By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 6, 2010; B01
R. Donahue Peebles, a millionaire real estate tycoon who had boasted that he was prepared to spend up to $8 million to become Washington's next mayor, announced late Tuesday that he would not challenge Adrian M. Fenty in this year's election.
Peebles's statement came a day after he had said in an interview that it was a "high probability" he would run against the incumbent and that he was considering funding his campaign entirely from a personal fortune that Forbes magazine has estimated at $350 million.
But Peebles said Tuesday that he cannot run "at this time" because his mother-in-law has a "terminal illness" and his "vow as a husband to support my wife and children during the rough path ahead must supersede my desire to be mayor."
"As much as it disappoints me and the many friends and supporters who have encouraged me to run for mayor, I cannot enter the race at this time," Peebles said.
Nine months before the Democratic primary, Fenty (D) has no widely known or well-funded challengers, even as recent polls have shown his popularity declining. D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) and at-large council members Kwame R. Brown and Michael A. Brown have said they are thinking about running, but each would be hard-pressed to match the $3 million that Fenty has raised toward his bid for a second term.
Peebles said he felt compelled to make his announcement Tuesday because he had promised to inform supporters of his intentions at the first of the year.
At least one Peebles supporter, Ron Magnus, who helped organize a meeting between the developer and 30 District residents last month, said he still thinks Peebles will enter the race at some point.
"Because of his family, he's not going to announce now -- the operative word is 'now,' " Magnus said. "It's just a question of putting his priorities in order. I believe he feels a calling."
Gray said Peebles "would have been a credible candidate." Whether he will take on Fenty, Gray said, "That's a good question, isn't it? I get asked 20 times a day. . . . My answer is that I'm seriously considering it. My other answer is, I don't have a timeline."
The Fenty campaign strategy "continues to be to work as hard as humanly possible and to take nothing for granted," spokesman John Falcicchio said.
In a recent interview, Peebles seemed bent on running, even as he expressed concern about family issues that could steer him away from a campaign. The developer had in mind a TV ad to needle Fenty, whose signature campaign tactic four years ago was to knock on the doors of tens of thousands of voters' homes.
"Adrian Fenty is at the door," Peebles said, playing the narrator of the TV spot. "Do you want to answer?"
From Fenty's oversight of schools to the police, Peebles derided the mayor as an aloof, ineffective leader more concerned with the minutiae of filling potholes and picking up trash than unifying a city that he says remains fractured along racial and economic lines.
"What we have here is a ship that is rudderless, just spinning around, and there's no captain on it," Peebles said. He said he would be a "transformational mayor," not a "pothole mayor."Building a fortune
Peebles, a tall man with a commanding baritone, oozed confidence as he recounted his unlikely rise, the only son of a teenage mother, a working-class kid and college dropout who became one of the country's wealthiest African Americans.
After a career building condominiums and hotels in Washington and Miami, projects that resulted in lawsuits and battles with civic leaders, Peebles said he had no doubt he could navigate local politics and manage a government with a $9 billion budget.
"At the end of the day," Peebles said, highlighting his business experience, "I can do this better than anybody else. I'm what they need now."
But Peebles would have faced challenges, not the least of which is that he still lives much of the time in Florida, where his son and daughter attend school.
Asked how many rooms there are at his Coral Gables estate, Peebles said, "Gosh, I have to count," before pausing 45 seconds and saying: "About 25."
Peebles and his wife, Katrina, a former model, own an airplane, six cars and five homes, including a nearly $6 million mansion in Cleveland Park that they bought two years ago.
How Peebles amassed his wealth could have provided fodder for opponents.
In Florida, his lawsuits and spats with political leaders gained him a reputation as a "real street fighter," said Gerald Posner, who devoted a chapter to Peebles in his recently published book "Miami Babylon." "Despite the neatly pressed shirt, don't take him for a boardroom dandy."Ties to Marion Barry
Although Peebles has accused Fenty of engaging in "pay-to-play" cronyism in granting city contracts, the developer has publicly boasted about the benefits he reaped from his own political networking, which began in high school when he was a page at the U.S. Capitol.
In his early 20s, after hosting what he called a $100,000 fundraiser for then-Mayor Marion Barry, Peebles persuaded Barry to appoint him to the District's tax appeals board. A year later, Peebles became the board's chairman, a position he held when he developed his first project -- the deal that launched his wealth -- an Anacostia office building in which the Barry administration leased space.
In the mid-1990s, a second deal between Peebles and the Barry administration, this one worth $48 million, collapsed after being criticized by the D.C. Council and the city's congressionally appointed financial control board. Infuriated, Peebles decamped for Florida.
Peebles's close ties to Barry were also evident during the mayor's darkest moments. On the surveillance tape in which FBI agents caught Barry smoking crack cocaine with Hazel Diane "Rasheeda" Moore at a hotel, the mayor mentions his friend's Georgetown home. During Barry's trial, Moore and another witness testified that they took drugs with Barry at Peebles's residence.
"We smoked at Don Peebles's house," Moore testified. No witness ever said Peebles was present, and prosecutors never alleged that the developer participated in any illegal activity with Barry.
Recounting his relationship with Barry, Peebles described the former mayor as a one-time "role model" whom he let use his home in the late 1980s. "I made a mistake. He asked to use an apartment, and I let him do it," Peebles said. He said that he was unaware of the mayor's activities at his apartment and that he learned of Barry's drug use when he saw the hotel surveillance tape.
"I was shocked, I was heartbroken, I was hurt," he said. "You can argue he was certainly entrapped and targeted, he was persecuted . . . but he did the drugs himself, and it was a tremendous embarrassment to our community, to our country, to the city, to African Americans."
Staff writer Nikita Stewart contributed to this report.