Article By: Debbie Truong / WAMU/DCist | May 18, 2022

Four candidates for D.C. mayor appealed to the city’s youngest voters during a youth-led forum Tuesday night, clashing over issues such as homelessness and the presence of police in schools.

The event at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library featured Councilmember Robert White (D-At-large) and Trayon White (D-Ward 8), who pose the most serious competition to Mayor Muriel Bowser as she seeks her third term.

Bowser did not participate in the forum. Her microphone and chair sat empty on the stage.

James Butler, a former advisory neighborhood commissioner running as a Democrat, and Rodney “Red” Grant, a comedian and community advocate, also participated in the event. Grant will not appear on the primary ballot in June because he is running as an independent.

The event took place ahead of the June 21 primary, where voters affiliated with a political party can cast votes for who they want to appear on the November ballot. The stakes are high: in a city that heavily favors Democrats, the Democratic nominee is all but assured to win the general election later this year.

Students representing four youth organizations – Mikva Challenge DC, the DC Girls Coalition, Pathways 2 Power, and United Leaders 4 Freedom – took turns asking questions, which were based on topics students identified as issues in a survey distributed by organizers.

Over more than an hour, candidates described how they planned to address issues including affordable housing, food insecurity, and gun violence. They diverged over the presence of police in school buildings, and offered plans for supporting students struggling with mental health.

Robert White and Trayon White did not hold back from taking aim at the mayor in her absence.

Following a question about how the candidates would address homelessness, Robert White criticized Bowser for clearing encampments over the last year. The city has moved to close large encampments, which city officials say is part of an aggressive push to house people experiencing homelessness.

Advocates and lawmakers argue the city can find housing for people without evicting them from encampments, further displacing and creating stress for people who are unhoused. In November, as crews cleared an encampment in NoMa, a man in a tent was lifted by a small bulldozer.

“I’m going to get housing vouchers to people who are unhoused, I’m not going to break their trust by showing up in a violent way and violating them,” Robert White said during the forum. “I’m going to get people housed permanently using the organizations that know what they’re doing.”

Trayon White drew on his own experience, “growing up in extreme poverty” in the District. He argued the city has created barriers to housing, miring people in unnecessary paperwork. And he pushed back on data Bowser has touted showing homelessness has hit its lowest point in nearly two decades.

Over the same period of time, White said the city’s Black population has fallen dramatically.

“If the numbers are low, it’s because they’ve navigated somewhere else,” he said, adding the city has to examine the factors that lead to homelessness. “Our system is not working and needs to be fixed.”

Throughout the debate, some candidates attempted to relate to the teenagers in the audience by sharing their backstories.

Robert White spoke about moving through school as a “failing” student and, as a child, watching his family get priced out of the District. Trayon White, also a D.C. native, spoke about witnessing violence in his community as a child and working through trauma.

Butler described himself as a straight-talker, pitching himself as an alternative to the “career politicians” seeking office. Grant tapped into his experience as a father of three who has witnessed the shortcomings of schools in the city firsthand.

One of the more impassioned exchanges unfolded over a question about the role of school resource officers, or uniformed police on campuses.

The D.C. Council voted last year to phase out police from D.C. Public Schools and charter campuses over the next four years. Bowser tried to reverse the decision in her budget proposal this year, which a divided council recently rejected.

Candidates were split on the question of removing police from campuses during the forum. Two candidates – James Butler and Trayon White – supported keeping them in buildings.

Butler said he wanted to be “proactive” rather than reactive.

“What do we do when there’s a mass shooting in one of our schools?,” Butler said. “We have dangerous situations that happen in schools, which police officers are only adequately prepared to handle.”

Trayon White, who previously supported removing police from schools, called the decision to do so premature. He said he does not believe police are “the end all solution” to addressing crime, but argued officers are necessary for breaking fights up on campuses.

“We’re seeing fights happen every day,” he said. “It’s not intelligent to think we can remove the police officers from the school … and not think that people aren’t going to get hurt.”

Grant said students at his daughter’s middle school are scanned with hand held metal detectors before entering the building. He said it feels like “going to a prison.”

Grant said the city must focus on restoring arts and other programs in schools, which provide alternatives to students who may act out. He did not explicitly say whether he supported removing officers.

“Let’s grab ahold of our kids and give them programs that they really love,” he said. “And let’s stop treating them like prisoners.”

Robert White, who is among the majority of D.C. Councilmembers that recently voted to continue removing police from campuses, said youth have advocated for the city to eliminate resource officers.

“The mayor and some of our councilmembers are saying ‘things are dangerous in our school, therefore we need police,’” he said. “The police are in our schools right now, so how is doing the same thing going to keep us safe?”

Policing in schools is one of the key issues for 18-year-old Ra’mya Davis, who like other teenagers who attended the forum, is eligible to vote for the first time in June. Rather than rely on police, she said she wants schools to shift to more restorative practices, which focus on providing extra support to students rather than penalizing them.

“Wrongful policing occurs in day-to-day life for Black people in America,” said Davis, who is a 12th grade student at Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter School in Anacostia. “For it to start in schools, is very disheartening.”

Davis said she is not sure who she would vote for in the primary, or whether she will vote at all – the teen said she wants more time to understand how local government works before casting a ballot.

Makala Battle, an 18-year-old at Friendship Collegiate Academy, was clear about who she plans to vote for: Trayon White.

Battle was one of a hundred young people the councilmember hired to help with his campaign. The teens and young adults canvas for White, helping with tasks like distributing campaign fliers. Several attended Tuesday’s forum.

“He helps with the community,” Battle said of Trayon White. “He does a lot for us, so we can have a safer environment in schools and at home.”

Christian Cardona, an 18-year-old at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in Shaw, said he resonated with Butler during the debate but is leaning toward voting for Robert White.

Cardona said he wants the next mayor to focus on social inequities. The teenager said he noticed his elementary and middle school, La-Salle Backus Elementary School in Northeast, seemed to have fewer resources than other campuses elsewhere in the city.

He said he was heartened to see the mayoral candidates show up and “listen to what youth had to say.”