What began as a formal mayoral debate Wednesday night disintegrated into a political circus with the sitting mayor abandoning the forum early, one candidate talking on his cell phone and another mayoral hopeful singing her closing statement.
About 150 GW students were treated to the full flavor of the District’s unique political culture at the Student Association sponsored Democratic Mayoral Debate in the Marvin Center Betts Theater.
The debate was held in the closing days of the campaign with the primary set for next Tuesday. The event featured the primary’s two front runners, neither of which are officially on the ballot.
Mayor Anthony Williams, running as a write-in candidate, was on hand, though he left without explanation within the first half-hour of the two-hour debate. He was joined by five other mayoral candidates – Douglas Moore, James Clark, Willie F. Wilson, Osie Thorpe and the eccentric Faith, who goes by one name.
Though the event was designed to encourage students to become more involved with District politics, many who witnessed the fiasco of the debate were more put off than turned on to the mayoral race.
“I was very disappointed,” senior Andrew Stone said. “It was disrespectful to the other panelists and to the audience when the mayor left without explanation.”
The candidates answered questions posed by a panel of journalists including City Paper columnist Elissa Silverman, Hamil Harris from the Washington Post and Kate Stepan, editor in chief of the GW Hatchet. Questions ranged from “when did you last cry?” to asking what role the mayor and the city administration plays in the GW experience.
“We need to add to (GW) students’ quality of life,” Williams said, shortly before he abruptly left 20 minutes into the debate without explanation.
Peggy Armstrong, a campaign official for the mayor, said Williams had to attend a fundraiser arranged by his daughter. Armstrong attributed the mayor’s unannounced departure to a “communications breakdown.”
“The campaign is very sorry,” Armstrong said.
“I’m sure that he had to keep to his schedule, but I thought (the mayor) would stay longer,” SA President Phil Robinson said, who left the event briefly to find the mayor had left when he returned.
When Williams left, attention focused on the mayor’s strongest opponent,
Wilson, who is also running as a write-in candidate.
Wilson, a Baptist minister, recently won the endorsement of former D.C. mayor Marion Barry. He wasted little time in challenging the incumbent’s record.
“This administration has done very little to support small businesses,” he said. “For the last four years we have had a manager for the mayor, now we need a leader.”
Students who attended the event to see the mayor were disappointed to hear so little from him and unimpressed with the remaining candidates.
“It was a really poor debate after the mayor left,” said freshman Rachael Parken. “It was very bad public relations for him to leave without explanation.”
The debate was punctuated with outbursts from the crowd cheering for their respective candidates, bugle blasts from Faith and lengthy speeches from the candidates on subjects ranging from race relations to fiscal policy.
“We are D.C. and we’re getting shafted,” sang Faith, accompanied by her husband on guitar, for her closing statement. “No vote in Congress but we can get drafted.”
Despite the fact that audience members were threatened with removal from the theater for cell phone ringing, Wilson took a call near the end of the debate.
“I was surprised with the way things happened tonight,” Robinson said.
“The audience turnout could have been higher, but I think that students were interested and entertained by the event.”
Parken and approximately 50 other students from the 200-strong crowd abandoned the audience after the mayor left. Despite some insightful and relevant points made by candidates, some students were unimpressed.
“These people are really unelectable,” said Parken.