News & Politics

At First Debate of DC Mayor’s Race, Candidates Target Incumbent Who Isn’t There

Vince Gray wasn’t there, but he was the most popular topic in the first of many debates in the 2014 mayoral race.

This is going to be a familiar sight for DC voters for the next several months. Photograph by Benjamin Freed.

Six candidates running to be DC’s next mayor showed up last night to the first of what will likely be many debates, but the most talked-about figure was the one who wasn’t in the room—incumbent Mayor Vince Gray.

The debate, hosted by the DC Bar Association, offered a few hundred voters some of their first glimpses at the people running to succeed Gray. The lineup included four members of the DC Council—Jack Evans, Muriel Bowser, Tommy Wells, and Vincent Orange—and two billing themselves as “outsiders,” former State Department official Reta Lewis and Busboys and Poets restaurateur Andy Shallal.

Wells was the most aggressive in campaiging directly against Gray. “Someone’s poured molasses on the city government,” he said, referring to the ongoing federal investigation into Gray’s 2010 campaign. “We cannot ignore that the mayor ran a corrupt campaign and what we are seeing now with fallout with Jeffrey Thompson that a pay-to-play system is something we are paying for.”

Thompson is the businessman and political financier suspected of funding a $653,000 off-the-books operation waged on Gray’s behalf in 2010. Neither he nor Gray have been charged. Gray has hedged for weeks about whether he plans to seek another term. Candidates need to turn in at least 2,000 signatures to the DC Board of Elections by January 2 to make it on the ballot.

The DC Council’s decision earlier this year to delay the District’s first attorney general election by four years wound up being one of the more contentious issues, too. Evans, Orange, and Bowser defended their votes to push back that race, even though it conflicts with a Home Rule Charter referendum overwhelmingly passed by voters in 2010. All three argued that an elected attorney general’s role is defined vaguely and has failed to attract candidates. (The one registered candidate for the job, Paul Zukerberg, was in attendance and collecting signatures for his legally ambiguous campaign. A federal judge is expected to rule on the Council’s delay tactic by Friday.)

Shallal, positioning himself as someone with deep knowledge of life in the District without any of the ethical taint of city government, was blunt on the attorney general issue. “It’s obnoxious,” he said of the Council. And when asked if, as mayor, he would uphold ballot referendums, he was equally curt. “Hell yes,” he said.

Lewis, the other “outsider” candidate, was not nearly as remarkable. Despite months of fundraising since she announced her candidacy in June, she came off less aware about the nuts and bolts of local government than her opponents.

Meanwhile, there were questions about whether Orange should have been there at all. Although some of his supporters picked up ballot petitions last week on his behalf, he has still not formally filed his candidacy, nor has he raised the $25,000 the DC Bar set as the threshold for participating in the debate. (Shallal loaned his campaign the sum.)

“I’m in compliance and everything’s in order and I am a candidate for mayor,” Orange said after prodding from the moderators.

The candidates mostly left each other alone, using the debate more to introduce themselves and throw elbows at the man they seek to replace. But there will be plenty more chances for the candidates to rough each other up—there will likely be dozens more debates, forums, and other encounters before the April 1 primary.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.