A feisty Adrian M. Fenty sparred with two of his opponents for the Democratic nomination for mayor Thursday night, delivering repeated criticism of Vincent C. Gray's record while stressing the city cannot afford to return to days in which Gray was part of the city's management team in the 1990s.
In a side of the mayor that few have seen before in public, Fenty warned Gray cannot be trusted to oversee schools, crime or the budget because the council chairman was part of former mayor Sharon Pratt's administration in the early 1990s.
"I don't know what city you are looking at, but to me, this is a city where management is getting things done," Fenty said at a candidates forum in Northwest. "It certainly is not the city of the early 1990s when the homicide rate was at 500 people or the schools were plummeting down, and we were the worst in everything and no one in the executive branch or the legislative branch did anything about it...This is a city that is getting things done and I think its time we continue it for another four years."
Fenty's remarks at the forum, sponsored by community associations in Cleveland Park, Palisades and Foxhall, represent what may be his fiercest assault yet on one of his opponents in a political campaign.
Gray, who was hampered by a moderator who kept to a strict two-minute time limit for candidate responses to questions, appeared unprepared for Fenty's attack on his record as the director of human services during the Pratt administration.
Gray instead spoke extensively about his record as council chairman while warning that overspending by the Fenty administration risks the city's financial future. Gray also accused Fenty of engaging in "one of the worst examples of cronyism" when he awarded city contracts to several of his fraternity brothers.
"The first thing I would do (as mayor) is bring fiscal discipline back to the District of Columbia," said Gray, noting the mayor has relied heavily on the city's reserve funds to balance recent budgets. "Unless we restore fiscal order back to the District of Columbia, we are not going to be able to do anything."
But while Gray largely focused his message on the nuts-and-bolts of governing, he lacked Fenty's passion when it came to formulating a broader message about what he hopes to accomplish as mayor.
Fenty sought to directly link rising student test scores with Chancellor Michelle Rhee and warned that progress may not continue if Gray is elected.
"I think what she has done has been unprecedented...and the tough decision making we have waited for in this city for decades," Fenty said. "I think this is the time, this election, is the time where we say, do we want to keep the schools moving forward or are we willing to risk it all?"
In response to a question from the panel, Gray refused to say whether he would keep Rhee as chancellor if elected, saying it's unfair to make a candidate make a promise about personnel decisions until after the votes have been counted.
"I believe we need to get through this election," Gray said. "I heartily support education reform in the District of Columbia no matter who the chancellor is and I certainly will consider keeping Michelle Rhee."
Although he wasn't as polished as Fenty, Gray also criticized Fenty's efforts to try to divert bag tax revenues to street sweeping and raise parking meter rates, two ideas that the council rejected. Gray also questioned why Fenty is trying to appoint two developers to the three-member Zoning Commission, which he said would assure there are no community representatives on the board.
"I believe my leadership and service on the council demonstrate I have a commitment to transparency, a commitment to openness, a commitment to collaboration and a commitment to collegiality so that when we do reach decisions, they will be ones that the citizens feel like they have had a role in," Gray said during his closing statement.
But Fenty, who has come under criticism over perceptions that he's too arrogant and detached, sought to turn his perceived personality flaws into an asset, saying, "being a mayor is not an easy job."
"Just going along to get along to try to make friends is not a way to run a city," Fenty said.
The two-hour debate, the first of several joint appearances in the coming days between Gray and Fenty, also saw the emergence of former television reporter Leo Alexander as possible factor in the election. Although polls show Alexander faces an uphill battle to win the Sept. 14 Democratic primary, parts of his message appeared to resonate with the audience.
Alexander promised if elected to fire Rhee and Police Chief Cathy Lanier, raise taxes on the rich while lowering taxes for residents who make less than $100,000, crack down on illegal immigration and shift the law enforcement priorities away from drugs and toward violent crimes.
Alexander aimed his fire at both Gray and Fenty.
"I am the only person up here who is not a career politician or bureaucrat," Alexander said.