It wasn’t much, really, the first candidates’ face-off of the 2010 election cycle. But LL’s still excited to have a campaign to cover.

The two declared Democratic at-large D.C. Council candidates, incumbent Phil Mendelson and challenger Clark Ray, took turns answering questions for a little more than an hour last night in the basement of a Southwest apartment building. They did so in front of about a dozen members of the New Capitol Park Towers Tenant Association.

Given the early date and the small crowd, LL hesitates to read too much into this candidate pairing. But there’s a few points to be made here:

  • No surprise on Mendo’s talking points: He held himself out as a “fierce watchdog” who is devoted to “accountability and transparency” with a “record of being independent.” He also went out of his way on a couple of occasions to note his clashes with Attorney General Peter Nickles.
  • If you’re wondering how Ray is going to handle the fact he was fired as parks and recreation director, he just isn’t. In his opening statement, he went into a long description of his career. He mentioned his service at DPR and simply said, ‘I have left that post.’
  • Expect to hear a lot about Ray’s service as a reserve police officer, though—-how he knows what it’s like to “walk a beat with the men and women in blue.” He brought it up on at least three occasions, any time a public safety issue was broached. He’s also find of touting his executive experience—-his “time in the director’s chair.”
  • Ray did drop a juicy nugget from his DPR days: When asked about budgeting, Ray mentioned that the city lost revenue when he was asked to waive permit fees as director by folks “on both the executive and legislative sides.” Asked after the meeting for details, Ray declined to name names. (Unfortunately, a no-exceptions approach to fee collections seemed to be the whole of his budget-gap-closing strategy.)
  • You could tell Mendo was trying to keep his wonk thing in check—-keeping his opening statement short and sharp, for instance—-but it didn’t always work. When asked a question on Metro security, he of course had to preface the answer with a disclaimer about how the Council doesn’t control Metro before arguing that Metro needs to look at a “broken windows” approach to policing the system. Then again, his command of debt service statistics and rent control laws can be impressive.
  • Both were asked if they’d support a higher top-bracket income tax rate (as proposed by Jim Graham and the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute). Mendo said yes; Ray said he was “not prepared today to say.” Both gave weaselly answers on whether employee furloughs are a good idea.
  • Neither candidate seemed to be particularly strong when responding to a juvenile justice question. Ray couldn’t immediately remember the name of the District’s juvenile facility, leaving Mendelson to prompt him: “New Beginnings.” Then Mendo rambled about how research indicates this-and-that before noting that he’s trying to do something about the veil of confidentiality over the entire system.
  • Both candidates brought entourages: Mendelson had three members of his council staff in tow; Ray was accompanied by activist Laurie Collins.

In the end, this was a Mendo crowd—-his mastery of their housing concerns (the building is entangled in a landlord-tenant battle) certainly helped his cause, and he got the only applause line of the night when he mentioned that he voted against financing a baseball stadium. The two issues where Ray is trying to distinguish himself from Mendelson—-school reform and crimefighting strategy—-never really came up in the questioning, and he didn’t do much to turn the questions that were asked toward those topics. But Ray is a personable guy who’s going to have a hell of a lot more of these candidate forums to polish his presentation.