Well, tonight I had a front row seat as one of four questioners at a mayoral candidate's co-sponsored by the Federation of Citizens Association and the Ward 3 Democrats at St. Columba’s Episcopal Church. Mayor Adrian Fenty, Chairman Vincent Gray, and lesser known candidates Leo Alexander, Sulaimon Brown, and Ernest Johnson participated. [Washington Post]
General impressions: Fenty is certainly on the attack. He brought up Gray's work in the Sharon Pratt-Kelly administration and alleged failures while head of the Health and Human Service agency every chance he could, which was greeted by boos from Gray's vocal supporters. I was put off by the attacks, which seemed over done (as well as the booing). Fenty refused to give any ground -- nothing done wrong, not much he would do differently. He did say that he would "work harder" to have a positive relationship and shared governance with the city council (while also seeming to say that if he worked more closely with the Council, the Administration would get less done). Gray had more of what I'd call the "right" answers. That's always easier when you are not the incumbent. As for the others, they were better prepared than I expected, but otherwise no surprises. They bring up some valid issues and had a few good lines, so their participation was worthwhile.
Here are some, but not all, of the questions. The responses are not direct quotes unless they appear in quotations, but I've attempted to paraphrase their answers.
Do you feel that the juvenile justice system is working, is in need or improvement, or broken? And if broken, how would you fix it?
*Fenty - Under Sharon Pratt Kelly Administration the courts took over the system. They failed to close Oak Hill. His Administration has created a world class facility at New Beginnings. Yes, there are issues, but they are getting results.
*Gray - It's not working. Oak Hill had 180 beds. New Beginnings has just 60. Offenders are in the community in group homes where they can just walk away. Many of the major crimes have been committed by wards of the city. We must balance between rehabilitation and having a secure community.
*Alexander, Brown, and Johnson. All spoke of broken families, the need for jobs and opportunity, perpetuation of poverty. When these social problems are addressed, juvenile crime will be addressed.
The answer I was looking for: GRAY. Fenty at least admitted that the system can be improved, but he does not seem to acknowledge the magnitude of the problem. New Beginnings - a "world class facility?" I seem to remember it under a few feet of water soon after it was constructed. And with 60 beds for the entire city? As for the others, they put our safety at risk. Yes, crime is a symptom of larger social issues. But if our safety is based on a strategy of creating jobs in this economy, fixing the education system, and eliminating generational poverty, forget it. Tell the person whose head got bashed in by an absconder that we need to create more opportunity, rather than lock the kid up.
Should there be an investigation of the Chancellor agreement with donors, which guarantees millions in private funds to the school system to fund the teacher contract, but reserves to donors the right to discontinue funding if there is a change in the current leadership?
*Gray - the Office of Campaign Finance will sort it out. And "let's get it on" if you want to talk about my record, Fenty!
*Brown - It's not legitimate. It's a crime or at least unethical. No one has created more controversy in this city than Michelle Rhee. I'll fire her on my first day. The donors can keep their $60 million.
*Alexander - Not proper. Why would someone negotiate a contract that provides money only in return for her own job security.
*Fenty - Used the time to attack Gray again on his Health and Human Service record.
Answer I would support: It's proper and not out of the ordinary. Only in DC do we attack a school official for raising millions in private funds to support higher teacher salaries and a better education system.
Would you keep the Chancellor?
*Gray - Michelle Rhee has done some good things. Some certainly could have been done in a better way. I would sit down with her and we would reach a decision together.
*Johnson - It's inappropriate for a candidate to to about hiring and firing people.
*Brown - I'd fire her the first day.
*Alexander - I would not keep her. She fired 266 teachers. Gray didn't seek a court injunction to stop her, but only later held a hearing. Then she smeared the teachers.
*Fenty (as Mayor, it was assumed he would keep her and he was not provided with an opportunity to answer by the moderator, Kathy Patterson, to which he responded, "are you kidding me?")
Answer I would support: I'd sit down with her, lay out the changes that I feel are necessary to her leadership style, priorities, and actions, express my own priorities, listen to her reaction, and then decide whether we will be able to work together. We are speculating as to whether she is even interested in continuing into another term. So, close to Gray, but not exactly.
Critics have charged that this Administration has given no bid contracts for millions of dollars to build park facilities to close friends of the Mayor who serve more as middlemen than experienced developers. Mr. Mayor, how would you respond? Did you do anything wrong? Would you go about it differently in the future? [I directed this question only to the Mayor]
*Fenty (direct quote from the Washington Post): "Every contract that has been pointed out has gone through the entire procurement process that has been in place ... and each and every one of the contracts has been administered and the buildings have been built," he said. "After three investigations by the city council and other agencies, no one has put forth any wrongdoing or allegation just insinuations."
Answer I was hoping for: We did things in the way we did to move park construction forward quickly when it was stalled for years. Those we hired are qualified, will get the job done, and will do it at a competitive and reasonable price to taxpayers. I welcome monitoring of contracts by the auditor, inspector general, and council to ensure we are spending appropriately. In the future, my Administration will go through open and competitive bidding for such contracts. (Instead, Mayor Fenty gave a defensive answer that was more suitable for court than a public debate.)
