With more debates ahead, at-large council candidates talk education, criminal justice at recent forum

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As Election Day nears, candidates forums scheduled this week and next will give voters a chance to learn more about the views of the six candidates vying for two at-large DC Council seats.

On Wednesday evening, the Hill Rag will join with the Ward 6 Democrats and the DC Republican Party to sponsor a debate at Friendship Chamberlain Elementary & Middle School. And on Oct. 16, the Chevy Chase Citizens Association, Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3/4 G and the Ward 4 Democrats will hold a candidates forum at the Chevy Chase Community Center.

On the Nov. 6 ballot, incumbents Anita Bonds (Democrat) and Elissa Silverman (independent) are facing four challengers for the two at-large seats up for election: Ralph Chittams Sr., (Republican), Rustin Lewis (independent), Dionne Reeder (independent) and David Schwartzman (Statehood Green Party).

A recent forum offers an idea of what to expect from the candidates. The Sept. 27 event, organized by the DC Bar and DC League of Women Voters, drilled the candidates for two hours on their positions on education, criminal justice and statehood, among a host of other local issues. Below, The DC Line has compiled highlights of the questions and answers that night.

Bonds arrived for the latter portion of the forum, held at the University of the District of Columbia’s David A. Clarke School of Law. Libertarian nominee Denise Hicks is no longer running, and her name does not appear on the sample ballot released by the DC Board of Elections.

Attorney James Bubar, DC community co-chair for the DC Bar, moderated the forum, with Washington Informer publisher Denise Rolark Barnes and Washington Post reporter Peter Jamison serving as panelists.

Candidates had 30 seconds each to answer each question. Their answers below are lightly edited for grammar and clarity, matching the order of responses from the forum.

Q: What function of government does DC perform the worst in your opinion, and what will you do to change that when you are elected?

Schwartzman: My biggest priorities are to eliminate child poverty and homelessness — the most egregious human rights violation we have in DC. And we can do it by tapping our more-than-adequate tax base of wealthy residents as well as the big 4 percent.

Chittams: Let’s look at Metro for example: Metro comes and says, “We need more money.” What do we do? We just give them money out of taxpayer’s pockets, and now there’s a 6 percent tax on ride-sharing fares simply so that Metro can waste more money. DC is horrible at oversight.

Lewis: I would focus on DC public schools. I think we need to return to the days of having a school board.

Reeder: I would say housing and education, and I think they go hand in hand. It’s very important for us to understand that if young people have adequate housing, then our education system when they go to school would wrap around services. So I believe housing and education are the two issues we have to tackle together. I don’t want to say they’re the worst, but it’s our responsibility to work collectively — residents and government — to address the issue.

Silverman: I would say that we have difficulty being transparent to our  residents and telling the truth. I would use the attendance scandal as an example and [DC Public Schools] as an example — and [the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs] as an example of how businesses can’t figure out where their permits are and then they’re not protecting residents when it comes to rogue developers. This is just a pervasive issue, and we need to be more on it.

Q: What options would you consider in addressing violence in our communities?

Reeder: [Based on my experience,] models that are inclusive of government, schools, families, businesses and the community together … work best. We cannot blame [the Metropolitan Police Department], we cannot blame the schools or the parents. We have to work together to collectively provide opportunities for families to be self-sufficient and successful. The only way we do that is by working within the community.

Lewis: So my background is I served in both College Bound and the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, and I found that when we provide young people with opportunity — whether it be vocational training or aspirations toward college education — that they are focused and they feel the ability to move forward and do well in society. I think that is in direct relation to both violent and all crime in our communities, so I think we have to start with an investment in our young people.

Chittams: Everyone here understands that there is a need for criminal justice reform, penalty reform, etc. But the people who are using guns illegally in our streets are terrorizing District residents, and they need to be treated obviously as the terrorists that they are. We need to implement a mandatory minimum for anyone who uses a gun and kills someone in the District of Columbia. They need to go away for a long time.

Schwartzman: In terms of addressing violence, the NEAR Act [Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results Act of 2016] needs to be implemented. We need community-controlled police in the District, as articulated by a ward east of the river. And it’s the shockingly high economic and racial disparities in our community that are the generator of violence.

Silverman: So I think we need both long-term and short-term solutions — how to get guns off the street, and not making them accessible. We also have to address the core issues. We have to give people hope and a path to success. On the short term, [I’ve worked on getting a] budget for an evidence-based program called “Cure Violence,” and actually the money is being distributed through the Office of the Attorney General. This is an evidence-based program that’s worked in other cities that I have a lot of hope will work here, too.

Q: Do you believe the current system with mayoral control of D.C. Public Schools is working? If not, what would you replace it with? If you think the current system is ineffective, how do you think it could be improved?

Schwartzman: I think mayoral control is a failure. The biggest factor impacting performance of students is poverty, and we need to address that. The [Office of the State Superintendent of Education] should be an independent body, and [that] has been proposed by some on the council.

