Maybe it was the setting — a house of worship — but a quartet of candidates vying for two at-large seats on the D.C. Council eschewed the bitter rhetoric and personal attacks that have dominated the past few weeks for veiled swipes and even cordiality during a debate in Georgetown on Thursday.
Incumbent council members Vincent B. Orange and Michael A. Brown defended their records against Republican nominee Mary Brooks Beatty and independent David Grosso at St. John's Episcopal Church, weighing in on campaign finance reform, ethics and the best way to fix a system that rewards D.C.-based contractors but appears to be marred by fraud.
The policy-heavy debate read like an index of recent council debates with little mention of the scathing, one-on-one criticism that has dominated the heated race so far. While it offered a few pointed and humorous moments, the event's only fireworks came in the form of an occasional blast of microphone feedback.
Candidates took on a range of topics, from schools to the city parking system, but the debate sponsored by the Georgetown Business Association inevitably circled the ethical issues and campaign finance irregularities that have tarnished elected officials in the District over the past two years.
In a discussion of public financing for city campaigns, an issue Mr. Brown has supported through recent legislation, Ms. Beatty offered one of the most pointed critiques of the debate by bringing up theft from a candidate's campaign as a reason to be wary of using taxpayers' funds. She did not mention her opponent by name, but Mr. Brown recently charged that a former campaign aide stole more than $100,000 from his campaign accounts, which he has reported to police.
Mr. Grosso insinuated that Mr. Brown stole his public financing idea, using New York City campaigns as a model. Mr. Brown retorted that he has been talking about the subject for years because it is "really the only way" to get rid of outsized corporate influence on campaigns.
Mr. Orange, as the Democratic nominee, is considered to be in the best position to preserve his seat on the council. That has led Mr. Grosso and Ms. Beatty to focus most of their efforts on Mr. Brown, an independent, as they compete for the at-large seat reserved for a minority-party candidate in the heavily Democratic city.
Nonetheless, Mr. Orange used the occasion to reiterate his support for two ethics reforms that have so far been rejected by the council: term limits and a prohibition on outside employment. He has proposed a term-limits system in which members can serve a ward and then move to an at-large seat and then to chairman or even the mayor's office.
"I think at this point in time, where we are today, a person should come down, make their contribution and move on," Mr. Orange said.
He joined Ms. Beatty and Mr. Grosso in supporting a ban on outside employment, a proposal that has been stymied by multiple city lawmakers who hold jobs at law firms, universities and private companies in addition to their $125,000 annual council salaries.
"Who are you really serving?" Ms. Beatty said.
Mr. Brown, who has worked for law firms, said he does not support the ban but attends city events from morning to evening in addition to his daytime duties at the John A. Wilson Building.
"I treat this job as a full-time job," he said.
Mr. Grosso parsed out his reply, quipping, "I think my opponent is focusing on full-time campaigning."
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