Fenty, Johns Face Off In SE

Mayoral candidates Adrian M. Fenty and Marie C. Johns were backed by hundreds of rowdy supporters at yesterday's one-on-one debate at a public housing complex in Southeast Washington.
Mayoral candidates Adrian M. Fenty and Marie C. Johns were backed by hundreds of rowdy supporters at yesterday's one-on-one debate at a public housing complex in Southeast Washington. (Photos By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
By Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 13, 2006

A rambunctious crowd of nearly 300 converged on the patchy grass courtyard of a public housing complex in Southeast Washington yesterday to watch mayoral candidate Marie C. Johns and front-runner Adrian M. Fenty in the first one-on-one debate of the 2006 campaign.

Backed by dozens of supporters wearing matching white T-shirts and chanting her campaign slogan -- "Different. Real. Better." -- Johns slammed the Ward 4 D.C. Council member as a publicity-seeker given to "jumping up and down in front of TV cameras" while the city's poorest residents suffer without jobs, decent schools or much hope.

That characterization seemed to infuriate the normally unflappable Fenty, who responded by delivering a passionate defense of his work for affordable housing, youth services and better schools. He accused Johns of trying to move yesterday's debate in the Woodland Terrace housing complex away from the low-income families for whom she expressed such concern.

"Why in the world would you want to have it away from a Metro station?" Fenty said in a pointed reference to the words Johns used to criticize the location he chose for the debate. "Fenty, why would you want to have it away from everything? Why would you want to have it where no one knows where to go?

"Well, that's exactly why we want to have it here," Fenty said to full-throated cheers and applause. "We've had enough debates downtown. We've had enough debates in air-conditioned buildings. We're going to debate in a community where people really need the help of the D.C. government."

With a month to go until the Sept. 12 Democratic primary, the mayor's race has been marked by dozens of debates and forums at which observers watched for sparks to fly between Fenty and council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D).

Cropp, who trailed Fenty by about 10 percentage points among likely voters in a Washington Post poll taken a month ago, recently sharpened her attacks, criticizing him over his opposition to a recent crime emergency bill.

Johns, the former president of Verizon Washington, ran a distant third in the poll, furthering her concern that her message was getting lost. So last month, she challenged Fenty on a radio call-in show to meet her one-on-one -- with Cropp and other candidates excluded.

For 90 minutes yesterday, Fenty and Johns spoke to a small sea of people seated in folding chairs, peering down from second-floor windows and spilling onto the sidewalk that fronts the low-slung brick complex near Fort Stanton Park, in the heart of Ward 8. Council members Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) and Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5), himself a mayoral candidate, appeared in the crowd. And behind the candidates, dozens of rowdy supporters bearing signs for each campaign shoved and jostled for position, drawing rebukes from moderator Steve Zanders, director of the Woodland Tigers athletic program.

Most people in the audience wore either a green Fenty sticker or a Johns T-shirt, prompting some neighborhood residents to wonder exactly to whom the forum was meant to appeal. But they said they were pleased nonetheless to have attention focused on their community for something other than tragedy or crime.

"It's good to see them out here in Ward 8," said Vernice Woodland, a health-care researcher. "Here we are on a Saturday morning at eight o'clock, and it's just like every other part of town."

Fenty picked not just the debate's time and place but also the format, a free-for-all that allowed anyone in the audience to pose questions. Some were Johns supporters, such as the woman in the Johns T-shirt who asked about economic development and the man who criticized Fenty for meeting recently with Maryland gubernatorial candidate and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley (D).

Others were Fenty partisans, such as the woman who praised the council member for being the only candidate to visit Woodland Terrace before the campaign and the young girl who demanded to know why the city is "spending money on stadiums" when it "should help people pay their rent."

Throughout the event, Johns cast herself as the compassionate and competent outsider who stands ready to correct the neglect of Fenty and his council colleagues. She criticized Fenty for voting for tax breaks for the wealthy developers of a convention center hotel. And she blasted as ineffective his plan to appoint a deputy mayor for education, saying it simply would add another "six-figure person" to city payrolls.

Fenty defended his record as the author of a landmark bill to fund school modernization and as a champion of affordable housing and closure of the troubled Oak Hill youth detention center. He repeatedly touted his vote against the crime bill that moved the city's midnight youth curfew to 10 p.m., saying the legislation would do nothing to solve the city's crime problem.

Afterward, both candidates claimed victory. But the reaction of the crowd was mixed. Even one of the organizers, Woodland Terrace resident council Vice President JoAnn Davis, left the event undecided.

"I'm thinking whoever gets in there, are they going to come through like they said they would?" she said.

Staff writer Robert Pierre contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company