The Democratic at-large candidates for DC Council, incumbent Vincent Orange, and challengers Sekou Biddle, E. Gail Anderson Holness, and Peter Shapiro, talked about transportation, housing, land use and some social issues at last night’s forum at the Black Cat on 14th Street.

Here is the full video from the event:



Small business: As in many forums, most candidates gave few specifics, and in most cases didn’t sharply disagree with one another. For example, I asked all candidates to talk about a time they’d helped a local business directly. I asked this first of Vincent Orange, who often touts his work bringing Home Depot to the Rhode Island Avenue Metro area but when talking about small business, speaks much more in generalities.

Orange and the other candidates launched into generic, prepared statements about the value of small business. Sekou Biddle’s answer, that he helps them most of all by patronizing them, was the most responsive. Orange was, however, able to name a lot of local businesses once pressed.

Affordable housing: Peter Shapiro had thoughtful recommendations for how to promote housing affordability, drawing on his experience with Arts District Hyattsville when he served in Prince George’s County. Perhaps because of his experience as an elected official in the past, Shapiro gave more specifics about actions he has taken or policies he would implement on this and some other issues.

All candidates raised their hands when asked if they would restore the Housing Production Trust Fund; hopefully Orange, in this budget cycle, and whoever wins the race, in the future, follows through on that promise.

Ethics: Shapiro went the furthest on campaign finance reform, criticizing the current council for not taking stronger steps and arguing it should pursue a public financing system for elections. Biddle called for reforms to money order contributions, the source of the latest scandal.

Orange, as he has in the past, emphasized his advocacy for banning outside employment for councilmembers, but hasn’t agreed to support limits on corporate contributions. He defended his decision not to cosponsor Mary Cheh’s recent campaign finance bill as “self-serving,” since Cheh holds other jobs as a law professor at GW and teaching bar review courses. (Tommy Wells, the one co-sponsor, does not have any outside employment).

Transportation: During a section on transportation, it came out that of the candidates, only Sekou Biddle is a member of Capital Bikeshare, and only he and Peter Shapiro subscribe to Zipcar. Biddle even pulled out his CaBi key, on his keychain, and his Zipcar membership card right on the stage.

I asked candidates about how we could help cyclists and drivers better understand each other’s needs and concerns. Without being “gotcha” about it, I wanted to give Vincent Orange a chance to speak to what he had learned from the January 1st episode where he parked in the 15th Street bike lane, was called out on Twitter, and apologized. Orange said that he hadn’t realized on which side of the white stanchions he should park, and that now he does.

Biddle proposed having driver education include information on how to deal with bicycle infrastructure and people riding bikes. This would only be a small start, since many DC drivers move in from other states, but it was a thoughtful response on the topic.

Biddle was also most able to talk about the role of buses in helping connect communities. I asked candidates to name a bus line that they feel works well in DC, partly to see how many could name a bus line at all. Orange gave an example of a bus line, the X2, but couldn’t name it without help from a staffer who shouted it out unprompted.

Holness, marriage, and the Redskins: Dr. E. Gail Anderson Holness, generally considered a long-shot candidate, gave some reasons to appreciate her candidacy, but also some reasons for concern. As a resident of Ward 1, she lives in the most urban neighborhood among the candidates, and says she rides a bicycle and takes many forms of transit regularly. She was able to name many bus lines and talk about them in depth.

However, Holness was the only candidate of the four not to encourage Maryland residents to vote to keep the new same-sex marriage law. She also said on last week’s WPFW debate that she supports giving land to the Redskins for a practice facility, on the theory that the master plan calls for recreational space.

The plan does ask for recreation space, but intended to serve local residents, not to be a fenced-off facility that only serves a professional team. I pushed on this issue, asking her why she would fulfill a neighborhood request in this way. She didn’t have a good answer and seemed confused by the policy details.

The other candidates all reaffirmed their opposition to the practice facility. Orange said he would support bringing the actual team back and potentially using public funds, if it were part of a plan to create a “livable, walkable” community around the stadium as the District is doing at the ballpark.

"Livable, walkable” actually is a phrase Orange spoke at least 5 times over the course of the debate. It’s a testament to the phrase Tommy Wells coined for his campaign slogan, and the policies behind it, that Orange has latched on. Hopefully this means he genuinely supports the principles of “livable, walkable” communities; either way, he clearly believes it’s a growing political force.

Kwame’s revenge: Speaking of Mr. “Livable, Walkable” Wells, the forum’s most dramatic moment came near the end, when Orange suggested that Wells should have at least toned down his criticism of Kwame Brown’s Lincoln Navigator scandal, to avoid losing his committee and his opportunity to advance his agenda. Shapiro quickly disagreed, arguing that Wells was right to speak up and that it shows the “dysfunction” in the current council that others did not come to his defense.


Did the forum help you make up your mind? What stuck out as most meaningful to you?