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D.C.'s Democratic Mayoral Candidates Squared Off On WAMU 88.5

All eight D.C. mayoral candidates were in attendance at the WAMU media center on Wednesday night.
Anthony Washington/WAMU
All eight D.C. mayoral candidates were in attendance at the WAMU media center on Wednesday night.

All eight candidates for D.C. Mayor were in attendance at the WAMU 88.5 media center for a live mayoral debate on Wednesday night. The panel, composed of WAMU reporters Patrick Madden and Kavitha Cardoza, alongside NBC 4 reporter Tom Sherwood, asked the field questions about a number of issues which have occupied the headlines over the last year:

  • Cardoza opened the debate by asking the candidates if they would keep D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson if they were mayor. Council members Jack Evans and Tommy Wells, along with Mayor Vincent Gray, said they would keep Henderson. Neither Council member Muriel Bowser, nor Andy Shallal, committed to keeping Henderson on, but they didn't say they would get rid of her either.
  • There are approximately 85,000 adults in D.C. who cannot read at a basic level, an issue that was the focus of last year's Yesterday's Dropouts documentary. Cardoza asked Council member Vincent Orange what he would do to help adult learners gain access to those programs. What followed was a somewhat messy, if entertaining exchange.
  • Cardoza asked about the homelessness crisis in the District, citing statistics that say 48 percent of the families asking for shelter are headed by parents between 18 and 24 years of age. Gray said the city is preserving 10,000 units of affordable housing and intends to put more money into affordable housing in the forthcoming budget.
  • Sherwood asked why Gray had not met with federal prosecutors investigating his 2010 campaign, even though he has apologized. Gray said he has not met with prosecutors directly, noting that his attorneys have supplied the documents that have been asked of them. "I will assert, once again, that I have done nothing wrong. We did nothing wrong in that campaign," Gray said.
  • The popular election of a D.C. attorney general was approved by voters in 2010, but the D.C. Council recently voted to push the election back to 2018. It was a point on which multiple candidates, including Tommy Wells and Reta Jo Lewis, hit Mayor Gray. Jack Evans defended the Council's decision on that question, saying: "We were not ready for this election...we would have elected someone who didn't even know what job was."
  • The debate closed on the question of D.C. fire chief Kenneth Ellerbe, who has faced calls to resign from members of the D.C. Council for his department's mishandling of medical calls. Mayor Gray was the only one who said he would keep Ellerbe on the job.

A full analysis of the debate, including a breakdown by Patrick Madden, will air on Thursday morning. You can also watch the video again on the WAMU 88.5 YouTube page. The audio is available here.

The following is the live blog, as it appeared during the debate:

Update, 9:00 p.m.: On whether to keep Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe: Shallal, Wells, Orange, Lewis, Evans, Bowser, Allen respond in the negative. Mayor Vincent Gray is the lone dissenter, saying he is sticking with his fire chief.

The debate has concluded. To all those who followed on the radio, on our video feed, in our live blog or on Twitter, thanks for joining us.

Update, 8:57 p.m.: Referring to a WAMU poll, Muriel Bowser said she is pleased with the results of the recent WAMU poll, saying it was a statement that more than three in four voters doesn't want Mayor Gray to be re-elected.

Jack Evans said his team will focus on the undecided voters, campaign on his record.

"We have not had this much corruption in our government since home rule," said Tommy Wells. He added that he is not running on the status quo.

Mayor Gray said he was positive about the other elements of the poll which indicated that people are happy with the direction of the city.

Kavitha Cardoza asked whether candidates will support a measure to protect convicted felons in the hiring process. Shallal, Wells, Lewis, Evans, Gray, Bowser, Allen said yes, with Orange adding that he would outlaw marijuana testing in the hiring process alongside efforts to legalize and decriminalize in the District.

Update, 8:50 p.m.: Muriel Bowser said she wants to move towards a "strategic approach" for gaining D.C. statehood instead of swinging from crisis to crisis. She said it will be a daily effort to court members of Congress.

"We're going to follow our federal issues daily to make sure that we are getting to know those members, so when we have issues, we know they are going to speak for us," Bowser said.

Gray said you need citizen involvement to get District statehood passed.

Reta Jo Lewis said, besides Gray, she is the only one who is a familiar face to members of Congress on both sides of the aisle.

Update, 8:45 p.m.: Asked whether voters deserve a detailed accounting of his 2010 campaign, Gray dodged the question, pivoting to his early life as a resident in the District.

