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

By Tim Craig, Nikita Stewart and Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, March 30, 2010; A01

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."

Gray's entry into the mayor's race also sets up a potentially fierce contest for council chairman, with council members Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large) and Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), among others, considering bids.

Formidable record

During his first three years in office, Fenty amassed a formidable record: Test scores improved, the city's population grew, and new parks and recreational facilities were built. The District, once known as the nation's homicide capital, also logged the fewest number of killings last year in nearly 50 years, a trend that is continuing. As of Monday afternoon, D.C. police reported 20 homicides this year, compared with 31 through the same period in 2009.

"The Fenty campaign will take no one and nothing for granted as we head toward the September 14th primary," the Fenty campaign said in a statement Monday. "The city has made great progress over the past 3 years from beginning the critical reform of our public schools to reducing crime throughout the District and, with the residents' support, we will continue to work as hard as humanly possible to make the District of Columbia a city that works for everyone."

But Fenty has been dogged by questions about his personality and his ethics, including recent reports that he rewarded friends and contributors with city contracts that bypassed traditional procurement practices. A Washington Post poll in January found that Fenty's approval rating had slipped to 42 percent, off more than 30 percentage points since he took office.

"Some people find the mayor to be a little distant," said Anita Bonds, chairwoman of the D.C. Democratic Committee, who said she is staying neutral. "I think many people feel the city is getting better. But they want their leader to relate to them more than anything else."

Gray, who headed the Department of Human Services in the 1990s during Sharon Pratt's administration, will join eight other candidates, including former television reporter-turned-insurance sales executive Leo Alexander and Sulaimon Brown, an auditor, as declared candidates in the Democratic primary.

Gray and Peebles, however, appear to be the only candidates with access to enough campaign cash to raise the $1 million that most political observers say is needed to be competitive.

Gray, 67, who is African American, will try to take advantage of black voters' unease with Fenty, 39, while still reaching out to liberal white voters by noting his leadership role in enacting a same-sex marriage law and a 5-cent tax on disposable bags.

But Gray has his own potential troubles. He is awaiting reports of investigations into whether he violated ethics codes in using his council stationery to solicit donations for the local Democratic Party and using friend and mega-developer Chris Smith's company to do repairs on his home.

"I'm absolutely certain that I did nothing wrong," he said.

Clash over Rhee

Gray and Fenty began to grow distant shortly after they took their respective offices in January 2007, clashing over the mayor's secretiveness surrounding his selection of Michelle A. Rhee as schools chancellor.

Gray had rallied a strong majority of council members to approve a mayoral takeover of the public education system, but he was unaware that Rhee was the choice for chancellor until the night before Fenty announced her. At that point, Fenty had already made her available for news media interviews. It was a slight that would foreshadow the leaders' contentious relationship, with Gray resenting Fenty's solo decision-making.

The race will also be a contrast in styles. While Fenty moves as fast as e-mail, Gray prefers to pore over documents and build consensus before making a move.

Peebles, an African American native of the District, started his career as a developer in the city in his early 20s. In the mid-1990s, he moved to Miami to expand his real estate fortune. In the past couple of years, he has refocused his interest in Washington and has shuttled between the District and Florida.

As a candidate, he said he would focus on the District's economy and the disparity in the unemployment rate between poor neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River and the rest of the city. His experience as a developer, he said, makes him well suited to transforming those conditions.

"This is an economic emergency that requires expertise," he said. "There's no candidate other than me who brings that kind of skill."

If he runs, Peebles could also be forced to answer questions about his past ties to D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), who was reprimanded by the council this month after he gave a city contract to a girlfriend. When he was mayor, Barry appointed Peebles to the city's tax appeals board. Peebles's first development project was an Anacostia office building in which the Barry administration leased space.

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