August 15, 2008

Fair Budget Ward 2 Candidate Forum – An Analysis

by Elizabeth Borges, Advocacy Assistant.

On Wednesday, August 13, I attended the Fair Budget Coalition’s Ward 2 Candidate Forum. The candidates in attendance were Jack Evans, the incumbent, and Cary Silverman, both of whom are vying for the Democratic nomination in the September 9 primary. Given DC’s overwhelmingly Democratic population, it is fair to assume that the winner of the Democratic primary will also prevail in the general election on November 4. Therefore, the primary has heightened importance and has generated much discussion and debate from different groups.

Fair Budget is a partnership of non-profit organizations in DC (including Bread for the City) that represent the interests of homeless and low-income residents. Thus, the forum focused on issues relevant to this population, including affordable housing, education, employment, and poverty. In discussing these issues, both candidates presented strong, capable – and surprisingly similar – ideas.

Marina Streznewski from the DC Jobs Council moderated the event and started the forum with a question about the Franklin Shelter. Although the shelter, located in downtown DC, is set to close on October 1st, the city has not issued an alternate plan to house its residents. Fair Budget is concerned that these displaced individuals will end up on the streets. Thankfully, both Mr. Silverman and Mr. Evans seem to share these anxieties. When asked for their position on Franklin’s closing, both indicated that they oppose the October 1st closing date and stressed that the city must come up with an alternative for residents before the shelter is closed. Mr. Evans said that he has expressed his concerns to Mayor Fenty on numerous occasions and Mr. Silverman reported that he had attended a community forum devoted to this issue. When answering this question, Mr. Silverman joked that this was one issue that the two actually agreed on, and Mr. Evans laughed and nodded his head.

But the similarities between the two candidates actually lasted for many more questions, as both affirmed their support for a yearly adjustment of TANF benefits due to inflation, an increase in adult education programs, and continued support of senior housing options. They even had the same concerns when discussing a rise in the minimum wage, indicating that more research is necessary to gage the potential effects of such a change on small businesses.

Additionally, the two candidates approached the issue of affordable housing from similar, if not identical, positions. Mr. Evans acknowledged that affordable housing poses a challenge given today’s shrinking economy, but maintained that the government has the resources to address the issue. He declared that the government should do so by increasing its support of the Local Rent Supplement Program and the Housing Support Trust Fund. Mr. Silverman, for his part, indicated his support for the latter program, as well as Section 8 housing and inclusionary zoning. In addition, he wants the government to reevaluate the Home Again program, which converts vacant properties into affordable housing units. Over the past four years, the program has only transformed 32 houses into affordable housing, and Mr. Silverman believes it has the capacity to do much more. Mr. Silverman also believes there should be more public education about renters’ rights.

Despite their similarities, the two candidates differed strikingly when discussing the District’s budget. The issue arose when one angry Ward 2 resident, troubled by the District’s growing debt, asked Mr. Evans how he could justify spending several hundred million dollars on a proposed soccer stadium when so many District residents live in poverty. Mr. Evans responded that he did not accept the premise of the question, arguing that money alone is not the answer to the District’s problems. (Indeed, Mr. Evans declared that the District has a budget of $10 billion, a staggering sum for its population of 570,000.) Rather, Mr. Evans said, the solution lies with proper management of funds. According to Mr. Evans, the DC government has enough money to finance the soccer stadium and fund social services, but it must use this money effectively in order to provide for all of its residents. Further, Mr. Evans indicated that the District’s debt, although large, is not a cause for concern.

In contrast, Mr. Silverman asserted that, indeed, the District’s mounting debt is an issue, arguing that the DC government can no longer afford to fund frivolous projects (such as a soccer stadium) at the expense of lagging social services. This appears to be the fundamental difference between the candidates regarding financial matters: Mr. Evans believes that large public works projects can coexist with better social services programs as long as they are managed correctly, while Mr. Silverman believes that, under the current administration, the former has often been at the expense of the latter. Given the candidates’ similar stances on most other issues, their differing views on the District’s financial priorities may well be the decisive issue in the upcoming election.

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