At the Alpha Kappa Alpha candidates' forum Wednesday night at Howard University, there were some fireworks between the candidates running for mayor in the Democratic primary. But most of the bickering wasn't between Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and his chief rival, D.C. Council Chairman Vincent. C. Gray.
In a risky strategy for a top-tier candidate, Gray got bogged down during part of the debate in a squabble with former television reporter Leo Alexander.
Alexander, who has been struggling to gain attention in what so far appears to be a two-man race, went on the offensive against Gray, accusing him of being as much to blame as Fenty for the city's problems.
"When you think of everything that has happened in the last three years, you cannot criticize this man, without looking at this man," Alexander said, pointing at Gray and Fenty.
Alexander specifically challenged Gray for not doing more to prevent Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee from laying off 266 teachers last year.
"It wouldn't be fair to talk about the betterment of DCPS, without talking about leadership of our council chairman," Alexander said. "When this council had the opportunity to stop those firings, but he did nothing."
A clearly agitated Gray fired back, accusing Alexander of misrepresenting his record, noting he and Council member Harry Thomas (D-Ward 5) worked on legislation to try to force Rhee to rehire the fired teachers.
"Let me begin by saying it's easy to sit up here when you've done nothing and pontificate," Gray said to Alexander. "If you did the research, you would understand the council wouldn't have the authority to turn this around despite the fact we tried."
Alexander responded: "The gentleman said I have done nothing, let's talk about his do-nothing leadership on the city council."
"You remember when John Ray was the chairman and Marion Barry was trying to balance the books and he wanted to take money from the schools?" Alexander said. "John Ray went to the courts and got a temporary restraining order to prevent Marion Barry from touching the schools. [Gray] could have done the same thing, but that is the leadership he lacks."
The squabbling, which dragged on for nearly half of the one-hour debate, underscores the emerging role of the lesser-known candidates in the race.
Alexander, who drew less than 5 percent of the vote in a Washington Post poll in January, has been stepping up his criticism of Gray.
By needling Gray, Alexander believes he draws some of Gray's supporters, helping him, perhaps, to grab more of the anti-Fenty vote. Many top-tier candidates simply choose to ignore second and third rivals, believing they only elevate their status by responding. But Gray couldn't resist engaging Alexander Wednesday night.
While Alexander aligns with Fenty in attacking Gray, candidate Sulaimon Brown often defends the chairman.
"There is no Fenty-Gray administration," Brown told Alexander. "There is the executive branch and the legislatiive branch of government...if you are going to be a leader, you need to get your facts straight. "
During forums, Brown admits his chief role is to try to convince voters not to elect Fenty.
"I say this at every event, if you can't vote for Brown, then vote for any color, Brown, Gray, but please don't vote for Fenty," said Brown, pointing at the mayor.
Fenty ignored him.
-- Tim Craig