At-large Council candidates during the Sept. 30, 2020 debate
Participants in the Sept. 30 at-large Council debate.

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For two men who boast some level of financial expertise, Marcus Goodwin and Vincent Orange had a bit of trouble counting to 11 during the at-large Council debate Wednesday night.

The two business friendly hopefuls sparred during the debate hosted by the Office of Campaign Finance as part of its new publicly funded campaign program.

Goodwin, responding to a question about Chairman Phil Mendelson’s concerns that the D.C. Council as a whole is moving too far to the left, said the chairman’s assessment was a “spot on.”

“We need to have thoughtful leaders who understand basic economics,” Goodwin said. “And frankly we haven’t had that lately. I want to focus my talents on balancing a large … 9-figure budget and value engineering them to ensure we can balance our budget and we don’t fall back into the … control board.”

Orange took the opportunity to swipe at Goodwin, who previously called him a “rotten orange.”

“It’s a 12-figure budget because we have a $16 billion dollar budget,” Orange incorrectly told his younger opponent.

Goodwin tried to cover his tracks, saying he was referring to the District’s $1.7 billion capital budget, which, for the record, is a 10-figure number. Both candidates corrected themselves in post-debate follow-ups with LL.

The gaffes played out during the second of three debates put on by OCF. The discussion featured five other candidates including Will Merrifield, Mónica Palacio, Christina Henderson, Michangelo “Doctor Mic” Scruggs, and Ed Lazere. Most of the rest of the 24 candidates on the ballot to fill two at-large seats on the D.C. Council were divided between two other debates Tuesday and Wednesday nights.

The event featuring Goodwin and Orange’s back-and-forth revealed stark differences between the two candidates and Lazere, their more progressive opponent, all of whom largely dominated the discussion. Here are some highlights:

Read our 2020 elections coverage:

Orange would repeal the universal paid leave program. No one agrees.

The chief financial officer’s latest revenue projections say the District is facing a $212 million shortfall for Fiscal Year 2021. To make up the gap, Orange suggested repealing D.C.’s paid leave program, which he has fought against for years as the president and CEO of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce.

If we go ahead and take away the universal paid leave program temporarily, we can fill that budget with the dollars that are coming in from that program,” he said.

None of the other candidates who spoke on the issue agreed that D.C. should take away paid leave benefits in order to fill a budget gap.

Orange claimed the program provides pays millions in benefits to hundreds of thousands of people who work in the District, but don’t live here while denying benefits to D.C. residents who live here, but don’t work here. He said in a follow-up conversation that the specific numbers he cited came from the D.C. Policy Center.

The Policy Center’s executive director Yesim Taylor clarifies that the numbers Orange cited are from 2018 and look quite different these days.

Goodwin flips his stance on the eviction moratorium.

During a forum hosted by the Southwest Neighborhood Assembly on Sept. 15, Goodwin told viewers that he wanted to extend the current moratorium on evictions only “to the point that we can’t extend anymore.”

“We’re all in a pact as a society that to receive goods you have to pay a price, otherwise no one would work if we never had to pay for anything,” he said two weeks ago. “We don’t live in a fantasy land. We live in a land with economic realities, so that’s what I based my decisions on.”

In last night’s debate, he suggested a different view—that the District should “extend it indefinitely for those who lost their job due to COVID and the pandemic because I think that’s the right thing to do.”

Read his full statements here.

Goodwin flips his stance on the streetcar expansion

During the same SWNA forum on Sept. 15, Goodwin suggested that he would look to cut some nonessential projects to make up for a pandemic-induced budget shortfall, such as renovations to libraries and the expansion of the streetcar into Ward 7.

“I would definitely cut the $118 million slated for investment in the Benning streetcar extension,” he said. “Those dollars could be reallocated a lot more efficiently for our most desperate and dire needs, for our neediest residents.”

Last night, Goodwin used the streetcar in exactly the opposite way. He described the expansion project as a symbol of investment in an area of the District that is often neglected.

“We need to ensure that investments east of the river and economic development projects, commercial investment is our first and top priority because many of our neediest residents live in these communities and they shouldn’t have to cross the river to get the great resources that we have uptown,” he said.

