Democratic candidates for Alexandria City Council prepare for Wednesday’s debate. (Patricia Sullivan/The Washington Post)

Suggestion for political candidates: When you’re in a 14-way race for six slots, the primary is a month away, and you’re given the opportunity to ask an opponent a question in front of 200 voters, make it count.

The Democrats who are running for their party’s nomination to Alexandria City Council worked their way through a half-dozen predictable questions from the local Democratic committee Wednesday night at Francis C. Hammond Middle School.

Then they were given the delicious opportunity to fire one down the strike zone at one of their fellow candidates. They didn’t get to pick to whom the question would be directed, but each one fully controlled their own query.

Alas. The questions were almost all way too polite. Here’s something learned in journalism school and in more than 30 years of asking questions for a living: Be specific, target weaknesses in arguments and ask questions that require more than yes or no answers.

This isn’t rude. You are trying to inform the public about who would make the best elected official, and who can’t think beyond a four-color glossy brochure.

For example (and the bad ones are both real questions asked Wednesday night):

Bad: What have you learned about public service during your time in office?

Good: Why did you vote for the waterfront plan when hundreds of Old Town residents opposed it?

Bad: How would you strengthen communication with citizens?

Good: What evidence can you provide to show you would be better at listening to citizens than the current officeholders?

There were a couple of good, if understated, candidate-to-candidate exchanges, such as when Sean Holihan asked Victoria Menjivar how she would deal with affordable housing issues if the council failed to pass the Beauregard Small Area Plan and the developers went ahead and demolished the modest apartments there now. And Donna Fossum, a member of the Planning Commission , asked Boyd Walker, who made his name by leading the opposition to the city’s waterfront plan, how he would go about forming consensus to unite the community.

It’s not so easy, especially if you don’t get to choose who you will ask. But there are two council incumbents, two former council members, a school board member and several appointees to citywide boards running, and their records are fair game. There are plenty of controversies to explore: the waterfront plan, Beauregard area redevelopment, the schools’ capital improvement budget, and the growing feeling in town that if city leaders are listening, they are disregarding the will of the activists (who may or may not represent majority opinion).

Del Pepper and Paul Smedberg should have answers ready for why they passed the budget and voted for the waterfront plan; Arthur Peabody ought to be ready to talk about the schools’ budget scandal; Justin Wilson and Timothy Lovain have likely practiced answers to why they are running again after previous losses.

Should voters be concerned that Walker was overdue on his property taxes, or Holihan just moved to town four years ago, or the first civic engagement of a couple of candidates appears to be running for office?

Some of these issues were addressed. There was consensus that Alexandria has to do something about its affordable housing crisis , there was much discussion of too much traffic and the need for more mass-transit-oriented development, and the necessity of expanding the city’s tax base one way or another. So many topics were covered in the two-hour debate that each candidate got multiple chances to make their marks. (See a list of tweets from the audience, via the Delray Patch)

There are at least two other debates scheduled so far: the Tenants and Workers Union, Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at Cora Kelly Recreation Center and the Alexandria Democratic Committee debate June 4. The primary election is June 12.