Council chairman struggles to decide on challenge for mayor

By Tim Craig and Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, January 11, 2010; B01

With the dash to the September Democratic primary for D.C. mayor about to begin, council Chairman Vincent C. Gray might be the only politician standing between Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and a second term.

R. Donahue Peebles, a real estate tycoon who had been preparing a mayoral bid, said Tuesday that he is not likely to challenge Fenty.

With Peebles on the sidelines, a growing contingent of Fenty detractors is pressuring Gray, a former Ward 7 representative on the D.C. Council in his first term as chairman, to give up his council reelection bid and instead run for mayor.

In a 90-minute interview with The Washington Post on Thursday, Gray, 67, outlined why he would be successful in a campaign against Fenty, who won every precinct in the city during his 2006 campaign.

"People want a change," Gray said. "People are not satisfied."

Gray, who many observers think is the only potential candidate who could raise the resources needed to be competitive against Fenty, said he is struggling with his decision. If he lost in a mayoral contest, he would be out of a job, and his political career would probably be over, which is one reason he said he is taking time to decide whether to challenge Fenty.

In the interview, however, Gray was optimistic about his chances and drew sharp distinctions between himself and Fenty. "I think it is very clear we have different personalities," he said. "I think we are very different people."

The contrast in the styles of the two most powerful men in city government would dominate a head-to-head matchup: a fast-acting Fenty who often bypasses council authority vs. the deliberate-moving Gray, known for forging consensus.

Over the past year, many residents have been disenchanted with some of Fenty's decisions, such as his not attending funerals and memorial services for victims of the June 22 Metro crash; his refusal to give D.C. Council members tickets to the Washington Nationals; and his use of city facilities and police officers for his exercise regimen.

'Begging for Gray'

Fenty is frequently criticized by council members and others for nominating friends to boards and commissions. The city's decision to award construction contracts to some of them without council approval has triggered an investigation.

Gray, too, is being probed for his use of official letterhead to solicit donations for the local Democratic Party and whether he used his influence to get a company owned by mega-developer Chris Smith to complete repairs at his Southeast Washington home. Gray has acknowledged poor judgment but said he did nothing wrong. He said he paid market value for the work.

Gray's supporters appear unfazed by the controversies, saying there is a growing clamor for him to get in the race. "People are begging for Gray," said Robert V. Brannum of Northeast Washington, president of the D.C. Federation of Civic Associations. "The mayor has shown himself to be coldhearted, arrogant and distant and petty and childish."

Supporters and detractors of both men, however, say Fenty's accomplishments in the past three years might outweigh his administration's missteps. They ask what Gray has to offer a public that might not like Fenty's behavior but likes his results.

After decades of decline, school officials say, test scores and graduation rates are starting to rebound. Last year, the District recorded its lowest number of homicides in 43 years. The city also appears to be, for the first time in nearly two decades, about to eclipse 600,000 residents, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

Fenty was praised last month for overseeing an efficient snow-removal operation during one of the city's largest storms on record. "The service departments in the District of Columbia have never functioned as well as they have in the Fenty administration," said council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), chairman of the Committee on Public Works and Transportation.

'Visible improvements'

Terry Lynch, a Fenty supporter and head of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations, said he respects Gray but does not understand why he thinks he could win. "What are you going to run against? The message Gray would have is, 'I'm not Fenty.' . . . That's not enough," Lynch said.

Fenty's campaign team did not respond to a request for an interview with the mayor. In a statement, his campaign said: "While Fenty 2010 does not have any comment about specific potential candidates, the campaign pledges to take every contender seriously."

Bill Lightfoot, chairman of Fenty's reelection campaign, said the people dissatisfied with Fenty represent a minority of longtime residents who had grown accustomed to the old, patronage-fueled style of politics in the District.

"There is no reason to vote him out of office," Lightfoot said. "He's made visible improvements. Everyone in the city can see improvements in schools. For any politician, that's gold."

Former D.C. mayor Sharon Pratt, a friend of Gray's, said Gray could run on his record as a longtime social service advocate.

Gray, who graduated from D.C. public schools and George Washington University, is a former executive director of the D.C. Association for Retarded Citizens and of Covenant House, a nonprofit organization for homeless teenagers. He directed the D.C. Department of Human Services from 1991 to 1994.

Gray became involved in elective politics in 2004, when he ran for council. A year after he unseated Kevin P. Chavous in that race, Gray went on to defeat former Ward 3 council member Kathy Patterson in the 2006 chairman's race on a platform of uniting the city.

His potential campaign, Gray said, would appeal to seniors and the city's shrinking, but still politically influential, population of black middle-class residents.

Gray, who helped integrate the fraternity system at GWU, and Fenty advisers frame the contest as an election that could divide the electorate between longtime District residents and newcomers. Although both sides are downplaying a racial rift, entrenched District residents tend to be black and older than 50, and new residents are younger and white.

A racial divide

Gray said that at the heart of his concerns is his belief that Fenty is worsening racial tensions. Through his efforts to scale down government, Fenty has been battling numerous public-sector labor unions, which have a played a key role in building a black middle class in the District.

"I think there is a perception that African Americans don't have the same level of opportunity in this city as has been the case in the past, and like it or not, that rests on the CEO's door," Gray said.

Increasingly in the District, however, citywide elections are influenced by majority-white Ward 3 in upper Northwest, where voter turnout is traditionally the highest and recent polls show Fenty remains very popular.

With Gray looking for big margins out of eastern neighborhoods, he would not need to win Ward 3 to prevail. But he could not get trounced there, either.

Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) said Gray might appeal citywide because of the questions that have dogged Fenty.

"When I go out, people say, 'What's up with the mayor?' " said Cheh, who has clashed with Fenty over his interactions with the council. "Gray can say: 'Yes, we have made progress under Mayor Fenty, but look at how much more progress we could have made.' "

Despite his strong ties to old Washington, Gray said he's been able to "change as change was needed." Gray played a crucial role in pushing through the bill last year to legalize same-sex marriage in the District, and in recent weeks he has been reaching out to the city's growing Hispanic population.

Gray lacks a marquee legislative accomplishment, but council members said his steady leadership style has been crucial in managing the District budget during the economic downturn. Gray supported Fenty's school reforms but said Fenty has focused too narrowly on elementary and secondary schools without taking a "comprehensive approach" at pre-kindergarten and the University of the District of Columbia.

Gray said Fenty has been too confrontational.

"It's a style question," Gray said. "The controversy that has surrounded so much of this has resulted in us not really being able to take full advantage of the opportunity before us."

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