Channel 9 Debate Is Over; Time to Vote April 1

It was billed by WUSA-9 as the last mayoral debate, as in “D.C. Debate: Now or Never.” If only.

The so-called last debate featured the top four candidates in the D.C. Democratic mayoral primary—the election is April 1—circled around moderator veteran TV journalist Bruce Johnson: Ward 2 Council member Jack Evans, incumbent and under-fire Mayor Vincent Gray, Ward 6 council member Tommy Wells and Ward 4 Council member Muriel Bowser, who is the current front-runner in at least two different and very recent polls.

Johnson sat facing them, tossing out questions a little like a lion tamer tossing out meat to the lions, because at times, the “debate” sometimes resembled a circus where four different acts were running at the same time. There were several times, in fact, when Wells kept challenging Evan’s claims to experience by repeating, “What did you run, Jack?” over and over again, even as Johnson tried to ask another question, and Gray was talking at the same time.

With everyone speaking full-throated at times, a great debate never materialized, although the sometimes prickly nature of the hour-long event, followed on Twitter live, certainly didn’t lack for drama or interest, if not coherence.

Johnson, to his credit, tried to draw the candidates into a meaningful discussion on race, prompted by Ward 8 council member Marion Barry’s remarks when he endorsed Mayor Gray.

That’s one question almost all of the candidates tried to throw back like it was a hand grenade with the pin out, all of the them noting in various ways they had tried to deal with income inequality, affordable or low income housing.

Evans noted that he had done well in his various elections in the mostly black, but now gentrifying Shaw neighborhood of Ward 2, which he represents. In point of fact, when Evans ran for mayor for the first time, he carried exactly one precinct, and it wasn’t in Georgetown but in Shaw.

Gray had to spend a lot of time dealing with questions about the plea bargain deal made by businessman Jeffrey Thompson, in which he alleged that the mayor knew about the “shadow campaign” run for the Gray campaign by Thompson. “I did not do anything wrong,” he insisted. “I’ve answered this question 428 times or so,” he said. “It’s the same answer.” Chided by Wells for not talking about problems with the city in his state-of-the-District address, Gray said, “Were you there, Tommy?”

Johnson tried to ask Gray’s rivals if they believed his assertions. “I believe Ron Machen (referring to the U.S. Attorney for D.C., who is leading the investigation of the 2010 campaign),” Bowser said. “The facts so far have been put out there. “

Evans said that he believes that we still have a system where you’re innocent until proven otherwise. “But we shouldn’t be just focusing on what’s happening with the mayor. We need to focus on who’s best qualified to be mayor.” Both Bowser and Wells, at various points in their campaign, have called for the mayor to resign.

Gray challenged the notion that he cannot take credit for the city’s prosperity. “Mayor Fenty dipped into our savings and left us without much of anything,” he said. “We were in a precarious situation because of that. We built it back up to a point where we have a big surplus, that’s what happened. “

Gray also reiterated that he would not resign if he should be indicted.

The debate came after several polls, all of which showed Bowser gaining on, then overtaking ,Gray for the first time in a Washington Post poll — 30 to 27 percent — although Gray insisted that this was “a statistical dead heat.” “It shows that voters want a fresh start and our message is getting through,” Bowser said. Wells surged into third place, with Evans dropping into single digits.

Bowser, by keeping her head down and remaining calm, showed a quality that she’s built on throughout the campaign. She stays on message, appears strong and deflects criticism, without going into great particulars and specifics on particular promises or policies. She did say, not for the first time, however that she has not made up her mind about keeping on D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson, who took over the schools after the ever-controversial Fenty appointee Michelle Rhee left. She remains both confident and elusive.

Gray spent some time on the defensive, but it was a strong defensive mode, which basically touted his experience, his innocence of any wrongdoing and his accomplishments as mayor.

Wells again touted his strong stance on ethics and repeated again that he would not take corporate donations.

Evans repeatedly insisted that, even at this late date, the debate should be not just about fresh starts or the mayor’s and the city’s problems, but about the shape of the future, and who is best qualified to lead.

Johnson sometimes contributed to the free-flow, chaotic, four-persons-talking-at-the-same-time atmosphere by interrupting the debaters so that he could inject another question. On television, the questions tend to be of the yes-or-no variety, or questions that elicit some drama. Thus, we have the “Do you believe the mayor?” question, which, without saying so, gives opponents a chance to call the mayor a liar. To their credit, nobody said words to that effect. There’s also the ever-present “Who would you think could be mayor, if you don’t win?” questions. “We think we will win on Tuesday,” Bowser said, “but I do believe that Mr. Wells and Mr. Shallal share some similar concerns and views.” She was referring to Andy Shallal, the Iraqi-born owner of the area’s string of Busboys and Poets restaurants, who is also running.

The mayor, while saying he would prevail, indicated that Evans was the only other person in the race who was experienced enough to be mayor. Given legal problems surrounding the mayor, this may not be a coveted endorsement and has its problems, like the Barry endorsement of Gray.

Commenting on Barry’s comments in his endorsement, Gray said, “First of all, Marion has his own views. I have always been a person who wanted to bring people together.” Bowser said the city was more divided under Gray.

So, who won? There was a WUSA call-in opportunity for viewers, the results of which showed that 42 percent of those who called said Wells was the winner in the debate, followed by Evans with 36 percent. Gray finished third at 14 percent, and Bowser was fourth with 8 percent. This was, by the way, the opposite order of things in the most recent polls. Nearly 4,000 people called in or texted. Is it fair to ask if those people will show up to vote? It means something to Wells, whose campaign immediately posted the results.


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