By Nick Erickson and B.L. Wilson
George Washington University and the League of Women Voters of the District of Columbia welcomed candidates for the city’s two highest elected offices to forums for those seeking to become the District’s next mayor and attorney general.
The inaugural D.C. Mayoral Candidates Forum on Wednesday—moderated by NPR senior editor for investigations and GW Associate Professor of Media and Public Affairs Cheryl W. Thompson—and the Attorney General Candidates Forum on Tuesday—moderated by GW Law Dean Dayna Bowen Matthew—welcomed a total of eight candidates to Jack Morton Auditorium on the Foggy Bottom Campus.
Because voters in the District are overwhelmingly Democrats, the party’s primary—on June 21 this year—in most instances is tantamount to a win in the November general election. All but one of the candidates at the forums were Democrats, except for one Independent running for mayor.
GW and the League of Women Voters made the forums available not only by hosting the in-person events, but also by livestreaming both on Facebook to ensure the entire D.C. community could view what each candidate had to say. Recordings were also made available to residents currently held in D.C. or federal corrections facilities.
“This candidate forum welcomed all candidates in good standing to participate regardless of political platform,” said Kathy Chiron, president of the League of Women Voters D.C. “We sponsor forums such as tonight’s event to provide voters information about the candidates.”
GW Provost Christopher Alan Bracey gave opening remarks at both forums, noting that the platform to hear from candidates for the District of Columbia’s two highest offices is “yet another example of how our civic engagement works.”
“As nonpartisan entities,” Bracey said, “the George Washington University and the League of Women Voters encourage informed and active participation in democracy through education and advocacy. We are proud of the many partnerships we have built and look forward to continuing to improve the lives of the citizens of D.C. in our third century as a university.”
To win over D.C. voters, candidates at both forums defended their records and positions while offering glimpses into what their tenures in office would look like while speaking at a university that Bracey said has been a key player in the District for over 200 years.
Mayoral candidate forum
Incumbent Mayor Muriel E. Bowser gave her pitch for a third term, while four challengers hoping to unseat her gave their own in front of a near capacity crowd Wednesday night. Each of the five candidates laid out their vision for improving the lives of D.C. citizens—especially as it pertained to crime, affordable housing and education.
In addition to Bowser, the candidates included James Butler, D.C. Council members Robert White Jr. and Trayon White Sr. and Rodney “Red” Grant, who is running as an Independent candidate. Each had 17 minutes of floor time to persuade why they should earn voters’ support. Candidates each candidate two minutes to deliver an opening statement, followed by a 15-minute Q & A with the moderator.
Each candidate addressed how they would solve the problem of rising reported crime and policing issues in the city. Bowser has proposed an increase of $30 million in the D.C. police department budget to add 347 officers in fiscal year 2023. Butler said he would add 700 officers if elected, many of them community-based police officers.
Grant also was in favor of a community-based policing program. He noted that growing up in the city residents often saw citizen patrols called Orange Hats “coming down the street. . .you knew you were protected.” Robert White and Trayon White, as other candidates also alluded to, believe police are part of the crime solution equation but not all of it and called for stronger investments in public education and mental health services, arguing the benefits of being proactive to stopping crimes.
Candidates also argued their paths to affordable housing and how to re-invest in office buildings no longer full because of the work-from-home culture the pandemic created.
Butler, Robert White, Trayon White and Grant each argued a need for change, while Bowser defended the work she has done in her two terms and made the case for continuity, especially as the city comes back from the pandemic’s disruption.
Attorney general candidate forum
Matthew, the GW Law dean, allowed the attorney general candidates each to answer the same set of questions, noting that they are seeking to replace the city’s current and first elected attorney general, Karl Racine, who is not seeking re-election.
The three candidates at the forum were: Brian Schwalb, a partner and manager in a national law firm; Bruce Spiva, a partner in a national firm who has practiced law in the city for 30 years; and Ryan Jones, who runs a private law practice in D.C.
Matthew first asked what will be the biggest challenge for the city’s next attorney general and how they planned to address it.
“The thing that is on everybody’s mind right now is safety,” Schwalb said. “We can’t be afraid to walk our dogs or go to the store or to pump gas. The AG as the chief prosecutor [of juvenile crime] has to make sure that kids that are committing violent repeat crimes, particularly gun violence, car jackings are held accountable.”
Jones said there can be no one priority because affordable housing, the environment, crime and education are all connected. “We are talking about people…turning to a life of despair that they’re living in,” he said. “So if we start to rewire our system, to uplift people to see the long-term arc, the culture changes.”
Spiva said the city is facing challenges that “come down to economic instability, lack of educational opportunity, housing instability… and so we need to address root causes. We can’t incarcerate our way out of the problem.”
Regarding what to do about homelessness, including various homeless encampments around the District, Schwalb said mental health was a major underlying cause but opposed bulldozing the encampments. Jones said the encampments are a health hazard and a danger not only to passers-by but also to the people in the encampments and should be cleared. Spiva said he would go after “slumlords and landlords” and developers who force people out of homes and fail to provide affordable housing as promised.
On consumer protection and legal action, Racine pursued technology firms for alleged violations of privacy laws. Spiva said he spent 30 years engaged in similar litigation. Likewise, Schwalb said he has experience hiring, training and mentoring lawyers and could assemble a team with the expertise to continue Racine’s work. Jones said that in addition to the Office of Consumer Protection, he would establish a deputy attorney general solely responsible for cyber security.