Muriel Bowser holds line on D.C. mayoral debates; some activists hold their applause

D.C. Politics

Muriel Bowser holds line on D.C. mayoral debates; some activists hold their applause

By Mike DeBonis, Washington Post, October 4

When the Citizens Association of Georgetown invited the three leading D.C. mayoral candidates to a community forum, independent Carol Schwartz politely declined, citing a conflict withRosh Hashanah. Fellow independent David A. Catania accepted.

And the campaign of Muriel E. Bowser, the Democratic nominee, said nothing at all for weeks, said Pamla Moore, the association’s president. A few days prior to the Sept. 24 forum, Moore reiterated the invitation in a phone call with a Bowser aide who, she recalled, told her he would speak to the candidate and respond accordingly. “He never called back,” Moore said.

Bowser participated in dozens of candidate forums during a grueling Democratic primary — 31, by her campaign’s count — but she has committed to only four general-election debates leading up to Nov. 4.

That strategy makes sense for a Democrat holding a significant lead in a deeply Democratic city. But it also rubs against the established folkways of city politics, where campaigns tend to play out in front of crowds that are often small and parochial but deeply invested in civic affairs. And it has made some of those crowds unhappy.

“There were too many [debates] in the last election, but four isn’t fair to citizens across the city,” said Gerri Adams-Simmons, president of the Federation of Civic Associations, which has explored doing a forum with a fellow coalition but gave up in part because Bowser would not commit. “I just think it’s important for people to come out and see and hear for themselves. . . . There’s nothing like an in-person forum. TV and radio just doesn’t compare.”

Looking at where key candidates stand on pressing issues facing Washington.

For decades, winning the Democratic primary has been tantamount to winning the D.C. mayoralty, but this year’s combination of an unusually early primary, unusually well-known non-Democratic candidates and a demographically shifting city have fueled speculation about Bowser’s vulnerability.

Now, the abbreviated debate schedule has fed perceptions of Bowser as overly cautious, insubstantial and aloof — in some cases, reminding activists of the sometimes peevish politician who helped pave her path to power, ex-mayor Adrian M. Fenty.

In Georgetown, Bowser’s absence played out in front of scores of residents assembled in the Dumbarton House who heard only from Catania, who gave a solo presentation that won this rave review from the Georgetowner newspaper: “an experience-rich, smart, even visionary performance by a tough candidate who seemed to have the talents and strengths to run a credible campaign.”

Bowser’s campaign said while Moore may not have been personally contacted, a staffer did send the candidate’s regrets before the forum.

Bowser said in an interview she’s “very comfortable” with her decision to limit her debate appearances to events that will be broadcast either on TV, radio or the Internet, saying she appeared in front of numerous groups during the primary. “I think that what’s important is that we give everybody the opportunity to hear from all of the candidates, and I think that the debates that we have selected will do exactly that,” she said.

But the scene in Georgetown could repeat on at least a half-dozen occasions in the coming weeks, with at least two groups saying they will have an empty chair on stage should Bowser refuse to show up. One event, hosted Sept. 28 by a number of Jewish congregations and community groups, already featured that scene.

Those groups tend to be populated by influential activists, and to many, Bowser’s explanations — which include the difficult scheduling demands of a potential mayor — aren’t satisfying.

Muriel E. Bowser talks to fellow council members before attending a legislative meeting at the John A. Wilson Building in Washington on Sept. 23. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

“Muriel Bowser won the Democratic primary. Now she’s in a race for mayor, and that’s what we’re going to be voting for,” said Andy Litsky, a Southwest activist who is helping to organize a forum Monday on behalf of several community groups. “She may believe that she sold her talents to the folks who voted in the Democratic primary, and now she’s got to sell them to the voters of the District of Columbia.” (Litsky has donated small amounts to Catania’s campaign.)

The events Bowser has been skipping tend to be more focused on particular issues or specific communities than the citywide breadth of the four “official” debates. The Southwest event, for instance, will involve detailed questions about the soccer stadium planned for the area, Litsky said.

Bowser has also not committed to a forum focused on education despite attempts from some groups dating back to April. One coalition of community advocacy groups has attempted to schedule a forum and has secured commitments from Catania and Schwartz for an Oct. 22 event. But one organizer, Matthew Frumin, said plans are in flux while the event is being rethought to get Bowser in the fold — perhaps as an online interactive production.

