Credit: Matt Cohen

It’s officially election season, D.C.! At last night’s candidate forum—the first for the upcoming primary election in June—no one was shy in addressing the elephant in the room: At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds, who organizers said was confirmed to participate, was a no-show (a spokesperson for Bonds tells City Paper that she never confirmed she’d be attending the forum). “I’m now going to allow each candidate 90 seconds of closing remarks, Councilmember Bonds, you’re first…” quipped United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400 representative Dyana Forester, who moderated the event. Held at the Woman’s National Democratic Club, last night’s forum featured candidates in two of the more exciting races in the 2018 primary: the At-Large seat currently held by Bonds and Phil Mendelson‘s Council Chairman seat.

In the At-Large race, candidates Jeremiah Lowery, Aaron Holmes, and Marcus Goodwin all displayed varying levels of charisma and coherence as they expressed their views on a number of hot-button issues in this year’s race: Affordable housing, police-community relations, the District’s ongoing dealings with Wells Fargo, food deserts in Wards 7 and 8, paid family leave, and the ongoing situation with D.C. Public Schools’ graduation scandal. On affordable housing, Goodwin said “what we need is more larger family units,” implying that the District should give more incentives for developers to build more three- and four-bedroom units, while Lowery called out Bonds, who chairs the housing committee, for not advancing a pair of pro-tenant rent control bills. Holmes, meanwhile, suggested it should be on the city to build more affordable housing units.

While the At-Large candidates mostly agreed on the issues discussed (the District should divest from Wells Fargo, all support Paid Family Leave, and all believe that the lack of grocery stores in Wards 7 and 8 is a serious problem symptomatic of gentrification), the biggest head-scratching moment came when Holmes, prompted about the graduation scandal at Ballou High School, said he thinks NPR and WAMU owes Ballou principal Dr. Yetunde Reeves an apology, saying the real scandal that should be investigated is why did colleges accept all these students who were not qualified.

In the race for Council Chairman, it was clear last night that Mendelson has a formidable opponent in Lazere, whose poised and thoughtful responses drew considerable reactions from the at-capacity crowd. But it turns out Lazere isn’t the only candidate vying for Mendelson’s seat: perennial candidate Calvin Gurney has apparently decided that the Chairman race is the one he’s going to insert himself in this year.

Throughout the debate, Lazere leaned hard on his long tenure of advocacy as the director of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute—rattling off the statistics and numbers of issues related to homelessness, The Housing Production Trust Fund, and D.C.’s budget—while Mendelson went hard on his track record as the Chairman, listing his accomplishments. When asked if the city should dip into its $2.4 billion surplus for affordable housing and similar services—a big issue for this race—Lazere said yes, while Mendelson circled around the question, saying we should be “cautious” on how we spend that money.

But Mendelson became feisty when attacked by activists about why the Paid Family Leave bill hasn’t been implemented yet, and explained that it’s an “ongoing discussion” with the Council. “The only reason it passed was because as Chairman of the Council I figured out how to get the votes,” he said.

If last night’s forum was any indication, these two races are ones to keep an eye on.

This post has been updated to reflect that Councilmember Anita Bonds never confirmed her attendance.