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Two challengers appear to be making plans to run for D.C. mayor

By Nikita Stewart and Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 18, 2010; B05

After months of public rumination, two potential challengers to Mayor Adrian M. Fenty are taking concrete steps toward declaring their candidacies.

D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) has told confidants that he is leaning toward running for the city's top political office, although he has said publicly that he is deliberating about which role best serves him -- his current one or that of mayor.

Developer R. Donahue Peebles appears to be backing away from his statement in January that his mother-in-law's life-threatening illness would keep him from launching what would be his first campaign for public office.

Gray declined to comment on his plans, but sources close to him said that a core group of his supporters has outlined a fundraising strategy for the mayor's race, discussed possible campaign messages and explored whether to hire a national consulting firm to help the 67-year-old sharpen his image.

Running against Fenty would present certain challenges for Gray, who is nearly three decades older than the famously athletic and energetic mayor. Gray's supporters have talked about emphasizing the council chairman's physical prowess, pointing out that he works out daily and plays baseball in a city league. They have also said that Gray might need to ditch his preference for three-button, light-colored business suits and wear darker, more fashionable designs.

A Gray mayoral campaign, the sources said, would seek to portray Fenty as a divisive force who has lost connection with voters, a sentiment that Washingtonians have expressed in recent polls. Gray, the sources said, would cast himself as a conciliator who can unite competing factions around projects and programs.

Peebles, 50, also declined to comment Tuesday, but two sources close to him said he is interviewing media strategists and campaign managers about approaches they would take in challenging Fenty, who is up for reelection in November.

The sources for Gray and Peebles spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly.

The developer has also paid for focus groups and a pollster to survey the electorate, the sources said. "Peebles is getting geared up and talking to potential team members," one source said. "The decision has been made to take steps necessary to enable him to pull the trigger, should he choose to announce."

The sources said that Peebles could make his announcement within "a few weeks" and that his decision "is independent of whether or not someone like Gray" enters the race. The Democratic primary is Sept. 14.

Although Peebles's mother-in-law's illness remains an issue, the sources said, he is drawn to challenging Fenty because no candidate with substantial resources is mounting a campaign. In addition, the sources said, Peebles is concerned that as time goes by, it will be increasingly difficult for a challenger to raise the money necessary to compete with Fenty, who has $3.3 million in his campaign account.

Peebles, whose personal wealth is estimated by Fortune magazine at $350 million, has said he would spend up to $8 million of his own money on the race.

Gray, a political late bloomer, has risen fast in District politics, winning the Ward 7 council seat in 2004 before capturing the chairmanship in 2006. Before running for office, Gray worked in social services. He served as director of the city's Department of Human Services under then-Mayor Sharon Pratt and then director of Covenant House, an organization that serves homeless and at-risk youths.

Gray's deliberations over his political future in the past six months have irked some council members and supporters who are eager for him to oppose Fenty or end speculation by moving aside and making way for another challenger.

Aides and supporters have talked of an impending announcement since the end of January, with the latest rumbling being that he will declare his intentions next week. If that's so, Gray is not saying.

"Vince is very closed when making a decision," said Karen Williams, president of the Hillcrest Community Civic Association. "He's very methodical."

Williams said Gray's effectiveness as council chairman makes her concerned about him leaving the legislative body and running for mayor. "I'm torn," she said.

Supporters and council members have expressed similar concerns to Gray, complicating what is already a difficult decision, sources said.

If Gray loses a mayoral bid, his political career would probably be over. He relishes his role as council chairman, a post that allows him to pore over the fine points of legislation and mediate disputes. He thinks he has achieved his goal of boosting the council's public profile and has pointed to recent polls that show Washingtonians have a more favorable view of the legislative body than of the mayor.

As they consider the mayor's race, the sources said, Gray's supporters are preparing to recruit veteran fundraisers and philanthropists such as Peggy Cooper Cafritz and Judith Terra.

Peebles, a native Washingtonian, hatched his first real estate deal in Anacostia during the late 1980s. He has written about how his career was helped by his ties to then-Mayor Marion Barry, a relationship that eventually led to charges of cronyism and prompted Peebles to move to Miami in the mid-1990s, where his development company grew.

Since Florida's real estate market has softened, Peebles has increasingly turned his attention back to the District. He bought a mansion in Massachusetts Heights a couple of years ago and shuttles back and forth to Miami.

If he runs for mayor, Peebles has said, he and his wife, Katrina, a former fashion model, and daughter will live full time in the District. His son attends boarding school in Florida.

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