With Fenty challengers emerging, now's the time to question mayor's work

By Robert McCartney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 30, 2010; 3:41 PM

It's great that D.C. Council Chairman Vince Gray is challenging Adrian Fenty for mayor. We needed somebody prominent to run against Fenty. Otherwise, the mayor would just continue to ignore valid criticisms of his performance, and the District would suffer as a result.

That said, there are two big caveats about Gray's candidacy in the Democratic primary, announced Tuesday.

First, Gray needs to show the city that he could do more than just not be Fenty. We already know Gray doesn't alienate people as the mayor does. Now Gray needs to convince voters that, like the mayor, he has the will to get important stuff done.

Second, there's the coy mega-millionaire, Don Peebles. I can't tell if his waffling about whether to run is merely capricious or actually malicious. Either way, his possible candidacy -- now he's "planning" to file but hasn't said when -- poses a major threat to Gray.

Even a single well-known, well-funded challenger might have a hard time beating Fenty. If two split the opposition, the mayor needn't worry. He can spend the summer trying to shave minutes off his bicycling times.

Either way, I hope the campaign yields a spirited debate about the weak spots in Fenty's record. Tops on the list is his autocratic, unresponsive attitude. Some residents have told me they get annoyed when he consistently dodges questions during appearances on local TV stations.

Fenty also needs to be challenged over signs of cronyism in awarding city contracts. The council has held hearings on this, but we need to know more. Peebles has said he encountered a "pay to play" environment when he sought to launch a development project in the District.

Gray and Peebles, if he runs, also will push Fenty to respond to the dislike of him in the African American community. Polls show blacks are overwhelmingly disappointed in the mayor. He's seen as favoring white parts of the city and downtown business interests at the expense of poorer, mostly black wards.

In offering himself as an alternative, Gray can point to a positive record as council chairman. Despite chronic lack of cooperation from the executive branch, the council has tried to carry out effective, professional oversight of the administration. Under Gray's leadership, it unanimously censured one of its own, former mayor and Ward 8 member Marion Barry (D), for ethical lapses.

But those same traits are also now a problem for him -- because they aren't characteristics that necessarily make an effective mayor.

A mayor has to be willing to risk being unpopular. A mayor needs to be aggressive to overcome resistance on behalf of, say, major reforms in a troubled school system.

Fenty goes way too far in this regard. But polls show a lot of voters are more satisfied with what has he's achieved than with him, personally.

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