Hoping to help Mayor Adrian M. Fenty get reelected, Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee told a crowd of supporters Saturday morning at a rally that the District is a "different city" under his leadership and that improvements in the school system and in economic development cannot continue without him.
Rhee, limited in her political activity by a federal law, told the crowd at Broad Branch Market in Chevy Chase that she was speaking as a "private citizen."
The market is within walking distance of Chevy Chase Community Center, one of four satellite polling sites throughout the city that opened at 8:30 a.m. Saturday for early voting. Fenty led the crowd of supporters in a march to the community center. As of 9:30, 125 people had taken numbers to vote.
By 10 a.m., about 600 people had voted at all five polling sites, including the Board of Elections and Ethics headquarters at Judiciary Square, said Alysoun McLaughlin, elections board spokeswoman. The number was expected to continue to grow with steady streams of voters at Chevy Chase Community Center in Ward 3 and Turkey Thicket Recreation Center in Ward 5. By 11:30 a.m., 280 voters had gone through Turkey Thicket while 382 had cast ballots at Chevy Chase.
Earlier, council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) used Rhee's title when introducing her, but Fenty steered clear of calling her the chancellor.
Fenty trails his chief opponent, Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, by double digits among Democrats in a Washington Post poll. He has centered his reelection bid on a promise to retain Rhee as chancellor, but the poll showed that invoking Rhee becomes a virtual wash among potential voters. Of those polled, as many like Rhee's performance as disapprove of her work when asked whether she provides a reason to vote for Fenty.
The poll revealed racial and geographical divisions. Fenty's support is strongest among whites and Ward 3 residents. The crowd at Broad Branch was predominantly white: Parents and children, clad in Fenty's campaign color green, cheered for him and for Rhee.
Gray has refused to say whether he would retain Rhee as chancellor if he is elected.
As a resident, Rhee began her address to the crowd not with reference to schools but by talking about economic development.
She said she and her fiance, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, recently had dinner at Ray's the Steaks, which opened a branch in Ward 7. She said Johnson ended up talking to patrons at another table "all the way from Bethesda."
"Four years ago, we would have never seen this kind of progress," she said.
She shared a personal story, saying her older daughter met a transfer student from the private Maret School at Alice Deal Middle School. She said the student's mother "was tired of paying $30,000 a year. ... She hoped this one [school] had gotten fixed," Rhee said.
"What I want to be very, very clear about is that the work is not done yet. The only way we are going to continue the progress we've seen is to reelect this man here."
Taking a cue from Fenty's campaign message, Rhee also said the mayor had made tough decisions against the "status quo" that led to "push back." She also acknowledged that he has made mistakes.
"He owns those mistakes and is committed to moving forward," Rhee said.
Fenty told the crowd that he has improved schools and recreation centers all over the city. "If you go to Ward 8, it's almost a mirror image," he said, adding that the new Deanwood Recreation Center in Ward 7 is now the largest in the city.
He also told the crowd that "early voting is priming the pump."
"We get those higher numbers, and we win on September 14th," Fenty said.
In front of the community center, Fenty became more animated when his supporters had to share the sidewalk with Gray supporters. A lone Gray supporter disrupted the Fenty rally with children placing Fenty stickers on his Gray T-shirt.
At the community center, police officers and elections board spokeswoman McLaughlin reported no significant incidents. Gray supporters accused Fenty and those who marched from the rally of violating a rule by standing closer than 50 feet to the polling site.
Erik Kvalsik, a Fenty supporter with 7-year-old twins at Lafayette Elementary School, said improvements in schools were not the only reasons to vote for Fenty. "It's citywide progress," he said. "I hate to see it interrupted."
Carol Seitz, mother of two school-age children in private school, said she has been impressed with progress at Lafayette, Deal and Wilson High School. "I'm open to the idea [of public school] where I wasn't four years ago," she said.
In an interview, Rhee said she would continue to campaign for the mayor as needed on weekends and after work. During the interview, a woman interrupted, "I want you to be on the ballot."