6 Things We Learned From Wednesday’s DC Mayoral Debate

The crowded Democratic primary for mayor is shaping up to be about Vince Gray and Muriel Bowser.

By: Benjamin Freed

The candidates running to be DC’s next mayor are invited to debates that seem to be scheduled every few hours. While most are painfully mundane, the one hosted Wednesday night by WAMU was actually lively, and contained some indicators of how the final month of the Democratic primary might play out.

All eight Democratic candidates attended last night’s forum at WAMU’s office in Northwest DC, a day after the radio station released a poll showing Mayor Vince Gray still in the lead, but not by as much as he was a month ago. Here’s what we learned on Wednesday:

1) This is a two-person race.

Although every candidate got their turns to speak, the moderators were most interested in hearing from Gray and Muriel Bowser, who is trailing Gray in the WAMU poll by eight percentage points, closing a 12-point gap from January. Bowser got the first question of the night, being asked if she would keep DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson, and getting a shot to weigh in on every other issue of the night, from stadium development to homelessness to employment programs. Gray was pressed just as much, especially during the final 20 minutes when the discussion shifted to campaign ethics. Bowser's campaign said she will even be giving a formal response to Gray's annual "State of the District" address next Monday, which will be televised on community access station DCTV.

Jack Evans and Tommy Wells tied for third in time-of-possession, but they had to protract their responses to stay relevant, and rarely got the first crack at a question. Vincent Orange, Andy Shallal, and longshot candidates Reta Jo Lewis and Carlos Allen had to filibuster their ways into the conversation.

2) Gray will never not be asked about 2010.

The mayor began his re-election campaign by apologizing to residents for the noise caused by the federal investigation into his 2010 run, but has continued to give his standard one-line answers that he did nothing wrong and that his attorney is handling the matter of the $653,000 “shadow campaign” waged on his behalf. Gray said those things again last night when asked if voters deserved, in WAMU reporter Patrick Madden’s words, a “detailed accounting” of 2010. Gray gave his standard response, then pivoted to a detailed accounting of his childhood. It might have been an attempt to endear himself to voters who feel alienated by his ethical problems, but with five weeks to go, Gray can be sure he’ll get more questions about what happened four years ago and few about what happened 64 years ago.

3) Tommy Wells has his ethics argument, and nothing else.

Finishing fourth in the WAMU poll and getting a fraction of the question time afforded to Gray and Bowser, it is apparent that Wells’s campaign of clean fundraising and honest accounting is running out of juice. He slammed Gray, Bowser, Evans, and Orange from taking past contributions from donors connected to suspected shadow campaign financier Jeffrey Thompson, and trashed all seven of his opponents for not joining him in eschewing corporate contributions, a charge he leveled most directly at Bowser.

“Let me go to Tommy Wells before he blows his top,” moderator Kojo Nnamdi said as the debate arrived at campaign ethics. Wells steamed anyway, saying “there is no daylight between Muriel Bowser and Vincent Gray on this issue.”

After the debate, Wells admitted to Washingtonian the horse race is not looking good right now. “I will definitely need some help,” he said. “We’ll see who stays in.”

But it won’t be Wells gilding the campaign trail for someone else. “Someone’s gotta stay in and speak for progressive Democrats,” he added.

4) Jack Evans has his experience argument, and nothing else.

If voters went only on government experience, Evans would be running away with his 22 years on the DC Council, a tenure he mentions so often, Nnamdi ribbed him for it when giving Evans his first opportunity to answer a question. Evans talked as much as he could about his work in revitalizing downtown DC, even as other candidates knocked him for making parts of the city unaffordable, and school modernization.

“As mayor, I want to bring the prosperity we’re enjoying to everyone,” Evans said. He closed saying he plans to use the last 35 days of the campaign to reach out to “thousands of voters” he hasn’t contacted yet, but the way things are going, if he wants all of DC to share the prosperity, he’ll probably be stuck doing it from his Council seat.

5) Reta Jo Lewis makes sense about something.

For all her apparent efforts, Lewis, a former State Department official under Hillary Clinton, has been rudderless, stilted, and cringe-inducing since she declared her candidacy last summer, answering every question with rambling, off-topic responses. But she was loud and clear on Wednesday in her belief that DC should have an elected attorney general, slamming Gray and the DC Council for pushing the contest back until 2018.

“No one in wards 1 through 8 thinks this political establishment is going to put rules in place that are going to be enforced,” Lewis said. “We have no laws and no order in the District of Columbia.”

It was as clear as Lewis has been about anything, and maybe a shame would-be attorney general candidate Paul Zukerberg never called her as a witness in his futile lawsuit to put the election back on this year’s ballot.

6) Kaya Henderson can keep her job; Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe will probably lose his.

The debate was bracketed by the candidates being asked if they would keep in place two of Gray’s high-profile political employees. Besides Gray, who called himself an “unequivocal supporter” of the schools chancellor, Evans and Wells said she would have a job in their administrations. Bowser, who succeeded Adrian Fenty as the Council’s Ward 4 representative, was complimentary but noncommittal toward Henderson, who succeeded Fenty ally Michelle Rhee as school boss.

“We have a great chancellor,” Bowser said. “I want the opportunity, just like for every director of every agency, to make sure that her commitment and vision matches my own.” Orange, Lewis, and Allen said they’d get rid of Henderson, and Shallal hinted as much, too.

But Ellerbe’s job prospects are much clearer, in that he needs to start updating his résumé. After a string of embarrassments for the fire department, most recently the tragic death of man who suffered a heart attack outside a fire station and died after no on-duty fire fighters came to his aid, every candidate was asked if Ellerbe would be their fire chief. Only Gray, who has defended Ellerbe in the past, said he would keep him, but even the mayor is starting to shake.

“I think that Chief Ellerbe has done some good things in that job, and that is an issue that we talk about as we move to a second term,” Gray said.