The first debate for the two At-Large Councilmember seats demonstrated DC voters have a lively and diverse slate of candidates. Sponsored by the Southwest Neighborhood Assembly, the October 27 event was made possible with the generous hospitality of Westminster Presbyterian Church. NBC4 Reporter Tom Sherwood skillfully moderated the event, weaving light-hearted and witty remarks while calming the more passionate moments of the debate. The debate attracted a number of officials including Councilmembers Tommy Wells and Yvette Alexander. WTOP reporter Mark Segraves – @SegravesWTOP – live-tweeted the event, from which the following account is significantly compiled.

During the candidates’ opening statements, Michael Brown announced that his record “is hard to run against.” AJ Cooper touted his US Marine Corps service, Leon Swain his DC Taxicab Commission service and Anne Wilcox her work with Occupy DC. Sherwood’s first query was on ethics, with Swain declaring the issue as the most important, David Grasso confirming “this is the reason I ran” and Mary Brooks Beatty declaring “there’s a crisis of confidence.” In a follow up campaign issue query, Beatty directly challenged Brown’s matter-of-fact approach – “nobody up here is perfect” – and retorted “I agree nobody’s perfect, but some of us are better than others.” Sherwood continued with the ethical theme by polling the candidates on whether CFO Natwar Gandhi should “stay or go” in light of his department’s questionable management practices. Grosso was supportive: “I have a lot of respect for Dr. Gandhi,” but most of the candidates responded unfavorably.

Later, the ethics debate heated up: AJ Cooper lashed out at Brown, declaring “most of what you’re saying is a lie.”

Shifting to a pet peeve of many, Sherwood asked the candidates what their opinion is of the red light, speed and now stop sign cameras proliferating throughout DC and costing drivers millions of dollars. The candidates expressed a notable amount of agreement on the matter: disfavor. Cooper concluded “they’re un-American,” Betty, “it’s predatory,” and Swain, “it’s a racket.”  Grosso and Wilcox struck a more conciliatory tone, with the latter suggesting that we instead need more policemen on the street.

An initial set of audience questions focused on ‘bread and butter’ issues like education and crime, but later turned emotional. One audience member delivered a long-winded expression of gratitude to Brown for reaching out to help one of his GLBT relatives. When he declined Sherwood’s request to stop and ask a question, Sherwood asked the candidates how the long-disadvantaged GLBT community could be better supported. Responses were vague but supportive. Brown pointed to his “legislative accomplishments.” But the mood spiked when Cooper accused Brown of orchestrating a speech praising Michael Brown, with Brown denied. At this point, the audience member started arguing with Cooper. Sherwood threatened to end the debate before things calmed down.

Fortunately, the debate ended up on an upswing, with Sherwood lobbying a softball – “Have the Nationals been worth it?” The candidates were uniformly supportive, though some were more fatalistic: “we’ve got them now” concluded Cooper.

Unfortunately as they departed, attendees were quickly reminded of the timeliness of the policy debate. Police were investigating a Councilmember staff’s Land Rover broken into while parked at church’s lot for the debate. One eyewitness saw the offender scrambling away, but it’s unclear if any charges have been filed.

By Kael Anderson, President of the Southwest Neighborhood Assembly (SWNA)

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