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Disagreement and Disruption at Council Chair Candidate Forum

Incumbent DC Council Chair Phil Mendelson and primary challenger Erin Palmer did not agree on much at Monday’s forum for candidates in the June 21 primary election.

In fact, Mendelson and Palmer clashed on nearly every issue raised from transportation to crime in Monday evening’s moderated forum hosted by the Ward 6 Democrats at the Hill Center (921 Pennsylvania Ave SE).

However, the disagreement stayed polite without attack from either side. It was environmental issues that inflamed activists in the crowd, who disrupted the conclusion of the forum and confronted the candidates directly with questions about District energy goals and infrastructure.

The 90-minute debate, moderated by Tom Sherwood, focused on the candidates priorities and differences on the key issues of public safety, homelessness and education ahead of the June 21 primary election.

Public Safety

As the District continues to report increases in crime, public safety remains a key issue for candidates and the community. Mendelson called public safety “top of mind” and emphasized the importance of government action to help community members feel safe.

Mendelson also emphasized the importance of holding repeat offenders accountable and keeping an open dialogue with city officials to find out what resources they need to help keep communities safe.

“It’s a relatively small number, several individuals repeat and repeat and repeat,” Mendelson said. “We need to focus on those assessments.”

Data, Palmer said, is what drives her approach to crime. She referenced a 2017 investigation into the DC police and said “we don’t have the number of police officers that would make us most safe” emphasizing a need for alternative intervention.

Community programming and investment in violence interruption are key components of the solution to crime in the District, according to Palmer. She said a “balanced discussion” about violence prevention is what’s needed now.

Homelessness and Encampments

Candidates also discussed the chronic issue of homelessness and the tent encampments across the District, disagreeing sharply on the DC Mayor Muriel Bowser’s (D) pilot program to clear encampments.

Mendelson spoke favorably about the Mayor’s program, saying it provided for relocation and long term housing for residents of the District. While acknowledging its shortcomings, Mendelson expressed agreement with the initiative and its results.

“I think that is the best approach,” Mendelson said of the pilot program. “This was a pilot, so there were some mistakes that were made, but it seemed that there were lessons learned so that the city can do a better job.”

Meanwhile, Palmer pointed to the failures of the Mayor’s pilot program and the importance of providing adequate housing for all DC residents without forcibly clearing the tent encampments.

“We should talk about what actually happened,” Palmer said. “The camps were evicted while people were still in them, so a human being was bulldozed. That’s not a mistake. That is deplorable, and we need to provide housing.”

Palmer said building trust with individuals experiencing homelessness is key. She emphasized that removing encampments does not remove the issue, rather displaces the issue.

“They want safe, stable and secure housing,” Palmer said. “They’re entitled to that, and tent evictions displace the problem, they do not solve it. They move people around somewhere else. Housing is the solution to homelessness.”

Environmental Interruption

The forum was abruptly curtailed when a group of environmental activists from Extinction Rebellion, an international, decentralized climate activist group, spoke out over the candidates closing remarks.

Sharath Rereddy is a member of the group and said he attended the event with other members of the DC chapter of Extinction Rebellion. Rereddy said the group “engage(s) in nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience to persuade governments to act immediately and in a just manner on the climate and ecological emergency” which was the goal of their attendance at the meeting.

Rereddy said holding elected officials accountable, particularly regarding the District’s methane gas infrastructure, was the goal of their interruption of the event. Activists say that rather than spending billions of dollars upgrading natural gas pipelines, DC should be using the money to transition to safer, cleaner energy sources.

Rereddy said at the May 16 forum, members of the group wrote down questions for the candidates but they were not answered.

“It’s unfortunate that some people felt we’re rude,” Rereddy said. “But I think that’s what the moment calls for when there’s no one else to really hold folks accountable.”

About 25 community members attended in-person in addition to more than 100 who attended the meeting virtually via Facebook Live. You can watch a recording of the forum live stream here.

The weekly candidate forum series will continue through the month of May. Each event will take place at the Hill Center (921 Pennsylvania Ave. SE) from 7 to 9 p.m. and is streamed live here. The final forum will take place next Monday, May 23, and will feature candidates for DC Mayor.

Sarah Payne is a general assignment reporter for Capital Community News. She can be reached at sarahp@hillrag.com.

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