At-large council candidates debate budget, pay cuts, taxes and education
D.C. Council member Sekou Biddle (D-At large) said Wednesday that the city should get rid of taxpayer funded SUV's for top-ranking city officials and cut council members' pay to help close a budget shortfall.
Biddle, an interim member who is seeking a full term in an April 26 special election, made his remarks as he squared off against five other opponents Wednesday night in a candidates forum sponsored by The Georgetown Dish and The Georgetown Current.
The forum, held at the Social Safeway in Georgetown, was one of the best opportunities to-date for the candidates to try to distinguish themselves and set the narrative for what is expected to be a noisy citywide campaign.
Running as an incumbent following a spate of negative news stories about the District government, Biddle sought to distance himself from one of his earliest and strongest supporters, D.C. Council Chairman Kwame Brown.
"We cannot have Navigators that are paid for by the government, we just can't," Biddle said, an apparent reference to reports by the Washington Post and Washington City Paper that Brown had requested a Lincoln Navigator that was costing taxpayers $2,000 a month.
Later, in response to a question about a Pew report that found District council members are the second highest paid in the nation, Biddle suggested that council members cut their $125,000 annual salary and eliminate some staff to help close an estimated $400 million to $600 million budget shortfall for fiscal 2012.
"It's reasonable to accept that council members ought to be getting less," Biddle said. "I'm certainly for reducing council members' salaries and council members' office staff."
Biddle's response left an opening for Josh Lopez, another Democrat in the race. Lopez challenged Biddle to use his authority as a council member to introduce legislation to reduce members' salaries.
"Put your money where your mouth is," Lopez said.
Following the debate, an informal poll of several organizers and Georgetown residents found many were impressed with Lopez's performance. Some said Ward 1 Democratic activist Bryan Weaver and Ward 8 Democratic Committee Chairman Jacque Patterson also performed well.
On education, nearly all the candidates stressed that ongoing educational reform efforts need to continue. They also generally expressed dismay over how former schools chancellor Michelle A. Rhee handled the reassignment of former Hardy Middle School Principal Patrick Pope, which has been a major source of contention in Georgetown.
When asked to grade Rhee's rocky tenure as chancellor under former mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), Lopez gave her an A, Biddle a B, and former council member Vincent B. Orange, also a Democratic candidate, gave her a "B or B-minus."
"I give her an A for effort but at same time I think she made some fatal mistakes," Orange said.
Weaver said Rhee deserved an A for her efforts to negotiate a new teacher contract but "probably an F" for how she interacted with the community.
The candidates also differed on whether to raise taxes on the wealthy to help close the budget shortfall. Currently, all residents who earn at least $40,000 a year pay an 8.5 percent income tax.
Lopez said he supported a tax increase for those who earn more than $200,000 a year so long as the increase included a "sunset provision." Weaver, a former Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner, said he would also like to add three new tax brackets for top wage-earners to make the income tax more progressive.
Under Weaver's plan, new brackets would be created starting at $130,000, $250,000 and $1.5 million. The new top bracket for those who earn $1.5 million or more would be 9.5 percent, Weaver said.
Patterson also said he would consider raising taxes on the wealthy if needed, but Orange and Biddle stressed they would prefer to balance the budget through spending cuts.
In a potentially controversial stance, Biddle suggested at one point the city could forgo its annual curbside fall leaf collection program to save money.
"We've got to ask ourselves, 'are there services that we can live without?'" Biddle said. "I love the fact that (Department of Public Works) comes around twice a year and vacuums up the leaves so I don't have to rake them up and bag them, but I could live without out," Biddle said.
The debate also offered voters a window into the candidates' personal lives.
When asked how many cars they own and whether they use public transportation, Biddle said he two, including a Volkswagen, but rode his bicycle to work last week.
Lopez does not have a vehicle, drawing a chuckle from the audience when he stated he relies on a BMW - "bus, Metro, walking." Patterson owns a 2008 Maximum and a 2003 BMW.
Weaver has an Isuzu Rodeo, but appeared to make inroads with the audience when he told them he road the 96 Metro bus to the event.
Later, the candidates were asked to name their favorite movie of all time.
Recounting how he watched it as a youth at the Uptown theatre, Biddle's favorite movie is "Star Wars." Lopez cited "Motorcycle Diaries", the 2004 flick about Che Guevara. Patterson's favorite movie is "The Color Purple," while Orange named "Defiance", citing it as an example of how people "persevere and survive."
Weaver cited "Milk", which recounts the assassination of the San Francisco Supervisor and gay rights activist Harvey Milk in the late 1970s. Weaver then turned his answer into an indictment of the current city government.
"The most important thing that comes out of that movie is about machines. Machines are dirty and grimy and they are only worried about the interests of the operator of that machine," Weaver said. "And, unfortunately, that's become our District government."
| February 24, 2011; 12:30 PM ET
Categories: Bryan Weaver, Budget, Josh Lopez, Joshua Lopez, Kwame Brown, Sekou Biddle, Tim Craig
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