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The three D.C. councilmembers seeking the city’s top office stunned some 200 residents who turned out last week for the first candidates’ forum of this year’s mayoral race: The mayoral wannabes toned down the rhetoric for a change to take stands and sketch visions for the future of the District.

Afterward, the onlookers assembled in the basement of St. Peter’s Church on Capitol Hill for the May 27 shootout looked as if they had just viewed the summer thriller Godzilla vs. Mayor-for-Life. Most were shocked to learn that Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous, and At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil make much better mayoral candidates than predicted.

“They’re talking substance!” Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose exclaimed during the 90-minute debate.

Ambrose can be forgiven for being a bit giddy over the change. After all, she has to listen to these guys nearly every day.

Even Channel 9 (WUSA-TV) reporter Bruce Johnson, who moderated the forum, seemed won over by the performances of the Democratic contenders. Johnson opened the forum by setting an empty chair next to the four candidates—the three councilmembers and restaurateur Jeffrey Gildenhorn—”just in case the candidate who dropped out last week decides to show up tonight.”

The gesture captured the prevailing mood among reporters that this year’s mayoral race will be a dull affair without its star player, Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr., who reluctantly stepped aside May 21. But on Channel 9’s 11 o’clock broadcast that night, Johnson encouraged viewers to pay heed to this group of mayoral contenders.

“These guys are interesting, and they have something to say. There are real differences between the candidates,” Johnson told news anchor Gordon Peterson in one of those cutesy on-air chats.

After being rid of the city’s political Bigfoot only six days earlier, the three councilmembers clearly relished their rare moment in the spotlight without fear or danger of being overshadowed by the shameless Barry.

“We are the leaders you are looking for,” Chavous assured the crowd.

Most voters are not yet convinced, however. The three councilmembers’ turn at center stage ended much sooner than any expected that evening.

One week after Barry announced the final curtain on his three decades of dominance in District politics, Brazil, Evans, and Chavous were again being shoved back into the supporting cast by another occupant of 1 Judiciary Square, Chief Financial Officer Anthony Williams. By last weekend, mayoral aspirant Williams was reaping front-page coverage, capturing daily headlines, and leading nightly news broadcasts the way Hizzoner once did.

Last week’s forum may have been the only one in which Messrs Evans, Brazil, Chavous, and Gildenhorn don’t get overshadowed by the ad-libbing, quick-witted, fact-spewing Williams, and they made the most of the opportunity. Although none of the contenders managed to break from the pack, Chavous may have gotten the biggest boost from the contest.

He was relaxed, witty, and substantive. At one point, when Brazil whined about the order of the speakers, Chavous quipped, “I paid for that mike.” That’s the line that Ronald Reagan shamelessly pilfered from an old Spencer Tracy movie and used to great effect in the 1980 New Hampshire Republican primary.

“The first shall be last,” Brazil fired back after Chavous leapt to his feet to hog the floor. Although the candidates now pretend to like each other, they’ll find plenty to bicker about as the summer campaign heats up.

Debate organizers—the League of 8,000 and the Capitol Hill Restoration Society—asked Chavous to account for his stint as chairman of the council’s Education Committee, which coincided with the continued slide of the school system.

Chavous’ response? He called meetings. Throughout his 18 months as chair, Chavous said, he held 40 meetings to address education problems, including three in which former school chief Julius Becton snubbed the committee by refusing to testify.

He neglected to mention that many of his committee meetings were held after the problems had been tackled by the appointocracy.

In his first 100 days as mayor, Chavous promised to convene an interagency task force to address the social conditions—poverty, single-parent families, dysfunctional families—”that children bring to school with them that prevent learning.”

“I will be the first mayor in our history to make education a priority,” Chavous said. Many before him have pledged to do just that; none, so far, have remembered the vow after Election Day.

Chavous also resurrected another well-worn pledge: to withhold support for future downtown development until developers agree to back projects in the city’s backwater neighborhoods.

“If we can spend $650 million on a new convention center and $100 million on the MCI Center, then we can afford to spend $25 to $50 million on upper Georgia Avenue, 8th Street SE, Benning Road, Minnesota Avenue, Good Hope Road, Martin Luther King Avenue,” Chavous declared to sustained applause.

The threat is not a new one for D.C. pols. Ward 4 Councilmember Charlene Drew Jarvis, chair of the council’s Economic Development Committee, has mouthed it so often that no one takes her seriously. The developers certainly don’t believe it, and neither do Jarvis’ constituents, who fear that Georgia Avenue in Ward 4 could go dark any day now as the last businesses flee to the ‘burbs.

But Chavous scored high on the applause meter with his get-tough-on-developers stance.

Although he is running a campaign that stresses his east-of-the-Anacostia roots, the two-term councilmember from Ward 7 downplayed the city’s intense racial divisions. He said white, affluent Ward 3 residents complain about the same lack of city services that plague black and poorer residents of Ward 8.

“There is no black or white or Latino way to pick up the trash,” said Chavous. “People are sick and tired of this false polarization, and of candidates who would base their campaign on this false polarization.”

