The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Debate Watcher: The D.C. mayoral race, seen through the stained glass

Zion Baptist Church is seen during the candidate debate. (Aaron Davis/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

Lined up in front of the pulpit at Zion Baptist Church in Northwest on Monday night, the candidates traded some of their sharpest barbs of the year. If the heated rhetoric inside a church sanctuary at first seemed ironic, it didn’t in this context: early voting  begins on March 17, one month from Monday. (The Debate Watcher is an ongoing feature reviewing D.C. mayoral candidate forums ahead of the April 1 primary elections).

The Hosts: The Missionary Baptist Ministers’ Conference of Washington, DC and Vicinity

The Venue: Zion Baptist Church

The Candidates: All present except for Carlos Allen

The Crowd: About 150 ministers, parishioners and neighbors

The Stakes: Although it has not yet reached the intensity seen in neighboring Maryland, where buses can be seen leaving directly from church services for the polls, the proliferation of early voting has increased the power of churches to mobilize members to turn out for elections. That may be especially important this year in the District’s unusually early, April 1 primary, since a recent Post poll showed fewer people following the election closely at this point than in recent years.

The Topics: Homelessness, affordable housing, and candidates’ religion and relationship with the faith community

The Upshot: It started with the mundane: the first big applause of the night went to a candidate lamenting the lack of parking for church goers in D.C. on a Sunday morning. Soon, the whole mayor’s race could be seen through the stained glass: Does a relatively rich city like the District have enough compassion for its homeless and poor? Are the morals of a mayor who remains under federal investigation a ballot-box issue for the faithful? Are dwindling D.C. congregations just another symptom of a red-hot housing market and influx of newcomers who are pushing out the old (and not sharing in the rich history of a historically African American majority city)?

The Moment(s) of Truth:

1. Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) attacked Gray saying his staff seemed more interested in getting a soccer stadium built than helping its homeless:

“It’s not enough to say that I made a proposal last year in the budget. The mayor’s city administrator chairs the council on homelessness for our city. The mayor’s city administrator has not asked me one time to support the mayor’s initiative on homelessness. The mayor’s city administrator, however, has been to my office to talk about soccer, to talk about building a stadium. So, don’t tell me you wanted something from the council when … you never came down and asked the council to move on anything. … We have to start with this principle: We are a prosperous city and in a prosperous city, children should not be [sleeping] in recreation centers.

2. Gray stood his ground that the council last year thwarted his effort to pass measures that could have made it easier to force homeless families to move out of shelters and to housing or back in with friends or family:

“We want to spend the money into putting people in permanent placement. We need the flexibility to do that.” Gray said he would bring the issue back to the council for a vote in a few days: “I invite every council member to stand up and be accountable on that.

3. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) charged that Gray wasn’t fit for re-election because of the way he won his first campaign.

“I taught my Sunday school class that you must live your faith and account for your values at all times, not just someone is looking … we’ve seen three council members indicted for a breach of faith …. We saw Vince Gray, when he ran his last campaign, his campaign paid for one man to disparage Adrian Fenty at each stop that they could. That is not living your values, that’s not living your faith, but when you do it, you have to account for it .. and ask foregiveness.’

4. Gray declined to take on Wells, directly, sort of: “Tommy Wells has been running around town with that for the last several weeks, I’m not going to waste my time on that. … I happen to be one who considers myself religious. Am I in church every Sunday? Absolutely not, but I operate in a very religious fashion … connected to the values and principles that I believe God espoused and are espoused by our houses of worship.”

The Crowd Favorite:

“When we’re talking about a war on poverty, I think there’s a war on our churches. how it started was parking. You can’t even park anywhere … you cannot put parishioners out your city because they cannot find a place to park outside church on Sunday.”

— Reta Jo Lewis

Why don’t churches have more of a say in development? “Who are you going to answer to who funds your campaign when you’re elected, the developers who gave thousands of dollars or the churches?

–Tommy Wells (who has shunned corporate contributions, and is lagging in the money race as a result).

“Part of the reason churches are moving to Prince George’s County is because that’s where our D.C. residents are moving to, so churches are following them there. What we need to be talking about is how we are going to save the middle class in Washington … then, guess what? There will be a church … growing in D.C.”– Muriel Bowser