WASHINGTON, October 28, 2014 – In the heart of the Ward 4 Bible Belt, Muriel Bowser decided to sit out the last of a scheduled series of Mayoral Forums in Washington, D.C. Her constituents were not amused.
“She didn’t show? said Donna Woods in disbelief. She is a member of the Michigan Park Christian Church.
“I was going to wear a Bowser T-Shirt to our Women’s Day Retreat at Sandy Point, but I think I will change my mind,” said the Ward 4 resident and regular church-goer who was there to support host Rev. Graylan Hagler of Plymouth Congregational UCC. Rev. Hagler is a member of the Wednesday Clergy Leadership network of activist black churches that candidates for elected office depend on garnering their support.
Over 200 participants who enthusiastically turned out to see the last Mayoral Forum were disappointed to see only an empty chair between two white and Independent candidates, Carol Schwartz and David Catania, who did show up for the forum.
The event started shortly after seven p.m. with a panel of distinguished journalists including Moderator Erica Gonzalez and fellow reporter Mark Seagraves from News Channel 4; Colbert King of the Washington Post; and Patrick Maddow from WAMU, who asked for a show of hands of those voters who were undecided Nearly half the audience raised their hands.
Questions at the event were focused on issues important to Ward 4 residents, which included four broad topics: Education, Economic Development/Affordable Housing, Public Safety and Transportation.
The softball questions on education were a set-up for education policy wonk Catania. He politely ran circles around Ms. Schwartz, who fell back on the now-ancient excuse that she was targeted to be removed from office by business interests because “she gave sick leave to workers.”
Catania called Special Ed “the great wasteland of public education,” and proceeded to tout his work with the Poverty Law Center. “When a quarter to a third of high school students in underperforming schools are special needs students, that is a crisis,” Catania said, hammering his point home with the authority as he referenced a list of legislative accomplishments, including the fair Funding Act, the Special Students Rights Act, and the Quality Improvement Act as well as his years of work as the Chair of the Committee on Education.
Since there was no contest on education issues, the next topic turned to the contentious issues of economic development and affordable housing. Carol Schwartz dug a deeper hole than the first one when she was asked by Mark Seagers about development around the Takoma Park Metro Station. Schwartz, in turn, asked the reporter to enlighten her because she had been off the Council for five years, to which Seagers responded, “I’m not actually running for Mayor!”
Schwartz’s response to a follow-up question by Colbert King about Ward 4 businesses referenced Rosemary Reed. Reed’s boutique was located in Dupont Circle but closed years ago due to a steep rent increase. Referring to a non-existent business made Schwartz seem even more out-of-touch with current small business realities in the ward—a part of the city with which she clearly was not familiar.
Catania deftly pivoted and scolded the current administration for leaving $110 million in tax credit allocations unspent: money that could buy down the cost of development and support more affordable housing. “We need more accountability,” demanded Catania to a rousing round of applause from the estimated 200 participants in attendance.
Schwartz countered by touting her straw poll victory at the Tenant Union, which gave her a majority of their 51% support while Catania received 33% and councilmember Bowser trailed in third with 11% of the vote.
Catania’s facial demeanor and body language was clearly dismissive when Colbert King took the prerogative as the biggest mouth on the podium to glowingly introduce Rev. Grayland Hagler as the host pastor of Plymouth UCC and a candidate for the At-Large seat for City Council.
As the topic shifted to Public Safety, an audience member asked for an assessment of Muriel Bowser’s absence on this and other issues. Catania was diplomatic and said, “I’m going to leave it to others to judge Ms. Bowser! There is a sickness in our city associated with a culture of violence, and if elected mayor I will fully fund the South Capitol Street funding effort to address the effort to make sure that 60% of Returning Citizens are attached to work, as former Newark mayor Corey Booker did when he contracted with private contractors in performance based contracts.”
It was clear at this point that Bowser’s Dean Smith strategy of running out the clock, taking the air out of the basketball and backing into the election by avoiding an obviously more knowledgeable candidate and policy wonk like Catania was not working with her Ward 4 neighbors.
And this was a forum supported by not only the Ward 4 ANC, which sent a representative from Ms. Bowser’s immediate neighborhood. Additional co-sponsors included the Coalition of Union Women, the Young Education Professionals, the Delta Sigma Theta Alumnae and representatives from the Takoma D.C. and South Manor Neighborhood Associations.
