Ramping up to the April 1 Democratic primary, the Missionary Baptist Ministers' Conference of Washington, D.C. and Vicinity hosted a debate forum Feb. 17 at Zion Baptist Church in Northwest. Clergymen, residents, and even out-of-towners came out to hear the candidates discuss several issues including poverty, affordable housing, parking, and education.
Democrats running for mayor include Mayor Vincent C. Gray; Council member Muriel E. Bowser (Ward 4); Council member Jack Evans (Ward 2); Council member Vincent C. Orange (At Large); Council member Tommy Wells (Ward 6); Reta Lewis, an attorney; and Andy Shallal, owner of the Busboys and Poets franchise. All seven participated in the forum.
"I know that we need a fresh start at the top," Bowser said. "We need to speed up our school reforms, we need to focus on programs that will help us grow our middle class in D.C., and [we need] to make sure that we have the best, brightest, most efficient, and transparent government of anywhere in the world."
Gray said the city has restored fiscal stability, continued education reform, lowered unemployment by three points, increased economic development, and continued [public] safety within the District. "The question that I think is most important for me is what I said we 'were going to do' and 'What is it that we have done?" Gray said.
In order to fix the housing situation in D.C., Gray said, there needs to be flexibility that works with people to allow them to be able to live where they feel comfortable. "If the public dollars are going to be invested, which is exactly what we are doing, then we have got to have a flexibility to work with people," he said.
Wells disagreed with Gray. "We can get people the housing. It costs about $50,000 per family to keep them at hotels, to keep them sheltered," Wells said. "It costs about $17,000 to $20,000 max to help buy or pay for an apartment. It costs anywhere from $7,000 to $3,000 to keep them from losing their apartment. We have a problem that could have been addressed that needs to be solved."
Orange accused the mayor's administration of backing away from building affordable housing for D.C. residents who earn less than $50,000 annually. "When you look at the distribution of dollars, it's not about the dollars, it's how well you spend it," he said. Orange said the city should move forward with the New Communities Initiative, which is building affordable housing in Deanwood in Northeast and Anacostia in Southeast.
Candidates addressed some questions about religious faith in the city. According to a Gallup poll, D.C. ranked 42 out of 50 for religiosity by state in 2013. "I'm a little surprised at the poll," Evans said. "There is a real religious commitment in this city." Lewis said the decline in religious faith in the city stems from parking restrictions. "We talk about a war on poverty, I think there is a war on our churches, and a war on our faith community," she said. "How it started is parking. You can't even park anymore outside."
Candidates were asked if budgets for the University of the District of Columbia and the two-year community college affiliated with UDC should be combined. The popular answer was no. Some candidates stressed that both institutions need more money to teach profitable skills to the city's residents. "I think this is less about separating the budget [than] it is making sure that we have enough money to be able to fund the programs," Shallal said.
He said UDC trains D.C. residents to work in high paying jobs in the city, which helps with development. "There are more jobs in this city than we have people to fill them," Shallal said.
Though the forum topics pleased some residents like Sara Hodgins, who lives in Ward 1, the topics failed to satisfy others. Brandon Anderson, a black undergraduate student at Georgetown University in Northwest, said the candidates did not address the real problems in the District. "I think that some of the issues regarding D.C. basically has a lot to do with class and has a lot to do with racism," he said. "I don't think that racism was addressed on that panel. I think that it was tip-toed around."
Anderson said even though important issues, such as affordable housing, were addressed, the root cause, gentrification, was not. "We don't have affordable housing because it is more important to put Trader Joe's in our community than it is to put a store that is going to hire [and] permanently invest in our communities of color," he said.