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Jeff Smith makes a point. (Lydia DePillis)

Councilmember Jim Graham knew he was on friendly turf at last night’s Ward One councilmember debate, hosted by a group of labor unions and social services advocates.

He had arrived at the True Reformer building on U Street a half an hour late, but with good reason: Celebrating a tenant purchase at 1372 Kenyon Street NW, which the tenants had “snatched out of the hands of the owner” and bought for $580,000. Then, Graham waved his scarlet red hero’s cape that one of the forum’s sponsors, Save Our Safety Net had awarded him during the last budget cycle. Several of the unions present had already endorsed his reelection.

The debate was a demonstration of the power of incumbency in a field that mostly agrees on the basics. Things his opponents said the Council should do more of—strengthen emergency rental assistance, increase taxes on the wealthy, toughen tenant protections—Graham has crusaded for in the Council. After Bryan Weaver talked about the housing code violations at the Deauville Apartments in Mount Pleasant before it burned down, the president of the building’s tenants association passionately thanked Graham for helping to secure funding to acquire the building, lashing out at Weaver for even attempting to use the Deauville as a knock on the councilmember. And when a questioner raised a grievance against Pepco, the minor candidates decried the injustice, but Graham actually had his staff on hand to look into the complaint.

The critique Weaver andJeff Smith seemed to be trying to make is that Graham has governed piecemeal, sprinkling tax breaks and earmarks around instead of working systemically to solve problems. Weaver, speaking more like a debater than a politician, called Graham’s attempt to fix budget holes by raising taxes on millionaires a “gimmick”, saying that the whole tax code needed to be made more progressive. Both Weaver and Smith pounded Graham for handing out more earmarks and tax abatements than anyone other than Marion Barry, without figuring out whether they were actually needed to get projects done.

The problem is, most constituents don’t care, as long as they’re getting a chunk of the pork. And Graham knows it: He pointed out that some of that money had gone to the very groups sponsoring the forum. “May of those organizations got earmarks from Jim Graham, and they did damn good work,” Graham boasted, noting that “my tax relief has been critical” in several housing projects. “I gotta turn to every tool I have in government in order to make that happen.”

Smith finally landed a punch with a chart of the jobs that were supposed to have gone to District residents under the First Source rules in the construction of DCUSA, especially in light of the amount of money Graham had secured to help developer Chris Donatelli get it built—and the amount of money that Donatelli had chipped in for Graham’s campaign. “All these people coming up to you asking for jobs could have had these jobs,” Smith said, to cheers from his sticker-festooned contingent. (There didn’t seem to be many swing voters in the crowd; most declared their allegiance one way or another.)

Graham’s defense: Developers don’t do anything for nothing. “Jobs don’t spring like Athena from the head of Zeus,” he said.