Ms. Bowser’s ANC Single Member District rep Douglass Sloan expressed his concern about her absence. “It would have been great to have her weigh in on the issues that Ward 4 residents took the time to submit. But Ms. Bowser declined two weeks ago citing a conflict in her schedule. I don’t agree with her strategy to participate in only 4 of the 7 forums. This was Muriel’s opportunity to preach to the choir. You have to win Ward 4 if you are going to win city wide,” said a disappointed Mr. Sloan.
Host and social justice activist the Rev. Grayland Hagler was not surprised. “The forum was good, but there were no breakthrough moments. Muriel is using her rope-a-dope strategy to back into the election. But she is rising in the polls, which indicate she has increased from 12 to 17 points in the last week” said At-Large Council candidate Hagler.
As the forum continued, Carol Schwartz said “I will not support Proposition 71. I did support medical marijuana and decriminalization because it is sinful the way that young African American end up in jail,” she declared, to a rousing round of applause by the majority black audience.
Catania countered with a clear support of Proposition 71 and stated that, “I believe that prohibition does not work and we need to regulate marijuana just like liquor sales and follow the lead of Colorado and Washington State that works to protect children and monitor driving while impaired.”
Catania also shifted to the plight of the 8,000 returning citizens who are affected by the decriminalization of marijuana. “Within three years, half will be re-incarcerated unless we develop a re-entry strategy similar to Corey Booker’s in Newark, New Jersey.
Colbert King then launched into a three minute monologue challenging Catania’s decision to block full funding of the H Street corridor street car line. “Is my criticism off base?” asked Mr. King.
Catania again went into policy wonk mode, indicating he based his decision on the next 25 years not the next ten. “How are we going to move 140,000 people around our city? We are not at odds. It’s a matter of priorities.
Catania then referenced his slick, four color glossy 130-page campaign publication “VISION To Secure Our City’s Future.” It boasts a cover quote from Colbert King that reads, “They don’t come any smarter, more dedicated, or gutsier than Catania. And no one works harder.”
Ms. Schwartz went on the defensive when asked what her position on the issue was. “I don’t have $1.1 million like David Catania, or $1.2 million like Bowser. I’ve raised $100,000 and it takes me time to post my positions on my web site, CarolForDC.com,” said Ms. Schwartz.
As the discussion shifted to transportation and specifically parking, Mark Seagers posed a provocative question: Why do residents pay for the right to park outside of their house? “Candidly, it has become a way for the city to raise revenue without raising taxes,” said Mr. Catania.
As the forum moved toward its close, Carol Schwartz couldn’t resist the opportunity to take a parting shot at the absent Ward 4 representative. “I feel very much at home in Ward 4, but I feel it is very important to show your respect for the very residents you claim to represent. And I applaud the Ward 4 organizers for not cancelling this important forum. I don’t believe in rewarding bad behavior,” said Ms. Schwartz to loud applause that echoed throughout the church.
The final audience question before closing remarks focused on race. How would you improve race relations?
Mr. Catania gave a measured and astoundingly honest answer. “We have to break a taboo and we need to critically examine the issue of a near majority black city not having an African American mayor for the first time in its modern history,” said Catania.
He followed that with his closing remarks. “We are so lucky to have the prosperity that we have. But I want to be clear, just because we have cranes in the sky, our two main industries, legal services and government have shrunk. We need to heal the wounds where we can. I’ve had sharp elbows and I need to really apologize if I appear ungrateful. I was born in 1968 in a state where I could not achieve he professional standing I have in the District.
Carol Schwartz was more blunt in her remarks. “This campaign has a lot of negativity. I’m going to simply say that I’ve gotten over 200,000 votes in the four times I’ve run for mayor. If you voted for me before, vote for me again, and I will win and move the city forward” she stated with confidence.
As the crowd slowly made its way up North Capitol the young couple active in the Kennedy Street corridor that posed the question about delays in implementation of Street Scape improvements spoke out. “We weren’t going to vote for Muriel anyway,” said a disappointed Danielle Smith on behalf of herself and her husband Myles. He cradled their seven week-old daughter Audrey in his arms as they commiserated over Bowser’s inability to deliver constituent services in their neighborhood.
That parting thought from a young white couple who were invested enough to bring their seven week old baby to a black congregational church on an evening less than two weeks away from an election that may select D.C.’s first non-African-American mayor should give pause to the presumptive Democratic candidate who chose to sit out the last opportunity to speak to voters in her own back yard.
Myles and Danielle Smith walk to their home along Kennedy Street.