LL wonders if the endorsement Goodwin received from Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray, who is supportive of the expansion, has anything to do with his change of heart. The SWNA forum was Sept. 15. Goodwin announced Gray’s endorsement Sept. 23, and by Sept. 30 Goodwin wholeheartedly defended the project.

Goodwin writes in a follow-up email that his new position “aligns with the people in the community after a lot of conversation with them.”

Read his full statements here.

Will Merrifield wants to move to a social housing model.

Merrifield is running to disrupt the flow of government subsidies to private housing developers. A major part of the former housing attorney’s platform is social housing, modeled off the program in Vienna, where more than half of the population lives in public housing.

Under Merrifield’s proposal, the government builds housing, and residents pay 30 percent of their income toward rent. All of the profits are directed into the upkeep of the building.

“What would have been a huge profit for the developer turns into a surplus for the building,” he said. “So the housing actually pays for itself. It is a way to get underneath the affordable housing crisis.”

Lazere said he also supports the “growth of the social housing model.”

Goodwin is confident in his morals.

Goodwin is one of the few candidates who opted against using public campaign financing and has accepted donations from wealthy developers. Moderator and Washington Post reporter Fenit Nirappil asked what Goodwin, a real estate developer himself, would say to voters who are concerned he would be beholden to monied interests.

Goodwin responded not by addressing the question specifically, but by listing his total number of contributions (more than 1,700 total and 1,100 from D.C. residents, he says) and by assuring viewers that he has confidence in his own morals.

“I’m confident that I am someone who is going to be morally upright, who is a D.C. native, whose family lives here, who is a homeowner in the District, who only wants to see us rise out of COVID,” he said. “And finally I’ll say that my foremost priority is ensuring tax dollars are spent efficiently.”

Goodwin said he decided not to use traditional campaign financing because he’d rather spend taxpayer money on schools.

Orange continues defending against his ethical lapses.

Orange lost the 2016 primary to current At-Large Councilmember Robert White, the Democratic nominee for one of the seats up for grabs this year. Before his lame duck term ended, Orange accepted the job as the D.C. Chamber of Commerce’s CEO. He resigned without finishing the term under pressure from several councilmembers outraged over the perceived conflict of interest.

Orange was also the first public official sanctioned by the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability (BEGA), and was part of an FBI investigation related to illegal campaign donations.

Why should voters return a person with such a questionable past to office? Nirappil asked.

“The reason why is because Black lives matter and records matter,” VO said. “I have never been fined by the Office of Campaign Finance. I’ve never had to stand before a judge and enter a plea.  I have a record that’s second to none.”

Lazere wants to spend more of the District’s reserve funds.

Lazere’s opponents call him fiscally irresponsible for all his past lobbying to spend down D.C.’s rainy day funds. The reserves are what has kept the District from making drastic cuts in the wake of the pandemic’s hit to the economy, unlike some other jurisdictions.

In response to opponents’ criticisms, Lazere suggested the city should spend more of its reserves right now.

“I’m proud that I’ve been creative and very thoughtful about using the city’s reserves to actually fight for things,” he said before restarting his answer. 

“I’m proud of my record of fighting for things in the D.C. budget that matter to D.C. residents like affordable housing and schools,” he said. “In most years that’s been done without raising taxes, without the city’s reserves.”

“And right now we’re sitting on $1.2 (billion) in the worst economic crisis any of us has ever seen,” he continued, citing a number from the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, where he worked as the executive director before launching his campaign. “I think it’s immoral … to be sitting on resources that could be helping people and businesses that are suffering just to keep money in the bank in the worst economic crisis we’ve ever faced.”

David Umansky, a spokesperson for D.C.’s chief financial officer, says in an email that reserve funds have restricted uses.

Lazere acknowledges that the current law keeps money in reserves as cash flow in order to pay the bills between tax collection.

“If I were on the Council I would push for temporary change to the rule for the fund to be able to use it to get through the pandemic,” Lazere says.

He says D.C. can meet its cash flow needs by borrowing money short term.