Here are five takeaways from the first D.C. mayoral debate The five mayoral candidates clashed over whether D.C. needs to hire more police, debated extending the D.C. streetcar, and agreed on one topic: no wants the death penalty back.
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Here are five takeaways from the first D.C. mayoral debate

Five D.C. mayoral candidates squared off in Ward 7 on Saturday. Screenshot via /Zoom hide caption

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Screenshot via /Zoom

Like prize fighters circling the ring, the three main contenders in D.C.'s mayoral race have spent the last few months taking indirect shots at each other. But it wasn't until Saturday that Mayor Muriel Bowser, Councilmember Robert White (D-At Large), and Councilmember Trayon White (D-Ward 8) actually engaged directly, taking part in a debate hosted by the Ward 7 Democrats.

The three hopefuls — joined by fellow candidates Andre Davis, Leland Andre Core, and James Butler — sparred on issues ranging from public safety to economic development, and answered lightning-round questions on everything from the death penalty to whether D.C. should use public funds to lure the Washington Commanders back to the city.

Below are some of the highlights of the debate.

Change or continuity?

Should Bowser win the Democratic primary on June 21 and general election in November, she'll be only the second mayor in the city's history to serve three consecutive terms. And as she told the audience gathered at St. Luke's Catholic Church in Marshall Heights, that longevity in office brings much needed continuity.

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"In eight years we have been able to start projects and finish them. That's what our longevity has allowed. When I became mayor there was nothing happening at St. Elizabeths campus [in Ward 8]. Now we're going to have a brand new state-of-the art hospital. We have the Entertainment and Sports Arena, and we'll have housing," she said.

But for Robert White, all of that is too little, too late — and with not enough impact for a majority of D.C. residents. At various points during the debate he argued that Bowser hasn't risen to the main challenges in D.C., primarily finding ways to more evenly spread the wealth from the city's rapid growth over the last decade.

"Ask yourself, what is better today than seven years ago?" he said. "In one of the wealthiest jurisdictions in the nation, the leaves still ain't picked up in March. In one of the wealthiest cities in the nation, we have a higher rate of poverty than anywhere else in the country and a smaller middle class than almost anywhere else in the country. This sounds the same as it did seven years ago. What is different is that now... our population is dwindling. We have not fixed any problems."

Trayon White made a similarly populist pitch.

"Quite frankly, this is our city," he said. "And if we keep doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome, that's the definition of insanity. We need new leadership. We can applaud ourselves for buildings all these new buildings... but it's about building the people that go inside."

Davis and Core echoed the concerns about displacement of Black residents, while Butler — a former Ward 5 Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner who unsuccessfully ran against Bowser in 2018 — argued that Bowser, Robert White, and Trayon White were all part of the same problem. "They are beholden to the establishment," he said.

Bowser faced repeated critiques from Trayon White and Robert White over the course of the two-hour debate, with both accusing her of letting political allies benefit from the city's development and of underinvesting in everything from education to affordable housing. Bowser — whose citywide approval rating has dropped relative to years past, but remains ahead of her challengers — fired back that both lawmakers were absolving themselves of responsibility for solving D.C.'s problems.

"I know this very clearly, that now is not the time in Washington, D.C. to take a chance on untested leadership," she said. "People have had an opportunity for leadership. People have sat on the board of directors of an $18 billion corporation, the D.C. government. If you have been committed to these big ideas, why haven't you done them?"

Concerns over crime

A recent Washington Post poll found that D.C. residents' concern over crime and public safety has spiked over the last two years, and that three in 10 residents do not feel safe in their own neighborhoods — with that number rising to four in 10 in areas east of the Anacostia River. And in many ways, it remains one of Bowser's most significant vulnerabilities; more than three-fourths of voters polled by the Post gave her poor marks on reducing crime in the city.

Every candidate agreed that tamping down on crime requires not just short-term policing, but also long-term solutions that address poor educational options, lack of job opportunities, generational trauma and mental health, and rising inequality. But where a fissure has emerged is on whether the Metropolitan Police Department — which now has roughly 3,300 officers, lower than it has been in years — should start hiring more.

