Eight candidates for Washington, D.C. mayor and attorney general gathered at a candidate forum at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue to politick and, in the words of one candidate, to tell the Washington Jewish community “La shanah tuhvah.”
A crowd of about 150 sitting in the pews of the synagogue Sunday afternoon met five of the five attorney general candidates invited – Democrats Karl Racine, Edward Smith, Lorie Masters, Paul Zukerberg and Lateefah Williams – while only three of the five mayoral candidates – independent David Catania, independent Carol Schwartz and Libertarian Bruce Majors – showed up. The attorney general candidates largely steered clear of attacking each other, while two of the candidates for mayor, Catania and Schwartz, frequently did so.
Racine, whose heroic attempt at Hebrew began the debate, offered credentials from associate White House counsel to being listed as a top minority lawyer by National Law Journal. Smith spoke of a leaving a law firm despite being on a partnership track to work on the Obama campaign and in the Obama administration.
Williams said she had a long record of service in Democratic organizations, which included stints as president of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, a group of Democratic LGBT activists, and Ward 5 committee chair of the D.C. Committee of Democratic Women.
Zukerberg discussed his advocacy for marijuana decriminalization and D.C. voting rights, and Masters presented her record of nonprofit work, which included serving as president of the Women’s Bar Association. Masters also mentioned a specific campaign issue outside of D.C. statehood for which she would advocate in office: ethics reform.
However, the attorney general candidates did make some verbal jabs. Zukerberg said that, as the activist behind the effort to have the attorney general election reinstated after the D.C. City Council voted in July 2013 to postpone it to 2018, he had an incomparable record.
“My opponents have platforms that are aspirational,” he said. “My platform is perspirational.”
Zukerberg also characterized himself as “just a regular lawyer,” which could have been a jab at Racine and Smith’s impressive resumes.
Smith himself said that he was endorsed by AFL-CIO and Jews United For Justice “not because I’m a big-time partner, not because I’ve got the most money, not because I have the support of powerful people around the city,” which could have been a jab at Racine.
According to The Washington Post, as of Sept. 19 Racine’s campaign had the most cash on hand.
The mayoral candidates wasted no time attacking each other.
When the question of how the candidates would improve D.C.’s ethical standards came up, Schwartz said Catania showed poor judgment in soliciting income from companies contracted by the city. She said that Catania’s efforts to recuse himself from votes that overlapped with his duties as vice president of Corporate Strategy for M.C. Dean were insufficient, since he voted on budgets containing money for projects the city had hired M.C. Dean to complete.
Catania rebutted that M.C. Dean did less than 2 percent of its contracts with the District of Columbia and that the skills he learned at M.C. Dean would actually help him run the District’s government.
On the issue of education, the candidates also differed. Schwartz proposed hiring outside help from D.C. retired educators within the District proper, as well as its Greater Metropolitan Area. Catania focused on the so-called “social promotion” policy, which allows students to be promoted despite not having completed requisite coursework in all grades except the third, fifth and eighth grades in an effort not to demoralize students from disadvantaged communities. Schwartz said she would keep schools chief Kaya Henderson in her position, while Catania did not.
After the debate, voters were eager to discuss the candidates’ performances.
Michele Linnen, 56, said she was most impressed by Masters – Linnen said she admired Masters’ focus on ethics reform. She said she would support Schwartz for mayor, because she wanted a female mayor and was also impressed with the “lack of entourage” that accompanied Schwartz to the debate.
However, Bill Levenson, 44, said Schwartz “came off as bitter.” He said the forum pointed him in the direction of supporting Catania for mayor, and declined to say whom he would support for attorney general.
Voters interviewed also generally sternly noted mayorial candidate Muriel Bowser’s absence.
Ethan Starr, 48, said he felt “very negative” about Bowser’s absence and that she was “thumbing her nose at the public.” He said that raised crucial questions about how accessible she would be if elected mayor.
Samantha Saly, 25, said she largely agreed with Starr’s statement, but that the absence of the front-runner also allowed underdog candidates to speak more and “added a bit of levity.”
A spokesman for Bowser said in an email the campaign had made a prior commitment that precluded her presence at the forum.
“The Councilmember was honored to have participated in the Sixth and I mayoral forum during the primary,” he said. “As mayor, Muriel will be committed to working with neighborhood organizations and the faith community to ensure they have a seat at the table as we build a District that works for everyone.”
According to the Sept. 19 NBC4/Washington Post poll, Bowser is drawing 43 percent of the vote with 26 percent and 16 for Catania and Schwartz, respectively. The same poll found 57 percent of the District undecided as to whom they would support for attorney general.