“For education, in particular, it really is critical that people be able to hear very specifically where the candidates stand on what they want to do in shaping the education system for the next years,” he said. “That needs to be in an atmosphere in which it’s not just in campaign literature, but rather in a setting where views can be challenged and people can call for more detail rather than answers which could go any sort of way.”

Offering detail on her positions and opening them to challenge could hold peril for Bowser, who appears to be protecting a lead. An NBC4/Washington Post/Marist poll taken last month showed Bowser with a 17-point lead among likely voters; a more recent poll commissioned by a pro-business group gave her an eight-point lead over Catania.

Bowser has exploited the benefit of her superior fundraising and institutional support in recent weeks, with her campaign sending at least three mailers citywide, while the union representing hotel workers in the city sent pieces attacking Catania as a “bully” for supporting a bill that could have curtailed noisy labor protests.

In the first two debates, held Sept. 18 and Thursday, Bowser held her own by defending against Catania’s attacks on her record while dishing out a few jabs of her own.

“We sent a strong message in the first debate that I’m ready to lead,” she said. “I compare favorably, if not better, to everybody else’s debate skills. I’m not scared of the questions, and we’ve been answering these questions for 18 months. . . . So I feel very clear about the widely broadcast debates that we’re participating in will cover any remaining questions.”

Veteran Democratic activist Phil Pannell, who helped a debate sponsored by Ward 8 community groups that Bowser has agreed to attend, said there should be more effort among activist and community groups to consolidate their forums.

“It’s not unreasonable,” he said of Bowser’s stance. “People are going to have the chance to hear from the candidates. What is unreasonable is that every organization feels it is a must” to hold their own event.

Even well-established groups have found it hard to get Bowser’s attention. An AARP event set for this Thursday was finalized only after the format was arranged so that none would interact with each other. Rather than have all candidates on stage at once, each will have a half-hour block to themselves to answer questions from moderators.

“If you call it a debate, you might jinx me,” said Ivan Lanier, D.C. advocacy director for the retirees’ group, which counts 89,000 members in the city.

Last Wednesday, Bowser did not participate in a candidates’ event co-hosted by several prominent advocacy groups: D.C. Vote, D.C. Appleseed, the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute and the League of Women Voters. Her campaign blamed a previously scheduled event hosted by the Federal City Council, which is led by former mayor Anthony A. Williams, a prominent Bowser supporter.

“There are tons of these all over town, so it does become difficult,” said Linda Beebe, a Woodley Park resident and league board member who attended the event. “But the issue for the people here, this was about voting rights and equality for the city. That carries a different context.”

Beebe called herself a “lifelong Democrat who’s not wildly enthusiastic” about her party’s nominee.

The frustrations aren’t only rooted in debate appearances. Before the D.C. Vote event, Bowser’s campaign had failed to respond on time to a questionnaire asking about her positions on voting rights issues. Another well-respected advocacy group, the District chapter of the Sierra Club, endorsed Catania Wednesday after Bowser’s campaign didn’t complete a candidate survey for the primary or general elections.

“I find it disappointing,” said Bob Summersgill, a Democrat who managed the endorsement process for the chapter. “She certainly would have been given consideration had she submitted a questionnaire.”

Both Catania and Schwartz have repeatedly criticized Bowser for not engaging more widely during the campaign. And Schwartz, in an interview, suggested that insular strategy may not end with the election: “If Muriel is dissing the voters now, it certainly doesn’t portend well for all of us if she is elected,” she said.

Douglass Sloan, a political consultant and advisory neighborhood commissioner, also said the peril of Bowser’s strategy doesn’t end on Election Day.

“Right now, she’s ruining the honeymoon that is supposed to happen right after you’re elected,” said Sloan, who has been involved in abortive efforts to host a debate in Bowser’s ward. “You want to try to make as many friends as possible because you need that public support. You want people who are going to defend you at that grass-roots level, at the dog parks, at the coffee shops, at the PTA meetings.

“Even Adrian Fenty had a honeymoon,” he said.

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.

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