Tommy Wells said it's clear that the city needed an independent, elected attorney general.

"Right now, the U.S. attorney is asking for information from the mayor, and right now the attorney general is acting as the defense attorney for the mayor," Wells said.

Evans said the reason the election for attorney general was delayed was because the functions of the position have not been outlined and there were no candidates running at the time.

"I think it was a responsible decision on the part of the council," Evans said, emphasizing that the council didn't automatically pass measures that are just politically popular.

Update, 8:38 p.m.: Mayor Vincent Gray said he did not meet personally with prosecutors in the federal investigation into his 2010 campaign, though he has offered all help and documentation that was asked of them.

Jack Evans said if campaign contributions are limited, independent expenditures through PACs will take their place.

"We need to have campaign finance reform in this city... that's the only way we can do it," Shallal said.

Reta Jo Lewis was emphatic that she never took money from Jeffrey Thompson. She said the current establishment won't put the attorney general race on the ballot, resulting in a lack of law and a lack of order. She said it will take an outsider to make sure that the campaign finance laws are enforced.

Update, 8:30 p.m.: Kojo asked about the city's ethics reform bills falling short. Muriel Bowser disagree with the characterization, saying the ethics board created in her bill holds all government employees accountable.

Pressed by Tom Sherwood, Bowser said she did not return campaign money from controversial developer Jeffrey Thompson, but pivoted the answer to target Mayor Vincent Gray's "shadow campaign" in 2010.

"For the first time in four campaigns, the office of campaign finance is making field visits to make sure campaigns are following the law," Bowser said.

Tommy Wells linked Bowser and Gray, saying there was "no daylight." He linked them to Republican policy and the Citizens United ruling.

Update, 8:22 p.m.: Tom Sherwood asked the candidates why the Summer Youth Jobs Program couldn't be year-round.

"Every youth that wants a job in the District should be able to have one," Wells said.

Reta Jo Lewis said kids have to be given the proper training for private sector jobs.

Muriel Bowser adds that she has a bill that would expand the summer jobs program for residents up to age 24.

Update, 8:18p.m.: A listener question from the Public Insight Network focuses on the District nor enforcing/funding a law that protects the belongings of those who face eviction. Gray said he had reservations about the law, saying his brother was once evicted.

Council member Bowser said the city is turning their back on the women and children who are put out in evictions: "In a city that has $12 billion, when we see people evicted on the street, it makes it difficult for someone to get back on their feet," Bowser said.

Council member said he often feels like the "skunk at the picnic" on issues like homelessness and evictions, because he says he is the only one focusing on how to finance these programs.

Update, 8:08 p.m.: Asked about youth homelessness, Mayor Gray says part of the problem is women raising children in the homes they grew up in, who eventually need housing options and social services. He said part of the solution is economic development, which will give young people opportunity.

"It's not just a housing capacity issue, it's a capacity issue for the people themselves," Gray said, adding that affordable housing units are on the way.

Fielding a yes/no question on whether they support the D.C. law mandating shelter when temperatures were below freezing, all candidates responded in the affirmative.

Update, 8:00 p.m.: The next question comes from Patrick Madden, asking whether there is a homeless crisis in the city.

Mayor Vincent Gray said the city is trying to help people come back from troubled situations, noting that there has been some success in the month of February, as the number of exits into city shelters have exceeded intakes.

Fielding a followup on young adults in crisis, Shallal said he doesn't think leadership in the city is anticipating crises.

Update, 7:55 p.m.: Andy Shallal fielded a question about there is a conflict between his concerns on gentrification and his success as a business owner in the District. He replied that it's unfair to blame businesses for gentrification, since it's government policies that make it happen.

Shallal also confronted Council member Muriel Bowser on calling him a "rich socialist," questioning the connotation of that term.

"Andy is rich, and I don't fault him for that," Bowser said. "He's to the left of most of us, and I don't fault him for that."

Tom Sherwood also gave a quick question on where the candidates live, in relation to the position on affordable housing. The short version: Allen, Evans, Shallal, Wells live in relatively unaffordable areas; Gray, Orange, Bowser live in affordable areas.

Update, 7:50 p.m.: Kojo mentioned a recent tweet by Council member Jack Evans telling Kevin Spacey that the city would welcome Netflix's "House of Cards" if they leave Maryland.

Evans focused on his record on school modernization on the Council since 1991.

