Fenty Switches to Offense In Debate Against Cropp

Mayoral candidates Adrian M. Fenty and Linda W. Cropp prepare for what was perhaps their only one-on-one debate.
Mayoral candidates Adrian M. Fenty and Linda W. Cropp prepare for what was perhaps their only one-on-one debate. (By Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)
By Lori Montgomery and David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Mayoral candidate Adrian M. Fenty lashed back at his chief rival, council Chairman Linda W. Cropp, in a one-on-one debate yesterday, casting her as a central player in the "troubled old D.C. government" that "let the schools fall apart and let the city fall apart."

With two weeks until the Sept. 12 Democratic primary, Fenty abandoned his strategy of ignoring Cropp's repeated allegations that he was incompetent as a lawyer prior to winning the Ward 4 council seat and ineffectual as a lawmaker thereafter. He matched Cropp blow for blow in a tense and, at times, hostile exchange that was aired live on cable television and radio, the first and perhaps only public showdown between the campaign's leading contenders.

Fenty accused Cropp of driving public schools "right into the ground" when she was school board president and of voting for "irresponsible" budgets that left the city virtually bankrupt as a council member in the early 1990s. Fenty also blasted Cropp for campaigning against his record instead of emphasizing hers.

"If you've been in office for 26 years and you can't run on your record, then there's something really wrong," he said.

Cropp, meanwhile, pressed her attacks against the two-term council member, rolling out the full array of charges she has made in direct-mail pieces, radio spots and TV ads. She said that Fenty was on the board of a failed charter school that wasted $15 million in tax dollars and that he cost one elderly legal client thousands of dollars and the heirs of another client his home when he practiced law before his initial election in 2000.

"Citizens have to look at someone's record and see if they are hands-on and if they are responsive to the people," Cropp said. As a lawyer, Fenty "was not responsive," she said. "He was sanctioned by the D.C. Bar. People were hurt through that."

Cropp also challenged Fenty's qualifications as a lawmaker, saying he "walked away" from his premier legislative achievement -- a landmark bill to raise more than $1 billion to modernize the city's crumbling public schools.

"The piece he introduced would have put a huge fiscal hole in the budget," but Fenty "didn't come back and try to work out the problems," Cropp said. "We had to almost redo the bill so it's something that could function."

Fenty called that charge "preposterous."

Afterward, Fenty, who has argued that voters are "turned off" by political name-calling, defended his decision to stage a counterattack in the face-off between the leading contenders to replace Anthony A. Williams (D) in the D.C. mayor's office.

"If you're in a debate with someone and you get attacked, you can't just sit there. That doesn't look very leadership-like," he said. "You've got to be able to defend yourself and show your vision for the city."

Fenty, however, said his mail pieces and broadcast ads will remain strictly positive. He plans to begin airing TV ads as early as today that show him leading a smiling and enthusiastic crowd through the streets of Ward 8.

Cropp's campaign ads and literature have been overwhelmingly critical of her opponent, with several pieces and at least one TV ad focused exclusively on Fenty. She defended her decision to highlight "the differences between the two candidates" and dismissed Fenty's charges against her record.

"I'm proud of my record of being part of the city government," she said after the debate. Although she was a member of the council that drove the city into insolvency, she said, "I was chair of the council that turned it around."

The sour exchange took place on NewsTalk with Bruce DePuyt on NewsChannel 8. DePuyt joined the two candidates around a tiny round table that forced them to nearly rub shoulders as they blasted each other relentlessly.

Cropp, who has trailed Fenty by about 10 percentage points in recent polls, demanded the face-off about two weeks ago. Fenty at first declined to respond but accepted when DePuyt suggested his show as the forum. When it was over, Fenty turned to Cropp, flashed a mechanical smile and shook her hand quickly.

The other major Democratic mayoral candidates -- Michael A. Brown, Marie C. Johns and council member Vincent B. Orange Sr. (Ward 5) -- were not invited to yesterday's debate, which also covered a range of more substantive issues. On education, Cropp advocated universal preschool, and Fenty called for more autonomy for principals. On health care, Cropp said she supports a major hospital to serve residents east of the Anacostia River, and Fenty said he would first open three new health clinics in those areas and decide about the hospital later.

The debate was also on the Internet, and it aired again late last night, making it difficult to estimate how many people saw it and what impact it might have on the race.

One viewer, Rodney Foxworth, 51, said he was turned off by Cropp's tactics.

"Negative campaigning is a lose-lose for all of us," said Foxworth, a Ward 4 resident who supports Fenty. Although Fenty gave as good as he got, Foxworth said, "he was always responding to negative comments from council member Cropp. It turned me off because she started the attack and forced him to respond."

But retiree Pierpont Mobley, who also watched the debate on TV, said he was glad to have the information Cropp provided.

"I do believe she was challenging him about his past, trying to show the facts about the person," said Mobley, a Ward 5 resident who supports Orange in the mayor's race. "It's good, because why would we want to wait until someone is elected to find out these things really occurred?"

Staff writer Yolanda Woodlee contributed to this report.

Video excerpts of the debate can be found athttp://www.washingtonpost.com/metro.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company