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Chairman candidates keep debate away from Brown's debt

Last night, in the auditorium of the sparkling new St. Elizabeths Hospital, Democratic candidates for D.C. Council chairman talked about seniors, libraries, economic development, taxes, poverty and school cosmetology programs.

Also addressed, briefly, was the new front-burner issue in the campaign -- candidate Kwame Brown's large personal debts.

Dozens of audience members lined up to query the candidates, and moderator Jonetta Rose Barras exercised iron-fisted control of the proceedings. That left Brown, former council member Vincent Orange, State Board of Education member Dorothy Douglas and accountant Calvin Gurley just 30 seconds to answer most questions.

The most pointed question went to Brown: "Why should we trust you with the city's finances when you've grossly overspent your own?"

"Professionally, no one has fought harder than me to make sure that those who need it the most actually have a seat at the table," Brown said, going on to discuss his record as chair of the council's economic development committee merging several agencies. "The problem," he said, "is I probably spent too much time professionally out in the community every single day fighting hard as I can."

Later, the candidates were asked about their fiscal management credentials. Brown cited jobs he's held at Citibank and Wal-Mart; Orange touted his Certified Public Accountant certification; Gurley spoke about being a federal government accountant -- "the same background as [former mayor] Anthony Williams."

Douglas had a different argument: "I can balance my own checkbook," she said. "If you don't have enough money in your account, you can't write a check. So that's experience right there."

But the other candidates declined to make an issue of Brown's personal finances, and throughout the debate, Brown stayed in command thanks to his virtuoso command of employment issues, and a large pro-Kwame crowd, which on several occasions gave him loud, sustained cheers, even as Orange attacked Brown's record in enforcing "living wage" provisions and hiring preferences for District residents on government-financed projects.

For his part, Orange demonstrated some skill in dodging some potentially troubling questions. One attendee asked the candidates whether they would vow to oppose utility rate hikes -- a tricky subject for Orange, who left a Pepco executive post to launch his chairman run.

"The Public Service Commission is the one that oversees utilities. It's not the council," he said. "So yes, I'll sign a declaration, but it doesn't mean anything because I have no power over public services."

Then Zelig-like activist Ron Moten asked about adding ex-offenders as a protected class to the city's Human Rights Act -- a legislative proposal that has long languished thanks to the opposition of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce and other business group frightened that such a law could lead to a rash of employment discrimination lawsuits.

Douglas said she'd "sign the bill and make sure it was enforced." Then Gurley said he'd "absolutely sign that bill" -- adding that he'd work to clear the records of ex-cons who served in the military for four years. That prompted groans and laughs from the crowd.

Their misunderstanding of the chairman's role prompted a civics lesson from Orange in lieu of an answer to the question: "The council's not signing any bills, the council enacts bills. ... We have to make sure we get people who will represent you and know what you're doing."

The forum was sponsored by the Congress Heights Community Association, the Anacostia Coordinating Council, River East Emerging Leaders and the Re-Entry Network for Returning Citizens.

By Mike DeBonis  |  July 20, 2010; 3:58 PM ET
Categories:  DCision 2010 , Kwame Brown , The District , Vincent Orange  
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Nice to know The Gift is inserting himself into the Council Chair's race as well with his usual well placed rhetoric...

Posted by: shepDC | July 20, 2010 4:16 PM | Report abuse

Now wait a minute: the Chairman signs every bill the Council passes (whether or not he/she voted for it), and then transmits the bill to the Mayor.

As long as we're splitting hairs, Orange said, "We have to make sure we get people who will represent you and know what you're doing." Literally, that statement suggests that elected officials should watch their constituents, instead of the other way round.

Posted by: hungrypug | July 20, 2010 6:07 PM | Report abuse

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