What happens when a prominent critic of the District’s governing body takes on two of its lead decision makers? He comes out a clear winner – at least, in the case of this week’s mayoral forum held at Trinidad Baptist Church in Northeast Washington. Small business owner and former TV reporter Leo Alexander outweighed Mayor Adrian Fenty and City Council Chairman Vincent Gray in his responses to more than one dozen questions posed at the trio in preparation for this fall’s election.
The two-hour event, in which the candidates were given one to two minutes to respond, was sponsored by the Washington Ministers Conference and attracted about 100 people.
The Rev. George Gilbert, pastor of Holy Trinity United Baptist Church Northeast, served as moderator. In doing so, he questioned the candidates’ positions on issues ranging from the new teachers contract and education reform, to the lack of a public hospital and efforts to improve parking during the Sunday morning worship hour.
A couple of times, Gray and Fenty either lacked understanding of the issue or hedged on Gilbert’s inquiries. However, those instances only provided more fervor for Alexander, who attacked the shortcomings of the City Council as a whole. “This race is about the soul of our city,” said Alexander, who aggressively took both opponents to task.
He added that his decision to run for mayor had not been easy. But, “the only way to get anything done in D.C. is to run for mayor.”
According to one of Gilbert’s queries, the District is strangling the life out of the churches with its parking policies. Gray, who regards Fenty as his prime competition and repeatedly cited the accomplishments of the City Council, said there is definite need to improve access to street parking during worship services.
He said that as mayor he would open more dialogue with the faith community and re-establish an office for religious affairs – much like that Ward 8 Councilman Marion Barry had in place when he was mayor.
“A lot of churches have been squeezed out of D.C.,” Gray said, alluding to facilities that have opted to relocate to nearby locales such as Prince George’s County.
He stated that if elected, he’d establish a mayoral breakfast “to engage prayer for the betterment of the city.”
While both Fenty and Alexander conceded Sunday morning parking to be a lingering problem, the latter seized the opportunity to bring up the matter of gentrification and how it not only has driven away churches but also longtime residents for the sake of a new crop of residents. “They’re not putting in the street car along Benning Road for Black people,” Alexander said.
On the issue of crime and education, Fenty—who was noticeably subdued—noted that the new teachers’ contract was retroactive and would pay off in the long run, with more teacher graduates considering the District ideal for acquiring jobs. He said the city’s homicides were on a downward spiral from exceeding 400 at one point in the 1980s, to about 140 last year.
Gray said the city was close to having a universal pre-kindergarten system that was the result of legislation he and his Council colleagues had crafted. “We will have it done by the end of September 2011,” when plans called for completion in 2014, he boasted.
Gray added, however, that there needs to be more parity between the District’s public schools and charter facilities. He said it was imperative upon the city to take steps to reform its special education initiative, which has been listed among the worst in the nation.
Alexander added that while the District operates the smallest school system in the region, it has had some of the worst test scores. “I don’t think it’s the teachers or the kids,” he said. “It’s the families in D.C. that are broken.”
If elected, Alexander said he would deploy an army of social workers to administer needs assessments to families, to assist with necessities like job placement and mental health challenges. “We need strong homes to see the quality of life go up in D.C.,” Alexander said. “If we fix the family, the [needs of public school] kids will follow."