Bowser recently said that she wants to see MPD grow to 4,000 officers, and on Saturday she said her past attempts to increase hiring have been stymied by the D.C. Council. "I will present to this council, again, a plan to make sure we have the police resources that we need so that police can get in every neighborhood and be visible," she said during the debate. (In his own public safety plan, Robert White has called for a formal audit to better assess how many officers D.C. actually needs.) Bowser also said the council had cut back on her plans to hire more cadets out of D.C. Public Schools, and that she would again propose an expansion in her upcoming budget proposal.

Both Trayon White and Robert White said during the debate that they do not think MPD needs to hire more officers; they also both said that more of the focus needs to be on what happens in schools.

Trayon White said the problem is that no one truly understands what's driving the current spike in crime. "You can't create a solution without first addressing the problem," he said, pointing to youth and education as being potential problems. He also said that it's not so much a matter of existing resources dedicated to public safety, but rather how they are being used. "There's not enough coordination between all government agencies and people in the community," he said, echoing a concern that D.C.'s many programs and services often do not work together effectively.

Robert White similarly said addressing crime and public safety has to start with schools. "We have neglected our young people in schools and it is no surprise what happens when they come out," he said.

Only James Butler specifically presented himself as "the only candidate who will be tough on crime," promoting his plan to hire more police officers and pass a no-loitering law "that's constitutionally applied."

In response to a question from the audience, none of the candidates endorsed reinstating the death penalty for specific offenses.

A streetcar named deride

Is there a transportation project more often derided and dismissed than the $200 million, 2.2-mile streetcar down H Street NE? Probably not, unless you consider the plans to extend it eastward and westward.

The city is currently planning to extend the H Street line all the way down Benning Road to Minnesota Avenue, a project that proponents — including Bowser herself — say will bring additional economic development and connectivity to Ward 7.

But the feasibility and fate of the project was at issue during Saturday's debate, where Bowser accused both Robert White and Trayon White of having tried in past years to defund the eastward expansion of the streetcar, which has been strongly supported by Councilmember Vincent Gray (D-Ward 7) and the Friends of the D.C. Streetcar, a group of local officials in wards 7 and 8.

"I do not support raiding infrastructure dollars meant for Ward 7, and some of my friends here tried to do that," she said.

Trayon White said that funds for the streetcar could better be used on other projects, while Robert White questioned whether extending the streetcar east to Minnesota Avenue was the best way to attract economic development there.

"We have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on this little lonely piece of track, and it has not done what folks said it would do," he said of the H Street streetcar. "I don't like that people have said, 'Hey Ward 7, if you want economic development you had better take this streetcar, it is the only path to economic development.' It is not. What if we took those hundreds of millions of dollars and instead just invested it in economic development instead of giving you the runaround? Look at H Street. Maybe it brought economic development. If it did, it also brought displacement of Black businesses."

Only Butler joined Bowser in supporting the expansion of the streetcar to Minnesota Avenue and westward to K Street.

Football and finances

Throughout the debate, the candidates were asked yes-or-no questions on a range of policy matters. Bowser was the sole candidate to say she opposed changing the current fines charged by D.C.'s many traffic cameras, and the only who would oppose raising taxes on wealthy residents again. (The council passed a tax hike on wealthy households last year.) Every candidate except Bowser would get rid of the current system of mayoral control of schools; only Butler and Bowser would both hire more police officers and spend public funds to lure back the Washington Commanders. (Bowser specified that would be only to prepare the land for a stadium, not build the stadium itself.) And on whether ranked-choice voting should be brought to D.C., every candidate but Davis said no.

Pledges and promises

During the course of the debate, a number of the candidates laid out concrete promises for their term as mayor. Robert White, for one, pledged to have universal child care in D.C. by the end of his term. Trayon White promised to create three tracks in all schools: college, career, and entrepreneurship. Butler said he would immediately reassess how "affordability" is measured when affordable housing is built, untethering the city from the regional metric of median income that critics say skews high.

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