By Matthew Koehler and Southwester Staff
The At-Large City Council race in Washington, D.C. has become a battleground of ideas in local politics. In October and November, D.C. voters will choose a City Councilmember to replace the outgoing Independent David Grosso, as well as voting whether or not to keep another incumbent. In a virtual debate, hosted by Southwest Neighborhood Assembly (SWNA) Sept. 14-16, their different priorities and personalities were on display.
Grosso announced he would not run for reelection last year, saying he was “proud of” his accomplishments, but that “there needs to be other voices on the council.” He endorsed Christina Henderson, a former staffer for the D.C. council’s education committee, to take his place. However, the race quickly widened, requiring SWNA to spread the debate out over three days.
At-Large Candidate Forum Day 1
The first night of the community forum was moderated by Fenit Nirappil, a reporter for “The Washington Post” covering City Hall. The candidates in attendance were Claudia Barragan, Mario Cristaldo, Monica Palacio, Eric Rogers, Ann Wilcox, Robert C. White, the incumbent, currently serving his first term and Vincent Orange, a former council member who lost his council seat to White in 2016.
Nirappil began with a series of rapid fire questions that required a show of hands. If there appeared to be some splits, or interest in the question, he teased out discussion or debate.The questions covered a variety of topics, ranging from initiatives like supporting a ban on e-cigarettes, a tax on sugary beverages, to policing and mayoral control over DCPS. The latter two garnered lots of discussion and debate from all the candidates.
The big takeaways from night one centered around Mayor Bowser’s job approval, education, policing reforms, taxes, where the candidates felt the Council had made mistakes, and Initiative 77. There was also significant debate over what government office or program the candidates would make cuts to.
There was some split among the candidates on whether or not the Mayor is doing a good job. Palacio, Rogers, and Orange all praised her for her COVID response. Wilcox, who ran against the Mayor in the previous election, called her a “nice person” but said she was “developer driven.” White said the mayor hasn’t been progressive enough on social justice and said her focus is not on the people in D.C. now, but rather those she wants to bring in. Palacio, who worked in Bowser’s administration, also said she mostly agreed with the mayor’s COVID.
Moving on to education, Barragan highlighted the digital divide (a topic “The Southwester” has covered before), and how the Mayor failed on virtual learning. White pointed out the wide gap in education between Black and White students, and said voters would support mayoral control of schools if the statistics for students of color were better. Orange, however, broke with White and Barragan over mayoral control of schools, arguing she’s able to make quick decisions when a board can’t. He blamed the Council for the lack of oversight, and also cited the digital divide. White, though, shot back and pinned the digital divide, especially in concern with preparation for distance learning, squarely on the Mayor who he said told everyone the schools were set. “This is what happens when you have Mayoral control,” White Said. Rogers disagreed and said Mayoral control was a good thing because “you need to be able to make changes at the drop of dime, have that maneuverability.” He highlighted the Mayor’s openness to alternatives to public education.
When asked about whether or not Chief of Police of the Metropolitan Police Department Peter Newsham was doing a good job, only Orange approved of the police chief’s job, saying that George Floyd never would have happened in the District, but he didn’t elaborate.
All the candidates split over the idea of defunding the police, though. Three candidates, Palacio, Orange, and Rogers all agreed that the number of police on District streets is appropriate, and, in fact, we may need more. There was agreement that serious changes needed to take place. Orange said, “We do need police officers in the District of Columbia,” and mentioned taking away some of their deadly tools but didn’t go into specific details about reforms. Palacio agreed that there were not too many police on the streets but detailed how there needs to be a human rights code of ethics for police behavior. She elaborated, “You don’t turn off the switch and take all the police officers off the street.”
Rogers didn’t agree that D.C. needs less police, but did agree with his fellow candidates that reforms were necessary. White agreed with this point but he, Barragan, and Cristaldo all reflected current public sentiment that perhaps there were too many police. Barragan and Cristaldo hammered down on providing resources and money to emergency services that were not the police – saying that giving communities other options besides calling the police would save lives and reduce police interactions.
