Mayoral candidates Robert White, incumbent Mayor Muriel Bowser, and Trayon White participate the DC Mayoral debate at Gaston Hall at Georgetown University.
Mayoral candidates Robert White, incumbent Mayor Muriel Bowser, and Trayon White participate the D.C. Mayoral debate at Gaston Hall at Georgetown University. Credit: Nathan Posner/Georgetown University Institute of Politics and Public Service

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Two things are true about mayoral debates at this point in the campaign season: They are far more interesting when all three of the major candidates show up. And they’re all starting to sound the same.

During last night’s affair at Georgetown University’s Gaston Hall, Mayor Muriel Bowser shared a stage with her two Council rivals, At-Large Councilmember Robert White and Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White, in the only televised debate of the race.

As they have done in previous debates, the two councilmembers attacked Bowser for things she’s failed to do over the past eight years and things she hasn’t done to their liking. The list is long: reduce violent crime and traffic fatalities, build enough affordable housing, and create an equitable public school system, to name a few.

Bowser replied to those criticisms generally, stating that surely all of the District’s ills cannot fall on her shoulders alone.

“If anybody promises you that the government can do it all, they are woefully mistaken,” Bowser said. “What we know is that strong kids, healthy kids, come from strong, healthy families. How we support families matters.”

Whether or not you’re growing tired of watching these candidates square off over the same issues and the same talking points, these debates are a great way to get to know how the candidates diverge on specific issues. But last night, it was a question about no particular issue that stood out.

For the final question, the candidates were asked to explain one decision they regret in their current jobs and what they would do differently. Only Bowser engaged in a meaningful way.

She said her parents’ advice to always stand up for herself led her to oppose a sitting councilmember’s re-election. Although she didn’t name names, she was referring to her endorsement of Dionne Bussey-Reeder over At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman in 2018.

“I don’t regret standing up and speaking up and defending myself and my administration,” Bowser said. “But I do regret that it got personal.”

Silverman is up for re-election again in the November general election, and many of Bowser’s pals have lined up behind one of her opponents, Graham Mclaughlin, according to finance reports.

In his answer, Trayon White name-dropped his mentor, Mayor for Life Marion Barry, and admitted that he is sometimes “very off-the-hip,” which has “cost me tremendously.” It’s unclear exactly what he’s referring to, but one could speculate that he was referring to his anti-Semitic comments four years ago, or his support of and participation in a 2020 protest that threatened Latinx construction workers on the MLK Gateway project. He later apologized for both actions.

Robert White said he prefers not to dwell on what he “coulda, woulda, shoulda done differently,” and instead uses his mistakes as opportunities to learn.

A few takeaways from the rest of the debate:

• Bowser touted her work to establish the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, where D.C.’s violence interruption program is housed.

“We started small and we have grown to every part of the city making sure we have people from the neighborhood who know the issues to connect people to the services that we have,” she said. 

But Robert White jumped in to point out that the Council first worked to establish a violence interruption program in the Office of the Attorney General because Bowser “was a roadblock” to the program. “I’m glad she finally came along,” he said.

• Trayon White attacked Bowser’s use of the Housing Production Trust Fund, the city’s primary tool for building affordable housing. He said D.C. has spent almost $1 billion in the past 10 years but certain sections of the city—including Ward 8, which he represents—“hasn’t seen the return on investment.” He said that money “has become a slush fund for developers.”

The D.C. Auditor and the Office of the Inspector General have released reports detailing the mishandling of the fund. Most recently, the OIG reported that now-former Department of Housing and Community Development Director Polly Donaldson failed to use at least 50 percent of the fund’s annual budget for housing for extremely low-income residents as required by law.

• Trayon White also spent the most time complaining that the moderators were interrupting his answers. “It’s crazy,” he said at one point.

• During a back-and-forth about vacancy rates downtown (about 17 percent as of last fall, a record high), Robert White again attacked Bowser for rejecting a plan he introduced years ago to convert empty office space into affordable housing. Bowser said the issue is an example of the most pressing question this election cycle: Who do voters trust to bring D.C. back from the pandemic?

She said she will continue to work with the business community and the Council to bring people back downtown. “We are going to attract housing, and we have a real plan to do it in the downtown area and bring people, tourists, festival goers, conventions to the downtown,” she said.

Robert White jumped in to clarify “because the mayor didn’t understand.”

“The mayor understands well,” Bowser shot back.

Robert White said Bowser continues to mischaracterize her accomplishments. “This is why we need a forward thinking mayor, not a reactive mayor,” he said.

• One area the candidates seem to agree is in the need for more and improved mental health services. Robert White said D.C. doesn’t have enough mental health professionals. He said he’s been working with the University of the District of Columbia to establish a scholarship for District residents to get a masters in counseling or social work for free.

Bowser touted the opening of “sobering centers,” likely in wards 1 and 6, to help connect people experiencing homelessness to services.

And Trayon White told the audience he sees a therapist every Wednesday morning to work through the trauma he’s experienced as a young Black man growing up in D.C. and “burying 250 individuals right here in my community.”

Trayon White expressed frustration that when he arrives at the scene of a shooting, mental health professionals are not there.

“We say these things, we have these things in the budget, but when I’m there, the government is not there,” he says. “The police are there, the detectives there, and the community is there, but the behavioral health responsibility that’s supposed to be in the community is absent.”