Help wanted: A strong challenger to make Fenty feel the heat

By Robert McCartney
Sunday, December 13, 2009

Here's my holiday wish: I'd like one strong candidate -- but only one -- to please run against Adrian M. Fenty for mayor next year.

The District and the rest of the region would benefit if a robust challenger would press Fenty (D) to defend a mixed record that has disappointed many of the hopes that accompanied his 2006 election.

In particular, we need him to feel some heat over apparent cronyism in city contracts, needless bickering with the D.C. Council, the city's East-West economic divide and, of course, the future of Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's school reforms.

It's hard to tell if I'm going to get my wish, because the main prospects are engaged in a nerve-racking dance over who's going to enter the race first. I just hope that nobody goes second, because that would divide the opposition and make it easy for Fenty to win reelection without having to seriously address his administration's shortcomings.

My first choice for a challenger would have to be D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D). Two recent polls said he was the only potential candidate who could seriously threaten Fenty, and he's actively considering jumping in.

But another intriguing possibility has emerged in the form of R. Donahue "Don" Peebles, a multimillionaire real estate developer who grew up in the District and was active in D.C. politics and business until moving to Florida in 1998. He says he's "70 percent" certain he's going to run but has been taking his time about giving a definitive answer, which he now promises by the end of the year.

Peebles could face considerable skepticism from voters.

For one thing, his business isn't based here and he moved back only in the past year, registering to vote in October. He says he now lives in a $6 million house he bought near Cleveland Park a couple of years ago.

If that's okay with voters, he'd likely have to defend some of his real estate dealings from when he began his career as a protege of then-mayor Marion Barry, now the Democratic council member from Ward 8. In the 1980s, critics questioned Peebles's role in a deal in Southeast while he was chairman of the city's tax appeal board, but officials determined that he did not violate ethics laws.

Peebles has one huge advantage: personal wealth. Unlike Gray or any other potential challengers, he could finance his own campaign, saying he'd use his money to match the $3 million to $5 million that he expects Fenty to raise.

He's been doing his homework, meeting with political, business, union and community leaders, and talked confidently in an interview Friday about issues that will confront the next mayor.

The other two most prominent potential candidates are council members Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large) and Michael A. Brown (I-At Large). Either would be a respectable challenger, but they lack Gray's name recognition and Peebles's cash.

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