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D.C. elections: What mayoral candidates say about housing, schools, crime

Clockwise from top left, D.C. mayoral candidates Muriel E. Bowser, Trayon White Sr., James Butler and Robert C. White Jr. (Stefani Reynolds for The Washington Post, Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post, Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Ballots are already in voters’ mailboxes and tensions are high between the four Democratic candidates running for mayor of Washington. Muriel E. Bowser, seeking a third term, has sparred with D.C. Council members Robert C. White Jr. and Trayon White Sr. and former neighborhood official James Butler in a slew of debates leading up to the June 21 Democratic primary. At the latest forum Monday night, sponsored by the Ward 6 Democrats and moderated by ABC7′s Sam Ford, the candidates rehashed their differences on policing, schools and other major issues.

On crime

Bowser and Butler accused Robert White and Trayon White of diverting funds from police at a cost to public safety, with Butler calling the two council members “defund-the-police Democrats.”

I may be the only one — and Mr. Butler, perhaps — who is willing to include policing in that comprehensive approach” to crime, Bowser said. “I hear the words ‘streamlined policing.’ What that means is defunding policing for two years.” (The “two years” reference was to the council’s 2020 decision to reduce the police budget by about 2 percent, a cut that led the department to freeze hiring for more than a year. Since then, the council has twice raised the police budget by millions of dollars.)

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“The mayor unfortunately is fearmongering, which is the last thing we need a mayor to do in a city that is unsafe.” Robert White shot back. “ ‘Streamline’ doesn’t mean defund the police. You can see my plan in black and white … I say I’m going to do what the Police Reform Commission asked this mayor to do two years ago. I’m going to do an analysis of how many police we need.”

In response to a question from Ford about a Pennsylvania Avenue Southeast dry cleaning shop that was vandalized and robbed, Trayon White spoke about the need for city liaisons to help business owners request aid from the government and about the need for youth services. “As leaders in this city, we have a divestment in youth and young adult services in our community. And we wonder why our youth are involved in crimes,” White said. Butler, similarly, answered the question with a plan for 24-hour recreation centers to constructively occupy young people.

Only Bowser answered the question about the shop by saying D.C. police should more frequently patrol the corner.

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On schools

“If any of the council members were mayor during this time, we would likely still be doing virtual learning,” Bowser said, noting that Robert White proposed an unsuccessful bill that would have imposed constraints on when schools could open based on coronavirus case rates.

Robert White spoke of his plan to make the state superintendent of education independent from the mayor’s office, and Bowser again accused him of muddling his message about whether he supports mayoral control of D.C. schools.

“I think this is a seminal issue of this campaign. I have to say I have heard now council member White have at least six different descriptions of what he would do with the schools,” Bowser said.

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“As has happened many times tonight, the mayor’s just flat wrong. My answer for schools has been consistent. More importantly, what you see from me is a sense of urgency,” Robert White said. “You can’t tell me we’re doing a good job.”

The back-and-forth, which Butler jumped in to castigate as “bickering” between “career politicians,” continued.

“I heard the statement ‘a sense of urgency,’ but I also heard a scattered view of how to get things done,” Bowser responded. “Moving boxes around on an organizational chart, telling you that you want an independent superintendent, because? Because you had to just have a new organization? … This is a bunch of moving around boxes when we need to be focused on investing in schools.”

Bowser also criticized Robert White’s plan to open public boarding schools as “telling parents that we want to send the government to raise your kids.”

White replied, “Every wealthy family in this country can send their child to a boarding school. And you can’t tell me that something is good for the wealthy but not good for everybody else.”

On affordable housing

Bowser touted the money she has put into the Housing Production Trust Fund — more than $1 billion over her two terms — that has subsidized the creation of thousands of new units of designated affordable housing.

“Most residents understand that spending money and solving problems are different things,” said Robert White, who turned to his plan to convert downtown office buildings into affordable housing.

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Trayon White also critiqued Bowser’s trust fund spending. “First we have to start with an investigation of where a billion dollars has been spent in the last 10 years, because we don’t know where the affordable housing is,” he said. “The money has become a slush fund for developers.”

Trayon White said the high cost of housing has driven Black residents to move out of the city. “We are being forced out, and gentrification is being engineered by the government.”

Butler, who advocated expanding rent control to cover more recently constructed apartment buildings, touched on similar themes of gentrification. He said he would require that every building developed by the government include space for a minority-owned business such as a coffee shop or an artist, to give Black Washingtonians a leg up.

On homelessness

Robert White criticized Bowser’s decision to forcibly remove tent encampments where homeless people were living, saying that if he were mayor, he could have found housing for them — as Bowser’s administration has said that she did before clearing encampments. “If our mayor spent more time talking to people who lived there and less time talking to developers, maybe she would understand,” White said.

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In response, Bowser touted her success at greatly reducing the number of people who are homeless in the District, especially families. “I have made it a major platform of my entire time in office to make homelessness rare, brief and nonrecurring,” she said. She stood by her program of offering people in tents housing vouchers and then removing their tents. “Council members voted to stop it. They voted to stop it,” she said.

“That’s not right,” Robert White cut in. The council did vote on a bill that would have halted tent removals, but the bill failed to pass.