well.
Jackie Pinckney-Hacket, 45, said she is voting for Democrat Tom Brown over Alexander in the April 3 Democratic primary. But Pinckney-Hacket said “Ron Moten clearly won the debate.”
“We are here because, in the event our Democratic candidate doesn’t win (the primary) we need an option,” she said. “We need a plan B and Ron Moten will be our plan B.”