One of the topics that came up both night one and two of the forum was whether or not to tax high earners a little more. Barragan, Cristaldo, Wilcox, and White all said they would raise taxes. Wilcox said she would reverse the Trump tax cuts, and that she agrees with Councilmember Allen on taxes. Rogers said that we should look to “scrubbing” government agencies to make them more “efficient,” but that now is not the time to raise taxes. White pointed out that the tax is for those making $250,000+, and that it would only be a few hundred a year. Palacio agreed with Rogers, saying that people with six figure incomes are suffering, too.
On the question of whether or not to use taxpayer dollars to bring back the Washington football team, Orange supported the idea, citing the increased tax base of Navy Yard as a huge benefit brought on by the tax-payer funded Nationals Park. The other candidates were wary of having taxpayers foot the bill for another expensive stadium. Rogers said, “I’m tired of giving money to these folks,” and suggested that $150 million to investors and developers for a new stadium could be better spent funding housing and infrastructure projects.
Moving on to congestion pricing, White and Orange agreed that out-of-state workers and drivers, who use our streets and transit services, don’t pay spend their money or pay taxes in the District. Palacio, Rogers, and Barragan said they were against taxes and charges that would make traveling for low income workers, especially those in the outer rings of D.C., more expensive. Wilcox simply stated,” We should discourage car ownership.”
When touching on the question of what city agency was the poorest performing, Orange aggressively went after the Office of Contracting and Procurement. Visibly heated, Orange said that the agency “has been violating the law for 15 years. They’ve let us down.” Palacio smiled briefly, also calling out the agency for the same reasons Orange pointed out. White, who has overseen that agency since 2018, said he wanted “to be careful not to demoralize the people who work for our gov’t agencies,” further defending himself by saying you could point out problems in all agencies, and tried to turn the conversation to education and employment services. Palacio said, “we need to have high standards but not destroy people who work there.” Rogers agreed saying that demoralizing workers was not what they wanted to do.
Orange and White tried to steer the debate towards universal paid leave, and White said it broke his heart that they “weren’t able to save Washington Metropolitan High School.” Barragan could be seen shaking her head, saying, “We need to start listening to residents.” Cristaldo then brought up Initiative 77 as being a significant mistake. Wilcox agreed with Cristaldo and said that there’s good evidence to suggest that one fair wage works.
Around Initiative 77, again, another group of like-minded candidates emerged: Palacio, Rogers, and Orange. Palacio said restaurant workers overwhelmingly were not in favor of Initiative 77. Orange argued that restaurant employees already make $15 per hour and that it’s the restaurant’s job to cover what they don’t make, but didn’t raise the issue of power dynamics that hourly restaurant workers have to deal with. Rogers said that sometimes it is the job of elected officials to overturn the will of the voters. White explained that he didn’t agree with the legislation but said that overturning the will of the voters is a bad idea.
At-Large Candidate Forum Day 2
Day 2 of the debate was moderated by Mitch Ryals, a reporter for “Washington City Paper.” The participants in the debate were Markus Batchelor, Marcus Goodwin, Chander Jayaraman, Ed Lazere, and Alexander Padro. Two of the candidates, Batchelor and Lazere, stood out as progressives – at times even nodding in support of each others’ comments – while the rest often took more moderate stances.
Many of the same topics from day 1 featured on day 2, but there was a substantive conversation on preserving green spaces in Southwest. Discussions of issues pertaining to higher-income residents – especially whether or not to consider raising taxes on the highest income bracket, as proposed by Lazere – were less central than those seen particularly affecting lower-income Washingtonians.
The issue of police reform, following the passing of emergency legislation earlier this year, drew most candidates to a stance largely critical of police tactics and culture. However, Jayaraman stood out as the only candidate in a show-of-hands question, to support current Chief of Police Peter Newsham. Jayaraman called gun violence and homicides the “heart of the issue,” saying “we need to get guns off our streets.” In response, Goodwin spoke about the recent shooting of Deon Kay, a teenager in Anacostia who was shot by police while disposing of a firearm. Goodwin said he was shot “just as a reaction, an instant flinch,” and criticized Newsham for having “over-policed and under-policed communities.” Jayaraman quickly rebutted it was “clear” Goodwin “had never been on a ride along.” Goodwin responded saying, “you’ve never been Black in D.C.”
