Incumbent endorsements in DC’s Primary: Blessing or curse?

DC Mayor Vincent Gray addresses a recent candidates' forum. The DC primary takes place April 1. (Credit: Malcolm Barnes)

WASHINGTON, March 30, 2014 – On a day when a round of not-so-surprising endorsements for incumbents rolled in from a variety of special interest groups, a local business maverick distinguished himself at a faith-based forum and the consensus of challengers voiced their opinion that the Mayor was not telling the truth about his involvement in the shadow campaign.

Earlier in the day Mayor-For-Life Marion Barry endorsed incumbent Mayor Vincent Gray and the DC Muslim Caucus overlooked an opportunity to endorse Muslim businessman Andy Shallal in favor of Mayor Vincent Gray.

“Vince is in this race come hell or high water,” said Marion Barry wearing a blue “Gray For Mayor” tee shirt and standing at Vince Gray’s side as the current Mayor gladly accepted his endorsement, the better to stabilize his East-of-the-River base.

“This city is divided along racial lines. Washington has become a city of haves and have nots, and that’s not his [The Mayor’s] fault. It’s up to white people to be more open minded,” added Mr. Barry in a polarizing comment that is destined to make this campaign the most racially divisive in District history.

In an unexpected wildcard source of support, Mr. Shallal received the endorsement of Rev. Willie Wilson of Union Temple Baptist Church in Marion Barry’s Ward 8 stronghold. Many remember Rev. Wilson leading the pilgrimage to Marion Barry’s “returning citizen” welcome-back-to-Washington release from prison that followed his fall from grace that resulted from his infamous drug conviction.

Recently, in a highly choreographed forum at Plymouth Congregational church in Ward 4, Mayor Gray and five of his challengers participated in a disorganized community Mayoral Forum on a rainy March night that fell just 12 days before the decisive April 1 primary vote tomorrow.

The Forum was slated to start at 6:30 p.m. The Mayor was on time and anxiously waited alone for an opportunity to participate in the Q&A session moderated by Deborah Simmons of the Washington Times and Eugene Kinlow of WPFW radio’s DC Politics Hour.

The Mayor conveniently had to leave early to deliver a speech to the Urban League dinner across town, and recited his four point message of fiscal stability, early childhood education accomplishments, employment gains and affordable housing investments before gracefully bowing out as Carlos Allen, the first of five other challengers who straggled in an hour after the event’s listed starting time.

Before he departed, however, the Mayor reminded the audience how proud he was to stand up for DC residents during last fall’s Federal government shutdown. “When they asked me for my shutdown plan, I declared every city operation and employee essential and we kept government open and even picked up trash for the Park Service to keep the District’s rodents under control,” said the Mayor to the roaring approval of the crowd.

Twenty minutes after the Mayor departed, Ward 6 Councilman Tommy Wells, Ward 4 Councilwoman Muriel Bowser and Busboys & Poets owner Andy Shallal joined the round robin panel. Conspicuously absent were At-Large Councilman and nearby Ward 5 resident Vincent Orange and Jack Evans, as fringe candidates Carlos Allen and Reta Allen made their presence felt as the first and last candidates to show up after the Mayor.

After sharing his early career highlights as a child protection officer before returning to law school during the height of the crack epidemic, self-described progressive, liberal and honest Ward 6 Councilman Wells declared, “I’m running to be a Mayor with integrity.”

“There is a lack of moral competency when the Mayor says the system is working when homeless families end up in Maryland hotels. It’s not about the number of cranes in the sky,” said Mr. Wells.

Andy Shallal picked up on that theme as he laid the blame for the explosion of homelessness and child poverty squarely at the feet of the mayor.

“It’s a crime and an abomination that the District is number 1 in childhood hunger,” he said, “and black kids have stagnated with the so-called education reforms which have been a failure. I want to make it work for everyone not just the developers and people who have access to city council,” said Mr. Shallal in the most passionate remarks of the night, setting the tone for the rest of the evening.

In response to a question about wage theft, Muriel Bowser suggested that the Department of Employment Services should be held accountable for enforcing existing laws and First Source agreements. “They spend $100 million and many of their contracts are not tied to outcomes or actual jobs created,” said Ms. Bowser.

Mr. Wells suggested that a new Department of Labor needed to be established and the referendum to elect an independent Attorney General needed to be implemented. “We are creating a moral deficit,” said Mr. Wells in his continued effort to distinguish himself as the sole clean-money candidate not tainted by the Jeffrey Thompson saga of illegal campaign contributions.

The elephant in the room was finally addressed in a yes-or-no question by co-moderator Kinlow, when he asked each candidate if they believed the Mayor was telling the truth about his knowledge of the shadow campaign’s illegal contribution. While the fringe candidates equivocated with long drawn out answers, Andy Shallal answered straight up, “No, I do not believe the Mayor”!

He was quickly joined by Muriel Bowser and Tommy Wells, who appeared emboldened to tell-it-like-it-is after Mr. Shallal put it on the line. Mr. Wells reiterated in his closing remarks that, “Integrity matters. We have a crisis in our government which has contributed to an explosion of homelessness and a fire department that is totally dysfunctional”.

Ms. Bowser in contrast alluded to a sense of “angst” in the community of people who won’t be able to continue to stay here, as she slipped into the Adrian Fenty-like bad habit of scrolling her cellphone as other candidates delivered their remarks.

But Mr. Shallal’s passionate closing summed it up best. “This is the tale of two cities, one rich in resources and another poor in vision. This city has been on a tear to close public schools and continue the war on teachers. No student left untested, no teacher left unstressed. As a businessman I understand investment in human capital, and if elected Mayor I will invest in the people of this city.”

In his closing prayer and equally passionate concluding message, host pastor Reverend Grayland Hagler demanded that the candidates be “servants of the public interest and not of corporate interests,” in a stinging criticism of incumbent councilmembers who turned their back on labor interests in the battle to pass the so-called Walmart bill, which the Mayor vetoed.

Incumbency has proven to be as much a blessings as a curse in DC’s recent elections for mayor as the musical chairs of sitting city council members often compels them to choose between the safety of their council seats on or the uncertainty of a challenge to a sitting Mayor.

Tomorrow, District voters will have a chance to decide the outcome of this tale of two cities.


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