Chittams: Mayoral control of the DC Public Schools system has been an utter, total and complete failure. Control of the public schools should be taken away from the mayor — not rescinded, it needs to be terminated. We need to establish an elected school board here in the city and turn the school system back into a system of education, and not to be used as a political play toy where children are not educated, [but instead] indoctrinated. Bring back the school board and let educators run education.

Lewis: I think it no longer needs to be under mayoral control; we need to bring back the school board. I think that the school board needs to be comprised of representatives who are of the city — both that are educated and have a background in education. And I don’t know that we are completely focused on that now.

Reeder: I think what we need to focus on is accountability — not so much who is controlling the schools, but the accountability measures that I don’t think we are focusing on at all. We need to return to looking at our parents and our teachers as the experts and involve them in the process. The reality is there is an education gap, an achievement gap, and that is based on systemic racism. We have to address that issue and not be afraid to talk about how do we fix that problem.

Silverman: What I’m focused on is the chancellor. We have a really big opportunity in choosing a new chancellor and here’s what I’m looking for in that person: A) Someone who tells the truth. We didn’t have that in our prior chancellor. Somebody who has a track record of closing an achievement gap. And then I think we need somebody who is going to wrestle with school choice. Schools are supposed to be the great equalizer, especially in battling poverty. We right now have a game of chance in which there are winners and losers, and increasingly losers, in the lottery. That’s not a school system.

Question from the audience: [To become a state,] DC would have to take back control of its local courts and criminal justice system from the federal government. Costs are estimated to exceed $800 million. Taking control of the parole system would be the first step, and the costs are projected to be significantly less than $13 million. Should DC undertake this function now, and if so, how should they pay for it?

Silverman: We need to take statehood seriously. Paid family leaves [a policy that had come up in a previous question at the forum] are a perfect example. The [reason] we structured the program the way it is, is because Congress restricts our ability to tax commuters. To [take over the parole system] next year would be difficult, but we need to start acting like a state.

Reeder: I believe we need to not have knee-jerk reactions to every issue that comes to us. We need to create a plan so that those of us who are DC residents are not negatively impacted. I do believe we have to start thinking like a state. But other states do not give their money away to other states.

Lewis: I support us continuing down the path to statehood. I think that the city has done a good job in terms of carving out our engagement, but we still have a long ways to go.

Chittams: While statehood is a local goal, I honestly have not seen one financial analysis that shows that the District can actually afford statehood financially. Here’s something that we need to be doing in the interim: Why are the DC residents, who don’t have voting representation in Congress, paying federal taxes? We are the only jurisdiction without voting representation in Congress that pays a federal income tax.

Schwartzman: Yes, we should take over the parole system. Of course, how do we pay for it? We can get probably close to $400 million by 2020 by simply recovering the tax cut that wealthy residents will be getting from the federal income tax cut, and that’s [for those earning] over $200,000 [in] income.

Audience question: DC has the highest incarceration rate in the world. What ideas are put in place to address issues concerning returning citizens?

Lewis: I think that, based on my work with the Department of Human Services, there is a critical need to make sure that there are programs, workforce development opportunities, so that when people are coming back into society they are well-prepared for jobs. One of the opportunities that I had was to help young people with incentive find places as well as obtain their GED.

Reeder: We have to create opportunities for people to sustain themselves. We do have an [Office on Returning Citizen Affairs], but we have to be able to — more than project empowerment — find that people can become …  employed. Entrepreneurship is one, and looking at becoming a CBE [Certified Business Enterprise] once you are a business, so that you can actually have some of those resources modified through your program.

Silverman: I’ve been really focused on taking advantage of our high-demand industry sectors, and making sure that returning citizens and others have opportunity. One bill that I actually marked up yesterday was about paid public-sector apprenticeships in DC government. I think we need to do apprenticeships in our own government so we can say to the private sector, “You should do it, too.”

Bonds: So aside from helping those who are returning to the city, we need to do more in helping those who are incarcerated before they get to the city. As you know, the federal prisons is how our so-called criminal element is housed across the country. Federal prisons have no responsibility for educating criminals and getting them ready to come out into the community — that’s our responsibility. We did recently pass a law that allows us, DC, to go into the prisons and begin that process.

Schwartzman: So why do we have such a high incarceration rate? Because the prison-industrial complex is a highly profitable industry, and banks like Wells Fargo have invested heavily in that. Secondly, we do need apprenticeship programs that train not only returning citizens, but students coming out of high school, in 21st-century jobs, like putting in place solar panels.

Chittams: Everybody in this room knows the war on drugs is not a war on drugs, but a war on poor people. Now it’s not heroin anymore — it’s an opioid crisis. The best way to help returning citizens is to not have them be returning citizens in the first place. If we had a proper public school system, with vocational education, people would be able to get jobs, and they wouldn’t turn to crime in the first place.

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