panel of 2014 DC mayoral democratic candidates
Sam Bermas-Dawes

It seemed at any given moment in one recent debate, there were two or three candidates talking at a time. Each was scrambling for a sentence, a phrase or just a single word that would set him or her ahead of the pack.

The city’s Democratic mayoral primary race has pitted D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray against seven contenders: Ward 4 Council member Muriel Bowser; Ward 2 Council member Jack Evans; At-Large Council member Vincent Orange; Ward 6 Council member Tommy Wells; Mount Pleasant property manager Carlos Allen; Mount Vernon Square lawyer Reta Lewis and Adams Morgan restaurant owner Andy Shallal.

With a field of eight candidates, voters have been treated to plenty of the kind of verbal sparring offered to listeners of the debate aired on Feb. 27 by WAMU 88.5.

At the WAMU media center, in the forum moderated by talk show host Kojo Nnamdi, all of the contenders gave lively, and often-interrupted, answers to questions asked by a panel of journalists.

They tried to differentiate themselves on a range of issues, at one point homing in on a controversial city decision to close more than a dozen under-performing schools. Wells blasted Gray for allowing schools east of the Anacostia River to close.

“What you do when you do that is you consign a neighborhood to not being a neighborhood where families will move if they have a choice,” Wells said.

Shallal called the current public school system unacceptable, pointing to the increasing educational disparity between black and white students.

“This is something that needs to be changed,” Shallal said.

For his part, the Mayor has pledged to spend an additional $116 million on school reform in the coming year.

But the race has apparently tightened since the evening of the WAMU debate.

A Washington Post poll, released March 25 showed Bowser and Gray in “a dead heat for for the Democratic nomination” with other candidates trailing.

Many analysts say Gray has been damaged by an ongoing federal investigation into the financing of this last campaign. On March 10, federal prosecutors said Gray was aware of a secret funding scheme hatched by a local businessman, Jefferey E. Thompson who has pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges.

Gray, who has not been charged, used his State of the District address the following day to deny wrongdoing.

“I didn’t break the law,” he said.

Then the mayor used his annual address to boast of progress made in the city: booming economic development, rising school test scores and an unemployment rate that has fallen to 7.6 percent.

Gray pledged to continue building upon the city’s success. He also spoke of his dedication to the District’s poor and working poor residents; committing to set another $100 million aside for affordable housing for the coming year and describing a plan to end chronic homelessness among veterans by 2015.

The mayor also announced a new 500 Families, 100 Days campaign aimed at moving homeless families into safe and stable homes.

“As the name suggests, between now and June we will identify and lease at least 500 apartments for homeless families using either Rapid Re-Housing or Permanent Supportive Housing vouchers. This is a call to arms, a call for everyone to do their part – government, housing intermediaries, banks, foundations, developers, landlords, realtors, and our faith community. Help us identify appropriate apartments for the campaign; help a homeless family find a home,” Gray said.

But the race is not over. Many voters are still weighing their choices. For some of them, the city’s problem with homelessness remains a defining issue.

In addition to a steady stream of debates featuring all or some of the candidates, a number of groups and publications have submitted their questions to the contenders in writing. In one newly-released questionnaire, the mayor was singled out for criticism for the city’s handling of a spike in family homelessness this winter.

After more than 700 families were placed in the city’s family shelter and in area motels during the cold weather, city officials, who said they were out of other options, began offering cots in recreation centers.(On March 24, a D.C. Superior Court judge issued an injunction ordering the city to stop using the rec centers as shelters.)

“I will not treat our homeless families like emergency flood victims, housing them in city recreation centers,” noted Bowser in response to the candidates’ questionnaire circulated by the Good Faith Communities Coalition and several other organizations.The questionnaire asked candidates to outline their approach to chronic homelessness.

“I will work to quickly identify affordable apartments in a timelier manner for families experiencing homelessness,” said Bowser.

In response to the same question, Wells said he would place a stronger emphasis upon a Housing First model that moves people from chronic homelessness to housing before helping them address their other needs. “Rather than moving homeless individuals from streets to shelter to transitional housing and finally, to an apartment, Housing First immediately moves people into a stable apartment. This approach has proven that rather than making successful treatment of substance use and other issues a condition of receiving housing, providing Housing First actually improves an individual’s chances of recovery from other issues that led to homelessness,” said Wells.

Evans also said he supported the Housing First model and spoke of his legislative efforts as a city council member on the part of the homeless.

“I worked to establish the Interagency Council on Homelessness to coordinate with organizations to identify, track and offer solutions to end homelessness among populations hit hardest, including veterans,” Evans said.

In his response, Gray defended the progress the city has made under his leadership toward placing homeless people into housing.

“I strongly believe the Housing First philosophy is the right intervention for our most vulnerable, chronically homeless residents. This is why I have increased local funding for Permanent Supportive Housing from $9.4 million to $21.4 million since Fiscal Year 2010.

The other four candidates did not respond to the questionnaire, according to the organizers at Good Faith Communities.