A point of distinction for Batchelor came when Ryals asked whether the candidates support a tax on sugary drinks. While progressive Lazere supported such a tax, along with Padro, Batchelor opposed the proposal. He spoke again of his background, and that he still currently lives in a “food desert” – an area where there is no fresh or healthy food within walking distance. Lazere argued that a so-called soda tax would help low-income residents who disproportionately suffer the health consequences associated with high-sugar diets. Batchelor responded that he wouldn’t support a tax on sugary drinks “until it’s easier” for residents in his neighborhood “to get access to fresh fruits and produce than…a sugary drink.” Until that time, he said, “this excise tax is going to be a tax on the poor.”
The participants were asked about how they would prioritize green spaces in Southwest, where Lansburgh Park, the Duck Pond, King Greenleaf Recreation Center, and other outdoor spaces are being modified or upgraded. Lazere said protecting D.C. green spaces from encroaching development is especially important during the pandemic, when “being outside is the thing that keeps us sane” and is “safe for us to do.” He said the best way to do this is by “investing in parks and other green spaces.” Goodwin agreed, saying the “great outdoors” in D.C. should be “preserved and protected.” He added that legislators need to ensure the Greenleaf redevelopment comes with a “profound community benefits agreement that is agreed to by the District and by the developer, that promises one-for-one unit replacement.”
The ballot, Initiative 77, which was approved by a margin of 10% – in a city with some 50,000 tipped workers in the restaurant industry alone – in the primary election that year, would have removed the minimum wage exemption for tipped workers. The D.C. Council voted 8-5 to overturn the measure before it was enacted. The minimum wage for those workers is currently $5 per hour. Lazere said he supported Initiative 77, and that it was “shameful” for the Council to overturn the vote. Batchelor argued industry voices in opposition to the ballot initiative were “front of house folks,” leaving out “back of house” workers, valets, and other service workers who “struggle from day to day.” Jayaraman called the ballot initiative “fundamentally flawed” because of “the way it was written,” and because it was put on the primary ballot rather than general election. Padro weighed in, saying he opposed Initiative 77 based on anecdotal evidence from personal conversations he had with restaurant workers. He said he “would be in favor of” a “higher minimum wage” for workers who make less from tips, but not for those who “benefit from having access to tips.”
At-Large Candidate Forum Day 3
On Sept. 16, SWNA held its third and final At-Large Candidate forum. Mike Goodman, Editor in Chief of “The Southwester” moderated. The candidates in attendance were Christina Henderson, Kathy Henderson (no relation), Jeanné Lewis, Will Merrifield, Marya Pickering, and Dr. Michangelo Scruggs. A’Shia Howard was invited to the forum but couldn’t make it due to an emergency.
Many of the questions for Day 3 were culled from the previous nights, although the conversations differed, and there were substantive discussions around other issues.
K. Henderson said she would defund the McMillan Reservoir Development project as there is “too much controversy.” Contingent on her position with McMillan, she said she doesn’t support “developer backroom deals.” Dr. Scruggs pointed to the use of a corporate community investment tax, which could be earmarked to invest in communities. He also reflected K. Henderson’s sentiment about giving developers money to build in D.C. without significant investment in the community. “If you want to build in D.C.– you want to be a part of D.C., then you need to invest in D.C.” Dr. Scruggs added. Merrifield, an attorney who has fought inequitable development projects, said “District residents don’t know how much the city government is subsidizing luxury housing.” Merrifield said he would also ax the Trump tax cuts. Pickering said she’d review services that are duplicated throughout the city and streamline. Lewis, though, would cancel rent and look into implementing a mini bonds program, similar to what Denver, CO. has, which would allow residents to own the debt that can provide an immediate source of targeted capital for small businesses. C. Henderson said that this might be a good time to put some projects, like the street car, on hold.
