Gray says he'll take on Fenty for D.C. mayor's job

"I'm running out of a sense of responsibility," says Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, who will officially announce today. (Linda Davidson/the Washington Post)
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By Tim Craig, Nikita Stewart and Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The race for D.C. mayor will start in earnest Tuesday, when Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray is set to officially announce a long-anticipated bid to take on Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, setting up a battle between two men who have been at odds for much of the past four years.

The contest could get considerably more competitive and unpredictable in the coming days: Millionaire developer R. Donahue Peebles said Monday that he is "planning to run" as well, backing off earlier statements that family issues would keep him out of the race.

Until earlier this year, few expected Fenty to face one serious challenger, much less two, but it appears that there will be a five-month scramble for the Democratic nomination, which is tantamount to victory in the overwhelmingly Democratic city.

With recent polls showing Fenty struggling with many voters, particularly African Americans, Gray immediately sought to present himself as someone who would unify the city.

"I really believe the city needs a style of leadership that can bring people together," Gray said in an interview. "I'm running out of a sense of responsibility to the city."

Gray, a former Ward 7 council member, has a natural base among African Americans in the eastern part of the city but is less-known elsewhere and starts the race with no campaign money. A Washington Post poll conducted in January showed Gray edging Fenty in a hypothetical matchup, although many respondents said they were undecided.

Fenty, who swept to office four years ago by winning every precinct in the city, must win back the trust of many residents who have been turned off by what they see as his aloof and abrasive style. The mayor still enjoys solid support among white voters in Northwest Washington and will seek to run on his accomplishments, which include improving student test scores at long-troubled city schools and reducing crime. Fenty has also amassed $4 million for the race.

Peebles, whose personal fortune Forbes magazine has estimated at $350 million, has the money to match Fenty but no political base and minimal name recognition, and it's unclear whether he has enough time to connect with voters. His candidacy would add a large element of unpredictability: He could emerge as a fresh face, siphon votes from the other candidates, or even change his mind and not run at all.

Peebles said Gray recently asked him not to run. A three-way race could make it easier for Fenty because Gray and Peebles could split the opposition vote.

But Peebles said he told Gray that he wanted to offer voters "a clear choice of change" and that he was still planning to run. The developer acknowledged that his own polling has shown him behind Fenty and Gray in a three-way race, but the numbers are of little concern.

"It's striking distance, a respectable distance," said Peebles, 50. "I remember when Obama started off -- Hillary was 40 points ahead, and nobody knew who he was."

Gray said Peebles's interest in running did not sway his decision and confirmed that they spoke over the weekend but would not disclose the details of their conversation. If Peebles enters the race, "it makes it more challenging," Gray said. "I've made a decision that's right for the city and right for me at this juncture."

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