This weekend, D.C. Students Speak, YouthPAC, and the DC Federation of College Democrats hosted a forum for the candidates running for at-large D.C. council seat.
Vying for the open are Sekou Biddle (D), Tom Brown (D), Dorothy Douglas (D), Arkan Haile (I), Joshua Lopez (D), Patrick Mara (R), Vincent Orange (D), Alan Page (Statehood Green), and Bryan Weaver (D). All of the candidates, minus Haile and Orange, were present for the forum at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Library.
Scott Stirrett (SFS ’13) of D.C. Students Speak asked the candidates for their opinion about the recently amended noise law. Biddle and Lopez opposed the idea of arresting students for excessive noise, while Weaver explained that the original intent of the law was to prevent protests by union and religious groups in residential areas and that he was opposed to both the original intent and current effect of the law. Mara noted that, as a former student body and fraternity president, he was well aware of the student perspective, but he also argued that universities placed an insufficient emphasis on on-campus housing. Mara, Brown, and Douglas felt that the issue boiled down to a lack of communication between students and neighborhood residents. Page said that he had not read the law, but he understood the need to prevent the “criminalization of student behavior.”
The next question pertained to the gerrymandering of the ANC single-member districts in the neighborhoods surrounding universities. All the candidates agreed that students should have a say in the ANC redistricting process, with Weaver musing, “There are two things that you don’t want to watch while they’re being done: sausage-making and ANC redistricting.”
In response to citywide fights over off-campus housing at D.C.’s private universities, only Douglas and Mara explicitly pointed out that students had as much of a right as other groups to live in city neighborhoods. Douglas, who compared students’ rights to live in D.C.’s neighborhoods to First Amendment rights, tongue-in-cheekily offered to allow afflicted students to come live with her if they couldn’t find an affordable place to stay. Brown supported students having “residential experiences” in D.C. as a means of convincing them to stay in the District and raise its tax base. Biddle, Lopez, Page, Weaver, and Mara all supported more on-campus housing at D.C. universities.
Weaver proposed relaxing the height restrictions for D.C. universities that agree to build more on-campus housing, while Lopez argued that land-poor universities should build housing at satellite locations in order to be less of a nuisance to the surrounding neighborhoods. Biddle, for his part, was glad that these kinds of decisions were in the hands of the unelected Zoning Commission rather than the Council itself.
The candidates were most divided when Markus Batchelor of YouthPAC, an organization representing D.C. and Prince George’s County residents aged 13-30, asked whether the candidates supported cutting the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship. Biddle, Brown, Douglas, and Mara supported the scholarship, which was a federally-funded voucher program to help pay for D.C. students to attend private schools. Lopez, Page, and Weaver opposed the measure on the grounds that the $7,500 per student award didn’t buy much in terms of private school tuition and there was no guarantee that private schools would carry out the District’s liberal nondiscrimination laws.
Other questions included whether the candidates would have appointed Michelle Rhee had they been mayor at the time (Biddle, Lopez, Weaver, and Mara said “yes,” although always with caveats) and what should be done to get students more involved in the community.
For the April 26th election, Biddle is, far and away, the candidate with the most institutional support, boasting endorsements from the Democratic State Committee, Mayor Vincent Gray, D.C. City Council Chairman Kwame Brown, and six of the twelve remaining city councilors. However, Vincent Orange garners greater name recognition, having served as the Ward 5 representative to the Council from 1997 to 2007.
YouthPAC, which held its endorsement poll during the forum, endorsed Bryan Weaver.