5 Things We Learned From Sunday’s DC Mayoral Debate

Vince Gray was a no-show at the Black Cat, but there was still plenty of talk about “Uncle Earl.”

By: Benjamin Freed

Considering the almost-nightly debates and forums to which the candidates running for DC mayor are invited, one can’t blame any of the contenders for not having perfect attendance. But Mayor Vince Gray’s absence from last night’s Washington City Paper-sponsored showdown at the Black Cat set up an evening full of “Uncle Earl” speculation from seven challengers who bashed Gray without ever having to hear a direct response.

Hosted by an alt-weekly and set in music club with a cash bar, Sunday night’s debate was sure to be rowdier than the scores of previous forums. It also came nearly a week after federal prosecutors got businessman Jeffrey Thompson to plead guilty to bankrolling numerous “shadow campaigns” for local politicians over the years, including a $668,800 scheme on Gray’s behalf in 2010 that authorities now allege Gray had a direct role in. The debate also fell on the eve of the beginning of early voting.

Gray could still win on April 1, setting up a tight race against DC Council member David Catania, who is running in the general election as an independent. But by not showing up to the Black Cat on Sunday and not really giving a reason for his absence, Gray opened himself to two hours of criticism without a chance to defend himself. Here’s what we learned:

1) This might be Muriel Bowser’s election to lose at this point.

A poll released two weeks ago by WAMU and WRC put Bowser eight percentage points behind Gray in the eight-way field, but that was before Thompson pleaded guilty. Since last Monday, the mayoral race has gone into a tailspin that has largely benefitted the Ward 4 Council member. The Washington Post editorial page has hammered Gray on a near-daily basis and re-upped its Bowser endorsement. Bowser’s campaign organization, with nearly $700,000 left in the bank, is also showing its muscle, packing last night’s capacity crowd with supporters who cheered every answer she gave.

2) By the way, Bowser would really appreciate it if Tommy Wells dropped out right now.

Before they started clawing at each other over campaign contributions from city contractors, Bowser tried buttering up Wells on multiple issues, thanking him for sponsoring the recently passed marijuana decriminalization bill and setting up one of Wells’s trademark sermons on ethics reform. The charm offensive ended when Wells used Bowser’s prompt to attack her for sponsoring a 2011 campaign finance bill that he feels did not go far enough in limiting contributions from contractors and other corporate entities. Bowser tried a similar tactic during a televised debate last week, and it played out the same way. It’s clear that Bowser, as the strongest challenger to Gray, is trying to finally take the lead by cutting into Wells’s argument about good government. But don’t count on Wells quitting with two weeks to go.

3) Even if he wins, Gray won’t have the support of a united Democratic Party against Catania, a former Republican. 

WRC’s Tom Sherwood opened the debate wishing he could ask Gray a question. With that proving impossible, he instead asked the seven candidates in attendance if they would support Gray as the Democratic nominee. Only Jack Evans, Vincent Orange, and Carlos Allen said they would, and of those three, Evans is the only one with any significant support, although he is running in third place in recent polls. Bowser, Wells, Reta Jo Lewis, and Busboys and Poets restaurateur Andy Shallal said they would not line up behind Gray.

4) Marijuana makes candidates say the damnedest things.

With the DC Council having just passed a marijuana decriminalization bill and activists trying to get a legalization question on the November ballot, the candidates were asked how they feel about pot reform. Some of their answers were, well, a little strangely baked. Long-shot candidate Lewis gave the weirdest answer of the night with this gem: “We should stop and think, do we want kids with all the problems they have to be smelling of smoke? What about the seniors who live in apartments who would be subject to the smell of drugs in their homes?” And Bowser said that while she supports the “private use of marijuana among consenting adults,” her support does not extend to “big marijuana festivals.”

Ron Moten and his Uncle Earl gear. Photograph by Benjamin Freed.

5) Uncle Earl is here to stay.

Shallal was the first candidate to reference the code name Thompson wanted Gray and his associates to call him by in order to mask his support of Gray’s first mayoral campaign, but plenty of audience members shouted it out, too. The allegations read by prosecutors at Thompsons plea hearing last week are going to dominate the rest of this campaign. Wells said that in getting Thompson to sing, US Attorney Ron Machenlaid out a scheme that would make House of Cards blush.” Thompson’s shadow campaigns might not have been as bloody as Frank Underwood’s machinations, but they have given followers of city politics an unforgettable pop reference. Ron Moten, a anti-youth violence activist and Adrian Fenty loyalist, roamed the crowd selling out his supply of Uncle Earl-branded T-shirts and cap. (There were no Uncle Earl sweatshirts.) And when City Paper columnist Will Sommer asked the candidates the question Gray himself has been spouting—”Who do you believe? Vince Gray or Jeffrey Thompson?”—no one sided with the mayor. Even Orange, who matches the description of one of the candidates who enjoyed Thompson’s under-the-table largesse, said he believes Thompson’s guilty plea. The closest bit of support Gray got on that front was a milquetoast answer from Allen, who said “let the courts decide.” But judging from the Black Cat crowd, voters will be deciding that sooner.