With their party’s primary only two weeks away, the top Democratic candidates vying for D.C.’s mayoral nomination squared off in a heated debate Thursday at the Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre.
As the front runner, Anthony Williams faced the most fervent attacks from his opponents in the event, which was broadcast live on News Channel 8.
“If I’m ahead, and I’m holding my own, I think I’m doing all right,” said Williams, the District’s former chief financial officer, after the debate.
Councilmember Harold Brazil, who is behind in the polls by a significant margin, attempted to use the debate to gain new supporters.
“I will win the election because it is time we focused our energies and our government on the children,” Brazil said, promoting his education plan, the Parents’ Bill of Rights, which advocates smaller class sizes.
“From watching the debate I’ve been drawn toward Mr. Brazil,” said Williams supporter and GW freshman Betsey Whitmore. “I’m a strong supporter of education, and he’s the only one who mentioned it the entire time.”
Brazil said he believes Williams’ lead has been exaggerated by Washington Post polls.
“I’m right up there statistically even with Kevin (Chavous) and in striking distance,” said Brazil, who proclaimed himself the winner of Thursday’s debate.
Chavous, also a member of the D.C. city council is focusing his campaign on improving D.C. neighborhoods.
“I will be the mayor for every neighborhood, and in order to get there we need to work together and reorder our priorities and our focus of this city,” Chavous said.
The debate, sponsored by GW Votes, the Student Association, The GW Hatchet and several Washington media organizations, drew an audience of both students and Foggy Bottom community members, but the theater remained about one-third empty.
In addition to fielding questions from NewsChannel 8, Washington Post and Washington Times panelists, candidates answered questions from audience members during the second part of the debate.
In one exchange, Williams responded to a question about his relatively recent arrival on the Washington scene and his failure to vote in four of five the city council elections in which he was eligible to vote.
“I apologized for not voting,” Williams said. “I think that everyone should vote. There are a lot of people in our city, 95 percent in some elections, that should be making an apology for not voting.”
Chavous criticized Williams, saying city leaders should “participate in all facets of Democracy.”
Brazil called Williams’ explanation a “cop-out.”
Councilmember Jack Evans, whose jurisdiction includes Foggy Bottom, did not join the attack, but was outspoken in his views on Mayor Marion Barry (D).
“The legacy of the Barry years was leaving the city in a state of disaster,” Evans said.
Chavous, Brazil, and Williams were more circumspect in their comments about the mayor, who has not thrown his support to any candidate.
“I think that politically, the mayor will be known as someone who had a commitment to seniors and youth,” Chavous said. “He also will be known as someone who oversaw the boom downtown during the ’80s. Obviously some of the personal transgressions that were public is something that some folks will continue to bring up.”
The “personal transgressions” Chavous spoke of occurred in Barry’s first term as mayor, when he was caught smoking crack cocaine in a hotel room.
Evans said Barry left the city with a $2 billion deficit in its infrastructure.
“The legacy of the last four years of the Barry administration was horrible for this city. But if we’re trying to get his endorsement, then don’t say it,” Evans said.
Evans vowed that as mayor, he will reduce the income tax every year for five years.
Jeffrey Gildenhorn, a businessman who is financing his own campaign, did not comment on the mayor, who has publicly disparaged Gildenhorn’s campaign.
Gildenhorn is last in the polls, which paint his chances to win the Sept. 15 primary as slim.
Gildenhorn, a native Washingtonian, said the last thing the city needs is another lifetime politician or lawyer running it.
Gildenhorn’s policy ideas have been called into question by many of his opponents. Among his more controversial stances is a push to legalize prostitution in D.C.
“The value of legalizing prostitution is you get these hookers off the street, you get them into brothels, you regulate them, you tax them and you protect them. It’s an item that I believe in and I think it has a lot of merit,” Gildenhorn said.
Gildenhorn defended the legitimacy of his candidacy and said his political ideas extend beyond the legalization of prostitution. He wants to give new businesses one year free of sales tax if they sign a six-year lease.