Disagreement and Debate: Mayoral Candidates Talk Priorities, Differences

Debate Punctuated by Visit from Climate Activists

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Candidates faced off in a forum moderated by ABC 7 Bureau Chief Sam Ford. Photo: A. Lightman

DC Mayoral candidates clashed —for the most part, cordially— in a lively debate May 23 at the Hill Center surrounding key issues facing Washingtonians.

The candidate forum, moderated by journalist Sam Ford, focused on the key issues facing Washingtonians and sparked discussions about each candidate’s priorities and differences if elected in the June 21 primary election.

Monday evening’s event featured the four Mayoral candidates: current incumbent DC Mayor Muriel Bowser, Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White, Sr., At-Large Councilmember Robert White, Jr. and former ANC Commissioner James Butler.

Public Safety and Justice

The candidates discussed public safety at length and proposed solutions to mitigating, preventing and addressing violence in the streets. The uptick in violence and crime across the city has left many residents feeling uneasy. Councilmember Robert White said this is unacceptable, but emphasized that Washingtonians deserve more than just a feeling of safety and security.

“I want people in our city to feel safe, but more importantly, I want people in our city to be safe,” White said. “That is why my comprehensive plan focuses on streamlining police forces on public safety so that they can solve crime, so that they can patrol.”

White said that the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) should be “part of” incident response, but emphasized the need for the expansion of afterschool programs and a focus on supporting kids working with both local and federal partners to mitigate and interrupt violence before it happens.

“We deserve more than just the police,” White said. “We can’t wait to lose more brothers and sisters in our city.”

Councilmember Trayon White echoed those concerns, and said that ignoring crime is not a viable solution. White said that ignoring has led to the 20 year high in crime DC is currently experiencing, and said Mayor Bowser has taken a “reactionary” approach to violence.

“I believe that police is a part of reducing crime in Washington DC,” White said. “We have neglected violent crime in this city for at least six years, with zero money going into violence prevention while this administration ran the initiative that crime was down,’ White said.

Butler said his goal, if elected, is to make the District “one of the safest cities in America.” Increasing the police force, Butler says, is key to accomplishing this. He promised to bring between 500 and 700 “new, well-trained officers” into the DC Police corps during his term as Mayor.

“Our police force is overburdened and doing 1.1 million hours of overtime,” Butler said. “I know that those 1.1 million hours of overtime equates to the salaries of 500 more police officers. It amounts to lower response times, it amounts to police officers working when they’re sick.”

Bowser praised MPD Chief Robert J. Contee as an “outstanding police chief” and discussed the benefits of the cadet program, which DC has funded for the last several years. The program allows the District to hire students and residents, send them to the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) and the police academy. Bowser’s strategy, she said, will continue to build a stronger and larger police force in the District.

“I may be the only one who is willing to include policing in that comprehensive approach,” Bowser said. “I have seen our number of police go down over the last two years and part of what we’re going to do is make sure that we build it back up.”

Mayor Muriel Bowser, former ANC Commissioner James Butler, At-Large Councilmember Robert White, Jr. and Trayon White, Sr. participated in the forum. Photo: A. Lightman

Housing

Affordable housing and homelessness were also heavily debated in Monday’s forum.

Bowser spoke about her efforts to combat homelessness in the District and her pilot program that has proved to be controversial among candidates and members of the community.

“I have made it a major platform of my time in office to make homelessness rare, brief and non-recurring,” Bowser said.

Bowser expressed frustration with DC Council’s decision to halt her pilot program, which she said aims to clear tent encampments and provide stable and secure housing to unhoused residents of the District.

Robert White said his approach would diverge significantly from the Mayor’s current strategy. White emphasized that the “quick fix, headline stuff isn’t working” and advocated for an approach that is inclusive of the perspective of DC’s houseless residents.   

“I’m going to take a strong, empathetic and steadied approach, I’m going to meet the underlying needs because I’ve been to the tent encampments to talk to people,” White said. “If our Mayor spent more time talking to people who lived there and less time talking to developers, maybe she would understand that we need not show up with police and bulldozers.”

Butler said, if elected, he would take steps on day one to ensure that residents have long term supportive housing. He said the key to this is not continuing to “rely heavily” on developers rather to go into the city’s housing stock and provide “deeply affordable housing” to residents and rent control for newer units.

Trayon White also sharply criticized the Mayor’s pilot program calling it a “failed program” and said that there is not a one size fits all strategy to providing housing.

“What you have to figure out is what works for who,” White said. “We can’t put everybody in the same situation. We have some individuals with extreme mental issues living with other people with extreme mental health issues. We have all these different people that we have shuffled around in all these different programs leaving them in deep despair.”

White said the ultimate solution is creating truly affordable housing in the District and expressed frustration with the gentrification that has forced out thousands of black residents from the city.

“We need to rebuild what is affordable housing in DC, we have lost 20,000 black residents in the last 10 years,” White said. “We are being forced out and gentrification is being engineered by the government.”

Bowser refuted criticism from other candidates and touted the District’s significant investments in affordable housing.

“Unlike the entire region, we have made a strategic investment in building affordable housing,” Bowser said. “When you look at the whole region, we stand head and shoulders above them all.”

A forum organizer (left) speaks with protesters outside the Mayoral forum May 24. Photo: S. Payne

Environmental Disruption

Midway through the forum, a small group of environmental activists in gas masks stood up and held posters protesting the 30-year $4.5 billion investment to upgrade Washington Gas pipelines in the District. Those funds, activists argue, could be dedicated to clean energy. The group, known as Extinction Rebellion, is keenly focused on bringing issues to the attention of elected officials.

Liz Karosick, a member of Extinction Rebellion, said after last week’s vocal protest that the group wanted to take a different approach.

“Last time, we were very verbally disruptive and this time, we wanted to still make our demands known specifically to the Mayor,” Karosick said. “We have been unable to speak up until now, so we put gas masks on when they spoke about the climate and we listened to their answers, which unfortunately, we’re really insufficient.”

Karosick emphasized that none of the candidates appear prepared to make the environmental changes the organization would deem sufficient. She said, however, that a good first step would be addressing concerns with the Washington Gas project.

“I think with the way our system is set up right now, I’m not sure that they’re equipped to be able to make the change that’s required to the extent of the crisis that we’re facing,” Karosick said. “So our hope is that maybe this first step of defunding Washington gas’s plans would show that they’re serious about actually addressing the climate crisis.”

Several hundred community members attended the forum in person and virtually. You can watch a recording of the forum live stream here.

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