The first official debate of D.C.’s mayoral race kicked off Thursday night with seven of the mayoral candidates appearing in front of an audience of over 200 at the Dumbarton House in Georgetown.
The debate, which focused largely on the future of economic development, public transportation, education and affordable housing in the District, was co-sponsored by the Citizens Association of Georgetown and Georgetown Business Association.
While Mayor Vincent Gray cancelled his appearance at the debate due to a “pressing public security situation,” according to the moderator Davis Kennedy, editor and publisher of The Current Newspapers, the candidates present included Councilmembers Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), Vincent Orange (D-At Large) and Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), as well as restaurateur Andy Shallal and former State Department official Reta Jo Lewis.
Ten minutes into the debate local businessman and little-known mayoral candidate Christian Carter arrived. Carter, whose campaign platform includes raising pay for D.C. public school teachers and tightening hiring standards for residents, had not been formally invited to participate in the debate.
“I’m a mayoral candidate, some of the media … that work with these candidates have been trying to block me off of the scene … but I’m not going to allow that to happen,” Carter said.
Despite initial protests from Kennedy, and amid shouts of “Let him speak!” from audience members, Carter was finally allowed to participate.
Candidates addressed the potential impact of a Metro stop in the Georgetown neighborhood. Shallalwas skeptical of the stop’s purpose and focused on the potential problems in the building process.
“I’m not sure it’s worth the time, effort and money it’s going to require,” Shallal said.
Wells, who supports the proposed stop, outlined the need for additional transportation options in improving residents’ access to all parts of the District.
“The reason that you have to have a great transit system is because it doesn’t matter if you get a job in Georgetown if you can’t get to it,” Wells said.
Candidates responded to questions regarding the Large Retailer Accountability Act as well, which would have raised the minimum wage on large national chains in the District.
The candidates were split in their support for the bill, which came up shortly after retail giant Wal-Mart announced it would build a store in the District.
Wells said the bill did not tackle the problem of providing a living wage aggressively enough.
“What I promised I would do after I voted against that bill was to do something real and that is to raise the minimum wage for all low-wage workers,” Wells said.
Evans supported the bill, but said raising the overall minimum wage, not just the minimum wage for workers at large retailers, was the more important issue at hand.
Orange talked about the necessity of bringing economic development to all areas of the District and taking advantage of the revenue generated by the city’s recent growth.
“Businesses are here generating revenue. The question is, do you want to lower those taxes, and at the same time east of the river suffers?” Orange said, referring to the level of poverty in Wards 7 and 8.
In her remarks, Lewis touched on the city’s current struggle to provide affordable housing to all of its residents.
“Residents of the District of Columbia do not want to have to chose between whether or not they want to have a house or send their kids to school. They have to have a choice, and they just want the city to be a partner with them,” Lewis said.
Bowser emphasized the need for a more efficient allocation of resources to improve the D.C. public school system.
“If we can build successful schools in Ward 8, Ward 6, we won’t have the strain in Ward 3,” Bowser said.
Candidates will face off again when American University, in collaboration with the Kennedy Political Union, holds a formal debate Feb. 12.