After a wild night of politicking and fighting, Vincent C. Gray scored a decisive victory Tuesday night over Adrian M, Fenty in the Ward 6 Democratic Committee mayoral straw poll.
But Gray, who managed to out-organize Fenty in an area of the city where Fenty lawn signs are plentiful, fell short of winning an official endorsement from the committee that represents Democrats in Capitol Hill, Southwest and neighborhoods around H Street.
A candidate needed 60 percent of the vote to win the endorsement; Gray garnered 56.2 percent to Fenty's 40.7 percent.
With Ward 6 shaping up to be a key battleground in the Sept 14 Democratic primary, few expected either Gray or Fenty to win an outright endorsement. But both candidates appeared to pull out all the stops in a bid to win over the hundreds of voters who showed up for the event at Eastern Market.
The results were announced after a spirited candidates forum and a contentious vote counting process that brought charges of voter fraud and allegations that the Fenty campaign was trying to disenfranchise some elderly, disabled voters.
The discord highlighted the challenges both campaigns -- and the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics -- could face in monitoring the city's new early voting and same day registration laws.
Fenty appeared to have a small advantage among voters who walked to the straw poll from homes near the market. But Gray surprised Fenty's "green team" by chartering at least three buses to transport seniors from other parts of Ward 6 to event.
The seniors contributed to what organizers called a record crowd for a Ward 6 Democratic Committee straw poll, a sign of increasing interest in the race. One participant quipped it took her longer to vote in the non-binding straw poll than it did for her to cast her ballot at her precinct in the 2008 presidential election.
When all the ballots were counted, Gray received 218 votes to Fenty's 158. Candidate Leo Alexander received 4 votes. The Ward 6 Democratic Committee did not immediately tally another 31 votes that were considered provisional.
The large numbers of provisional ballots stemmed partly from a dispute between the Fenty and Gray campaigns over the integrity of votes cast by the seniors who had been bused in by the Gray campaign.
Because some of the seniors appeared too frail to walk to the ballot box, Gray advisors said they had received assurances that campaign volunteers could hand deliver the ballots to the seniors at their seats.
But Fenty staffers formally protested after they saw a Gray volunteer trying to cast 10 completed ballots minutes before the polls closed. The volunteer said the ballots came from the disabled seniors, but there was no way to confirm who had filled them out because the seniors had already returned to their buses.
"They are cheating, flat out cheating," a Fenty staffer shouted.
Led by Adam Rubinson, Gray's campaign manager, and Fenty strategist John Falcicchio, advisors and volunteers for both campaigns then spent more than 30 minutes arguing and lobbying leaders of the Ward 6 Democratic Committee over the integrity of the ballots.
Rubinson claimed he had received assurances from the organizers that quasi-absentee voting would be permitted.
But Fenty supporters, armed with photographs of Gray volunteers carrying multiple ballots, cried foul. At one point, Gray stormed back into the market and tried to meet with Democratic leaders, but the chairman left a few minutes later.
As the controversy unfolded around 9 p.m., Rubinson dispatched Gray volunteers to stand in front of the buses to stop the seniors from leaving until the matter could be resolved.
"All these poor seniors are sitting out on the bus waiting to find out if they have to get back off the bus (to vote) or whether they can go home," Rubinson said.
In the end, around 9:30 p.m., the committee ruled the 10 contested ballots would be considered provisional, and were combined with other ballots that could not be confirmed as being cast by registered Ward 6 Democrats.
Party officials say most of those ballots were believed to have been cast by Gray supporters. Even if they were all counted in the official tally, however, Gray would have still fallen 4 votes short of winning an official endorsement.
Check back later for more details about the forum.
-- Tim Craig