Streetcar funding. What happened? Do you support them?
*Gray - I support streetcars, but there is no plan. They were going to be here, then there, then somewhere else. Now we have tracks to nowhere from Benning Road, no power source, and no permission to use Union Station. I'm just asking for a plan before we commit more funding.
*Fenty- They are very important and exciting. The plan originated under the Williams' Administration and there is a plan - it is on the internet. Gray suddenly reversed years of work by removing it at 2am from the budget and only put it back in after numerous e-mails. But then the city had to borrow $47 million to fund the program because the Council had committed the originally allocated funds to other programs.
*Johnson - Against. The city has its priorities wrong.
*Alexander - Against. We are building for tourists, not the future of DC.
*Brown - For, if we have the money.
Answer I would support: Combination of Fenty and Gray. I support streetcars. Cutting them in the middle of the night after approving them was the wrong move on many levels, but the city also needs to get its act together.
How would you support transparent government? Plus question directed at Fenty: Why is the President of the United States' schedule online, but not yours?
*Fenty- My schedule has always been online. I follow the same practice as the Williams' Administration. I have the same routine every day - dropping off kids, meetings, CAPSTAT, touring communities, neighborhood meetings, and seeing my family. I don't put my vacation schedule online because it is my personal life. Questions regarding foreign governments paying for my travel have been addressed.
*Gray - We put the budget discussions on television for all to see. This has been one of the most opaque administrations I have ever seen. This Administration receives the same number of FOIA requests as the past administration, but denials have increased from 139 four years ago to 664. I support transparency legislation that is before the Council.
*Brown - I'd have an elected attorney general because the current AG is responsible for cover ups for the Mayor.
*Alexander - Fenty's friends get rich at our expense. Gray finds $50 million for street cars in the middle of the night. I would have a monthly town hall meeting in each ward.
*Johnson - The soda tax was eliminated but then it came back through applying the sales tax to soda sales. All tough decisions should be made in public, but they now turn off the camera when making decisions.
Answer I would support: None of them. Committed to open and competitive bidding for all major contracts, will either eliminate earmarks or post all documentation of their award and use on a public website, will reform the budget process. Brown makes a good point about an elected AG providing another layer of independence and oversight.
It seems as if the District is currently rudderless on Congressional representation and Home Rule. As Mayor, if you had to choose one priority, would you choose (1) a voting representative; (2) statehood; or (3) some form of limited retrocession in which DC residents vote for Maryland Congressmen and Senators. And, aside from representation, can you provide 2 or 3 other actions you would take to further home rule?
*Fenty - If we really could choose, statehood. We could then tax income at the source, which would generate $700 million per year. It would make a huge difference.
*Gray - I will advocate hard to make DC the 51st state. I support the right to vote like other states. We should not give up the right to legislate for a vote - it's unpalatable. If we would have accepted the bill with the gun amendment, we would have been challenged in the courts and could have ended up with no vote and the loss of our ability to regulate guns.
*Alexander - Statehood 100%, but I disagree with the strategy. I would seek making DC a US territory first while we seek statehood. Then we wouldn't pay taxes and we would have our own judges. Then we would put statehood to a referendum.
*Brown - missed his answer.
What I was looking for: I believe a 1 in 437 vote isn't worth a dime and will actually hurt our ability to obtain full representation and greater home rule. I was hoping for the candidates to say they would take a leadership role in seeking something, anything. That it would be a priority. I didn't get that impression from Mayor Fenty, who said "if given the choice, statehood." The Mayor needs to lead. Congress isn't going to offer us anything. The city needs to say loud and clear what it wants. Gray gets this one. None of the candidates answered the second part of the question about home rule efforts -- i.e. seeking greater control of our courts, prosecutors, parks, legislative authority, budget, etc.
What are the most important issues that you'll address in Ward 3?
*Fenty - Education and development.
*Gray - Education - universal pre-K and on.
*Alexander - Illegal immigrants.
*Johnson - Ward 3 gets many benefits. It's affluent. The issues are in Wards 1, 5, 6, 7, and 8 - they are unemployment, a lack of economic opportunity, and affordable housing.
*Brown - Other Wards need more help, particularly with unemployment.
What I was looking for: I'm not a Ward 3 resident, but I was surprised that none of the candidates seemed able to articulate an issue that is particularly important to Ward 3.
*Fenty - I'm keeping Michelle Rhee (In response to an earlier question to which he was not permitted to answer). #1 priority is the schools. To give a non-answer (referring to Gray) is a void of leadership. Yes, she is brash and aggressive, but scores are up and the drop out rate is down.
*Gray - I have passion, commitment, experience and a vision for this city. Early childhood education. Jobs. Fiscal responsibility. Bring up the reserve fund balance. "One city" approach.
*Johnson - "We don't need the sharpest knife in the draw," we need vision and conviction.
*Brown - Balance budget, put people back to work, checks and balances to watch over your money. We now have a disfunctional government. "Vote for any color - Brown or Gray or any other color. But please not Fenty."
*Alexander - Reduce generational poverty by 10% per year. Reduce illiteracy. Increase vocational education. Make it second to none. Shore up families of DC - then we won't have to worry about crime.