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19 Councilmember Candidates Speak on Wide Range of Issues at D.C. Bar Forum

October 09, 2020

By Richard Blaustein

The election for District of Columbia Council at-large member is a high-energy contest this year, not only because of important pandemic-related election issues, but also because 24 candidates are vying for two seats.

Offering a direct public interface, the D.C. Bar’s D.C. Affairs Community hosted a virtual candidates forum on October 6 and 7, where 19 candidates presented their positions on issues such as housing, policing, pandemic response, campaign finance, D.C. statehood, and the upcoming ballot Initiative 81 seeking to diminish criminal enforcement against “entheogenic plants and fungi” (i.e., magic mushrooms). The forum was moderated by attorney James Bubar, who served as D.C. Affairs Community co-chair for five terms, and Washington Post journalist Julie Zauzmer, who covers District politics.

Bubar said the forum is a continuation of a D.C. Bar Communities tradition that began in 2006 when it hosted a mayoral forum at the University of the District of Columbia attended by more than 1,000 people. “We at the Bar do this as a community service to [Bar] members and the public to give them an opportunity to ask questions and see what the positions are of the 24 people running for D.C. Council. It’s probably the largest race we’ve ever had,” he said.

The candidates who participated in the forum included incumbent Robert White (Democrat), Marya Pickering (Republican), Ann Wilcox (D.C. Statehood Green Party), and independents Markus Batchelor, Mario Cristaldo, Christina Henderson, Jeanné Lewis, Will Merrifield, Vincent Orange, Mónica Palacio, Eric Rogers, Franklin Garcia, Marcus Goodwin, Kathy Henderson, Chander Jayaraman, Ed Lazere, Alexander Padro, Michelangelo Scruggs, and Keith Silver. Under the Home Rule Act, a maximum of three at-large seats can go to the same political party.

On access to affordable housing, the candidates generally agreed that the city is in a crisis, while a few maintained that market-rate housing would still have a place within a revitalized housing effort. On zoning, Christina Henderson cited a 2018 “Housing Equity Report” stating that 1 percent of the city’s affordable housing is located west of Rock Creek Park, while 50 percent of dedicated affordable housing units are in Wards 7 and 8. “To me that’s not equitable,” Henderson said.

White raised the possibility of converting office space to affordable housing. “In the COVID crisis we know that many of these businesses are not going to return to full capacity, so we will have a lot of buildings that are ripe for converting,” he said.

The candidates also addressed questions on policing in the context of recent protests, calls for police force reduction, and the District’s own “violence interruption” efforts. Pickering said she was against decreasing law enforcement budget. “We have the best trained police force in the country. Their scenario-based training is second to none. We need more police. We need to fully fund them,” Pickering said.

The city needs a “transformation in our traditional model of policing,” Palacio argued. “I want to offer that not investing in schools, not investing in housing and public safety is a continuum of violence we have to address in the council.”

Similarly, Batchelor said the next D.C. Council leaders “have to acknowledge in a real way that public safety does not start or end with the police department.” He expressed support for “a divestment from the police department” to fund initiatives that “truly maintain public safety in our communities,” such as economic opportunity, education equity, and mental health services.

Offering a differing perspective, Orange said he does not support reducing the police force but would advocate for more strategic approaches, especially when it comes to guns. “We in the District of Columbia do not produce guns,” Orange said. “And so I think there needs to be a strategy to identify the pathway [by which] guns make it into the District and shut that pathway down.”

The candidates also shared their views on D.C. statehood, with Pickering as the only one opposed to it. The District’s status is mandated by the Article 1, Section 8, of the Constitution, Pickering said.

Moderator Bubar pointed out to the majority pro-statehood candidates that the District would have to take charge of its courts and criminal justice system, with costs exceeding $800 million. The candidates were not uniform with their ideas on how to fund the court system. Kathy Henderson, for example, said that “the current cost is prohibitive,” calling for “a nuanced approach to transitioning into full enfranchisement with our local courts.” Lazere and White both offered that, upon becoming a state, the District could tax the income of people who work but do not live in the District, providing substantial revenue for transition costs.

Ballot Initiative 81, on the other hand, engendered legalistic commentary among the candidates. The proposed measure specifically calls for actions against the use of “entheogenic plants and fungi” to be “among the Metropolitan Police Department’s lowest law enforcement priorities,” and for the “the Attorney General for the District of Columbia and the United States Attorney for the District of Columbia to cease prosecution of residents of the District of Columbia for these activities.” Rogers, who is opposed to the initiative, said the city needs a more comprehensive criminal code reform, including decriminalization.

Speaking after the forum, Sally Kram, current co-chair of the D.C. Affairs Community, emphasized that the event was bipartisan and focused on voter education. “What we try to do with our forum is bring in folks who may not get a chance to see the candidates in another forum. And we think we achieved that.”

Missed the forum? Access a recorded version of the program here.

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