Five mayoral candidates vying for the Democratic nomination faced off in a public forum at the Sixth & I Synagogue in downtown Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, with candidates challenging incumbent Vincent Gray on his current policies and past legal troubles.
The forum, moderated by Jerry Clark, the political director of D.C. for Democracy, featured D.C. Council members Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) and Vincent Orange (D-At Large), restaurateur AndyShallal and former State Department official Reta Jo Lewis in addition to Gray. Council members Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) and Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), both declared candidates, were not able to attend the forum due to scheduling conflicts.
Candidates touched on issues ranging from education and standardized testing policy to homelessness in the District and tipped minimum wage for restaurant workers.
Wells was quick to distinguish himself from the crowd by criticizing the corruption that he perceives as characterizing several of his opponents’ campaigns, particularly Gray, Evans, Bowser and Orange.
“I’m running to end the culture of corruption in our government. We’ve got three council members that have either stepped down or been indicted, we have a mayor that’s under investigation — an investigation that has cost the city over $40 million already,” Wells said, slamming Gray over the ongoing investigation into his 2010 run for mayor.
Gray was quick to emphasize his accomplishments three years into the job, highlighting economic development and educational improvements as reasons for why voters should grant him a second term.
“We said we were going to bring more fiscal responsibility to the District of Columbia, and we have. We said we were going to improve education, and we have seen improved test scores for our kids and we have the most robust early childhood education program in America,” Gray said.
Throughout the night, candidates challenged Gray on his positions, ranging from his administration’s increase of the budget to the D.C.
“On this issue, it’s not about the money, it’s about how you spend it. It’s well and good to increase the budget, but where is a comprehensive plan?” Orange said.
One of the more contentious topics was the current education policy in the District — in particular the emphasis on standardized testing as a measure of success, a method introduced during former Chancellor of D.C. Public Schools Michelle Rhee’s time in office.
Lewis honed in on the necessity for a school’s success not only to be measured simply in test scores but also in the environment in the District’s classrooms.
“I believe that tests are just one measure of how well a school is doing, and in this city, it’s great to have fancy, beautiful buildings on the outside, but that’s not what it’s about. It’s about what is going on inside the building, and D.C. deserves a mayor that is going to focus on just that,” Lewis said.
Shallal also harked on the need for revised standards of evaluating the success of D.C. schools.
“Our education system is broken. If D.C. were a state, we would be 51st in the nation in terms of our education system. All parents know that a test is not a good indicator of their child’s potential, and the same goes for our school system,” Shallal said.
In a post-debate interview with The Hoya, Wells was quick to refute the mayor in terms of the inequality he sees in D.C.’s school system.
“The fact remains that there is a huge achievement gap in America and the District when it comes to education. Minority students are still struggling, and it is a social injustice that we allow it to happen. The mayor is simply masking the reality when it comes to education. The achievement gap in this city has gotten worse under Vincent Gray,” Wells said.
In a discussion of tipped minimum wage, Shallal, whose lack of political experience has made him stand out in a race dominated by local politicians, said that he would continue to support increases to the minimum wage as well as changes to how the District compensates tipped workers such as back of the house workers in restaurants, including his own Busboys and Poets.
“I long for the day when we won’t have to have tipped workers, but ultimately, we need to have living wages for everyone. For now, I do support the bill that provides for tipped wages to be 70 percent of the minimum wage. I think that’s a fair compromise at this point,” Shallal said.
Conversely, Orange highlighted his work authoring last year’s D.C. Council Act raising the minimum wage to $11.50 by 2016 and raising awareness of the issues surrounding tipped wage workers.
“I also championed legislation that would provide tipped wage workers up to five days of accrued sick leave,” Orange said, referring to a clause in the 2013 legislation. “We need to understand what the issue really is. Tipped wage workers are entitled to a minimum wage.”
While Mayor Gray holds a double-digit lead his opponents according to a Washington Post poll published last week, his detractors will have plenty of opportunities to make their case over the next two months leading up to the April 1 Democratic primary.