Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, who has tried to gain traction in his campaign with humilty and by attacking his main opponent's record, stayed on message during a debate Tuesday night, focusing on the progress the city's schools have made under him and Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee.
Earlier Tuesday, officials had learned that the Obama administration had awarded the District and Maryland $325 million in an education reform competition. During the announcement Education Secretary Arne Duncan praised Fenty and Rhee.
During the Tuesday night debate at the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue, Fenty hammered at Council Chairman Vincent Gray's repeated refusal to say whether he would keep Rhee if elected mayor. "Yes or no? Yes or no?" Fenty asked.
Gray refused to respond and reminded Fenty that the mayor had refused to say whether he would keep then-police chief Charles Ramsey when he was running in 2006.
Fenty argued that the 2006 scenario differed and clarified his comment then, saying he had said he would not "announce" an appointment at that time. Fenty's response drew some boos and yet another rebuttal from Gray. Fenty also was jeered during his closing statement when he went back to the issue of Rhee.
But overall, Fenty was at ease during the debate that gave each candidate 10 minutes for an opening statement and three minutes to answer questions. Fenty, having won a coin toss to go first, set the tone by getting up from behind a table to address the crowd of nearly 1,000 people. He looked more like a CEO addressing a group of shareholders as he talked about the tough decisions that came with school reform and other tasks as mayor.
Gray used the stage as a pulpit, rousing the crowd like a Sunday morning preacher.
The forum, sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council, began with few surprises and standard answers to questions about making the
city more environmentally friendly, increasing the city's living wage, luring Israeli companies to the District.
The crowd laughed each time the candidates passed on rebuttals. But Fenty jumped up after Gray answered a topical question on the mayor's petition to the Board of Elections and Ethics to allow unaffiliated voters to register same-day as Democrats.
"I don't support this change at all," Gray said. "Frankly, I'm willing to bank my election on the electorate that already exists."
And Gray noted that Fenty had blocked council legislation this summer that would have prohibited vote-buying. Fenty has said the council should not have been approving legislation that would affect an election in which current members were running. Gray cast Fenty as hypocritical for now petitioning the elections board. "I would like to rebut," Fenty said assuredly with a smile on his face.
"Ladies and gentlemen, the debate has begun," moderator Scott Thuman said.