Sneers, jeers, and outright outrageous shouting. That is the ugly tenor that mars most political forums during this critical mayoral campaign. It seems that what one lesser-known candidate called “the steamroller of gentrification” demolished Southern gentility along with Washington, D.C.’s “Chocolate City” moniker during this steamy campaign season.
With barely six weeks to the Sept. 14 Democratic primary, all that potential voters have learned about the frontrunners, who would shepherd this city through the trying economic times ahead, is that Mayor Adrian Fenty and D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray have no great love for one another.
At a forum in must-win Ward 4 last week, I was about to pose a question as a co-moderator when a frustrated man felt compelled to come to the podium and ask the audience and the candidates to remember the manners their grandmothers taught them.
As I suggested to the civic committee sponsoring the forum at the Takoma Park Baptist Church, they selected written questions from the audience that stuck to what the candidates vow to do as mayor, not what they have done in the past in their respective posts within District government, which fuels the fracas.
An anti-Fenty sentiment is more audible and visible than a pro-Gray rally. And this race is tighter than anyone expected given the enormous war chest Mr. Fenty amassed so early on. It doesn’t help either frontrunner that there are so many contenders, including Leo Alexander, Sulaimon Brown, Ernest Johnson and Michael T. Green, crowding the field.
The once-populist mayor is very slowly discovering how hard it is to defend a record rather than challenge one. His trademark arrogance is a major turnoff for most. But his detractors appear more angry about his failure to deliver on promises that he would champion the working class and improve their daily lives by creating more low-tech jobs, affordable housing and substantial and sustainable academic achievement unlike his predecessor.
Instead, Mr. Fenty has even lost support of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce for his failure to rein in spending and by balancing the budget on the backs of small businesses and individuals by creating hundreds more in “fees,” which are thinly-veiled tax increases that fool no one.
As one business owner put it, for example, “It’s one thing to talk about new facilities but there are no programs to go in them…instead of touting neighborhood renewal and creation, how do you create jobs.”
Mind you, the District has double-digit unemployment in certain areas, and all the candidates need to do more than give lip service to bringing back vocational education when the job growth in the Washington metropolitan area is in highly-skilled, professional careers.
This brings me to the most pressing issue apparently on the minds of voters – education. Clearly a factor in the anti-Fenty sentiment can be laid at the doorstep of his equally-arrogant and overrated school chancellor, Michelle Rhee.
She unduly interjected herself into this election as if to threaten District voters because she seems to think the city cannot improve without her. It has and it will. Besides, is it possible to sustain lasting improvements by annihilating and alienating the workforce as well as parents under the guise of reform? The latest poor showing in test scores indicate otherwise.
As for Mr. Gray, he presented an ambitious educational program designed to create learning opportunities from the cradle to colleges, but has yet to discuss in detail how to pay for it. The rub against the city council chairman is that he takes too long and is too deliberative in his actions. Such delay is frowned upon in instant messaging world and plays right into his detractors’ hands. Also, voters are aware that the city council signed off on the mayor’s initiatives and budgets.
It’s time to put the white gloves back on and seriously debate issues – not personalities – with civility.