By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 13, 2006
D.C. Council member Vincent C. Gray, who won his first election just two years ago, easily won the Democratic nomination for council chairman in what had looked to be a close race with his more experienced colleague Kathy Patterson.
With 139 of 142 precincts reporting, Gray (D-Ward 7) was leading Patterson (D-Ward 3) 58 to 42 percent in his bid for the second most powerful elected position in Washington government.
Polls showed a tight contest, but Gray's promise to create a more unified city appeared to appeal to a majority of the electorate.
"We ran this campaign on being one city, and let me tell you, it was no sloganeering," he said at his victory party at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill last night. "One city is a place where in Ward 3 and Ward 7 people understand that the issues we face are essentially the same."
Patterson's 12 years on the council and reputation as a watchdog who held city agencies accountable was not enough to counter Gray's growing support among unions, business leaders and voters who believed he was more in touch with the District's disadvantaged residents.
"I have no apologies, and I have no regrets," Patterson said, as supporters, some sobbing, hugged one another at the Hawk 'n' Dove restaurant on Capitol Hill last night.
The primary, which probably will decide the next council leader, was the first citywide election for Gray and Patterson, who represent opposite ends of a city that often votes along racial and geographical lines. They were vying for the nomination to replace Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D), who had to give up that post for her mayoral bid.
Gray, 63, represents Ward 7, a predominantly black, mixed-income community east of the Anacostia River. Patterson, 58, represents Ward 3, a predominantly white, affluent community mostly west of Rock Creek Park.
Yesterday, voters weighed race, Patterson's three terms on the council and Gray's 30-year career in social services, including four years as the director of the city's Department of Human Services.
Sarah Bowen, a 74-year-old black cabdriver, said that when she cast her ballot for Gray, her decision was based on race. "I guess I'm a little prejudiced. He's black," she said.
Watching the gentrification of District neighborhoods, Bowen said she feared blacks could be pushed out of town and out of office. "I think next time around, we'll have a white mayor. Don't you?"
Many of Patterson's supporters said they felt the election for chairman was poisoned by racial division.
"So many times, it just comes down to what race you are, and we all lose because of that," said Keith Jarrell, 50, a Patterson volunteer. "The District of Columbia voters seem to be a narrow-minded kind."
The council, once considered a rubber stamp of the mayor's office, now flexes its power as an equal branch of government. The difference can be attributed to the chairman, council members said.
The chairmanship is a full-time position, and the holder nominates all the chairmen and members of council committees, which must be approved by the council as a whole. The chairman can serve as acting mayor, if necessary, and is an ex-officio voting member of every committee.
As chairman, Gray said he would make education his top priority, with an emphasis on reviving the city's vocational education programs and reforming special education.
Gray also said he wants to hire more police officers, who would be assigned to scooter, bicycle and pedestrian patrols to increase police presence in D.C. neighborhoods.
But Gray said his overall mission is to create "One City," which also is the theme of his campaign. The phrase refers to merging all races, all classes and the interests of business owners and residents.
"The job of leadership is then to be able to bring us together and to stop talking about east of the river and west of the park and start talking about the District of Columbia," he said last night. In response, the crowd chanted, "One city, one city."
Gray used the same spiel whether he was in his home district, which includes low-income areas, or in Patterson's district, which is the richest in the city. He asked voters to consider "spreading the wealth" from Northwest to Southeast Washington, where the only sit-down, full-service restaurant is a Denny's.
Gray's supporters in Ward 7 saw his candidacy as a chance to increase the power of residents in the eastern half of the city. Kwame R. Brown, a Ward 7 resident, was elected as an at-large council member in 2004, giving communities east of the Anacostia River a third council member, in addition to the two ward representatives, for the first time. With Gray as chairman, there would be four members representing Southeast and far Northeast Washington.
About noon at Dunbar Senior High School in Ward 5, Gray was concerned about the light voter turnout, but he was confident.
"It's actually going well," he said, wearing a baseball cap and mock turtleneck under his campaign T-shirt.
Zachary Cafritz, a Harvard University senior, said Gray would be a better citywide representative than Patterson, because he has worked with underserved city residents and communities.
"Wealthy people's interests are already overrepresented in government," said Cafritz, who lives in Ward 3 and is the son of D.C. Board of Education President Peggy Cooper Cafritz. "If you look at Patterson, that's her constituency in Ward 3, compared to Gray."
"I think it's important for a council member to represent a broader spectrum of the city," he said.
Throughout her campaign, Patterson emphasized that, despite being the Ward 3 council member, she has been representing all D.C. residents for the 12 years she has been in office.
Patterson portrayed herself as a tough-talking council member. She headed the council's committees on government operations, the judiciary and, most recently, education and was credited with bringing a new level of oversight to the council.