In light of heightened tensions around the country due several high profile killings of unarmed Black people in 2020 alone, like other nights of the forum, policing took more of a center stage. In a show of hands, Pickering and K. Henderson said they supported Chief Newsham, both praising his demeanor as Chief and the training that MPD goes through. Lewis, related to a retired MPD officer, sympathized with the difficulty of policing but pointed to the problem of officers who live outside the District policing neighborhoods they don’t know and communities they don’t understand. Dr. Scruggs brought up the death of Deon Kaye and criticized Chief Newsham for warning his officers that the reforms passed earlier in the summer would put his officers at risk.
Goodman pressed the candidates by asking what more police reform they would enact as Council Members and there was a wider range of answers. C. Henderson focused on police interaction with young people, saying that they need to pass laws that provide standards in how police interact with young people and juveniles. At that age, she pointed out, their brains aren’t fully developed. Dr. Scruggs said, “We need stiffer penalties for officers who commit police brutality and excessive use of force.” He also reflected Lewis’ statement about police being from the communities they serve, which Merrifield agreed with. Lewis also said the city needs to end qualified immunity and limit the power of police unions to protect bad police. K. Henderson said that having a “use of force review board” would be a good idea, but in her opinion, policing is moving in the right direction.
When asked about defunding the police, though, there was more split between the candidates. K. Henderson warned of conflating a national narrative with what’s not happening here in the District. “This rhetoric is emboldening criminals,” she added. Lewis and Merrifield raised the issue of lack of opportunities in certain communities, which leads to crime. They also talked about the lack of funding for other services that could be called upon in place of the police. Dr. Scruggs chimed back in to focus on community mentoring programs, but said he also believes in stiffer penalties for criminals.
On whether or not the Mayor was doing a good job, C. Henderson was the only one to raise her hand in favor of Bowser, praising her COVID response. Both K. Henderson and Merrifield, though, hammered the Mayor’s housing development and employment strategies, especially as it concerns communities of color. K. Henderson pointed out the hypocrisy of D.C. having one of the highest infant mortality rates in the nation while having a woman as Mayor, “The Mayor is not doing the job she should be doing.”
By a show of hands, all candidates, save C.Henderson, opposed mayoral control of public education. Dr. Scruggs, Merrifield, and Lewis centered on the statistics for at-risk students and Black students. They argued it showed a failure on part of the Mayor, and that they believe that parents and teachers should have more of a say in policy. Pickering called the mayor’s infrastructure academy a “boondoggle” that needs to go on the chopping block.
One of the failures of the Bowser administration raised by moderators on all nights was the digital divide, pointing out how it showed wide gaps between Black and White students before the pandemic. Merrifield said that the pandemic has more greatly “exposed inequities” that existed before the pandemic. Lewis said that D.C. could use other cities as models on how to bridge the divide. She again criticized the street car and said that that money should’ve been used to address the digital divide. Dr. Struggs added, “We need to start looking at tech as a necessity, not a luxury.”
Regardless of where the candidates stood on other issues, one area of development they all agreed upon was that developers have had the run of the city for too long. “I believe we have to take developer influence out of this equation,” Merrifield said. He talked about social housing, where municipalities build the housing, which is open to anyone, and 30% of a renter’s income goes to rent. The rent is reinvested back into the cost of the building. K. Henderson said, “I like the developers but you have to reign them in.” She would convene a task force of developers who have a track record of building affordable housing. Both C. Henderson and Lewis said the wider use of housing cooperatives and community land trusts would help ameliorate the affordable housing crisis.
None of Wednesday night’s candidates said that bringing back the Washington Football team on the tax payer’s dime is a good idea, especially during a economy-crippling pandemic. And, regardless of their personal opinions on Initiative 77, they all said that overturning the will of the people was a bad move by the Council.
Throughout the three days of forums, moderators broached other topics, which are not detailed here, but we at “The Southwester” tried to give a rundown of each candidate’s position on some of the biggest issues facing the city, and give the readers the information they need to make an informed decision.You can view the forum in-full at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCyDsB8rKREkCxRCToJeEVPA.