Williams’ entry into the mayor’s race could threaten Chavous’ effort to become a citywide candidate by stealing away white and reform-minded voters on the city’s west side, who have been leaning toward the second-term councilmember.

Brazil scored his points when he challenged Chavous on race, where he all but accused his rival of hiding his head in the sand.

“It’s there, and we have to recognize that and deal with that. The solution is: Include everyone and don’t act like it’s not there,” countered Brazil, drawing the loudest applause of the evening.

After Chavous proclaimed, “I’m not going to let the control board set the policy for people who foot the bill,” Brazil retorted: “Let’s don’t talk about setting policy. It’s not going to work that way. This council and this mayor gave birth to the control board.”

In a veiled slap at Evans, who steadfastly backed former Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) Chief Larry Soulsby, Brazil told the audience: “I will be your mayor for change, a mayor who will be about competency. I will not prop up a top cop who doesn’t know what he’s doing.”

Brazil’s utterances fluctuated from overheated and caustic jabs to rare displays of humor. Responding to a question about appealing to Barry’s base of the poor, elderly, and formerly incarcerated, Brazil proclaimed: “Yes, I’ll take his supporters gladly. And I can almost hear the tremble from their coming.”

When asked about the sorry state of the city’s main regulatory agency, the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, Brazil boasted that the regulatory reforms he has pushed through the council will quickly rejuvenate the agency that he oversees as head of the council’s Consumer and Regulatory Affairs Committee. That comment drew hisses from audience members, who view the reforms as heavily tilted toward the business community.

Evans, sandwiched between the taller and beefier Chavous and Brazil, got overshadowed during the debate. At times, Evans looked like a Dana Carvey impersonation of himself, gesturing wildly to get attention.

He needs to add a physical trainer to his campaign staff to beef up for future forums.

Evans showed some political spine by sticking with the dubious Mount Vernon Square site for the new convention center. Brazil and Chavous ducked the issue. Although he wouldn’t take a stand in front of the voters, Brazil in a Tuesday council session voted for the controversial Mount Vernon Square proposal. Chavous voted against it.

Evans’ firm convention center stand won him praise from several in the audience, including Brazil campaign manager Anita Bonds.

The council’s Judiciary Committee chairman is trying to fend off jabs against his support of Soulsby by pledging to put 2,400 of the city’s 3,600 police officers on the streets patrolling beats. To keep that pledge, Evans must convince new MPD Chief Charles Ramsey to reassign over 1,000 additional officers to the streets.

For Evans, however, all issues pale when compared with race. If someone in the audience doesn’t bring up the question of whether a white man can be elected mayor of this predominantly black city, then Evans raises the subject himself. Otherwise, the race issue would become like the cockroach in the punch bowl: what everyone talks about after the party but was too polite too mention at the time.

“For the first time in the history of this city, people are looking beyond a person’s skin color as to who can best lead this city,” claimed Evans, with a great deal of hope.

In some ways, the entry of Williams may help Evans, although it blunts his reform appeal and his campaign slogan of “Solutions. Not excuses.” Evans’ skin color may not hurt him too much among voters, but it won’t help much with the Washington Post’s editorial board, a bastion of liberal guilt. When the board issues its endorsement this September, it will likely pass on Evans in the belief that an African-American should govern this city. That leaves a three-way fight among Brazil, Chavous, and the CFO for the newspaper’s nod of approval.

Although he may not be vanquishing his rivals at forums, Evans’ campaign kickoff last Saturday demonstrated that his campaign is better organized and better financed than theirs. The crowd of Evans supporters gathered at Kennedy Playground, 7th and P Streets NW, more than doubled the size of the crowds that turned out to launch his rivals’ campaigns.

Evans’ crowd included some 100 seniors bused in for the occasion. Since half of the city’s senior public housing centers are located in Evans’ ward, he should have an advantage in turning out the elderly on Election Day.

The May 30 event also warned Brazil and Chavous that they’ll have to get off their couches if they intend to out-work Evans in this campaign. The candidate spent 12 hours criss-crossing the city to campaign in every ward. He greeted shoppers at the Good Hope Marketplace in Ward 7, shook hands at the Giant near McLean Gardens in Ward 3, and walked Georgia Avenue in the afternoon heat with Jarvis.

Evans ended the day with a rally at Eastern Market, where he picked up an eloquent endorsement from Ambrose.

Gildenhorn, although the longest shot in the race, comes across as the most likable and colorful character in the current bunch. At times, the elderly restaurateur, who is spending $400,000 of his own money on his mayoral quest, seems in need of a cigar as a prop to sew up the Red Auerbach vote, however large that may be.

“You have a choice,” he told voters at the end of last week’s forum. Gesturing toward his three rivals, Gildenhorn told the crowd: “You can elect a lawyer as your next mayor….There are a lot of lawyer jokes going around, but there are no businessman jokes. Give a businessman a chance this time, and you’ll be surprised.”

No one would be more surprised than Gildenhorn if voters actually took his advice.CP

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