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Apparently, they can get along. The District’s three top mayoral candidates, whose previous encounters have featured enough pugnacity to earn a resolution from At-Large Councilmember Vincent Orange, decided to take it easy on each other tonight at Anacostia High School for the final major debate of the season. The result: actual discussions of policy.

“What gives?” thought LL. Apparently the crowd agreed, as Muriel Bowser and David Catania supporters teamed up to nearly derail the debate with their heckling.

The forum, sponsored by various Ward 8 civic groups, kicked off with a straw poll. Bowser eventually won the vote limited to residents of the simpatico ward with 169 votes, 70 percent of the total ballots cast. David Catania received 69 votes, while Carol Schwartz won 16.

The usual festive straw-poll atmosphere was in evidence, too. Young girls performed choreographed cheers for Muriel Bowser. Anti-David Catania activists in signs and T-shirts without the mandatory Office of Campaign Finance credit lines accused the candidate of waging a war on the poor, while Ward 8 councilmember Marion Barry made an appearance to cast a ballot for Bowser. (At one point during the debate, all three candidates said they would take Barry’s phone calls personally if elected.)

WUSA9 reporter Bruce Johnson‘s questions focused on Ward 8. Asked to name their greatest contribution to Ward 8, Bowser mentioned free Metrobus rides for students, while Catania chose the United Medical Center hospital bailout. Schwartz named her paid sick leave bill, but not before a man in the audience shouted that Schwartz couldn’t come up with anything she had done for the ward.

It was a sign of things to come. In the most extended heckle of the debate, Bowser begged a woman in the audience by name to settle down, while a who’s who of east-of-the-river activists, plus a security guard, intervened. Johnson looked ready to call it quits, but the debate managed to limp on anyway. (LL’s other top heckles: a Bowser heckler telling a Catania heckler to “shut your mouth, shut your face,” and Barry Farm activists effectively mic-checking the debate).

Asked about Vince Gray‘s school boundaries proposal, Bowser worried that the changes would lock east-of-the-river students out of quality schools across the Anacostia River. Schwartz struck a similar, if more strident, tone, vowing that Brown v. Board of Education would not be undone under her watch. Catania put his chairmanship of the D.C. Council education committee to good use, launching into a wonky discussion of how the changes would mortally wound one middle school.

Instead of attacking one another, the candidates set their sights on one person: City Administrator Allen Lew, architect of the school overhauls and the D.C. United stadium deal. Considering what position the candidates would turn over in their own administration, both Catania and Schwartz said they’d put someone new in Lew’s position. Bowser didn’t quite tell Lew to update his LinkedIn connections, naming the fire chief as her priority.

The debate’s location made for an interesting consideration of two other mayors—-Gray and Adrian Fenty. Gray, although toxic in much of the rest of the city, remains popular in Ward 8 even as his predecessor isn’t. But Bowser, apparently Ward 8’s favored candidate after defeating Gray in the primary, rose to prominence as Fenty’s protege.

Faced with these obstacles, the candidates eagerly twisted themselves into pretzels. Asked whether Gray got a raw deal from Jeff Thompson‘s pre-primary plea deal, Catania (who called for Gray’s resignation two years earlier), declared that U.S. Attorney Ron Machen appeared to tilt the primary against Gray with the plea. Bowser, who understandably appears to see critiques of “Machen Monday” as an attack on the legitimacy of her primary win, was more reticent.

Bowser faced her own Ghost of Mayors Past when Johnson asked her how she was different from Fenty. Bowser described Fenty as a friend who taught her to be “impatient with incompetence.” At the same time, though, Bowser said that Fenty’s “dramatic fall” showed her to “never lose touch with the people.” A pretty nice way to call the guy a jerk, LL thinks.

Aside from some jabs over Schwartz and Catania’s former GOP affiliations and Catania’s old job with city contractor M.C. Dean, the candidates treated each other surprisingly well.

They even turned down the always brutal opportunity to ask one another questions. Three weeks from now, LL wonders who will be wishing they had taken it.

File photo by Darrow Montgomery