BY CLAIRE PARKER, CO-EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
Wilson students saw a wide range of personalities and beliefs displayed at the mayoral candidate forum hosted by DC history teachers on October 27. In an effort to appeal to young voters before the November 4 election, candidates spoke about topics ranging from education to marijuana to the importance of equestrian training.
DC History classes spent several weeks discussing the upcoming mayoral election. When teachers asked students to write letters to candidates urging them to come speak at Wilson, student body president Jennifer Li stepped up to the plate to help organize the event. Li called the offices of Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), David Catania (Indep.- At-large), and Carol Schwartz (Indep.), originally arranging for just those three front-running candidates to come. Later, at DCPS’ urging, she and social studies teacher Julie Caccamise were able to convince the other three candidates to attend.
The forum was moderated by social studies teacher Robert Geremia. Each candidate came in separately for his or her allotted time slot. Each had 25 minutes to outline his or her platform, followed by a 10 minute question and answer period.
Libertarian candidate Bruce Majors was the first to speak. The Libertarian Party is new to DC as of last March, and Majors is running in order to keep it alive. He described Libertarians to students as “people who believe that you own your whole life and body and time and mind and energy and everything you produce, and no one can tell you what to do with it.” Majors proposed decentralizing public schools, but mostly focused on deregulating and supporting private and charter schools.
Front-running candidate Muriel Bowser began her remarks by stressing her personal history as a District resident. Bowser’s family has lived in DC for five generations. She grew up in Ward 5 and attended Catholic schools, since the public schools were low-quality at the time. She said that much progress has been made since her childhood, but high-quality education in all parts of the city is still not a reality. She identified this fact as the main reason she is running for mayor, and said, “It’s so important to focus on how we move our schools forward.”
Bowser outlined her initiative “Alice Deal For All,” which is focused on creating quality middle school options across the city. She also talked about the importance of creating educational parity, continuing school renovations, and implementing STEM programs in schools.
While Bowser seemed to take pride in the endorsements she has received from The Washington Post, President Barack Obama, and former mayor Anthony Williams, she told students, “No other opinion is more important than yours and your parents’.”
Ninety-one year old candidate Faith Dane, commonly referred to just by her first name, shared Bowser’s admiration of Anthony Williams, but that was about the only thing the two had in common.
Faith’s speech provided some comic relief to students after Bowser’s serious arguments. Her background in theater and the dramatic arts was evident in her rambling monologue, which featured diatribes against the “hustling” of the “international business brothel” that is the federal government, as well as arguments about the importance of equestrian training and exotic dancing, lowering the voting age to puberty, and moving the federal government to Coney Island. Her speech was punctuated by toots from her famous bugle, and a DC remake of “We Are the World” that she sang with her husband.
But mostly, her speech centered on marijuana. “I want to talk a little bit about weed,” she announced. “We can grow some of the greatest weed in the world here and package it. DC Green!” As she was rolled out of the auditorium in her wheelchair, she shouted, “Don’t smoke weed, eat it!”
“Some of the statements Faith made were not the usual political stump, so those statements were a surprise,” said Geremia.
Next up was Republican-turned-Independent candidate Carol Schwartz. Schwartz has a long history with Wilson, as all three of her children attended the school. She also has a long history with DC education policy. She gave students an overview of her career as a city council member, a consultant to the US Department of Education, and a member of a presidential committee for Title I funds. “I would say you’ve got a real education mayor here,” she said.
The proposals she outlined included creating a Mayor’s Office on Disparity Solutions to close the achievement gap. Schwartz criticized current Mayor Vincent Gray’s school boundaries proposal, saying, “I think drawing Wilson’s boundary along Rock Creek Park is not a good thing…One of the beauties of DCPS is our multiculturalism.”
Independent candidate and Cameroon native Nester Djonkam came to DC 20 years ago, not speaking a word of English. He talked about his journey from a homeless immigrant on the DC streets to a well-educated engineer and mayoral candidate in a speech full of inspirational messages. “I’m here today to inspire you all,” he told students. “Know that if I can make it, you can make it.” He said he wants to be the first African mayor since, “This city is an international city, and deserves to have an international mayor.”
Independent councilmember David Catania is ranked second, behind Bowser, in recent polls. “I’m running for mayor because I think our city can do better,” he said. He focused his speech on outlining his record on the DC Council, since he believes a good record is important to securing the public’s trust. He identified his main priority as closing the city’s achievement gap, and also discussed his proposals to expand the DC economy and improve public schools. “I want to make sure that in every corner of the city, people are treated the same,” he said. He told students, “I’m running for mayor to make sure the future is secured for you.”
After hearing all the candidates speak, Geremia commented that while candidates took this event very seriously, nothing new was said. However, from the standpoint of student engagement, the forum was a success.
“It’s important for our youth to be more involved in politics, and I hope that today’s forum was towards less political apathy,” Li said. Many attendees were seniors taking DC History classes. Some are 18, and are eligible to vote in the November 4 election.
“I think Wilson students are as engaged in the mayoral race as well as they can be,” said social studies teacher Michele Bollinger. However, she still thinks there is a disconnect between politicians and youth. “Sometimes it seems like our society tells young people how important they are, but yet does not listen to them closely enough to genuinely advocate on their behalf – or better yet, encourage them to become political actors in their own right,” she said.
Geremia thinks the forum was a step in the right direction. “We hope today’s forum will instill a sense of civic engagement and duty for the rest of our students’ lives,” he said.