"As mayor, I want to bring the prosperity we're enjoying to everyone," Evans said.

Update, 7:45 p.m.: Reinforcing the point on adult learners, Kavitha Cardoza asked Mayor Gray if new workforce development programs help adults who are below-level on reading.

"There are three areas where jobs are being created: construction, information technology, and hospitality. Two, if not three of those areas, are areas that are open to people with low educational attainment," said Gray.

Gray says the city is opening nine academies that will align education to those job areas.

Update, 7:40 p.m.: Kavitha Cardoza asked Council member Vincent Orange about what he would do to fix adult learning in the District.

Orange said the problems with adult learners stems from problems at the middle school level, where they can’t “add, subtract, multiply and divide.”

Update, 7:37 p.m.: Patrick Madden broke into the education discussion to ask why taxpayers should foot part of the bill for the construction of a new stadium for D.C. United. Gray said between $60-70 million in economic development would be created from the new stadium, including hundreds of jobs.

”One of the purposes that we are trying to achieve is to have a catalytic effect on what is happening west of Capitol Street,” Mayor Gray said.

Update, 7:30 p.m.: On the issue of the D.C. Council’s Education Committee, Tommy Wells said that too much involvement from the D.C. Council moves the city away from mayoral control of schools.

"Council oversight is good but too much involvement would jeopardize mayoral control of schools,” Wells said.

Mayor Vincent Gray reiterated this point, saying he was “very concerned” with the current Education Committee.

WAMU 88.5 reporter Patrick Madden asked the candidates how they would ensure diverse neighborhood schools in neighborhoods that are becoming less diverse.

Council member Vincent Orange says the main problem schools is that elementary schools are not adequately preparing students with the basic skills they need to succeed and move forward to middle school. He says more focus needs to be put on the curriculum and ensuring that kids can read at grade level.

Asked about how he would improve disadvantaged schools, Carlos Allen says he wants less testing in D.C. schools.

Reta Jo Lewis responded to the same question, saying: “We cannot allow a Zip code to determine what type of education a child would get.”

Update, 7:20 p.m.: WAMU 88.5 education reporter Kavitha Cardoza begins the debate by asking the candidates whether they would keep on D.C. Public Schools chancellor Kaya Henderson.

Council member Jack Evans said he would keep her on, saying she’s doing a “good job.” That was a sentiment shared by Mayor Vincent Gray.

“I am an unequivocal supporter of Kaya Henderson,” Gray said. “And I am proud what she has done with our schools.”

Council member Muriel Bowser did not commit to keeping the DCPS chancellor, nor did Andy Shallal, who mentioned that the gap in test scores between white and black students.

Update, 7:06 p.m.:All the candidates are in attendance: Mayor Vincent Gray, Council members Muriel Bowser, Tommy Wells, Vincent Orange and Jack Evans, Reta Jo Lewis, Carlos Allen and Andy Shallal.

Kojo has laid out the rules, and we're away.

Update, 6:45 p.m.: Mayor Vincent Gray continues to lead the Democratic pack ahead of the primary, scheduled for April 1.The results of a poll conducted by NBC4, WAMU 88.5, the Washington Informer and the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion shows Gray ahead of D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), the next closest contender, by 28 percent to 20 percent. Council members Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) and Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) trail behind with 13 percent and 12 percent respectively, followed by Andy Shallal, Council member Vincent Orange and Reta Jo Lewis at 6, 4, and 3 percent respectively.

With three weeks left until early voting for the Democratic begins in the city, nearly three-quarters of District residents polled reported satisfaction with the direction in which the city is going. Mayor Gray has struggled to turn that sentiment into support for his re-election, in part because of the scandal surrounding the federal investigation into his 2010 campaign. Four people associated with Gray's campaign have pleaded guilty as part of the investigation into the "shadow campaign."

The shadow campaign, which included the spending of $653,000 in illicit funds, is likely to be a hot topic on Wednesday night. But the other seven candidates will also have to make their case why they can govern the District better than Gray.

The debate will be moderated by WAMU 88.5's Kojo Nnamdi, and candidates will field questions from WAMU 88.5 reporters Kavitha Cardoza and Patrick Madden as well as NBC 4 reporter Tom Sherwood.

The debate will be broadcast live on WAMU 88.5 from 7 to 9 p.m. Listeners will also be able to tune in to a live video stream, as well as follow a live blog, on WAMU.org. Twitter users can also follow the debate using the hashtag #WAMUDebate.


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