From the prolonged “Go Vince Go!” cheers to the loud boos that accompanied incumbent Adrian Fenty‘s formal introduction, it wasn’t hard to tell how the crowd swung at Saturday’s D.C. Democratic State Convention mayoral debate. The audience at the Howard University School of Law was so vocally anti-Fenty that former pornographer turned candidate Dennis Sobin took time out of his opening remarks to chastise the taunters, saying he was “appalled” by the level of disrespect shown to the mayor.
Given the crowd, it was hardly surprising that Council Chair Vincent Gray dominated Fenty in the straw poll, beating him by an impressively lopsided 703 to 190.
The mayoral forum itself was a rather chaotic affair, and with just 30 seconds each to respond to questions, much of the nine candidates’ statements consisted of sound bite generalities.
Opening with “How many people remember the early 90s?” Fenty kept to his go-to debate strategy of contrasting his administration with that of Sharon Pratt Kelly, under which Gray served as director of Health and Human Services. Gray, meanwhile, trumpeted his “one city” mantra and promised to end cronyism and “restore fiscal responsibility.”
With the front runners sticking to their scripts, most of the interesting oratory came from the second-tier candidates. Ernest Johnson promised he would accomplish “something kind of close to” what Alvin Greene did in the South Carolina Democratic primary. Sobin, who lives in Foggy Bottom, advocated using private police forces like George Washington University’s throughout the city to reduce crime. Carlos Allen proposed that kids should start school at two instead of five, arguing “instead of ‘goo goo gah gah’s it should be ABCs.”
The minor candidates weren’t able to wrest many votes away from Gray, though. Only Leo Alexander, who received 75 votes, Fenty, and Gray made it to double digits in the straw poll.
With the notable exception of the mayor’s race, though, the convention’s straw poll was kind to incumbents.
In the Wards 1, 5 and 6 straw polls the current councilmembers all came out on top of their competition. Current At-Large Councilmember Kwame Brown also beat out former Ward 5 Councilmember Vincent Orange in the Chair’s race.
Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton handily defeated challenger Douglass Sloan 732 to 171. Sloan spent much of their debate criticizing Norton’s focus on voting rights rather than full, immediate statehood. Norton called his statehood bona fides into question, though, saying she had never seen her opponent at a rally or protest. “I don’t talk a game, I do statehood,” Norton added.
The debate between incumbent at-large Councilmember Phil Mendelson and former parks and recreation director Clark Ray was one of the most heated of the day, with Ray hounding Mendo on just about every topic the moderator put forward. On the issue of accountability, for example, Ray accused Mendelson of not once attending oversight hearings for the Parks and Recreation Department while he was director.
Ray was particularly hard on Mendelson in regards to public safety issues, quoting an email the councilmember had sent to a listserv saying that he did not believe crime was “a legislative issue” and accusing him of not understanding the severity of the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services’s problems.
“It’s very easy to criticize an incumbent, but I’m proud of my record,” Mendelson said in his closing statement.
“Some incumbents are easier to criticize than others,” Ray shot back.
The voters in the straw poll didn’t find as much to criticize Mendelson on as Ray did, however, giving him 512 votes to Ray’s 243.
Photo by Juliana Brint