By Phenix S. Halley
Howard University News Service
With less than 50 days until Washington selects its next mayor, four candidates tackled education, crime and their overall plans for the next four years if elected. They challenged each other during a virtual debate on Monday sponsored by the District’s Office of Campaign Finance.
Rodney “Red” Grant, an independent candidate, is a comedian and philanthropist. He will go against Dennis Sobin, a Libertarian who first ran for D.C. mayor in the 1980s. Joining them is Stacia Hall, a Ward 3 resident and businesswoman. She was the only GOP candidate on the June primary ballot for mayor. These three will battle Muriel E. Bowser, the incumbent Democratic nominee, who would be the only mayor other than Marion Barry to serve three consecutive terms in the district’s history if reelected.
A major focus of this debate was the retention and safety of D.C. youth. “We have forgotten about our young people,” said Grant, as he discussed the rising crime rate in the city. Grant mentioned his organizations, “Don’t Shoot Guns, Shoot Cameras” and “Beyond Your Block,” which proactively target youth to prevent violence on the streets. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, violent crime has soared nationally, according to the National Library of Medicine.
Particularly in the district, 66% of carjacking arrests have been attributed to youth 17 and under, according to the Metropolitan Police Department. MPD also reported that an estimated 2,800 violent crimes have been committed in D.C. this year, and candidates Grant and Hall say the mayor is to blame.
“The mayor sets the tone for this city,” Hall said in her closing remarks. Hall reported a 21% rise in crime from 2021 and argued that Mayor Bowser’s “lack of leadership” is why young residents are disconnected from the rest of the D.C. community.
In response, Bowser said the rise in crime is a consequence of “experiencing a two-and-a-half-year pandemic,” which has not only affected the city’s crime rate but also education retention and the cost of living.
Grant called D.C. “the worst-run city in America” under Mayor Bowser as he broke down statistics on students in the district. “Nine out of 10 Black and brown students are below average in math,” he continued. “Four out of five are below average in English.”
Grant discussed the importance of placing financial literacy programs back into D.C. public schools to ensure future generations know how to manage money. Meanwhile, Bowser said under her leadership, “high impact” tutoring programs have ensured that D.C. youth are competitive in the nation.
The candidates also discussed the low retention rate among teachers. “Teachers are the people that are looked down on the most, and they work the hardest,” Grant said.
Bowser then argued that D.C. teachers are some of the “best paid teachers in the region.” A nationwide study conducted by Wallethub, ranked the Washington public school system 30 out of 51 overall. The same study ranked D.C. schools 49th on safety.
“Education is not a one size fits all,” Hall said. She offered plans to restore trade and vocational learning in schools to support students wishing to enter the workforce.
Sobin called D.C. schools a “war zone,” questioning how children can be expected to be engaged in learning “when there is gunfire going off” in their respective communities. Part of his plan to ensure a safe learning environment for D.C. youth is to befriend local police rather than engage in the war on drugs. As a Libertarian, Sobin is running on the platform of decriminalizing drug use and sex work.
The four candidates agreed that D.C. has a drug problem. With the recent rise in fentanyl-related deaths, they said more can be done to help rehabilitate and protect D.C. citizens. Bowser said the programs to combat behavioral and mental health issues exist, but “the government cannot do it alone.”
Each of the four candidates urged the community to get involved to ensure that D.C. residents receive the help they need. “We have to attack the situation from a public safety standpoint,” said Grant as he discussed fentanyl ravaging local communities. “We have to reach back down and pull our residents up.”
Hall agreed, calling on faith leaders and organizers to get involved in uplifting the youth and drug users. “We need our people to come together,” she said.
To Sobin, a large part of the problem lies in citizens’ fear of the law. “People are afraid to get help because of the illegality of it,” he said.
Another pressing issue is affordable housing. “Almost 43,000 residents are using more than 50% of their income to pay their rent,” Hall said. “D.C. is No. 9, as having the highest poverty rate.”
The city’s ranking is comparable to that of Alabama and Mississippi, states whose minimum wage is 50% less than that of D.C.’s. An estimated 4,000 people experience homelessness in Washington D.C. every night, according to the Community Partnership For the Prevention of Homelessness.
Mayor Bowser cited her efforts in building and investing in housing for residents throughout the city. Bowser said she is “proud” of the work done under her leadership, and D.C. will remain a city where the cost of living is high, because of the “amenities and high wages” that the district offers to residents.
Grant argued that investors and developers are part of the issue. He suggested that a “checks and balance” system should be put in place to hold developers accountable for high prices.
“Twenty thousand people have left this city since Muriel Bowser [has] been in office,” Grant said, describing the housing system as unsustainable.
The candidates will face each other in the mayoral election on Nov. 8.
Phenix S. Halley is a reporter for HUNewsService.com.