Three Ward 6 City Council Candidates Are Grilled in Public Forum
by Larry Janezich
Three candidates – incumbent Charles Allen, Democratic challenger Lisa Hunter, and Republican Michael Bekesha – participated in Monday night’s forum. According to Chuck Burger, Ward 6 Democrats chair, the Republican was included to make it a better and more interesting debate “rather than having two Democrats yelling at each other.” Including the Republican candidate had the effect of diluting the participation of Hunter, who has been running to the left of Allen, supporting a roll back of council-passed corporate and estate tax cuts and spending the money on social programs.
More than 150 residents turned out for the forum held in the Hill Center. The event was moderated by Hill Rag’s managing editor, Andrew Lightman.
Allen had the clear advantage, not only as incumbent but also from his record of the last four years as councilmember and current chairmanship of the city council’s Judiciary and Public Safety Committee. Hunter, while lacking Allen’s ability to rattle off accomplishments as a councilmember, proved herself a capable advocate for her candidacy. Bekesha articulated a series of positions, finding much common ground with the other candidates on social issues while pushing a more conservative fiscal and small government agenda.
In their opening statements, Allen cited his long personal history in health care and Democratic politics and his “proven record.” Hunter said the city was not doing enough to show leadership in education, housing, public safety and healthcare, and said that the incumbent was hand selected by a political machine “meant to keep people like me out.” She staked a claim in the progressive movement, saying, “We’re progressive – we don’t leave neighbors behind.” Bekesha made a case for cutting the size of the city government in order to handle residents’ concerns more efficiently and criticized the council’s current make up, citing “too much group-think … fewer ideas and less accountability” and the need for more diversity of thought.
Here’s what the candidates said on some of Ward 6’ top issues and those issues which most clearly distinguish them from each other.
What are the three top issues facing Ward 6, and what makes you uniquely qualified to solve them?
Allen: Affordable housing, schools and education, and a living wage – Allen cited work undertaken and accomplishments he has already achieved in these areas.
Hunter: Education, affordable housing, homelessness. Hunter said she is the only candidate with classroom experience and recounted her experiences in interacting with the homeless.
Bekesha: Public safety, housing/education, and accountability. He offered support for putting more officers walking the beat, suggested subsidized housing in the city for teachers, and supported telling colleagues – like Jack Evans and Trayvon White – when they’re wrong.
What are your top three budget priorities and how would you pay for them?
Hunter: Invest more in housing and homelessness (provide case managers for the homeless and access to city services) by reversing the city’s tax cut for corporations and the wealthy.
Bekesha: Provide more money to address the rat problem and congestion on roads, and redirect education money from the central office to students. (Did not address how to pay for this.)
Allen: Put more funds into housing, education – school modernization – and invest in non-car based ways to get around. (Did not address how to pay for this.)
DC’s justice system is currently divided between the federal and DC governments. Do you support making the justice system solely the city’s responsibility?
Hunter: Would like to hear more from activists and stakeholders on this issue, but would initiate education reform to break the school-to-jail pipeline by providing support and technical training to keep kids out of jail.
Bekesha: Before saying yes, we have to think about where we’re going to get the money to take over the justice system. We should work with federal prosecutors to figure out what charges are going to be prosecuted and decriminalize those which are not. He urged focusing on reforming the entire criminal justice system, claiming that one-third of those arrested are prosecuted.
Allen: We should have complete control of the judicial system. Currently, DC sends criminals to federal prisons across the country making re-entry problematic. The shortage of judges has resulted in a backup in DC Jail. The combination of federal and local justice systems couldn’t be a worse design.
What one thing about campaign financing would you change?
Allen: Said he takes no donations from corporations, PACs, or LLCs. He would get rid of the “Constituent Services Funds” which have turned into political slush funds – “I made sure I don’t have one.” He said 90% of his contributions come from individuals and 80% come from Ward 6 neighbors.
Hunter: Urged campaign finance reform and transparency and “making sure we address shady money.” Said she would make sure we know where campaign contributions are coming from and require disclosure from those who lobby the city council. Hunter went after Allen on the contribution issue, saying he claims not to take money from corporations but developers are allowed to contribute their individual maximum donation to his campaign. (In rebuttal, Allen said he had led the way on disclosure of contributions from lobbyists and dismissed the notion that small businesses in Ward 6 could be categorized as corporations.}
Bekesha: Said he would change the primary elections to non-partisan – everybody should vote in the primary – the top two vote getters would run in the general election.
What’s the proper role of public financing in private development?
Bekesha: Make sure public funds go to things people need and want.
Allen: Use public resources to finance affordable housing, transportation, public space. Leverage power of the city to help provide financing. Make sure we hold developers accountable.
Hunter: The city should get more bang for the buck. The city is not doing enough to enforce local hiring or achieving goals regarding a living wage, affordable housing, and addressing displacement.
All three candidates oppose returning Washington’s football team to RFK and agree on the closing of DC General Homeless Shelter. All three support giving Attorney General Karl Racine authority to receive complaints and begin investigation of parents enrolling their children in DC schools illegally. All three admitted to being card carrying members of the DC Public Library.
The three candidates will meet again at a public forum on June 5, from 7:00pm – 9:00pm at Westminster Presbyterian church, 400 I Street, SW. The DC Primary is on June 19.