Council members heap criticism onto Gray administration during first mayoral debate

As the city’s mayoral candidates met for the first time Wednesday, they piled criticism onto incumbent Mayor Vincent Gray while avoiding direct attacks of each other, signaling a hesitant opening to the 2014 race.

The six Democratic candidates who participated in the debate bashed Gray, an alumnus, throughout the nearly two-hour event, pointing fingers at the current administration but barely trading barbs across the table.

Gray, who has all the trappings of a mayoral candidate, has remained silent on his plans for 2014. He did not participate in the debate, which was hosted by the D.C. Bar Association, though the organization invites incumbents.

In the first of many attacks on the mayor, Ward 6 Council member Tommy Wells, chair of the Council’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, spoke out strongest against corruption in the city and accused Gray of mismanaging important city resources.

“The administration has been unable to count and procure the number of ambulances and firetrucks we have. How hard is it to count firetrucks? They’re big. The inability to even buy firetrucks and ambulances is not a joke. It puts us at risk,” Wells said.

The D.C. Fire Department came under fire this summer for wide-scale staff absences and a March report by the D.C. Inspector General found many of the city’s 90 fire trucks were inoperable.

The debate came less than a week after candidates began collecting signatures for petitions to appear on the ballot. Council member Vincent Orange jumped in the race Friday, becoming the fourth city legislator in the race, in addition to Wells, Foggy Bottom’s Council member Jack Evans and Ward 4 Council member Muriel Bowser.

Evans was the least critical of the current administration, saying the only place that Gray and his predecessor Adrian Fenty failed was in the arts.

“I’ve been a champion of the arts in this city, and will, as mayor, turn us into the number one art city in the country,” Evans said.

Reta Jo Lewis, a former State Department official, took a more aggressive stance against the Gray administration and the $650,000 shadow campaign that helped elect him in 2010. Gray has denied knowing anything about the fund, but a federal investigation, which has sent some of his closest advisers to court, is ongoing.

“There is absolutely no way that these situations we’re up here discussing can be explained away. We have to have absolutely zero tolerance for these types of activities,” Lewis said.

Evans touted his 22 years of Council experience throughout the night, and has promoted his clean record since declaring his candidacy in June, which he said would help bring honesty to a city some call “the District of Corruption.”

“It’s a problem of the people [elected], no question about it,” Evans said. Evans has campaigned since this summer on his ability to effectively manage the District’s finances, and spent the night highlighting legislation he has penned while on the Council.

In between criticism of D.C. corruption, candidates took the chance to pitch their platforms without facing direct attacks from their opponents. The debate touched on topics such as an attempt to raise the minimum wage, tweak the city’s Height Act and improve education, though candidates skipped over the controversial topic of school redistricting, which could be a major campaign issue as the election gets underway.

Bowser, a native Washingtonian, said education can be used as a tool to close income gaps in the District.

“We have to address how we raise the incomes of D.C. residents, and that answer is schools,” Bowser said.

On the issue of D.C. minimum wage, Orange again pitched the idea of a “living wage” of $12.50 an hour – the highest proposed by any candidate. His living wage bill, which passed the Council this summer, was vetoed by Mayor Gray in September.

Bowser, who did not give a specific amount for the minimum wage, offered one of the most direct criticisms of fellow Council members’ proposed wage increases.

“I do get concerned when a bunch of Council members are pulling a number out of a hat,” Bowser said.

Despite attacking Gray throughout the night, the candidates have repeatedly said that they will do nothing different if he decides to join the race.

“We’ve expected him to run all along. I’m not waiting. We have a vision,” Bowser said in an interview after the debate.

The candidates have until Jan. 2 to collect 2,000 signatures in order to appear on the ballot in April’s closed Democratic primary. Bowser said she has already collected about 4,000 last weekend.

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