The Debate Watcher is an ongoing feature reviewing this year’s D.C. mayoral candidate forums.
The Hosts: Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6D, The Southwester newspaper, the Southwest Neighborhood Assembly and the Navy Yard Neighborhood Association
The Venue: The Arlene and Robert Kogod Cradle at Arena Stage
The Candidates: Muriel Bowser, Vincent Orange, Andy Shallal, Tommy Wells
The No-Shows: Carlos Allen, Jack Evans, Vincent Gray, Reta Jo Lewis
The Moderator: Shannon Vaughn, editor of The Southwester
The Crowd: About 250
The Stakes: The communities of Southwest and near Southeast Washington host some of the city’s most civically engaged residents. And those neighborhoods are home to several hot-button issues, ranging from the proposal to build a pro soccer stadium on Buzzard Point to plans to expand an aging rail tunnel along Virginia Avenue SE to a sprawling new development soon to get underway on the Southwest Waterfront. So, perhaps it was not so surprising that hundreds of residents turned out for a rare Saturday morning forum, even if only half the Democratic candidates did.
The Topics: improving public middle and high schools, campaign finance reform, public housing rehabilitation, retail development, Circulator bus service
The Upshot: Vaughn distinguished himself as one of the sharpest questioners on this year’s campaign forum circuit, tailoring his questions for each candidate and pressing them for specifics. A question about the soccer stadium plan, for instance, steered away from the usual generalities and focused on transportation planning. Other questions focused on neighborhood-specific issues, such as the tunnel project and future of the local library branch. But sometimes the questions were so specific that candidates lapsed into talking points. A question about enforcing developers’ pledges to neighborhood groups, for instance, prompted Orange to decry the city’s lack of commitment to doing business with local contractors.
The Moment of Truth: Vaughn teed up a question about influence in political campaigns for Wells, who is the only candidate not taking corporate donations. Wells proceeded to tell a tale of backroom arm-twisting, wherein an unnamed businessman tried to pressure Wells into supporting a plan to place a charter high school on a city-owned parcel in Southwest. Wells said he was told that if he didn’t play ball, the businessman, an official with the Federal City Council, would work to withhold business support from his future campaigns. “That’s the kind of pressure that happens behind closed doors,” Wells said. “I told him: So what?” Afterward, Wells said the businessman was Terence C. Golden, a former Federal City Council officer and current board chairman for KIPP D.C.; Golden did not answer phone calls or return an e-mail Monday seeking comment.
The Crowd Favorite: Shallal won applause and cheers with his arsenal of one-liners (“Schools don’t fail; we fail them”) and an impromptu recitation of Langston Hughes’ “Let America Be America Again.” But Wells, having represented the area on the D.C. Council for seven years, had a homecourt advantage and made the most of it, demonstrating a keener grasp than the competition of more parochial issues like redevelopment of the Greenleaf housing projects and the establishment of a Southwest business improvement district. And, while tackling a transportation question, he avoided having to account for one uncomfortable move: In 2011, as chairman of the council’s transportation committee, he played a key role in moving Southwest’s only Circulator bus route out of the neighborhood.